Tearoom Trade: Impersonal sex in public places

Laud Humphreys (1970)

Laud Humphreys, a sociologist, recognized that the public and the law-enforcement authorities hold highly simplistic stereotyped beliefs about men who commit impersonal sexual acts with one another in public restrooms. "Tearoom sex," as fellatio in public restrooms is called, accounts for the majority of homosexual arrests in the United States. Humphreys decided that it would be of considerable social importance for society to gain more objective understanding of who these men are and what motivates them to seek quick, impersonal sexual gratification.

Humphreys set out to answer this question by means of participant observation and structured interview. He stationed himself in "tearooms" and offered to serve as "watchqueen" - the individual who keeps watch and coughs when a police car stops nearby or a stranger approaches. He played that role faithfully while observing hundreds of acts of fellatio. He was able to gain the confidence of some of the men he observed, disclose his role as scientist, and persuade them to tell him about the rest of their lives and about their motives. Those who were willing to talk openly with him tended to be among the better-educated members of the "tearoom trade." To avoid bias, Humphreys secretly followed some of the other men he observed and recorded the license numbers of their cars. A year later and carefully disguised, Humphreys appeared at their homes claiming to be a health-service interviewer and interviewed them about their marital status, race, job, and so on. 

Humphreys' findings destroy many stereotypes. Fifty-four percent of his subjects were married and living with their wives, and superficial analysis would suggest that they were exemplary citizens who had exemplary marriages. Thirty-eight percent of Humphreys' subjects clearly were neither bisexual nor homosexual. They were men whose marriages were marked with tension. Of the other 62 percent of Humphreys'subjects, 24 percent were clearly bisexual, happily married, well educated, economically quite successful, and exemplary members of their community. Another 24 percent were single and were covert homosexuals. Only 14 percent of Humphreys' subjects corresponded to society's stereotype of homosexuality. That is, only 14 percent were members of the gay community and were interested in primarily homosexual relationships (Humphreys, 1970). 

The research occurred in the middle 1960s before institutional review boards were in existence. The dissertation proposal was reviewed only by Humphreys' Ph.D. committee. Only after the research had been completed did the other members of the Sociology Department learn of it. A furore arose when some of those other members of the department objected that Humphreys' research had unethically invaded the privacy and threatened the social standing of the subjects, and petitioned the president of Washington University to rescind Humphreys' Ph.D. degree. 

There was considerable public outrage as well. Journalist Nicholas von Hoffman, who was given some details of the case by one of the angered members of the Sociology Department, wrote an article about Humphreys' research and offered the following condemnation of social scientists: "We're so preoccupied with defending our privacy against insurance investigators, dope sleuths, counterespionage men, divorce detectives and credit checkers, that we overlook the social scientists behind the hunting blinds who're also peeping into what we thought were our most private and secret lives. But there they are, studying us, taking notes, getting to know us, as indifferent as everybody else to the feeling that to be a complete human involves having an aspect of ourselves that's unknown." (von Hoffman, 1970). 

Research methods