In 1970, sociologist and ordained Episcopalian minister Laud Humphreys published his book The Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places, one of the most famous and controversial studies in sexology. By assuming the role of a “look-out,” Humphreys gained the male subjects’ trust, which enabled him to observe complete strangers engaging in brief, impersonal sexual encounters with same-sex partners in public restrooms, termed as “tearooms.”1 The origin of the word “tearoom” is not fully understood, but it may be distantly related to British slang which uses “tea” as a word for “urine” or also as a British verb used to describe an action of sexual “engagements” or “encounters.”1
Without the subjects’ knowledge, Humphreys recorded their license plate numbers and tracked them down a year later. After changing his hair, attire, dress, and car, Humphreys visited the homes of the subjects. Under the guise of a social health surveyor, Humphreys interviewed the subjects about their lives without disclosing that he had already met them before.1 Humphreys conducted these in-person interviews to discover what aspects of the subjects’ home lives motivated them to engage in this illegal and taboo activity. Humphreys’ study provided a more comprehensive understanding of the rules that governed this deviant interaction. His work analyzed patterns of behavior in this collective group of men, only 14% of whom self-identified as homosexual, and elucidated the risks of engaging in impersonal gay sexual acts in public restrooms. Tracking and interviewing the subjects provided an opportunity to better understand the rationality the subjects used when engaging in tearoom acts.2 Although the book revealed important information about homosexuality and sexual behavior in public places, Humphreys’ research methods were, and still are, considered very controversial. If conducted appropriately, research studies provide the foundation of new and insightful sources of knowledge. Yet, despite the benefits of this research, The Tearoom Trade raises ethical questions about sociology research: Does the value of gaining information about sexual practices justify the violation of people’s privacy? This article will evaluate the social context, scientific methods, and ethical issues associated with this insightful, yet controversial study.
Laud Humphreys entered the field of sociology after serving for ten years as a clergyman in the Episcopal Church. He preached a message of acceptance and tolerance to any who would listen, and embodied these principles by ministering mostly to the LGBTQ community. Humphreys was also one of the first sociologists who openly self-identified as gay. Although he was married to a woman, it was not until after the publication of The Tearoom Trade that Humphreys felt comfortable enough to “come out,” and in 1980 he left his wife and two children. He moved to California, earned certification as a psychotherapist, and established his own private counseling service. Towards the end of his life, Humphreys worked as a consultant for police forces and offered his expertise in homosexual subcultures and homophobic violence during testimonies in court cases. Laud Humphreys died in 1988 from lung cancer.
In Humphreys’ research, tearoom trades are instant, impersonal acts of sexual conduct between two or more men in a public restroom. This study focuses on these interactions through investigation of possible social, psychological, or physiological reasons for this behavior.1,2
At the time of this study, laws existed in the United States that criminalized sexual acts deemed “unnatural” or “immoral.” These sexual acts were referred to as “sodomy,” a definition that included anal sex, oral sex, and bestiality. As a result of these “anti-sodomy laws,” men who engaged in sexual acts with one another were arrested when they were caught in the act or when law enforcement had probable suspicion. During this time, sodomy accounted for the majority of homosexual arrests.1 In June of 2003, the United States Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws as “unconstitutional” in its ruling of Lawrence v Texas. However, anti-sodomy laws currently exist in the law books of twelve states.3
Humphreys noted that the first challenge to studying tearooms was locating the facilities frequented by the subjects.1 The factors Humphreys found to be crucial in picking a public restroom to use as a tearoom were accessibility and isolation from other public events. Typically, tearooms were located in public parks. Men would pick a restroom positioned in a remote part of the park, isolated by distance from highly trafficked areas such as the entrance or busy sports fields.1 The male subjects chose these strategic locations in order to avoid discovery by unwitting passers-by. In addition to preventing unwarranted exposure to bystanders, these men also valued isolated facilities to protect their identities.2 Ironic as it may seem, tearoom activities in public facilities offered a high degree of anonymity and kept the identities of participants anonymous. Around the time Humphreys conducted his study, many superhighways were being constructed, and the rest stops along these roads provided ideal tearoom facilities due to their numerous locations and ease of accessibility.1 A male could easily and quickly make a stop at a tearoom on the side of a highway without raising any suspicion from his family about arriving home later than expected.
Police officers were aware of several tearoom locations. On one occasion, an undercover patrolman actually revealed to Humphreys that law enforcement was upregulating activity in a certain area of a park due to an increase in African-American visitors, an event unrelated to the tearoom activities. He then referred Humphreys to a restroom in another park known to be frequented by homosexuals and isolated from the unrelated presence of African-Americans that had increased police activity.1
There were several different roles that a man might take on during a tearoom interaction. These roles included an insertor, an insertee, and a lookout (referred to as a watchqueen). The insertor presented his penis for fellatio. The insertee performed the oral sex. The watchqueen would alert the other men in the tearoom if a passerby approached and would notify them when it was safe to proceed again.1 The roles were dictated by age and attractiveness. Known as the “Aging Crisis,” older participants were typically deemed less desirable and more often took on the role of the insertee.1 This hierarchy did not always apply, as age and role preferences vary from person to person. The watchqueen took on a voyeuristic role, receiving pleasure and arousal from observing the sexual interaction. While conducting his study, Humphreys often took on the role as watchqueen in order to convince others that he meant no harm, giving him the ability to observe tearoom interactions. Unbeknownst to the subjects, Humphreys was taking notes of his observations after the acts and often keeping track of the subjects’ license plates as well.1
The advantages that made tearooms appealing to the men who participated were the inexpensive and liberating nature of the interaction, the impersonal sexual gratification that accompanied the activity, and the speed and efficiency that allowed participants to quickly enter and exit the tearooms.1
The act of oral sex, or fellatio, was often free as typically all members involved in a tearoom trade achieved sexual release from the experience. As Humphreys investigated the phenomena, noticeable patterns emerged. He found that subjects were often married, identified as Roman-Catholic, and had spouses who did not take birth-control.1 This lack of birth-control limited the sexual intercourse that men could engage in with their wives. The couples had various reasons for avoiding pregnancy, such as a preference for a certain number of offspring (or no offspring) and the costs of raising a child. This left some subjects in a position where their sexual desires were not met by their spouse, who avoided both the use of contraceptives and the chance of an unintended pregnancy. One advantage of tearooms that appealed to a portion of the subjects was that it was rare for insertees to demand monetary compensation from the insertor. This enticed certain subjects to visit tearooms because they offered a cheaper alternative to the costs of rearing an unexpected child with his wife or the costs of paying for a prostitute and a hotel room.1 The inexpensive nature of these interactions also freed the man from having to explain reoccurring expenditures if his wife or family grew suspicious of financial activities.1,2,4
The tearoom activities were impersonal.1 Participants rarely said anything outside the lines of brief expressions of gratitude.1 This appealed to many of the subjects as they were not searching for relationships. Interestingly, most of the men in the study (54%) were married to women.1 Many of them were also fathers. If discovered, knowledge of the deviant sexual behavior would threaten the stability of their families.1,2,4 Protecting their identity as fathers and husbands was paramount to these men. In some cases, long-term relationships did grow out of these interactions, but for the most part a minimal exchange of words offered the most privacy and anonymity.1
A third benefit to tearooms, and an advantage over traditional hotel rooms or other more private locations, was time efficiency.1 As previously stated, the location of restrooms along highways offered the chance to experience sexual release in a manner that took very little time out of their day. Entering and exiting a tearoom quickly and efficiently resulted in less explaining that a man needed to provide to his family in order to justify his absences.1
A year after recording his observations of tearoom trades, Humphreys tracked down the subjects using the license plate numbers that he covertly recorded. He changed his hair, clothes, and vehicle to protect his identity in case any subject recognized him from the times he played the role of watchqueen for them. Falsely presenting himself as a social health worker, Humphreys traveled to the homes of the subjects and asked if he could conduct a social health survey. This survey allowed him to formulate an idea of the home life of subjects in his study. He found certain patterns relating to marital status, employment, and behavior. Often, these men (and their wives) were deprived of sexual relations with each other. Among a variety of other important factors, this lack of sexual gratification motivated many subjects to frequent tearooms. Loneliness emerged as a prominent characteristic in many of the subjects he surveyed. One man who failed to report any hobbies during the survey encouraged Humphreys to stay for dinner, stating “I wish you’d stay awhile, I haven’t talked to anyone about myself in a hell of a long time!” 1
Humphreys’ study provoked a heated response from the public and the scientific community due to the controversial methods he used to collect data. For example, Humphreys’ study led people to question whether a researcher should be allowed to collect sensitive data under a false identity to prevent distorting the phenomena being studied. In addition, after publishing the study, the public expressed concern over whether a researcher should be allowed to collect data which has the potential to jeopardize the safety of the subjects if it is revealed to the public.1,2 In response to these concerns and in order to justify his methods, Humphreys championed three ethical research standards that he abided by while he conducted this study.1
Firstly, Humphreys believed that a scientist should never neglect an area of study or phenomenon because it was difficult to investigate or inherently socially sensitive.1 Many of the most intriguing findings were extrapolated from observing and analyzing highly taboo interactions. As a result of Humphreys’ study, the world gained a more comprehensive understanding of homosexual society and the behavioral motivations of the male mind. Following the release of his study, police arrests of homosexuals and raids on tearooms actually decreased in frequency, exemplifying how the understanding of human nature benefits everyone.2, 4
Secondly, Humphreys believed that a scientist should take every possible precaution in order to minimize the degree to which studying a phenomenon distorts its natural occurrence.1 Humphreys justified his disguise and hidden identity by applying this principle. It is universally acknowledged in scientific communities that openly observing an interaction between two subjects can change the outcome of their interaction. Publicly identifying oneself as a social researcher while observing the interaction between men who prize their anonymity in a tearoom would produce drastically different results than presenting oneself as a trusted watchqueen. However, there were about a dozen subjects to whom Humphreys revealed his true identity in order to gain assistance in conducting the study, learning the rules, and locating tearooms. 1,2,4
Thirdly, Humphreys believed that a scientist must protect his subjects, regardless of the cost to the researcher.1 This meant that Humphreys vowed he would never reveal the identities of his subjects so as to protect them from being arrested for engaging in homosexual acts in public and to prevent knowledge of their tearoom activities from threatening the stability of their families. At the time of this study, anti-sodomy laws were enforced nationwide. Merely engaging in sexual acts with the same gender could merit an arrest, and this risk increased significantly if the acts were conducted in a public facility. Indeed, most arrests of homosexuals pertained to involvement in tearoom activities when Humphreys’ study was being conducted.1
Despite stating that he would never reveal the identity of his subjects, Humphreys’ study elicited substantial controversy since his observations contained such private and sensitive details about his subjects without their informed consent. He recorded the names, license plate numbers, and addresses of around 100 men. He also bore witness to their illegal activity. In the event that law enforcement saw fit to arrest Humphreys for conducting this controversial study, the sensitive data he meticulously collected would be demanded by the authorities.1,2,4 At the time, Humphreys proclaimed that he would never give up his research data if he were arrested. However, years after publishing his study, Humphreys spent some time in a jail for an unrelated incident. After spending some time in this harsh environment, Humphreys admitted that he questioned his own ability to resist if the authorities had questioned him.2,4 Furthermore, considering the copious number of incidences that he recorded, a judge may have seen fit to issue a subpoena, or an order for a person to appear in a court of law.2,4 The sensitive data that Humphreys covertly gathered wielded the potential to destroy the lives and families of the subjects he was studying and jeopardized their anonymity without their consent. Humphreys violated the subjects’ privacy by observing and later recording notes about the men’s sexual encounters without their consent, and entering their home under a false identity. However, some people argued that Humphreys did not violate his subjects’ privacy by taking notes of the sexual encounters he observed because the illegal acts were committed in a public facility.2,4
Humphreys’ study exposed the inner workings of tearooms and helped elucidate the motivation of men (who variously self-identified as heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual) seeking sexual gratification from other men in public restrooms. As a source that found only 14% of the subjects who self-identified as homosexual, Humphreys’ study revealed that same sex experiences are not limited only to openly gay individuals, and that a profound discrepancy exists between the private and social lives of some men.1
The study was met with mixed reviews when published. Some people were intrigued and wanted to learn more, but others feared for their safety and continued to question the existence of the subjects’ secret methods to find sexual release. A few were angry that Humphreys provided a type of “How-To-Manual” for publicly breaking the law. Regardless of the backlash the study received, The Tearoom Trade opened a discussion about research ethics and started a dialogue that helped shape the current standard of “informed consent,” which is a legal procedure that aims to ensure that patients, clients, and research participants are aware of all the potential risks and costs involved in a treatment or procedure.7 Despite the fact that the study was conducted decades ago, privacy is still one of the most controversial and relevant topics in research, government, and politics.1,2,4
Though The Tearoom Trade made important contributions to sex research, Humphreys’ research methods violated modern contemporary ethical standards and raised serious questions about the morality of scientific observation.
Humphreys, Laud. “Tearoom trade.” Trans-action 7.3 (1970): 10-25.
Smith, Candace. “Laud Humphreys’ Tearoom Trade: The Best and Worst of Sociology.” The Society Pages. Sociology Lens, 5 Feb. 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
Compton, Julie. “American Men Are Still Being Arrested for Sodomy.” ADVOCATE. N.p., 23 May 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
DuBois, James M. “The Tearoom Trade Study – Ethics in Mental Health Research.” Ethics in Mental Health Research. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
Hyde, J.S., & DeLamater, J.D. (2006). Understanding Human Sexuality (9th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Galliher, J.F., Brekhus, W.H. & Keys, D.P. (2004). Laud Humphreys: Prophet of homosexuality and sociology. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin.
Mills, Kim I. “APA Ethics Code Addresses When Obtaining Informed Consent From Research Participants Is Necessary.” American Psychological Association. N.p., 30 June 2014. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.
Last Updated: 18 March 2017.