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,” and 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 sociological 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 defined as instant, impersonal acts of sexual conduct between two or more men in a public restroom. This study focuses on these interactions through the investigation of possible social, psychological, or physiological reasons for this behavior.1,2
In the study, Humphrey played the role of the lookout, known colloquially as the “watchqueen.” As this role, he was responsible for guarding the door while the men were engaging in sexual acts with each other in a nearby restroom stall. When Humphrey later followed up with the men, he found that many of them were not only married but seemed to have “model” marriages. At the time this study was published, there were many laws and stigmas surrounding homosexuality. Laws of this nature were known as sodomy laws.1
At the time of this study, laws existed in the United States and the United Kingdom (UK), where Humphreys’ research was published, 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. The term mostly pertained to sexual acts that could be considered a “crime against nature,” including sex with the anus or mouth.3 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 several states.4
The sodomy laws in the UK began with the Buggery Act of 1533, where British Parliament passed a law that outlawed sodomy in Britain so much that those found guilty could be receive a death sentence. In 1861, the Offences Against the Person Act was passed, abolishing the death penalty for sodomy convictions, and instead changing sentencing to a 10-year (minimum) prison sentence. Finally, in 1885, the Criminal Law Amendment Act declared any male homosexual act to be illegal. This law was a serious declaration as crimes that were committed in private were plausible for conviction. The presence of these laws not only discouraged the expression of homosexuality completely but provided serious consequences for anyone who displayed traits or acts that were associated with homosexuality. Even individuals who were suspected to have committed homosexual acts were plausible candidates for conviction.5
Since these harsh laws actively discouraged open displays of homosexuality, secrecy was necessary for all sexual activities between homosexual individuals. Individuals who identified as homosexual were left with no other option but to engage in sex in private settings where there was a low risk of being caught and consequently penalized. This restriction explains the existence of tearooms and other private-public spaces where gay individuals could have a safe space for sex. With the presence of a lookout ensuring that no police officers or random bystanders could enter the room, it is likely that men using the tearooms felt more comfortable expressing their sexuality in this environment over other spaces. In the interview stage of the study, Humphreys found that many of the individuals he interacted with in the tearooms were found to be in happy monogamous heterosexual relationships, suggesting they were not openly homosexual.1 Thus, tearooms were deemed a space where these men felt comfortable engaging in restricted sexual acts, and expressing themselves in an environment where they feel is open to do so.
Currently, sodomy laws in England and most of the United Kingdom have been repealed. England specifically decriminalized same-sex sodomy in 1967, on the condition that the acts occurring are consensual.6 There are still states in the United States that have sodomy laws, but most states do not.3
At the time that Humphreys’ research was published, many of these sodomy laws were being repealed in both the US and UK, but that did not stop the stigma surrounding homosexuality. At the time of Humphreys’ research, there was a great taboo surrounding homosexuality, where many individuals disapproved. These sodomy laws, in place or not, perpetuated a negative connation of gay sex, by classifying anal and oral sex as heinous acts.3 Following the repeal of the laws in the UK, the stigma that they had created remained as gay sex had qualified as ‘heinous’ for many years prior. With the addition of religion being a significant factor in society at the time of Humphreys’ work, and in current day society, many individuals may have biblical interpretations that further deem homosexuality as a sinful act. Biblical references were just one unofficial method of repealing homosexuality, but the sodomy laws helped establish legal precedent that made many gay intercourse acts illegal—encouraging the societal disapproval for homosexuality with or without the laws in action. Consequently, homosexuality was very taboo at the time of Humphreys’ research—as the creation of sodomy laws were enough to boost prejudice against the gay community.1
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 entrances or busy sports fields.1 The 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 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 Individuals could easily and quickly make a stop at a tearoom on the side of a highway without raising any suspicion from their 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 expanding 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
Humphreys’ noted down anything that he perceived to be gay sex, as there were many different forms of sex that occurred in the tearooms. However, his research found that oral sex was more common in comparison to other forms of sex with a few terms used to establish the more frequent roles. These roles included an insertor, an insertee, and a lookout (referred to as a watchqueen). The insertor typically presented his penis for fellatio while 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 According to Humphreys, these 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 often 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
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
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 sexual activity in tearooms were often free. 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 some subjects to visit tearooms because they offered a cheaper alternative to the costs of rearing an unexpected child with their wife or the costs of paying for a prostitute and a hotel room.1 The inexpensive nature of these interactions also freed individuals from explaining reoccurring expenditures if their wife or family grew suspicious of financial activities.1,2,7
The tearoom activities were observed to be 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 searching for sexual gratification rather than 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.1,2,7 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
Humphreys’ study provoked a heated response from the public and the scientific community due to the controversial methods he used to collect data. Humphreys’ study was prepared without the consent of other individuals. When he went in the tearooms, he did not notify the individuals in the room that he was conducting research, creating a major ethical predicament. Neglecting to inform the tearoom participants that he was noting their activity and using his observations for research that would be published allowed Humphreys to get a more personal and ‘realistic’ testing sample in comparison to a hand-selected and approved sample size but was a major invasion of privacy to those who were in the tearooms. Not only did Humphreys observe and take notes on their behavior without their consent, but the publication of the data could have posed a major threat to the individuals who were observed and written about. During the time that Humphreys’ research was conducted and published, homosexuality was still a large taboo in the United Kingdom. Many of the men that Humphreys interacted with were not openly gay, as the social climate for gay pride and acceptance was far from what the movement has become and achieved in modern day society. Additionally, after going to the tearooms for the first part of his research, the initial observations and setting, Humphreys proceeded to visit many of the nonconsenting subjects at their homes. After they left the tearooms, their names or other forms of personal identification were noted down so that Humphreys would be able to find them later for follow up questions. In sum, all aspects of Humphreys’ research methods were not only astoundingly unethical, but a complete invasion of privacy for the individuals that were unlucky enough to make it on his observation list. For proper ethical research, all participants should not only be properly informed about their participation and what it generally entails but should also be given the right to leave the study at any point so they are not participating against their will.1, 2
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, 7
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.1,2,7
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. 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.2,7 Still, 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.1,2,7
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.2,7 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.2,7 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.
Modern Day Tearooms
While some parts of both the UK and the United Stated are more accepting of homosexuality, gay men and women still face discrimination. Although this discrimination has diminished over time, there are still regions in all parts of the world where homosexuality is not accepted. Regardless of the changing societal perspectives and adaptations, tearooms still exist.
Now that the UK and American societies are more accepting of homosexuality and many of the sodomy laws are no longer in place to criminalize homosexual individuals, the need for tearooms has minimized. While homosexual sexual acts continue in some public places, including tearooms, the dependency on these locations as a safe space has diminished in more progressive societies. In a more accepting climate, there are more resources and outreach programs for individuals who need help understanding their sexuality, and thus do not need to resort to public sex locations such as tearooms where the potential for unsafety is present.8 However, there are still many societies where homosexuality is still perceived to be a very taboo act and individuals do seek accepting public locations where they can have sex—such as tearooms.
Following the publication of Humphreys’ Tearoom Trade, many individuals who did not feel safe having sex in their homes began to seek out more private-public settings. Tearooms remain a necessary concept in societies where homosexuality is heavily taboo, as well as more progressive societies, proving the saliency of Humphrey’s research. Humphreys’ research not only exposed the frequency of tearooms as an outlet for many gay men in the UK, but also brought light to the lack of seduction in these settings. One argument that largely contributes to the stigma that many gay men face is that they seduce non-gay men into joining rituals such as the tearoom trade. However, Humphreys’ role as a hidden observer gave a clear understanding that the men involved in the trade willingly entered the tearooms and engaged in sexual activity with consent—regardless of their claimed sexual orientation. Many individuals now may still choose to participate in tearooms or similar private-public settings and can find these locations online through social media.8
With the existence of modern-day tearooms, it is important to note that any sexual encounter can pose a risk to one’s health. Engaging in unprotected sex in a tearoom is associated with a high risk of receiving a sexually transmitted infection (STI), as many of the people who go to the tearooms are unfamiliar individuals whose STI status is known or not disclosed. An essential component in having safer sex is clear communication with every partner regarding STI testing and status. Communication is necessary to understand a partner’s sexual history so all individuals are aware of the risks involved in sexual activity. Because many of the participants in tearooms prefer to remain anonymous, this level of disclosure may not occur. However, there are still ways to engage in safe sex in tearooms. Given that many of the individuals in tearooms have penises, one way to prevent STI transmission is through a barrier method known as the external or male condom. Further, individuals can prevent the transmission of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) by taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is an HIV prevention pill for individuals who have not contracted HIV, but are at high risk for being infected. Conclusively, any sexual encounter comes with a risk of obtaining an STI, but there are many options available to decrease the risk of getting an STI and having safer sex.
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. By observing that only 14% of the subjects 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.11 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.1,2,7
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.
- Legal Inform Institute. “Sodomy”. Cornell Law School. N.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2022.
- Compton, Julie. “American Men Are Still Being Arrested for Sodomy.” ADVOCATE. N.p., 23 May 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
- Dryden, Steven. “A short history of LGBT rights in the UK”. British Library. N.d.Web. 17 Jan. 2022.
- Gupta, Alok. “The Origins of ‘Sodomy’ Laws in British Colonialism”. Human Rights Watch. 17 Dec. 2008. Web. 17 Jan. 2020.
- 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.
- Nardi, M. Peter. ‘‘The Breastplate of Righteousness’’: Twenty-Five Years
After Laud Humphreys’ Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places. Pitzer College. 1995. Web. 16 Jan. 2022.
- 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: 2 March 2022.