Study of Anonymous Gay Sex Leads to Ethics Scandal Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Laud Humphreys’ book Tearoom Trade, a groundbreaking look at anonymous sex among men in public restrooms, led to scandal because Humphreys used questionable methods in conducting his study. Nevertheless, he found that men having sex with other men, including those who are married, have children, and are politically and socially conservative, often lead contradictory lives. Also, his study is used as a case example in the ethics of human-behavior research.

Summary of Event

Laud Humphreys, an Episcopalian minister and a sociologist, had been intrigued by his parishioners who sought counseling from him for their homosexuality. His interest led to his groundbreaking ethnographic study of anonymous gay sex (known as “tea-rooming”) "Tea-rooming"[tea rooming] in public restrooms. The topic—fellatio between men—was highly taboo. His research turned out to be taboo as well, requiring that he observe what were criminal acts at the time. Still, he believed that the only way he could gain insight into the impersonal sex among married and unmarried men was to watch them having sex, that is, to participate as a “watchqueen,” or voyeur. [kw]Gay Sex Leads to Ethics Scandal, Study of Anonymous (1970) Homosexuality;research on Humphreys, Laud Tearoom Trade (Humphreys) Homosexuality;research on Humphreys, Laud Tearoom Trade (Humphreys) [g]United States;1970: Study of Anonymous Gay Sex Leads to Ethics Scandal[01340] [c]Publishing and journalism;1970: Study of Anonymous Gay Sex Leads to Ethics Scandal[01340] [c]Sex;1970: Study of Anonymous Gay Sex Leads to Ethics Scandal[01340] [c]Education;1970: Study of Anonymous Gay Sex Leads to Ethics Scandal[01340]

Humphreys’ participant-observation, a common research method in field studies, would lead to scandal, in part because he watched as crimes were being committed but also because of the way he gathered information about his subjects. He defended his method of participant-observation because it was conducted in a public place, adding that the acts he observed were consensual. Therefore, he also believed the participants should not be prosecuted for their encounters. However, he was heavily criticized for secretly recording the license-plate numbers of the cars driven by the men in his study, and he used that information to locate and interview them one year later. He had disguised himself as a survey researcher and deliberately misrepresented his identity (first at the study restroom and then at the residences of the subjects).

On October 16, 1930, Humphreys was born to Ira and Stella Humphreys. He graduated from college in 1952 and was ordained an Episcopalian priest in 1955. Beginning his new profession, Humphreys worked in a few parishes in Kansas and then entered graduate school at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1965. He completed his controversial doctoral dissertation in 1968 under the supervision of Lee Rainwater. The dissertation, published in 1970 as Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places, won the C. Wright Mills Award for best work on a critical social issue. The annual award is presented by the Society for the Study of Social Problems. The chancellor of Washington University attempted to revoke Humphreys’ doctorate.

Tearoom Trade reveals what had been a little-known subculture. The book details the ritualized steps and signals in tearoom transactions, where men not seeking sex do not have to worry about being mistaken for a tearoom participant. If one does not know tearoom “code,” then one apparently is not seeking sex there. In tearooms, men use specific techniques to determine how to approach another man, and they use subtle body language as a way to communicate their intentions. Tearoom code includes toe-tapping, waving and placement of the hands, and body positioning. Codes also help determine who will perform fellatio, who will receive it, and whether reciprocation is expected.

Humphreys also argues that many married men participate in tea-rooming because they are simply looking for a way to have casual sex without attachments and obligations. Tearooms are places where an exchange is made between consenting adults, an exchange of impersonal sex in a public place with no strings attached.

Furthermore, through his research, Humphreys was able to discern why men chose a particular location and when the activities were most likely to occur. For example, he notes how ease of access to a rest-stop restroom, which is most often right off a highway, allows for tea-rooming during lunch hours or during the commute time home. (The tearoom is busiest between noon and 1:00 p.m. and again around 5:00 p.m.) Because the participants can stop by the tearoom for impersonal sex during their lunch hours, or after work, they can hide their behavior from their spouses. They can quickly get back on the highway and be home in time for dinner.

In 1972, Humphreys published another book, Out of the Closets: The Sociology of Homosexual Liberation, which failed to garner as much attention as Tearoom Trade. Although Humphreys taught at numerous colleges and universities around the United States, in 1975 he became a full professor at Pitzer College and a professor of criminal justice at Claremont Graduate School (now University), both in Claremont, California. In 1980, he left his wife and children to live with his protégé and lover, Brian Miller, almost thirty years his junior. Miller was a psychotherapist who coauthored with Humphreys the articles “Identities in the Emerging Gay Culture” (1980), “A Scholarly Taxi to the Toilets” (1982), and “Lifestyles and Violence: Homosexual Victims of Assault and Murder” (1980). Humphreys, who came out as gay in 1974 at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, died on August 23, 1988, after developing lung cancer.

Impact

Humphreys’ research was risky, and many claimed that the data he obtained was so sensitive that it could have been used to harm the participants through blackmail. Others claimed that tea-rooming is criminal behavior. However, Humphreys argued in Tearoom Trade that the true harm comes from police crackdowns on tearoom sex; no harm comes from the “crime” of sex between men. “The only harmful effects of these encounters, either direct or indirect,” he wrote, “result from police activity. . . . Blackmail, payoffs, the destruction of reputations and families. . . . ” Tearoom Trade placed great emphasis on the consensual nature of tearoom sex. Although Humphreys’ methods were unorthodox, and many argued that his means did not justify the ends to which he arrived, it cannot be denied that his work dispelled many myths about clandestine sexual behavior and revealed a subculture of escape and freedom for many.

Tearoom Trade is especially revealing for noting that most of the tearoom participants in his study were family men who were well-educated and well-respected members of their communities. About 50 percent of the participants claimed to be heterosexual, and many were politically and socially conservative as well. These findings led Humphreys to conclude that the men of the trade lived incongruous lives.

Finally, Humphreys’ controversial study intensified debate and discussion about the need for professional codes of ethics in the social sciences. His work also was a factor in the development of institutional review boards in academia. These campus boards determine the appropriateness of proposed studies by scholars and graduate students that involve research with human subjects. Homosexuality;research on Humphreys, Laud Tearoom Trade (Humphreys)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brekhus, Wayne H., John F. Galliher, and Jaber F. Gubrium. “The Need for Thin Description.” Qualitative Inquiry 11, no. 6 (2005): 861-879. The authors examined Humphreys’ systematic observation sheets from his tearoom study and found that although his research was coded as impersonal, the behavior observed and described was quite sociable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frankel, Todd. “In Forest Park: The Roots of Senator Craig’s Misadventure.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2007. Analysis of the behavior of Senator Craig in the context of the similar research conducted by Laud Humphreys for his doctoral dissertation at Washington University during the late 1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Galliher, John F., Wayne H. Brekhus, and David P. Keys. Laud Humphreys: Prophet of Homosexuality and Sociology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. Biographical account of the life and writings of Humphreys. Includes a deconstructive reading of Tearoom Trade and Humphreys’ dissertation, reconstructing the history of his project.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Humphreys, Laud. Out of the Closets: The Sociology of Homosexual Liberation. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972. An academic account describing the rights movement by gays and lesbians during the late 1960’s. Focuses on early gay and lesbian organizing in the Midwest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places. Rev. ed. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1975. Humphreys’ controversial study of sex between men at public restrooms in St. Louis, Missouri. This enlarged edition includes discussion of the debate surrounding the study and its publication.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McLemee, Scott. “Wide-Stance Sociology.” Inside Higher Education, September 12, 2007. A well-written article that looks back at Humphreys’ study in the context of a renewal of the debate over tearoom sex since the arrest of U.S. senator Larry Craig in 2007.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schacht, Steven P., ed. “Laud Humphreys.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 24 (2004). This special issue explores in detail Humphreys’ work in the field of sociology.

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