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In 1970, sociologist Laud Humphreys published his book The Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places, one of the most famous studies in sexology. In this study, Humphreys observed men having brief, impersonal sexual encounters with same-sex partners in public restrooms. Although the book revealed important information about homosexuality and sexual behavior in public places, Humphrey's research methods were, and still are, considered very controversial. The Tearoom Trade raises ethical questions: Does the value of gaining information about sexual practices justify the violation of people's privacy?
Laud Humphreys entered the field of sociology after serving for ten years as a clergyman in the Episcopal Church. He ministered mostly to the LGBTQ community and preached a message of acceptance. Humphreys was also one of the first sociologists who identified as gay. Although he was married to a woman, it was not until after The Tearoom Trade's publication that Humphreys felt comfortable enough to “come out”. Most of his same-sex experiences were impersonal, which undoubtedly influenced his decision to study impersonal sex in public places (Galliher et al 2004).
Humphreys wanted to study "where the average guy goes" for same-sex encounters, and this led him to observe men engaging in sexual activity in public restrooms. In most of the encounters Humphreys studied, a man would enter the restroom where another man would be waiting. The first man would express interest in engaging in sexual activity, perhaps by displaying an erect penis. There was often a third person in the restroom who served as a lookout - or "watchqueen" - for the partners. Humphreys posed as a lookout in order to befriend the men and observe their behavior in the restroom.
The sexual acts generally took place wordlessly and anonymously within the restroom stalls. Oral-genital sex was the most common behavior observed, probably because this type of behavior can be done more quickly and easily in a small space than other sexual behaviors. Anal sex was quite rare because of the time required to perform it, and thus the greater likelihood of the partners being caught by the authorities.
For the second part of his study, Humphreys wrote down the license plate numbers of the men whom he observed and traced them to their homes, where he had them fill out a questionnaire, pretending that it was for a general "social health survey." From the data he collected with this survey, Humphreys concluded that most of the men he observed were married and had “respectable” lifestyles. In addition, Humphreys described a large portion of the men as "socially conservative" outside of the public restrooms. These findings surprised and angered people in both the heterosexual and LGBTQ communities (Galliher et al 2004; Hyde & DeLameter 2006).
Though The Tearoom Trade made important contributions to sex research, Humphreys' research methods violated modern contemporary ethical standards for research and raised serious questions. He observed human behavior without the prior knowledge or consent of his subjects. In addition, he gave a survey under false pretenses without later telling the subjects the actual purpose of the research. Also, he published his findings without his subjects' consent. It is clear that, by today's standards, many of Humphreys' methods were unethical. However, Humphreys may not have been able to acquire accurate information on his research topic by using acceptable research methods. The issue is whether gaining this information about same-sex behavior in public places was worth violating the privacy of Humphreys' subjects (Hyde & DeLameter 2006).
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.