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Excerpted from Sociology Textbook of Montgomery County Schools... 1

Tearoom Trade Sociologist Laud Humphreys (1970a, 1970b, 1975) published a pioneering and controversial study of homosexual behavior in which he described the casual homosexual en- counters between males meeting in public rest- rooms in parks. Such restrooms are sometimes called tearooms by homosexual men. As one consequence of this provocative research, the chancellor of the university where Humphreys was employed terminated his research grant and teaching contract. In order to study the lifestyle of homosexual males in tearooms, Humphreys acted as a participant observer by serving as a “lookout,” warning patrons when police or other strangers approached. While he was primarily interested in the behavior of these men, Humphreys also wanted to learn more about who they were and why they took such risks. Yet how could he obtain such information? Secrecy and silence were the norms of this sexual environment. Most of the men under study were unaware of Humphreys’s identity and would not have consented to standard sociological interviews. As a result, Humphreys decided on a research technique that some social scientists later saw as a violation of professional ethics. He recorded the license plate numbers of tearoom patrons, waited a year, changed his appearance, and then inter- viewed them in their homes. The interviews were conducted as part of a larger survey, but they did provide information that Humphreys felt was necessary for his work. While Humphreys’s subjects consented to be interviewed, their agreement fell short of informed consent, since they were unaware of the true purpose of the study. Although the researcher recognized each of the men interviewed from his observations in the restrooms, there was no indication that they recognized him. Humphreys learned that most of his subjects were in their middle thirties and married.

They had an average of two children and tended to have at least some years of college education. Family members appeared to be unaware of the men’s visits to park restrooms for casual homo- sexual encounters. Even before the public outcry over his research began, Humphreys (1970b: 167—173, 1975:175— 232) was aware of the ethical questions that his study would raise. He exerted great care in maintaining the confidentiality of his subjects. Their real identities were recorded only on a master list kept in a safe-deposit box. The list was destroyed by Humphreys after the research was conducted. For social scientists, the ethical problem in this research was not Humphreys’s choice of subject matter, but rather the deception involved. Patrons of the tearoom were not aware of Humphreys’s purposes and were further misled about the real reasons for the household inter- views. However, in the researcher’s judgment, the value of his study justified the questionable means involved. Humphreys believed that, without the follow-up interviews, we would know little about the kinds of men who engage in tearoom sex and would be left with false stereotypes. In addition, Humphreys believed that by de- scribing such sexual interactions accurately, he would be able to dispel the myth that child molestation is a frequent practice in restrooms. One unintended consequence of the research was that it has been increasingly cited by attorneys seeking acquittal for clients arrested in public bathrooms. These lawyers have used the study to establish that such behavior is not unusual and typically involves consenting adults (j. Gray, 1991). Do these gains in our knowledge and under- standing offset Humphreys’s actions in encroaching on people’s private lives and deceiving them during interviews? Essentially, in reflecting on the study, we are left with a conflict between the right to know and the right to privacy. There is no easy resolution of this clash of principles. Yet we can certainly ask that sociologists be fully aware of the ethical implications of any such research techniques (I. Horowitz and Rainwater, 1970; Von Hoffman, 1970).


Lam, Robert P., Schaefer, Richard T., Sociology (4th Edition), pp. 53-54, Mcgraw-Hill, Inc. 1992.

 

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