A Critical Analysis of Laud Humphrey’s The Tearoom Trade

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In 1970 Laud Humphreys, then a Washington University Phd student, wrote his infamous thesis ‘Tearoom Trade’ which was a study of homosexual behaviour between men in public toilets in a U.S. city. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the topic, the research was highly controversial, however this was not just due to its sensitive subject matter. A number of criticisms were made of the study on the basis of its ethically dubious research methods. Nicholas von Hoffman, writing for the Washington Post at the time of publication, accused Humphrey’s of ‘snooping around and spying on people’ (1970, p.6) and compared the research to J. Edgar Hoover’s alleged phone tapping scandal. While Warwick (1973, p.35) stated that ‘the net effect of Humphreys’ study on the research environment is likely to be negative’.

However to others it represents ‘a great achievement’ (Hoffman M, 1971, p.100) and is a ‘rich study that adds much to better understanding of sexuality and human behaviour.’ (Schacht, 2004, p.5) It is also worth noting that ‘Tearoom’ won the C. Wright Mills Award for research. Clearly then there are some radically differing views of Humphreys’ study and is perhaps one of the reasons as to why it has been so frequently written about by other academics. This essay aims to critically analyse the ‘Tearoom Trade’, it will examine the objectives of the research, the methods used to obtain the data and the effect the study has had on social science since its publication.

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Following a research paper he wrote on the subject of homosexuality in 1965 Humphreys realised that very little research had taken place into the kind of people engaged in this deviant activity.

Social scientists have avoided this area of deviant behaviour……..ethics and emotional problems, I suspect, provide the more serious obstacles for most prospective researchers. Humphreys (1970, p.17)

Humphreys decided that the best way to study this area was to research homosexual behaviour within public toilets, otherwise known as ‘Tearooms’ in the U.S. gay community. As Humphreys’ (1970, p.17) points out, until that point the; police and other law enforcement observers had been the only systematic observers of homosexual action in public restrooms.

Humphreys’ objective, with the research, was to lift the lid on an area of society that very few outside it understood. It was important for him to offer; some explanation as to why and how these people participate in the particular form of behaviour described.(Humphreys, 1970, p.17)

It could be argued that the most important aim of the study was to ‘confront some of our prejudices about homosexual activity’ (Hoffman M, 1971, p.98) and to ‘support the view that these were respectable, responsible individuals.’ (Babbie, 2004, p.14)

When Humphrey’s undertook this work he had no preconceived theory as to what lay ahead. He adopted an inductive approach to his research and believed that; hypotheses should develop out of such ethnographic work rather than provide restrictions and distortions from its inception (Humphreys, 1970, p.22)

It is clear, given the lack of prior research into the area, that Humphreys had to adopt a qualitative approach to his study in order to garner an adequate depth of understanding of the subject. He therefore chose a case study research design which enabled him ‘the greatest accuracy in terms of faithfulness to people and actions as they live and happen’. (Humphreys. 1970, p.21) In order to achieve this, his research method had to take on a similar qualitative feel.

Humphreys employed two distinct methods of research within the study. Firstly, in order to gain a real understanding of the activities within the ‘Tearoom’ Humphreys adopted the method of covert participant observation. Therefore within the ‘Tearoom’ he assumed the role of lookout or ‘watchqueen’ which meant that he had to be; situated at the door or windows from which he may observe the means of access to the restroom. When someone approaches, he coughs. He nods when the coast is clear. (Humphreys. 1970, p.21)

This role enabled Humphreys to become an accepted complete participant within the ‘Tearoom’ without actually having to take part in the homosexual activity being practiced.

Secondly, in order to gain reliable demographic data on the individuals taking part in the activity, Humphreys undertook a process of structured interview under the guise of a social health survey. Using information provided to him by the police, supplied through the car registration numbers of the sample, he was able to trace people’s addresses and undertake his interviews at the homes of the participants. In order to make sure he wasn’t recognised Humphreys; was careful to change [his] appearance, dress and automobile from the days when [he] passed as a deviant. (Humphreys, 1970, p.42)

Participant observation, and especially the form of complete participation that Humphreys undertook, ‘involves ethical and methodological issues and is a source of considerable controversy’. (Burnham et al, 2008, p.271) There are certainly question marks as to the reliability of the data attained through such a method. For instance Burnham et al (2008, p.279) highlight the problem of accurately recording activities through memory without ‘a systematic procedure’ and argue that the data can be defined as ‘unsystematic and unquantifiable’.

Also, due to the reliance upon the researcher’s own observational skills, it can be argued that the method is ‘too impressionistic and subjective’ (Burnham et al, 2008, p.279) leading to accusations of bias or ‘going native’. As with the majority of qualitative research, there is also the problem of whether a relatively small sample is representative of a population or ethnic group. However as Burnham et al (2008,p.280) again point out, ‘perhaps the major issues to confront the researcher are the ethical ones’ particularly in regards to covert observation and the dishonesty and invasion of privacy generally required .

Nevertheless there are many scholars who believe that participant observation has a great deal to offer the social scientist. Indeed May (1999, p.154) argues that participant observation;

is one of the most rewarding methods which yields fascinating insights into people’s social lives and relationships and assists in bridging the gap between people’s understanding of alternative lifestyles and the prejudices which difference and diversity so often meet.

The ethical issues raised by Humphreys’ research methods are, unsurprisingly, the main causes of controversy within his study. The central criticisms levelled at the work have been in regard to the deception involved and the invasion of privacy. As Warwick (1973, p.31) argues;

The concatenation of misrepresentations and disguises in this effort must surely hold the world record for field research and  he intruded much too far into the lives of the men he observed and studied.

However Humphrey’s offers two explanations, in justification of his methods. Firstly he was;

convinced that there is only one way to watch discreditable behaviour and that is to pretend to be in the same boat with those engaging in it. (Humphreys, 1970, p.25)

Secondly Humphreys felt that it was the only way to ‘prevent distortion'(Humphreys, 1970, p.25) in terms of ensuring that the participants acted in the way that they normally would, not how they would want to be observed. Clearly then, for Humphreys, the question of validity meant that the ends justified the means. There is a lot of merit to this argument, it is hard to imagine how such a wealth and depth of data could be achieved through any other research method. A person’s secret homosexual practices are not generally something they would want to disclose on, say, an ordinary mailed social survey. As Rhodes et al (2007, p.53) observe;

The field researcher needs to get access and once in, acceptance of his presence to such a point that the people observed do as they would normally do even though he is there.

It is difficult to see how else this could have been achieved, in this case, without the element of deception.

There have also been concerns as to the effectiveness of Humphreys’ study, in terms of the depth of the data collated and the analysis with which it was given. Reiss (1973, p.582) argues that the ‘systematic comparisons of his deviant and control samples are largely lacking’ and was left; rather disappointed at the low level of analysis of notions regarding causes of homosexual behaviour.

However, for many, Humphreys’ collation of data and the use of it made a significant contribution to illuminating an often misunderstood social group. By clearly evidencing that people who engaged in these activities were not all of the same and were in fact from widely varied backgrounds;

Humphreys’ data challenged these taken for granted assumptions, making it evident that the sources of the sentiments experienced by gay men were rooted much more in stratification than in psychosis. (Goodwin et al, 1991, cited in Babbie, 2004, p.15)

Other criticisms that were made of the ‘Tearoom Trade’ were accusations of the disservice that it did to social science research and the regard in which researchers may be held in the future. Warwick (1973, p.35,37) argues that due to the use of; ‘deception, misrepresentation, and manipulation in [his] research … the net effect of Humphreys’ study on the research environment is likely to be negative.’

The essence, of Warwick’s attacks on the study, was that the ends did not justify the means. He argued that Humphrey’s aims were to;

increase knowledge about homosexuality  stir a concern in the larger society and perhaps lead to changes in present repressive laws and practices.(Warwick, 1973, p.37)

However as far as Warwick was concerned there was no; factual basis for assuming that Tearoom Trade will ultimately alleviate the risks and suffering of male homosexuals in public restrooms? (Warwick, 1973, p.37)

There is, however, an alternative view.

It cannot be denied that Humphreys’ study was, at the time, at the forefront of social research into sexual deviants. It was the first study of its type and as Lenza (2004, p.29) states, it could be argued that it ‘contributed an historical and continuing importance in understanding human sexuality.’

It has certainly been one of the most discussed social research projects undertaken and has led to further studies developing from it. For instance in 1990 Desroches attempted a replication of the ‘Tearoom’ study and, reassuringly for advocates of Humphreys’ research methods, found that;

The behaviour of players reveals remarkable consistency over time, from community to community, and across national boundaries. (Desroches, 1990, p.35)

This essay has examined and analysed the research design and methods that Humphreys undertook with his study. It has addressed the objectives of the research and its success in achieving them. It is clear that there are many criticisms that can and have been made of the ‘Tearoom Trade’ in terms of its dubious ethical nature. In keeping with the main problems associated with covert participation observation, there are major concerns in regards to sample size and the demographic representativeness of the subjects. There are also the obvious criticisms in terms of deception and invasion of privacy. As Erikson (1967, p.373) argues, it is wrong for a; sociologist to deliberately misrepresent his identity and  to misrepresent the character of the research in which he is engaged.

However it is important to note the fact that with ‘participant observation it is simply impossible to do the research without some degree of deception.’ (Babbie, 2004, p.15) Humphreys’ study was a brave and ground-breaking work, it made a significant contribution to social science by pushing the boundaries of research on an otherwise misconstrued social group. An appropriate summing up is made by Babbie (2004, p.18), who reflects that; Laud Humphreys’ willingness to work in the shadows of right and wrong, all the while committed to being ethical in those endeavours, forces students to think about ethics rather than swearing allegiance to an established code.

It is for this reason that Humphreys’ work is so important, through pushing against the perceived boundaries of conformist social research, he has inspired others to look beyond the conventional in order to develop a deeper understanding of human behaviour.


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