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Humphreys’ Tearoom Trade


Inspiration can often come from the most unexpected of places, and although I know school is where you are supposed to learn, I don’t think they intended this. So this week, I am taking a little look at something called the tearoom trade. While in my sociology class, my teacher used this little study as an example, briefly brushing over it. Being me, I couldn’t leave it very well alone. So I did a little digging into this subject. You’d be surprised how much you can find at the click of every button.

So to start with, the tearoom trade was written by a man named Laud Humphreys, first as his PhD dissertation at Washington University and then later in the form of a book. The aim of the original study was to find the motivation behind the impersonal intimate actions between men within public bathrooms. He acted as a ‘Watch Queen’ to the men while they were in the bathrooms, watching out for the police and signaling whenever they came near. He did this in the years between 1965 and 1968, recording the information of the men,talking to some of them, even earning some of their trust. He even disclosed with a few of them what his true purpose of observing the acts. Some of the men answered his questions about the motives behind these impersonal acts, and some of the others he tracked down after he had written down their license plates. 

After tracking down these men and asking them questions about their sexual activity under a false pretense, he collated all of his information. Thirty-eight percent of the men involved in the tearoom trade were neither gay or bisexual, just looking for a sexual outlet because they were no longer getting it from their own wives, usually because of the birth of a child. The other sixty-two percent were gay or bisexual, twenty-four percent were bisexual individuals who were happily married, successful and good members of the community. The other thirty-eight percent of the sample were divided between the covert gays, who were in the closet, another twenty-four percent, while the last fourteen percent were made up of gay men who fit the classic stereotype of a homosexual male. 

Looking at the process that this data was accumulated, it is clear to any outside force that this was an unethical study that could have had potential repercussions for the men involuntarily involved in the study, if their information was released. Not only that, but their privacy was invaded in a major way, without any kind of consent from the majority of them, informed or otherwise. Still the study had its benefits. Because of what the study demonstrated, there were less arrests of men having intimate relations in public bathrooms, as the department was made aware that it was a victimless crime that it was better not to use in such a way.

So there you have it, the tearoom trade. Although the full study is likely far more complicated than that, it is clear, even from this simplification, that, despite the unethical nature of the study, it definitely had its benefits and its upsides. It is important that when we judge something like this, we take every aspect in to consideration, including the benefits it has had. 


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