Sociologists at Work

The Sociologists at Work feature exposes students to the importance and application of social science research.

Laud Humphreys

The Tearoom Trade

Most sociologists agree that the need to understand the depth and complexity of the drug world outweighed the ethical issues raised by Adler’s research strategy. There is less agreement and more controversy, however, over situations in which researchers misrepresent their identities in order to gather information. Consider the 1970 study called The Tearoom Trade by Laud Humphreys, a study many sociologists find ethically indefensible. Humphreys was interested in studying anonymous and casual homosexual encounters among strangers. He decided to focus on interactions in “tearooms,” which are places, such as public restrooms, where male homosexuals go for anonymous sex. (This study was done well before the HIV/AIDS epidemic significantly curtailed such activity.)

Because of the potentially stigmatizing nature of this phenomenon, Humphreys couldn’t just come right out and ask people about their actions. So he decided to engage in a secretive form of participant observation. He posed as a lookout, called a “watchqueen,” whose job was to warn of intruders as the people he was studying engaged in sexual acts with one another in public restrooms. In this way, he was able to conduct very detailed observations of these encounters.

Humphreys also wanted to know about the regular lives of these men. Whenever possible, he wrote down the license numbers of the participants’ cars and tracked down their names and addresses with the help of a friend in the local police department.

About a year later, he arranged for these individuals to be part of a simple medical survey being conducted by some of his colleagues. He then disguised himself and visited their homes, supposedly to conduct interviews for the medical survey. He found that most of the men were heterosexual, had families, and were respected members of their communities. In short, they led altogether conventional lives.

Although this information shed a great deal of light on the nature of anonymous homosexual acts, some critics argued that Humphreys had violated the ethics of research by deceiving his unsuspecting subjects and violating their privacy rights. Some critics also noted that Humphreys might have been sued for invasion of privacy if he had not been studying a group of people rendered powerless by their potential embarrassment. Others, however, supported Humphreys, arguing that he couldn’t have studied this topic any other way. In fact, his book won a prestigious award. But over 40 years later, the ethical controversy surrounding this study remains.