Laud Humphreys’ Discussion of Space in “Tearoom Trade”

Re-reading Laud HumphreysTearoom Trade (1970), I was reminded of his wonderful analysis of sexuality and space. For those unfamiliar with the study, Humphreys studied sex between men in public park restrooms. He was interested in how these interactions occurred and who was involved. His results were astounding. He found that a large percentage of the men participating were married, many were religious (mostly Catholic), a large percentage were either in the military or veterans, and–perhaps most interestingly of all–a large majority of the men that did not identify as gay were socially and politically conservative. In fact, Humphreys found that only 14% of the men in his study could be said to be a “typical” gay man. Most of them, in fact, were not gay (meaning they did not identify as gay). Rather, these were heterosexual men who sometimes (and for many of them often) had homosexual encounters in public restrooms.

Humphreys’ work is regrettably most commonly discussed as an example of unethical research (see here and here for notable exceptions). He went undercover studying this practice, serving as a lookout (or “watch queen”) for police or anyone else who might pose a threat to the men involved. During his research, he also recorded the license plate numbers of participants’ cars and used public records to obtain names and addresses. A year following his research, he interviewed about 50 of the men under the guise of a survey study on mental health. The ethics of the research have been a hot topic in research methods courses since the 70s. Focusing solely on whether or not Humphreys’ research was “ethical” or not, however, sidesteps a conversation about what he actually found and why his research was so important.

When I teach students about the tearoom trade, the first thing I always try to get them to understand is how amazing this social interaction is. Men meet in public restrooms, quickly assess whether other men (whom they do not know outside of this setting) are here for sexual encounters or just to use the facilities, assess whether others (if present) are there to do the same, what type of sexual interaction will take place (i.e., who will do what to whom), who will serve as a lookout and how he will alert others if there is a need to vacate the room quickly, etc. Now, this is–on its own–a pretty amazing accomplishment. What makes it even more amazing is that it is done primarily without speaking, through subtle gestures, expressions, and elaborate rules and rituals. Humphreys documents these rules in such detail that his study is sometimes referred to as a “how-to” manual for tearoom traders.

Building on previous research that addressed the use of urban space (e.g., here) and early studies of gay subcultures and practices (see here, here, here, and here), Humphreys illustrated how public park restrooms are a wonderful example of how people find ways of carving out privacy in public spaces (1970: viii). Humphreys uses blueprints to explain how men used the space in which their sexual encounters took place. He pays close attention to the placement of the participants in the room as well as physical features of the rooms themselves like the door, windows, stalls, etc.

But, he also used the diagram to document the sexual activity, locating his participants in the physical space of the room. Using the bathroom blueprint, he attempted to document how this practice happened. He locates himself here as look-out, explains his own behavior, and also explains how the men came into the restroom, where they made their initial “contract,” where the subsequent sexual activity took place, how and when they left, etc. His notes are fascinating and illustrate a great deal of attention to detail, both of the acts, but also of the spaces in which these acts occurred. He documented the day of the week, the temperature and weather, the time of the encounter in addition to descriptions of the men involved.

I love that he included a sample of his notes to illustrate how he documented his observations. There’s much to learn from Humphreys’ study beyond a discussion of how ethical his research was or wasn’t. Among the insights throughout this study, his discussion and analysis of space is really wonderful and ought to be remembered too.

[P.S. If you’re interested in what scholars are doing on this topic now, see Jane Ward‘s work using the “Casual Encounters” section on Craigslist.com. She documents a phenomenon she calls “dude-sex” (here). It’s absolutely amazing and my hunch is, Laud would think so too.]

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