Tearoom Trade
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A Tearoom Trade is when a man goes into a public restroom to receive or give fellatio. Laud Humphreys felt that it would be beneficial to learn more about why men want to participate in this type of quick, impersonal, sexual gratification. So he preformed a study. Laud Humphrey began his research in the spring of 1966 and continued for two years as a watch queen in the tearooms. The first article of Humphrey’s research “impersonal sex in public places,” was published in 1970. His book was finally published in 1975, titled “Tearoom Trade.”

For his study, he used observation and also structured interviews. He was able to observe closely by being the person who kept watch for police and strangers, often called the Watch Queen. Humphreys observed and recorded data on location, the frequency of acts, the age of the men, the roles the men played, and whether money was exchanged.

After watching and observing many acts of fellatio, Humphreys was able to ask some of the men he observed to tell him about their lives and what motivates them to search out tearooms.In an attempt to avoid being bias, he secretly followed some of the men he observed to their cars and wrote down their license plate numbers. A year later he went to these men’s homes as a health-service interviewer. He questioned these men on their martial status, occupation and race. He also asked opened ended questions to find out more about the stability of the marriage. On this follow-up interview, he changed his appearance so the men would not have recognized him.

  • 38% of the men identified themselves as heterosexual, with shaky marriages. The majority of these men rarely had conjugal relations with their wives since their last child was born..
  • 24 % of the men identified themselves as bisexual, happily married men, well educated, economically successful, and exemplary members of their community.
  • 24 % of the men were single and were covert homosexuals
  • 14 % of the men identified themselves as homosexual. They were members of the gay community and were interested in primarily homosexual relationships.
  • 63% were Roman Catholic
  • A large percentage was military men or veterans.

Humphreys found that the men who participate in tearooms pose no danger of harassment to straight males, but were looking for a form of orgasm-producing action that is less lonely than masturbation and less involving than a love relationship. Some marriage relationships were already shaky, so a long-term cheating partner might jeopardize that type marriage. So the quick inexpensive and impersonal form of sex would be an alternative

Humphreys study gave readers a better understanding of tearooms and the people who seek these rooms. Many people who did not participate in tearoom behaviors had many misconceptions about the type of people who do participate. His results dispelled the myth that the men who participate in tearooms are dangerous social deviants, and were all homosexual. He brought to light that the majority of the people who frequent tearooms were everyday men with otherwise respectable, conventional lives. This study brings about the incongruity between the private self and social self.

After the research had been completed the other members of the sociology department learn of it. Some faculty members wanted his degree taken away. This turned into a fist fight among faculty members and half the department members left Washington University and took positions at other universities.

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This study is known for a few ethical violations. He did not inform all of his subjects they were apart of a study. After gaining the trust of some of his participants, he revealed himself as a researcher and did interview them with their knowledge of the study. But, the other people he observed and included in his study were never notified. Even though he didn’t coerce or use undue influences, like inappropriate rewards, on his subjects he did not make the participant aware they were being involved in a research study.

Currently, study participants have to sign an informed consent saying they are willing and capable of participating in the study. Most of his participants never had a chance to deny participation, or to ask questions about the study. This is unethical.

He only disclosed his role to some of his participants in order to do a follow-up interview. As for the others, he used their license plate number to get their home address in order to do the follow-up interview. Even though Humphreys felt he was being completely ethical with his study, some feel that Humphreys actively deceived his participants about his identity. When he came back to do a follow-up interview he had a different appearance than when they first saw him at the tearoom. Humphreys felt he didn’t deceive the participants because he was doing an anonymous public health survey that was actually used in a larger social health research project. So he wasn’t pretending to give a survey on social health issues, he really was giving that survey to be used for social health. Humphreys didn’t lie about his identity using words, but he did purposely attempt to appear like he was two different people, when in actuality the Watch Queen and the social health researcher was the same person.

Humphreys neglected to tell the participants that the survey would also be used for his personal research project. This is passive deception. He deliberately withheld that information from his participants. This is considered unethical, because even after the research was done he didn’t inform the participants.

Some people also feel how Humphrey’s collected his data was unethical. They feel that he misrepresented his identity in the tearoom to gain access. To his defense these participants were conducting their activities in a public place. He observed the behavior in a men’s public restroom and he is a man. Also he didn’t misrepresent his identity as a watch queen because he really did keep a look out for police and strangers. What Humphreys failed to do was to make himself known as a researcher at that time or after he was observing the behavior of the tearoom trades.

Since Humphreys never told his participants that they were being apart of his study, they didn’t have the chance to determine when, how, and to what extent their information was communicated to others. The people were never notified that they were subjects of research and private information was collected from them under false pretenses. Humphreys did have enough respect for his participants were he didn’t identify them in his published work. He recognized the need to protect the confidentiality of his data and never published anecdotes that included identifiers and he protects his notes carefully.

Humphrey’s dissertation proposal was reviewed by his Ph. D committee. Now in order to carry out a research project it must be reviewed by the Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB would make sure that the study follows all federal laws and guidelines.

During the time of Humphrey’s research he was a “watch queen”, he watched the guys in the tearooms (restrooms) as they sexually had interactions with each other. He took notes on their interactions and also recorded their license plate information so he could later find out their home addresses. After a year Humphrey posed as a survey interviewer for mental health, and interviewed the men that he witnessed in the tearoom. It was unethical in a sense because he did not disclose his true identity to these men. “It is unethical for a sociologist to deliberately misrepresent his identity for the purpose of entering a private domain to which he is not otherwise eligible. It is unethical for a sociologist to deliberately misrepresent the character of the research in which he is engaged.” Furthermore, because Humphrey did not consent to the participants about his study it was unethical.

Short funny clip about the unethical Tearoom trade and the corrections Humphreys could have made...

Fun Facts
  • Humphreys was married for 20 years then he eventually came out as a gay man. He was the founder of the sociologists Gay Caucus established in 1974.
  • Humphreys was an ordained Episcopalian minister who graduated from Seabury-Western Episcopal Theological Seminary in 1955.
  • In June 2007, Larry Craig, who at the time was an Idaho Senator, was arrested for lewd conduct. He went into a public restroom where a police officer, in plain clothes trying to catch men wanting to participate in a tearoom trade, was waiting in a stall. Once Craig gave the signal, the officer showed his badge and arrested him.
On October 4, Craig released a statement refusing to resign as senator for Idaho. Watch this reanactment of what happened according to officer's police report.


Humphreys, L. (1970). Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Pubic Places. Society, 7 (3), 10-25. Doi: 10.1007/BF02812336
Url: http://www2.umt.edu/sociology/faculty_staff/keogh/documents/HumphreysTearoomTrade.pdf
Sieber, J., Laud Humphreys and the Tearoom Sex Study [html format]. Retrieved from Lecture Notes Online Web site: http://web.missouri.edu/~bondesonw/Laud.html