Laud Humphreys, a sociologist, recognized that the public
and the law-enforcement authorities hold highly simplistic
stereotyped beliefs about men who commit impersonal sexual
acts with one another in public restrooms. "Tearoom
sex," as fellatio in public restrooms is called,
accounts for the majority of homosexual arrests in the
United States. Humphreys decided that it would be of
considerable social importance for society to gain more
objective understanding of who these men are and what
motivates them to seek quick, impersonal sexual
For his Ph.D. dissertation at Washington University, Humphreys set out to answer this question by means of participant observation and structured interview. He stationed himself in "tearooms" and offered to serve as "watchqueen" - the individual who keeps watch and coughs when a police car stops nearby or a stranger approaches. He played that role faithfully while observing hundreds of acts of fellatio. He was able to gain the confidence of some of the men he observed, disclose his role as scientist, and persuade them to tell him about the rest of their lives and about their motives. Those who were willing to talk openly with him tended to be among the better-educated members of the "tearoom trade." To avoid bias, Humphreys secretly followed some of the other men he observed and recorded the license numbers of their cars. A year later and carefully disguised, Humphreys appeared at their homes claiming to be a health-service interviewer and interviewed them about their marital status, race, job, and so on.
Humphreys' findings destroy many stereotypes. Fifty-four percent of his subjects were married and living with their wives, and superficial analysis would suggest that they were exemplary citizens who had exemplary marriages. Thirty-eight percent of Humphreys' subjects clearly were neither bisexual nor homosexual. They were men whose marriages were marked with tension; most of the 38 percent were Catholic or their wives were, and since the birth of their last child conjugal relations had been rare. Their alternative source of sex had to be quick, inexpensive, and impersonal. It could not entail any kind of involvement that would threaten their already shaky marriage and jeopardize their most important asset - their standing as father of their children. They wanted only some form of orgasm-producing action that was less lonely than masturbation and less involving than a love relationship. Of the other 62 percent of Humphreys' subjects, 24 percent were clearly bisexual, happily married, well educated, economically quite successful, and exemplary members of their community. Another 24 percent were single and were covert homosexuals. Only 14 percent of Humphreys' subjects corresponded to society's stereotype of homosexuality. That is, only 14 percent were members of the gay community and were interested in primarily homosexual relationships (Humphreys, 1970).
Informal inquiry (Knerr, 1970) indicated that Humphreys' research has helped persuade police departments to stop using their resources on arrest for this victimless crime. Many would count this as a social benefit.
There were also social costs. The research occurred in the middle 1960s before institutional review boards were in existence. The dissertation proposal was reviewed only by Humphreys' Ph.D. committee. Only after the research had been completed did the other members of the Sociology Department learn of it. A furor arose when some of those other members of the department objected that Humphreys' research had unethically invaded the privacy and threatened the social standing of the subjects, and petitioned the president of Washington University to rescind Humphreys' Ph.D. degree. The turmoil resulted in numerous other unfortunate events, including a fist fight among faculty members and the exodus of about half of the department members to positions at other universities.
There was considerable public outrage as well. Journalist Nicholas von Hoffman, who was given some details of the case by one of the angered members of the Sociology Department, wrote an article about Humphreys' research and offered the following condemnation of social scientists: "We're so preoccupied with defending our privacy against insurance investigators, dope sleuths, counterespionage men, divorce detectives and credit checkers, that we overlook the social scientists behind the hunting blinds who're also peeping into what we thought were our most private and secret lives. But there they are, studying us, taking notes, getting to know us, as indifferent as everybody else to the feeling that to be a complete human involves having an aspect of ourselves that's unknown." (von Hoffman, 1970).
[This case was prepared by Dr. Joan Sieber, Visiting Research Scholar, The Kennedy Institute, 1977-78, and Professor of Psychology, California State University, Hayward.]