Tearoom Trade Essay

In 1970, sociologist and ordained Episcopalian minister Laud Humphreys published his book The Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places, one of the most famous and controversial studies in sexology. By assuming the role of a “look-out,” Humphreys gained the male subjects’ trust, which enabled him to observe complete strangers engaging in brief, impersonal sexual encounters with same-sex partners in public restrooms, termed as “tearooms.”1 The origin of the word “tearoom” is not fully understood, but it may be distantly related to British slang which uses “tea” as a word for “urine” or also as a British verb used to describe an action of sexual “engagements” or “encounters.”1

Without the subjects’ knowledge, Humphreys recorded their license plate numbers and tracked them down a year later. After changing his hair, attire, dress, and car, Humphreys visited the homes of the subjects. Under the guise of a social health surveyor, Humphreys interviewed the subjects about their lives without disclosing that he had already met them before.1 Humphreys conducted these in-person interviews to discover what aspects of the subjects’ home lives motivated them to engage in this illegal and taboo activity. Humphreys’ study provided a more comprehensive understanding of the rules that governed this deviant interaction. His work analyzed patterns of behavior in this collective group of men, only 14% of whom self-identified as homosexual, and elucidated the risks of engaging in impersonal gay sexual acts in public restrooms. Tracking and interviewing the subjects provided an opportunity to better understand the rationality the subjects used when engaging in tearoom acts.2 Although the book revealed important information about homosexuality and sexual behavior in public places, Humphreys’ research methods were, and still are, considered very controversial. If conducted appropriately, research studies provide the foundation of new and insightful sources of knowledge. Yet, despite the benefits of this research, The Tearoom Trade raises ethical questions about sociology research: Does the value of gaining information about sexual practices justify the violation of people's privacy? This article will evaluate the social context, scientific methods, and ethical issues associated with this insightful, yet controversial study.

The Author

Laud Humphreys entered the field of sociology after serving for ten years as a clergyman in the Episcopal Church. He preached a message of acceptance and tolerance to any who would listen, and embodied these principles by ministering mostly to the LGBTQ community. Humphreys was also one of the first sociologists who openly self-identified as gay. Although he was married to a woman, it was not until after the publication of The Tearoom Trade that Humphreys felt comfortable enough to “come out,” and in 1980 he left his wife and two children. He moved to California, earned certification as a psychotherapist, and established his own private counseling service. Towards the end of his life, Humphreys worked as a consultant for police forces and offered his expertise in homosexual subcultures and homophobic violence during testimonies in court cases. Laud Humphreys died in 1988 from lung cancer.

The Study

In Humphreys’ research, tearoom trades are instant, impersonal acts of sexual conduct between two or more men in a public restroom. This study focuses on these interactions through investigation of possible social, psychological, or physiological reasons for this behavior.1,2 

Anti-Sodomy Laws

At the time of this study, laws existed in the United States that criminalized sexual acts deemed “unnatural” or “immoral.” These sexual acts were referred to as “sodomy,” a definition that includedanal sex,oral sex, and bestiality. As a result of these “anti-sodomy laws,” men who engaged in sexual acts with one another were arrested when they were caught in the act or when law enforcement had probable suspicion. During this time, sodomy accounted for the majority of homosexual arrests.1 In June of 2003, the United States Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws as “unconstitutional” in its ruling of Lawrence v Texas. However, anti-sodomy laws currently exist in the law books of twelve states.3


Humphreys noted that the first challenge to studying tearooms was locating the facilities frequented by the subjects.1 The factors Humphreys found to be crucial in picking a public restroom to use as a tearoom were accessibility and isolation from other public events. Typically, tearooms were located in public parks. Men would pick a restroom positioned in a remote part of the park, isolated by distance from highly trafficked areas such as the entrance or busy sports fields.1 The male subjects chose these strategic locations in order to avoid discovery by unwitting passers-by. In addition to preventing unwarranted exposure to bystanders, these men also valued isolated facilities to protect their identities.2Ironic as it may seem, tearoom activities in public facilities offered a high degree of anonymity and kept the identities of participants anonymous.  Around the time Humphreys conducted his study, many superhighways were being constructed, and the rest stops along these roads provided ideal tearoom facilities due to their numerous locations and ease of accessibility.1 A male could easily and quickly make a stop at a tearoom on the side of a highway without raising any suspicion from his family about arriving home later than expected.

Police officers were aware of several tearoom locations. On one occasion, an undercover patrolman actually revealed to Humphreys that law enforcement was upregulating activity in a certain area of a park due to an increase in African-American visitors, an event unrelated to the tearoom activities. He then referred Humphreys to a restroom in another park known to be frequented by homosexuals and isolated from the unrelated presence of African-Americans that had increased police activity.1


There were several different roles that a man might take on during a tearoom interaction. These roles included an insertor, an insertee, and a lookout (referred to as a watchqueen). The insertor presented his penis for fellatio. The insertee performed the oral sex. The watchqueen would alert the other men in the tearoom if a passerby approached and would notify them when it was safe to proceed again.1 The roles were dictated by age and attractiveness. Known as the “Aging Crisis,” older participants were typically deemed less desirable and more often took on the role of the insertee.1 This hierarchy did not always apply, as age and role preferences vary from person to person. The watchqueen took on a voyeuristic role, receiving pleasure and arousal from observing the sexual interaction. While conducting his study, Humphreys often took on the role as watchqueen in order to convince others that he meant no harm, giving him the ability to observe tearoom interactions. Unbeknownst to the subjects, Humphreys was taking notes of his observations after the acts and often keeping track of the subjects’ license plates as well.1


The advantages that made tearooms appealing to the men who participated were the inexpensive and liberating nature of the interaction, the impersonal sexual gratification that accompanied the activity, and the speed and efficiency that allowed participants to quickly enter and exit the tearooms.1


The act of oral sex, or fellatio, was often free as typically all members involved in a tearoom trade achieved sexual release from the experience. As Humphreys investigated the phenomena, noticeable patterns emerged. He found that subjects were often married, identified as Roman-Catholic, and had spouses who did not take birth-control.1 This lack of birth-control limited the sexual intercourse that men could engage in with their wives. The couples had various reasons for avoiding pregnancy, such as a preference for a certain number of offspring (or no offspring) and the costs of raising a child. This left some subjects in a position where their sexual desires were not met by their spouse, who avoided both the use of contraceptives and the chance of an unintended pregnancy. One advantage of tearooms that appealed to a portion of the subjects was that it was rare for insertees to demand monetary compensation from the insertor. This enticed certain subjects to visit tearooms because they offered a cheaper alternative to the costs of rearing an unexpected child with his wife or the costs of paying for a prostitute and a hotel room.1 The inexpensive nature of these interactions also freed the man from having to explain reoccurring expenditures if his wife or family grew suspicious of financial activities.1,2,4


The tearoom activities were impersonal.1 Participants rarely said anything outside the lines of brief expressions of gratitude.1 This appealed to many of the subjects as they were not searching for relationships. Interestingly, most of the men in the study (54%) were married to women.1 Many of them were also fathers. If discovered, knowledge of the deviant sexual behavior would threaten the stability of their families.1,2,4 Protecting their identity as fathers and husbands was paramount to these men. In some cases, long-term relationships did grow out of these interactions, but for the most part a minimal exchange of words offered the most privacy and anonymity.1


A third benefit to tearooms, and an advantage over traditional hotel rooms or other more private locations, was time efficiency.1 As previously stated, the location of restrooms along highways offered the chance to experience sexual release in a manner that took very little time out of their day. Entering and exiting a tearoom quickly and efficiently resulted in less explaining that a man needed to provide to his family in order to justify his absences.1

Social Survey

A year after recording his observations of tearoom trades, Humphreys tracked down the subjects using the license plate numbers that he covertly recorded. He changed his hair, clothes, and vehicle to protect his identity in case any subject recognized him from the times he played the role of watchqueen for them. Falsely presenting himself as a social health worker, Humphreys traveled to the homes of the subjects and asked if he could conduct a social health survey. This survey allowed him to formulate an idea of the home life of subjects in his study. He found certain patterns relating to marital status, employment, and behavior. Often, these men (and their wives) were deprived of sexual relations with each other. Among a variety of other important factors, this lack of sexual gratification motivated many subjects to frequent tearooms. Loneliness emerged as a prominent characteristic in many of the subjects he surveyed. One man who failed to report any hobbies during the survey encouraged Humphreys to stay for dinner, stating “I wish you’d stay awhile, I haven’t talked to anyone about myself in a hell of a long time!” 1

Ethical Issues

Humphreys’ study provoked a heated response from the public and the scientific community due to the controversial methods he used to collect data. For example, Humphreys’ study led people to question whether a researcher should be allowed to collect sensitive data under a false identity to prevent distorting the phenomena being studied. In addition, after publishing the study, the public expressed concern over whether a researcher should be allowed to collect data which has the potential to jeopardize the safety of the subjects if it is revealed to the public.1,2 In response to these concerns and in order to justify his methods, Humphreys championed three ethical research standards that he abided by while he conducted this study.1

Firstly, Humphreys believed that a scientist should never neglect an area of study or phenomenon because it was difficult to investigate or inherently socially sensitive.1 Many of the most intriguing findings were extrapolated from observing and analyzing highly taboo interactions. As a result of Humphreys’ study, the world gained a more comprehensive understanding of homosexual society and the behavioral motivations of the male mind. Following the release of his study, police arrests of homosexuals and raids on tearooms actually decreased in frequency, exemplifying how the understanding of human nature benefits everyone.2, 4

Secondly, Humphreys believed that a scientist should take every possible precaution in order to minimize the degree to which studying a phenomenon distorts its natural occurrence.1 Humphreys justified his disguise and hidden identity by applying this principle. It is universally acknowledged in scientific communities that openly observing an interaction between two subjects can change the outcome of their interaction. Publicly identifying oneself as a social researcher while observing the interaction between men who prize their anonymity in a tearoom would produce drastically different results than presenting oneself as a trusted watchqueen. However, there were about a dozen subjects to whom Humphreys revealed his true identity in order to gain assistance in conducting the study, learning the rules, and locating tearooms. 1,2,4

Thirdly, Humphreys believed that a scientist must protect his subjects, regardless of the cost to the researcher.1 This meant that Humphreys vowed he would never reveal the identities of his subjects so as to protect them from being arrested for engaging in homosexual acts in public and to prevent knowledge of their tearoom activities from threatening the stability of their families. At the time of this study, anti-sodomy laws were enforced nationwide. Merely engaging in sexual acts with the same gender could merit an arrest, and this risk increased significantly if the acts were conducted in a public facility. Indeed, most arrests of homosexuals pertained to involvement in tearoom activities when Humphreys’ study was being conducted.1

Despite stating that he would never reveal the identity of his subjects, Humphreys’ study elicited substantial controversy since his observations contained such private and sensitive details about his subjects without their informed consent. He recorded the names, license plate numbers, and addresses of around 100 men. He also bore witness to their illegal activity. In the event that law enforcement saw fit to arrest Humphreys for conducting this controversial study, the sensitive data he meticulously collected would be demanded by the authorities.1,2,4 At the time, Humphreys proclaimed that he would never give up his research data if he were arrested. However, years after publishing his study, Humphreys spent some time in a jail for an unrelated incident. After spending some time in this harsh environment, Humphreys admitted that he questioned his own ability to resist if the authorities had questioned him.2,4 Furthermore, considering the copious number of incidences that he recorded, a judge may have seen fit to issue a subpoena, or an order for a person to appear in a court of law.2,4 The sensitive data that Humphreys covertly gathered wielded the potential to destroy the lives and families of the subjects he was studying and jeopardized their anonymity without their consent. Humphreys violated the subjects’ privacy by observing and later recording notes about the men’s sexual encounters without their consent, and entering their home under a false identity. However, some people argued that Humphreys did not violate his subjects’ privacy by taking notes of the sexual encounters he observed because the illegal acts were committed in a public facility.2,4


Humphreys’ study exposed the inner workings of tearooms and helped elucidate the motivation of men (who variously self-identified as heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual) seeking sexual gratification from other men in public restrooms. As a source that found only 14% of the subjects who self-identified as homosexual, Humphreys’ study revealed that same sex experiences are not limited only to openly gay individuals, and that a profound discrepancy exists between the private and social lives of some men.1

The study was met with mixed reviews when published. Some people were intrigued and wanted to learn more, but others feared for their safety and continued to question the existence of the subjects’ secret methods to find sexual release. A few were angry that Humphreys provided a type of “How-To-Manual” for publicly breaking the law. Regardless of the backlash the study received, The Tearoom Trade opened a discussion about research ethics and started a dialogue that helped shape the current standard of “informed consent,” which is a legal procedure that aims to ensure that patients, clients, and research participants are aware of all the potential risks and costs involved in a treatment or procedure.7 Despite the fact that the study was conducted decades ago, privacy is still one of the most controversial and relevant topics in research, government, and politics.1,2,4

Though The Tearoom Trade made important contributions to sex research, Humphreys' research methods violated modern contemporary ethical standards and raised serious questions about the morality of scientific observation.


  1. Humphreys, Laud. "Tearoom trade." Trans-action 7.3 (1970): 10-25.

  2. Smith, Candace. "Laud Humphreys’ Tearoom Trade: The Best and Worst of Sociology." The Society Pages. Sociology Lens, 5 Feb. 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

  3. Compton, Julie. "American Men Are Still Being Arrested for Sodomy." ADVOCATE. N.p., 23 May 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

  4. DuBois, James M. "The Tearoom Trade Study - Ethics in Mental Health Research." Ethics in Mental Health Research. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

  5. Hyde, J.S., & DeLamater, J.D. (2006). Understanding Human Sexuality (9th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

  6. Galliher, J.F., Brekhus, W.H. & Keys, D.P. (2004). Laud Humphreys: Prophet of homosexuality and sociology. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin.

  7. Mills, Kim I. "APA Ethics Code Addresses When Obtaining Informed Consent From Research Participants Is Necessary." American Psychological Association. N.p., 30 June 2014. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

Last Updated: 18 March 2017. 

In 1970 Laud Humphreys, then a Washington University Phd student, wrote his infamous thesis ‘Tearoom Trade’ which was a study of homosexual behaviour between men in public toilets in a U.S. city. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the topic, the research was highly controversial, however this was not just due to its sensitive subject matter. A number of criticisms were made of the study on the basis of its ethically dubious research methods. Nicholas von Hoffman, writing for the Washington Post at the time of publication, accused Humphrey’s of ‘snooping around and spying on people’ (1970, p.6) and compared the research to J. Edgar Hoover’s alleged phone tapping scandal. While Warwick (1973, p.35) stated that ‘the net effect of Humphreys’ study on the research environment is likely to be negative’.

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However to others it represents ‘a great achievement’ (Hoffman M, 1971, p.100) and is a ‘rich study that adds much to better understanding of sexuality and human behaviour.’ (Schacht, 2004, p.5) It is also worth noting that ‘Tearoom’ won the C. Wright Mills Award for research. Clearly then there are some radically differing views of Humphreys’ study and is perhaps one of the reasons as to why it has been so frequently written about by other academics. This essay aims to critically analyse the ‘Tearoom Trade’, it will examine the objectives of the research, the methods used to obtain the data and the effect the study has had on social science since its publication.

Following a research paper he wrote on the subject of homosexuality in 1965 Humphreys realised that very little research had taken place into the kind of people engaged in this deviant activity.

Social scientists have avoided this area of deviant behaviour……..ethics and emotional problems, I suspect, provide the more serious obstacles for most prospective researchers. Humphreys (1970, p.17)

Humphreys decided that the best way to study this area was to research homosexual behaviour within public toilets, otherwise known as ‘Tearooms’ in the U.S. gay community. As Humphreys’ (1970, p.17) points out, until that point the;

police and other law enforcement observers had been the only systematic observers of homosexual action in public restrooms.

Humphreys’ objective, with the research, was to lift the lid on an area of society that very few outside it understood. It was important for him to offer;

some explanation as to why and how these people participate in the particular form of behaviour described.(Humphreys, 1970, p.17)

It could be argued that the most important aim of the study was to ‘confront some of our prejudices about homosexual activity’ (Hoffman M, 1971, p.98) and to ‘support the view that these were respectable, responsible individuals.’ (Babbie, 2004, p.14)

When Humphrey’s undertook this work he had no preconceived theory as to what lay ahead. He adopted an inductive approach to his research and believed that;

hypotheses should develop out of such ethnographic work rather than provide restrictions and distortions from its inception (Humphreys, 1970, p.22)

It is clear, given the lack of prior research into the area, that Humphreys had to adopt a qualitative approach to his study in order to garner an adequate depth of understanding of the subject. He therefore chose a case study research design which enabled him ‘the greatest accuracy in terms of faithfulness to people and actions as they live and happen’. (Humphreys. 1970, p.21) In order to achieve this, his research method had to take on a similar qualitative feel.

Humphreys employed two distinct methods of research within the study. Firstly, in order to gain a real understanding of the activities within the ‘Tearoom’ Humphreys adopted the method of covert participant observation. Therefore within the ‘Tearoom’ he assumed the role of lookout or ‘watchqueen’ which meant that he had to be;

situated at the door or windows from which he may observe the means of access to the restroom. When someone approaches, he coughs. He nods when the coast is clear. (Humphreys. 1970, p.21)

This role enabled Humphreys to become an accepted complete participant within the ‘Tearoom’ without actually having to take part in the homosexual activity being practiced.

Secondly, in order to gain reliable demographic data on the individuals taking part in the activity, Humphreys undertook a process of structured interview under the guise of a social health survey. Using information provided to him by the police, supplied through the car registration numbers of the sample, he was able to trace people’s addresses and undertake his interviews at the homes of the participants. In order to make sure he wasn’t recognised Humphreys;

was careful to change [his] appearance, dress and automobile from the days when [he] passed as a deviant. (Humphreys, 1970, p.42)

Participant observation, and especially the form of complete participation that Humphreys undertook, ‘involves ethical and methodological issues and is a source of considerable controversy’. (Burnham et al, 2008, p.271) There are certainly question marks as to the reliability of the data attained through such a method. For instance Burnham et al (2008, p.279) highlight the problem of accurately recording activities through memory without ‘a systematic procedure’ and argue that the data can be defined as ‘unsystematic and unquantifiable’.

Also, due to the reliance upon the researcher’s own observational skills, it can be argued that the method is ‘too impressionistic and subjective’ (Burnham et al, 2008, p.279) leading to accusations of bias or ‘going native’. As with the majority of qualitative research, there is also the problem of whether a relatively small sample is representative of a population or ethnic group. However as Burnham et al (2008,p.280) again point out, ‘perhaps the major issues to confront the researcher are the ethical ones’ particularly in regards to covert observation and the dishonesty and invasion of privacy generally required .

Nevertheless there are many scholars who believe that participant observation has a great deal to offer the social scientist. Indeed May (1999, p.154) argues that participant observation;

is one of the most rewarding methods which yields fascinating insights into people’s social lives and relationships……and assists in bridging the gap between people’s understanding of alternative lifestyles and the prejudices which difference and diversity so often meet.

The ethical issues raised by Humphreys’ research methods are, unsurprisingly, the main causes of controversy within his study. The central criticisms levelled at the work have been in regard to the deception involved and the invasion of privacy. As Warwick (1973, p.31) argues;

The concatenation of misrepresentations and disguises in this effort must surely hold the world record for field research and …… he intruded much too far into the lives of the men he observed and studied.

However Humphrey’s offers two explanations, in justification of his methods. Firstly he was;

convinced that there is only one way to watch discreditable behaviour and that is to pretend to be in the same boat with those engaging in it. (Humphreys, 1970, p.25)

Secondly Humphreys felt that it was the only way to ‘prevent distortion'(Humphreys, 1970, p.25) in terms of ensuring that the participants acted in the way that they normally would, not how they would want to be observed. Clearly then, for Humphreys, the question of validity meant that the ends justified the means. There is a lot of merit to this argument, it is hard to imagine how such a wealth and depth of data could be achieved through any other research method. A person’s secret homosexual practices are not generally something they would want to disclose on, say, an ordinary mailed social survey. As Rhodes et al (2007, p.53) observe;

The field researcher needs to get access and once in, acceptance of his presence to such a point that the people observed do as they would normally do even though he is there.

It is difficult to see how else this could have been achieved, in this case, without the element of deception.

There have also been concerns as to the effectiveness of Humphreys’ study, in terms of the depth of the data collated and the analysis with which it was given. Reiss (1973, p.582) argues that the ‘systematic comparisons of his deviant and control samples are largely lacking’ and was left;

rather disappointed at the low level of analysis of notions regarding causes of homosexual behaviour.

However, for many, Humphreys’ collation of data and the use of it made a significant contribution to illuminating an often misunderstood social group. By clearly evidencing that people who engaged in these activities were not all of the same and were in fact from widely varied backgrounds;

Humphreys’ data challenged these taken for granted assumptions, making it evident that the sources of the sentiments experienced by gay men were rooted much more in stratification than in psychosis. (Goodwin et al, 1991, cited in Babbie, 2004, p.15)

Other criticisms that were made of the ‘Tearoom Trade’ were accusations of the disservice that it did to social science research and the regard in which researchers may be held in the future. Warwick (1973, p.35,37) argues that due to the use of;

‘deception, misrepresentation, and manipulation in [his] research … the net effect of Humphreys’ study on the research environment is likely to be negative.’

The essence, of Warwick’s attacks on the study, was that the ends did not justify the means. He argued that Humphrey’s aims were to;

increase knowledge about homosexuality [which may] stir a concern in the larger society and perhaps lead to changes in present repressive laws and practices.(Warwick, 1973, p.37)

However as far as Warwick was concerned there was no;

factual basis for assuming that Tearoom Trade will ultimately alleviate the risks and suffering of male homosexuals in public restrooms? (Warwick, 1973, p.37)

There is, however, an alternative view.

It cannot be denied that Humphreys’ study was, at the time, at the forefront of social research into sexual deviants. It was the first study of its type and as Lenza (2004, p.29) states, it could be argued that it ‘contributed an historical and continuing importance in understanding human sexuality.’

It has certainly been one of the most discussed social research projects undertaken and has led to further studies developing from it. For instance in 1990 Desroches attempted a replication of the ‘Tearoom’ study and, reassuringly for advocates of Humphreys’ research methods, found that;

The behaviour of players reveals remarkable consistency over time, from community to community, and across national boundaries. (Desroches, 1990, p.35)

This essay has examined and analysed the research design and methods that Humphreys undertook with his study. It has addressed the objectives of the research and its success in achieving them. It is clear that there are many criticisms that can and have been made of the ‘Tearoom Trade’ in terms of its dubious ethical nature. In keeping with the main problems associated with covert participation observation, there are major concerns in regards to sample size and the demographic representativeness of the subjects. There are also the obvious criticisms in terms of deception and invasion of privacy. As Erikson (1967, p.373) argues, it is wrong for a;

sociologist to deliberately misrepresent his identity and …….. to misrepresent the character of the research in which he is engaged.

However it is important to note the fact that with ‘participant observation it is simply impossible to do the research without some degree of deception.’ (Babbie, 2004, p.15) Humphreys’ study was a brave and ground-breaking work, it made a significant contribution to social science by pushing the boundaries of research on an otherwise misconstrued social group. An appropriate summing up is made by Babbie (2004, p.18), who reflects that;

Laud Humphreys’ willingness to work in the shadows of right and wrong, all the while committed to being ethical in those endeavours, forces students to think about ethics rather than swearing allegiance to an established code.

It is for this reason that Humphreys’ work is so important, through pushing against the perceived boundaries of conformist social research, he has inspired others to look beyond the conventional in order to develop a deeper understanding of human behaviour.


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Burnham P, Gilland Lutz K, Grant W, Layton-Henry Z, 2008, Research Methods in Politics: 2nd Edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK

Desroches F, 1990, Tearoom Trade: A Research Update (Online) Available from: http://www.springerlink.com/content/k6251205w9846434/fulltext.pdf [Accessed on 18/02/2009]

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