Did you hear the one about the sociologist who watched men having sex in park bathrooms? Sounds like a setup for a joke with a bizarre punch line, doesn’t it?
Unless you’re a student of sociology, in which case it probably sounds familiar, because you know that’s what sociologist Laud Humphreys did in the course of his research. Humphreys, well known for his 1970 book Tearoom Trade, not only observed men having sex, but followed them to their cars to record their license plate information and then used a contact in a police department to obtain their home addresses.
A year later, he went to their homes (having altered his appearance so as not to be recognized) to supposedly conduct a medical survey. Basically, Humphreys used deception throughout his research to obtain information about the men’s lives and lifestyles. Although he gathered interesting information about the men he studied, he used unethical means to do so.
It’s interesting to think about whether Humphreys violated the privacy of these men when he observed them in restrooms. Humphreys watched the most private behavior that occurs between people, but the sex took place in public restrooms. So is it a violation of privacy to watch people who are having sexual relations in public space?
It’s important to remember that Humphreys was studying sex as a form of social interaction. One thing that really interested him was the role of silence in these sexual encounters. Participants rarely uttered a word in most of the encounters he observed. When words were spoken, they were few, in some cases only a greeting or an utterance of “thanks” when the sex was completed. Silence served a vital function because it guaranteed anonymity for the participants and reinforced the impersonality of the situation.
Think about it: in an intimate situation, you want to get to know someone. You talk to them and want to learn personal details about them. But these men wanted sex without obligation or commitment. For this reason, a park bathroom was the perfect place because it provided the type of environment that suited the lack of personal involvement these men desired. Furthermore, Humphreys suggested that in this type of setting, with fast and impersonal sex being the most important ingredients, great expectations weren’t in play. In other words, the men he studied didn’t have the highest standards for partners in terms of appearance, personality, age, or other characteristics that people tend to focus on when they are searching for intimacy.
Humphreys discovered that men of all types came to the tearooms for sex: married, unmarried, some with heterosexual identities, others with homosexual identities, blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, all interested in what Humphreys referred to as “kicks without commitment.” Some men were regulars, stopping at a tearoom on the way to or from work. “One physician in his late fifties was so punctual in his appearance at a particular restroom,” Humphreys wrote, “that I began to look forward to our daily chats.” Keep in mind that Humphreys earned the trust of the men by serving as a lookout, promising to alert them of unwelcome intruders. He never identified his real purposes for being there.
The restrooms where Humphreys did his research were in Forest Park in St. Louis. The busiest bathrooms, he noted, were isolated from recreational areas. Ideally, then, children weren’t likely to go to them after being at a playground. Activity in the tearooms peaked at the end of the workday, so it was especially convenient if men could park their cars close to a restroom as they drove home from work.
For comparison, I took a picture of the bathroom building and the men’s entrance at Delaware Park in Buffalo when I last took a walk in the park. The building is a stone’s throw from an expressway, but there is no parking available close to the building. And the building is just a few steps away from where people rollerblade, bike, walk, jog, and play soccer. I honestly don’t know if any homosexual activity takes place in the men’s bathroom (or heterosexual activity, for that matter) but it doesn’t seem isolated enough for sexual activity.
In all, Humphreys provided insight into many sociological issues, including the rules that govern the process of impersonal sex, the kinds of men that frequent tearooms, and how men related their behavior to the rest of their lives. What is your opinion of Humphreys? Do you think he was an innovative researcher with a sharp sociological eye? Was he a creep in desperate need of an ethics seminar? How would you describe him and his research? Finally, when it comes to studying people in public places, do you think sexual behavior is off limits?