June 29, 2010

Sex, Research, and Public Spaces

todd_S_2010b By Todd Schoepflin

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 image 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. 

image 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?


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I enjoyed his works and I think that, as he did, it's important not to reveal real people's names to public.

Thanks for your post.
Jacopo - from Italy

This research was way unethical and the fact that he just let it happen in a public restroom is just wrong. What a child walked into the restroom.

I think this is very unethical since they haven't been informed of the experiment.

I don't agree this research is unethical. No individual was name, though perhaps naming the location might be cause for concern.

This research provided valuable insights into an aspect of men's sexual behaviour. This behaviour still occurs today, including the diversity of men visiting these premises.

I think this research was ethical. These diviant individuals were in a public place which would make it accesible to anyone. This research is important in understanding why individuals break social norms.

Washington University in St Louis /still/ doesn't have a sociology department because of the fallout of this study.

Please anyone that thinks this study is ethical, don't serve on any IRBs in the near future. Thanks

While I would imagine that, judging by the topicality of this blog and the general writing style, this is a blog for "intro to sociology" students, I am a bit surprised at the rather disappointing comments left here so far. Let me suggest to you that if you think that this study was ethical, you have not yet fully considered the ethics of science, social or otherwise. The ends do not justify the means. That is to say, the value of the information received does not mean that violation of the subjects' rights is justified.

mens are more enjoying the sex in the proper place but some times in excited mood it can enjoyed the sex in the bathroom only it is not bad.


In my opinion, this research was ethical, but that doesn't mean it was the right thing to do. It shows us that some people are willing to do what our society thinks as wrong to get what they want. This research shows a side of deviance. However, this did creep me out a little bit. I don't think it was right, even if the people didn't mind, for watching people having sex. To me that is something they should share with each other and not another person.

*, for him to watch people have sex

In my opinion his research was unethical because he did not inform the participants in what he was researching. He manipulated them into thinking he was helpful when he was just using them for his research. The confidentiality is also in question because although he did not disclose names, but he did disclose the place the activities were taking place. He also used the police to find their personal information, which is not public knowledge so, he was not just studying people in public bathrooms, but also in the private homes.

I feel that sexual predators are some of the worst criminals, and although the men in this situation may not be predators and the partners are most likely consenting to the sexual act, they are still committing a sexual crime in my opinion. They are performing one of the most personal acts that two people can engage in, yet they are doing it in a very public place. The most disturbing thought about the situation is that children may easily walk in and witness the happenings at any time, but even this does not stop the men from coming back and doing it again, sometimes on a regular basis.

What interested me sociologically in the article was the way that Humphrey conducted his experiment. It was unethical to follow the men and retrieve their personal information so he could find where they live, and then proceed to deceive them by making them think they were taking part in some medical survey. But it made me wonder, when Schoepflin brought up the point, if Humphrey really was violating the men’s privacy. Although having sex is something that two individuals generally want no one to see and want to keep private, they were doing it in a public place, somewhere they know that anyone has access to. By engaging in the sexual activity in a place they know is not meant to be private in any way, why then should Humphrey be violating privacy?
Sex in public is not exactly relevant to my life personally, but it is to my society. I do not want children to have to witness it simply by going to the park to play or by going to a public restroom. Schoepflin brings up the question, “when it comes to studying people in public places, do you think sexual behavior is off limits?” (Schoepflin). To make even more clear, my answer to this is no, sexual behavior is intended to be private and should be kept private to protect those who will be offended upon seeing it in public. But it makes me wonder; do others think that this type of behavior is perfectly acceptable, and other people who are offended by it should just mind there own business?

i agree this is completly unethical. i believe that the men were no it privacy. however, he knew what they were doing and still went back. i do think he is a creep. he had no bussiness going back and back. i do not believe that this is a good experiment at all

I don't see a problem with this experiment. It does seem a little creepy that he would keep going back, but as others have mentioned, the men were having sex in a public place, so they must have been okay with the fact that other people might walk in and see. And if Humphreys was their lookout to keep children out, then why not? He got some very interesting information out of this experiment.

sounds to me that you could watch porn and not violate anyone's rights

While I'm sure his research methods were "unethical", the research he did regarding sexual behavior was interesting and perhaps even valuable. He certainly didn't seem to be harming anyone so I really don't have a problem with it personally.

I don't think so that people has problems with these kind of researches. That kind of researches are just for sexual behavior or sexual predators and that is so interesting topic for many of people.

I've never had sex in public. I've heard of people on the beach, in the park, in the car in a public place, and the grossest I've heard of is in public toilets!! Yuck, so many germs in public toilets!

A couple of years later and this is clearly unethical. LOL.

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