Title: The Tearoom Trade Study

Author: James M. DuBois (Originally appeared on www.emhr.net)

Description: In the 1960’s Laud Humphreys observed men having sex with men in public restrooms of parks as part of his dissertation research without disclosing his role as a researcher.

Case: From 1965 to 1968 Laud Humphreys, and ordained Episcopalian minister, conducted dissertation research on men who have impersonal sex with men (Humphreys, 1970). Without disclosing his role as a sociology researcher, Humphreys played the role of “watchqueen,” that is, he looked out for intruders while men performed oral sex on men in the public restrooms of parks in major metropolitan areas.  Because he passed himself off as a voyeur–one who derives sexual gratification from observing the sex acts of others–he was permitted to watch acts that occurred in bathroom stalls without doors. Among other things, he gathered data on locations, the frequency of acts, the age of the men, the roles they played, and whether money changed hands.

He later disclosed his role to some men he had observed and interviewed them on their daily lives. In other cases, he recorded his subjects’ license plate numbers to track where they lived. A year later, after changing his hair and attire, he interviewed these same men in their homes under the guise of conducting an anonymous public health survey. Humphreys reported that he recognized the need to protect the confidentiality of his data. He never published anecdotes that included identifiers, and he protected his notes carefully. However, he was observing illegal behaviors and if his notes were subpoenaed he might have been arrested and imprisoned for refusing to hand them over. While he always assumed he would refuse to hand over the records, after later spending some time in jail (unrelated to the study), Humphreys questioned how long he might have withstood the pressure.

Among the positive outcomes Humphreys cites was dispelling myths that the men he studied were dangerous social deviants: he found that most were married to women and had children; only 14% were exclusively homosexuals and identified themselves as gay. Many within the gay community welcomed his research and in some police districts it lead to decreased raids and sodomy arrests. Others were upset because they believed that his research findings–published in a paperback book–basically presented the average man with a “how to” manual, i.e., with information on how to obtain cheap impersonal sex with men.

  1. As a privacy officer, would you approve this study?
  2. How would you respond to the argument that there was no privacy because the actions of subjects were observed in public restrooms?