The ethics of researching men’s room sex

by Henry Farrell on September 12, 2007

Since it’s highly unlikely that Scott is going to link to his fascinating _IHE_ column on the work and life of Laud Humphries, writer of a famous study of anonymous sex in men’s rooms, _Tearoom Trade_, I’m going to do it myself. It ain’t just Larry Craig either – the ethical issues surrounding Humphries’ research are pretty interesting:

The book was also widely discussed because of the ethical questions raised by Humphreys’s methodology. It would be an overstatement to call Tearoom Trade the main catalyst for the creation of institutional review boards, but debates over the book certainly played their part.

At issue was not the sexual activity itself but how the sociologist (then a graduate student) investigated it. Posing as a voyeur, and never revealing that he was there for research, Humphreys was accepted as “watchqueen” by the social circle hanging out at the restroom. He was entrusted with giving a signal if the police came around. He took notes on the activity taking place – including the license plates numbers of men who came around for fellatio. Through a contact in the police department, he was able to get their home addresses.

After a year, and having disguised himself to some degree, he visited them under the pretense of doing a survey for an insurance company to gather more data about their circumstances and opinions. Humphreys states that he was never recognized during these interviews. He kept all the documents generated during this research in a lockbox and destroyed them after his dissertation was accepted by Washington University in St. Louis.

This reminds me of Kieran’s “post”: from a while back about the little megalomaniac living inside every academic researcher (and every NSA bureaucrat). Anyway, plenty more “here”:

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Kieran Healy 09.12.07 at 8:59 pm

Yeah, Humphries’ book is a famous event within sociology, and it precipitated all kinds of hassle within (and for) the Wash U dept.


Scott McLemee 09.12.07 at 9:33 pm

Thanks, Henry. On a tangent, this might be the place to mention something that didn’t really fit in the article.

In the unfinished manuscript left at his death, Humphreys described meeting with a prominent Dixiecrat politician and his wife in 1948. When the politician left the room, she started to undo Humphreys’s tie so that they could all have a little party, as was their wont.

The biography of Humphreys explains that “this archconservative longtime segregationist served as U.S. Senator from South Carolina from 1954 until shortly before his death in 2003.” But the at least the authors don’t actually, you know, name him.


John Emerson 09.12.07 at 10:01 pm

I own a similiar book, “Whiz Mob” about pickpockets. White’s “Street Corner Society” about street gangs was another book of that kind.

I’ve heard that William Burroughs and some of his friends (probably Huncke) served as subjects for Kinsey — probably skewing the stats quite a bit. Burroughs studied anthropoloogy and his works are littered with anthropological moral-relativism and participant-observation language.


vivian 09.13.07 at 12:23 am

Scott – wow, just wow. How long did it take before you got that image out of your head?

John – in On The Road Kerouac describes going to a bar where the there were players of enough action of all kinds that Kinsey had visited professionally. Also that WB was a denizen. But why do you say ‘skewing the sample’, as opposed to ‘oversampling subpopulations’ which is entirely legitimate statistically, or even just ‘sampling’ full stop?


joel turnipseed 09.13.07 at 12:29 am

Scott: that’s a great piece. It’s too bad that circumstances called for it, but this has to go down on the all-time, hall of fame, list of STFU responses:

To this, Humphreys responded: “I want to be perfectly honest with you and I want you to know that I am gay. I have done my research and written [Tearoom Trade] as a gay person, closeted, trying to come out of that closet, dealing with my own personal pain.”

There are obviously sensitive issues involved, and limits to participation/understanding, but I think that at least half of the pathology that imploded in the person of Laura Albert/J. T. Leroy (as well as the too-common phenomenon of the fake Vietnam vet) can be attributed to the wide-spread and passionately (sometimes excrutiatingly) held view that you have to be what you write or talk or think about or admire or whatever: if you’re passionate about it, it doesn’t count (or worse: counts punitively) unless you are it.


Scarmouche 09.13.07 at 1:26 am

I think the issue of going undercover transcends just the ethical aspect as there is also the practical and the legal issues to consider.

For examaple, documentarians with their video lens in view can never be sure that the subjects are not playing for the camera. It’s as if the observation is not interferring with the natural occurance/behaviour in an almost Heisenberg manner.

This would suggest that announcing one’s intention to record the interaction would affect the outcome – not allowing for objective observation.

Also, the recorded interaction might just be artifice, which may be why many call such representations (studies/newscasts) stilted and biased.

The other aspect is misrepresentation. Undercover cops do it all the time. This brings up entrapment. Would events have followed with without prodding from the observer?

Then there is the legal issue of unauthorized snooping. Point in case, if a private investigator spies, befriends and tapes an ex-wife, lover, etc. it is legal. If I try and do it, it’s called stalking.

Morally, I think those distinctions may disappear as we move to the total surveillance society.

So ethically, did this grad student transgess the bounds between observer and participant, at a point in time when privacy is being overturned by government fiat, probably yes. Does it matter? Maybe not.

To end on a cynical note, I think we are at the end of privacy as we know it – Quo custodiet ipso custodes


Scott McLemee 09.13.07 at 1:53 am

Vivian — Yeah, it’s kind of stuck in my head, a mash-up between All the King’s Men and one of those movies that Showtime runs at three in the morning.

I’ve been asked how Humphreys responded to the offer. He says in the manuscript (as reported by the biographers) that he turned it down.

Joel — I’d hoped that someone who was at the ASA session would describe it in the comments section. So far that hasn’t happened. Can you imagine what the effect would have been in 1974?


John Emerson 09.13.07 at 1:57 am

Vivian: I don’t have a reference but my memory is that Kinsey’s sampling procedures were pretty erratic.


Eszter 09.13.07 at 4:26 am

This thread reminds me of this post on JFW. It is definitely worth reading the whole discussion over there, but here are just two quick quotes from the article Jeremy discusses:

“I realized only much later, by having affairs with NAAFA women, I became entangled in the emotional complexities such affairs entailed, making my job of gathering information problematic.”

“I suppressed the idea that sleeping with my subjects was an inherently tricky proposition.”


joel turnipseed 09.13.07 at 5:30 am


It takes some effort, but sadly, I probably can imagine–better than I’d like.


John Quiggin 09.13.07 at 7:46 am

That was an amazing link, Eszter. I wonder if economists could defraud their subjects as a way of investigating consumer rationality.


Doug 09.13.07 at 8:37 am

11: Only the economists who worked for Enron…


Ginger Yellow 09.13.07 at 10:30 am

I used to have a thing where I asked everyone I knew what their Nazi experiment would be. In other words, if there were no ethical or practical consequences, what piece of research would you conduct? I reckon everyone has at least one. Since I haven’t done it for a while, I might as well ask you lot.


thag 09.13.07 at 10:55 am


Injecting blue dye into the brown-colored contact lenses that blue-eyed people wear to make their eyes look brown.


Andrew R. 09.13.07 at 12:32 pm


I believe you mean, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”



In a Position to Know 09.14.07 at 12:09 am

“Yeah, Humphries’ book is a famous event within sociology, and it precipitated all kinds of hassle within (and for) the Wash U dept.”

Indeed, it is widely considered to be one reason the Wash U Sociology Department no longer exists.


Jay Livingston 09.14.07 at 5:15 pm

Is it unethical to observe people in a public place who know that you are observing them? That part of Humphreys’ research doesn’t seem unethical to me. If it is, then we may as well pillory William H. Whyte for observing where people stand when they have conversations on the sidewalk. Humphreys was not secretly spying on them through some keyhole (or glory hole). The men in the tearooms knew exactly what kind of privacy they were or were not getting.

The unethical part was Humphreys’ getting the person in the police or DMV or whatever to disclose the identities of these men. They may not have expected privacy, but they were assuming anonymity. And they were doing nothing to disclose their identities.


seth edenbaum 09.15.07 at 4:01 am

The problem begins with the role of “objectivity” or objectification in observation. It’s the same problem with the journalism: useful or not it’s voyeurism based in unequal power relations.

I’m living for the next couple of months in a still semi-rural banlieu outside Beijing.
And shopping for vegatables by the side of the highway. My host is building a pleasure garden in a gated compound with a smokestack on the horizon. Two modern buildings, one designed by ai wei wei and one post and beam and ceramic tiled roof in the traditional manner, with logs cut an joined by a man with a table saw and an ax. If I were a photo journalist I’d be having a field day. The high tension power lines in the “backyard” are a sight. But the workers and the peasants I meet everyday are not data points. After a month or so I may ask permission to take some portraits of the farmers selling their produce or the food venders who gather along the road at the end of the day. Or the gatekeeper and his wife. To journalists people are zoo animals. These people are poor (but a lot less so than they used to be) but they deserve respect no mre or less than anyone else.
At the center of the ethic of anthropology is that of one person talking to another. That’s the moral foundation of the field, or at least it is suppposed to be, and it is supposed to weigh heavy on the mind of the human “researcher”. I’d vote to bypass the benefits of scientific objectification in the study of ourselves, in favor of the constant return to the moral and ethical question of conversation among equals; even equals who are in so many ways not.


seth e 09.15.07 at 10:03 am

Just to add my host is rarely around so im left to fend for myself. Its a strange experience but that experience is why i made the comment above.

Now im going to Walk out the gate and pick up some dinner.

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