Tearoom Trade : Impersonal Sex in Public Places (Observations) – Laud Humphreys

TT(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

‘Tearoom’ in the USA, like ‘cottage’ in the UK, is slang for a public toilet. Married men frequented tearooms on their way to or from work to have furtive sexual encounters with other men.

Such encounters were carried on with a secret language or code of gestures and looks so as to distinguish those who were looking for sex from those who were there to use the toilets for their ‘intended purposes’.

These encounters were illegal and police went to great lengths to catch them. Sometimes they employed ‘pretty police’ to entrap them. At other times, they hid in the roofs and snooped before making arrests. Many of those arrested committed suicide rather than face public shame in the courts and in the subsequent newspaper reports.

Others were subject to blackmail – indeed this is probably the main reason why the law changed, spurred on by Dirk Bogarde’s film ‘Witness’.

Laud Humphreys was a sociologist who also happened to be an Anglican priest. He made a study, for his PhD, of the men who engaged in these encounters and this book is the result of his findings.

The encounters usually involved three people: the two engaged in the sexual activity, and a look-out, called “watchqueen” in slang. By offering his services as the “watchqueen,” Humphreys was able to observe the activities of other participants.

 These encounters were great levellers of social class. A managing director could get off with a lorry driver – the former worked flexitime so had more opportunities.)

38% of Humphreys’ subjects were neither bisexual nor homosexual; 24% were clearly bisexual; 24% were single and were covert homosexuals, and only 14% corresponded to the popular stereotype of homosexuality – clear members of the gay community interested in primarily homosexual relationships. 38 percent were Roman Catholic or their wives were. Since the birth of their last child conjugal relations had been rare. Their alternative source of sex had to be quick, inexpensive, and impersonal so as not to be any kind of involvement that would threaten their already shaky marriage and jeopardize their standing as father of their children. They wanted only some form of orgasm-producing action that was less lonely than masturbation and less involving than a love relationship Because Humphreys was able to confirm that 54% of his subjects were outwardly heterosexual with unsuspecting wives at home, an important part of his thesis was the incongruity between the private self and the social self for many of the men engaging in this form of homosexual activity.

He concluded that these encounters were harmless (but what about STDs passed on to ‘innocent’ wives?), and posed no danger of harassment to straight men. His research has convinced many police departments that such encounters resulted in victimless crime; hence they were able to focus on other problems.

He also concluded that most of the men he observed were married and had “respectable” lifestyles using the biblical term ‘breastplate of righteousness). In addition, Humphreys described a large portion of the men as “socially conservative” outside of the public restrooms. These findings surprised and angered people in both the heterosexual and LGBTQ communities

His work caused a major debate on privacy for research participants and is now often used as an example of highly controversial social research.

He did not get his subjects’ consent, used their car number plate numbers to track them down, and interviewed them in disguise without revealing the true intent of his studies, claiming to be a health service interviewer, and asking questions about their race, marital status, occupation etc.

The ensuing arguments led to half his colleagues at the University of Washington leaving his department.

Journalist Nicholas von Hoffman was given some details of the case by one of the angered members of the Sociology Department and wrote an article about Humphreys’ research and offered the following condemnation of social scientists: “We’re so preoccupied with defending our privacy against insurance investigators, dope sleuths, counterespionage men, divorce detectives and credit checkers, that we overlook the social scientists behind the hunting blinds who’re also peeping into what we thought were our most private and secret lives. But there they are, studying us, taking notes, getting to know us, as indifferent as everybody else to the feeling that to be a complete human involves having an aspect of ourselves that’s unknown.”

 Concerning the risk that his notes could have been seized to identify men engaged in illegal acts, he said he would have risked going to jail rather than hand them over. Others said no researcher should have such power over others, no matter how good their intentions are. Humphreys argued his deception was justified as the acts were so stigmatised he would not have got the information otherwise.

 There are still married men who engage in these encounters in public places because they don’t have ‘somewhere to go’. They don’t fit into the binary categories of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’. They are usually labelled as ‘men who have sex with men.’ With easy pickups facilitated by the internet and by aps. Such as Grindr, it remains to be seen whether this way of meeting the likeminded will die out. (Jane Ward has done a study of men who use Craigslist in Los Angeles for such encounters – in which 85% define themselves as ‘str8’)


how public park restrooms are a wonderful example of how people find ways of carving out privacy in public spaces

At shortly after five o’clock on a weekday evening, four men entered a public restroom in the city park. One wears tennis shoes, shorts, and teeshirt; the third man is still clad in the khaki uniform of his filling station; the last, a salesman, has loosened his tie and left his sports coat in the car. What has caused these men to leave the company of other homeward-bound commuters on the freeway? What common interest brings these men, with their divergent background, to this public facility?

They have come here not for the obvious reason but in a search for “instant sex.” Many men—married and unmarried, those with heterosexual identities and those whose self-image is a homosexual one—seek such impersonal sex, shunning involvement, desiring kicks without commitment. Whatever reasons—social, physiological, or psychological—might be postulated for this search, the phenomenon of impersonal sex persists as a widespread but rarely studied form of human interaction.

There are several settings for this type of deviant activity—the balconies of movie theaters, automobiles, behind bushes—but few offer the advantages for these men that public restrooms provide. “Tearooms,” as these facilities are called in the language of the homosexual subculture, have several characteristics that make them attractive as locales for sexual encounters without involvement.

I have researched a metropolitan area with more than 90 public toilets in its parks, only 20 of which are in regular use as locales for sexual games. Restrooms thus designated join the company of automobiles and bathhouses as places for deviant sexual activity, second only to private bedrooms in popularity. During certain seasons of the year—roughly, that period from April through October that Midwestern homosexuals call “the hunting season”— tearooms may surpass any other locale of homoerotic enterprise in volume of activity.

Public restrooms are chosen by those who want homoerotic activity without commitment for a number of reasons. They are accessible, easily recognized by the initiate, and provide little public visibility. Tearooms thus offer the advantages of both public and private settings. They are available and recognizable enough to attract a large volume of potential sexual partners, providing an opportunity for rapid action with a variety of men. When added to the relative privacy of these settings, such features enhance the impersonality of the sheltered interaction.

There is a great deal of difference in the volumes of homosexual activity that these accommodations shelter. In some, one might wait for months before observing a deviant act (unless solitary masturbation is considered deviant). In others, the volume approaches orgiastic dimensions. One summer afternoon, for instance, I witnessed twenty acts of fellatio in the course of an hour while waiting out a thunderstorm in a tearoom. For one who wishes to participate in (or study) such activity, the primary consideration is finding where the action is.

Drives and walks that separate a public toilet from the rest of the park are almost certain guides to deviant sex. The ideal setting for homosexual activity is a tearoom situated on an island of grass, with roads close by on every side. The getaway car is just a few steps away; children are not apt to wander over from the playground; no one can surprise the participants by walking in from the woods or from over a hill; it is not likely that straight people will stop there. According to my observations, the women’s side of these buildings is seldom used at all.

One respondent, who has cooperated with the researcher in a number of taped interviews, claims to average three men each day during the busy season.

I have seen some waiting turn for this type of service. Leaving one such scene on a warm September Saturday, I remarked to a man who left close behind me: “Kind of crowded in there, isn’t it?” “Hell, yes,” he answered. “It’s getting so you have to take a number and wait in line in these places!”

There are many who frequent the same facility repeatedly. Men will come to be known as regular, even daily, participants, stopping off at the same tearoom on the way to or from work. One physician in his late fifties was so punctual in his appearance at a particular restroom that I began to look forward to our daily chats. This robust, affable respondent said he had stopped at this tearoom every evening of the week (except Wednesday, his day off) for years “for a blow job.” Another respondent, a salesman whose schedule is flexible, may “make the scene” more than once a day—usually at his favorite men’s room. At the time of our interview, this man claimed to have had four orgasms in the past twenty-four hours.

Throughout most homosexual encounters in public restrooms, nothing is spoken. One may spend many hours in these buildings and witness dozens of sexual acts without hearing a word.

I have noted more than once that these men seem to acquire stronger sentimental attachments to the buildings in which they meet for sex than to the persons with whom they engage in it. One respondent tells the following story: We had been discussing the relative merits of various facilities, when I asked him: “Do you remember that old tearoom across from the park garage—the one they tore down last winter?” Do I ever! That was the greatest place in the park. Do you know what my roommate did last Christmas, after they tore the place down? He took a wreath, sprayed it with black paint, and laid it on top of the snow—right where that corner stall had stood. . . . He was really broken up!

“I’m not toned up anymore,” Tom complains. He is gaining weight around the middle and losing hair. As he moves past 35, Tom will face the aging crisis of the tearooms. Less and less frequently will he find himself the one sought out in these meetings.

Well, I started off as the straight young thing. Everyone wanted to suck my cock. I wouldn’t have been caught dead with one of the things in my mouth! . . . So, here I am at forty—with grown kids—and the biggest cocksucker in [the city]!

Around the turn of the century, before the vice squads moved in (in their never-ending process of narrowing the behavioral options of those in the lower classes), the Georges of this study would probably have made regular visits to the two-bit bordellos. With a madam watching a clock to limit the time, these cheap whorehouses provided the same sort of fast, impersonal service as today’s public restrooms. I find no indication that these men seek homosexual contact as such; rather, they want a form of orgasm-producing action that is less lonely than masturbation and less involving than a love relationship. As the forces of social control deprive them of one outlet, they provide another. The newer form, it should be noted, is more stigmatizing than the previous one—thus giving “proof” to the adage that “the sinful are drawn ever deeper into perversity.”

The bars are O.K.—but a little too public for a “married” man like me. …Tearooms are just another kind of action, and they do quite well when nothing better is available.

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