tearoom trade – a positive sum game

so scott walker asks (ironically, i suppose) if “this particular expert, donna taylor, has done exit polls of the tea rooms to determine which men are “married with 2.5kids”…” (see the who are you? i am a homosexual-post)?

actually a good question. especially as he proposes that the men frequenting public toilets to have sex are closeted (married) gay men. not non-gay, psychotic ones, as donna taylor insists. well, both are (except for the psychotic bit) right. it just needs some research to find that out – in the library, not even exit polls.

laud humphreys, an american sociologist did that work already for us: he wrote a scientific research paper named Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places. odd? maybe. interesting? certainly. and looking at this work avoids to just take assumptions for facts. then all we can do is assuming, right? then after all, we do not go to such sleazy places as public restrooms to have sex, right?

tearoom trade has been published in 1970 and is interesting on many levels. one level would be the author itself. for a short biography about him i recommend you go here.

the study is also interesting to read: i did like its style – there is a fine, dry humour in it. and interesting enough, there seems to be a heightening of the sympathy for the subjects studied the more the study progresses.

and the study is also interesting for the moral issues surrounding its methodology, meanings the means used to get results. when it came out it actually caused also for that a lot of discussions.

and the study is interesting for its content.

it starts with the reasons for doing a research paper about sex in tea rooms. after all it has to be explained, why one chooses such an odd topic – especially at the end of the 1960s (!). one part of the motivation is mister humphreys councelling experience with homosexuals (he was working at a (liberal) parish). then – but that is my assumption – there is a personal interest. and then there is a sociological reason for it: while there were already quite a bit of studies regarding devient social behaviour around, these studies concentrated on visibly deviant members of society. they researched subcultures. but is of course more difficult – but also very interesting – to try to find out something about deviant behaviour that is trying not to be seen, which is not or only loosely connected to a subculture. to make an example: it is easier to research the subculture of male hustlers, since they have their bars, their places where they hang out, then the johns paying them: these are the otherwise unremarkable parts of society – except for this specific deviant behaviour.

so one problem of doing research on deviant behaviour that is not connected to a subculture is accessability. how can i research something that tries not to be seen? a second problem is the often illegal nature of this behaviour. as a scientist you might get into quite some trouble… and you might bring the subjects you research into quite some trouble.

so how did laud humphreys gain access to the “tearoom scene”? well, he first started hanging out in gay bars, trying to gain access also to private parties, trying to talk to people about cruising public toilets, sometimes explaining what he was doing, sometimes not (a first ethic problem). slowly he got the confidence of some informers that told him “where the action was”. so in a second step he started visiting the indicated public toilets – slowly realizing what the signs are that a public toilet might be a cruising ground: besides some inner city toilets in big department stores and the like (which he neglected, since hanging out there for observation seemed not practicable), the ones he “specailzed” in were rather remote places (often in parcs), little foot traffic, in close proximity to big roads and easily accessible by car. so if one of these places had a lot of cars parking nearby – that stayed for a while – he knew it was one of the places he was looking for.

so he started observing. the base of his observation was sociological interaction theory, seeing communiaction as a trade: what steps one has to take to negotiate a contract to get what he wants. so having sex in a tea room is seen as a positive sum game (both parties “win”), with first negotiations, then concluding a contract and then getting what you want – fullfilling the contract. all while being aware that negotiating and fullfilling the contract puts you legally and personally in a risky situation. by looking at tearoom trade that way one gets different roles of the participants and different stages of negotiations. interesting to note ist that humphreys, while researching, found actually the perfect role for observing this transaction: the voyeur, or more precise: the watchqueen, the one that looks out for any potential disturbance but for the rest is not involved in the action. so from being the scientific observer he progressed to (what you call in science) a participating observer. this of course – although being sometimes the only way to observe what you want to observe – puts the scientist in a ethically akward position. how much participation is needed? will i do something illegal? do the people observed know what i’m doing? in the case of hunphreys the answer to the last question was obviously “no”. well, i guess it would have kind of destroyed the atmosphere if he would have presented himself as a researcher. but then i guess he never got suspected as doing research, too.

his findings in this stage of his research are a detailed account of the roles and different steps that have to be taken until a contract is concluded. important are for me especially two findings: to enter into negotiationes one has to be rather explicit. so nobody (who does not want to) gets seduced. men not sending out certain signals, not communicating according to the rules get excluded. especially with younger ones there was an unwillingness to include them into the play, except they knew already how to play it. so you all relax: no seducing of our youth in public toilets.

the other interesting finding is that being an active or passive participant in the transaction (initiating, for example) does not give any indication of the sexual role. this is rather funny, then laud humphries rather expected that sexually passive men would also play socially the passive role. this is not the case – there is rather a tendency for it being the other way round. but this might also has to with the finding that there seems to be a role-change with the getting older of the participants. the older you get, the more you are likely to blow. connected to that there is also to note that there is a volatility to roles which was higher then expected by humphreys.

then there are some more general findings and considerations:

the dangers of the game: the dangers for men engaged in tearoom trade are first the police (it’s an illegal activity – i was just amazed that bribing them seemed to be the main way out), and second young men (teenagers). both dangers our researcher experienced. he once got arrested for loitering (in front of a toilet), and once they got attacked by a group of youngsters and had to barricade themselves in a toilet. yeah, science can be a dangerous business.

and there are two more general thoughts based on his oservations which seem to me highly interesting, too:

first laud humphreys describes tearoom sex as the most impersonal way to have sex – there is exchanging of names, rarely there is any verbal communication, there is no undressing, and there is no taking out to dinner. this might explains part of the attraction of a tearoom: if you can not (dare not) or want not to have any social “burden” connected with your sex, tearooms seem to be the place. humphreys then makes the intersting comment that this might be the most democratic sex one can have in the sense that very little selection concerning a partner takes place.

second there is an explanation for the “thrill-seeking”. it is more a sociological then a psychological one: by having success in your negotiations one associates the whole transaction and its settings with good feelings – and in a self-fortifying move the setting and every consecutive successfull transaction even enhances the experience. so the pleasure for the thrill comes after – and is partly due to the fact of earlier success.

so the reasons for moral crusaders and the police to bust public toilets are not that well founded: seduction of men not wanting to participate is very unlikely to happen, and these men are not mere thrillseekers – they are thrillseekers in the sense that theay are successfull in tearooms. and they might just can not live their sexuality in their private settings (more on that later) or are not interested in “social sex”. so raiding public toilets seems quite a heavy move.
but we have to be aware that at the time when laud humphries made his study (in the u.s.a. in the 1960s), that the biggest amount of people arrested for their homosexuality, these arrests took place in public toilets. and it still goes on, police officers standing around public toilets as bait. if that is appropriate – i doubt it.

but who are these people anyway, going to a public toilet to have sex? not-gays? closeted queens? more about that in the next post.

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