tearoom trade – who are you?

so we got to know a bit more about the trade side of the tearoom action. but we still do not know much about the men entering these negotiations (well, we know george michael does it).

here we come to the difficult part of laud humphreys research. getting data about men frequenting public toilets for sex is obviously not that easy – exit polls seems not the thing that could work. humphreys had actually a rather brilliant idea: he observed the action in the tearooms and he also observed the traffic, i.e. the cars. through the licence plate he got the names and addresses of the men. and then he inteviewed them. well, there’s a trick to it: he actually interviewed them under the pretense to make a more general survey of general living conditions of the population. so he actually made a general survey in the sense that he included the same amount of (supposedly) straight people as a control group in the sample, chosen correspondingly in terms of income, age, education, etc. to the “tearoom group”.

yep, the whole thing is ethically muddy – and provoked some rather heated discussions. laud humphreys actually wrote some years later that he would not design his research like that again. for one you have the problem of deceiving your studied subjects (which is a problem that frequently shows up in social research). the second, and maybe even more relevant problem, is that he endangered the people he researches. although humphreys took great care in protecting the data, the identity of the men interviewed, there has been for a while a master-list with all the names and addresses of the men – imagine what would have happened if this list would have gotten in the wrong hands. suicides were not uncommon for men arrested and subsequently exposed to the public at the time. so this list had the potential to destroy the lives of many men (and the families involved). fortunately nothing happened – if that can be an excuse.

additionally to these formalized interviews about the lives of these men, laud humphreys also did some more in-depth interviews with men he approached at, well, i guess outside the tearooms, explaining what he was doing. some of the men approached that way were willing to talk to him. this gave him some extra information and a better background.

so from all these questions answered, from all these talks, humphreys distilled four types of men frequenting tearooms. these types are what one calls in sociology ideal types, meaning they are very pure and will not be found that pure in the empiric reality. so there will be men quite close to one of these ideal types and others being a mixture of these types.

oh – and one finding we can present already here at the beginning: there are married men in the tearooms. it’s actually the majority: in humphreys study it is 54%.

type I: trade

the biggest group, 38%. low to medium income, mostly married with kids. not many friends. going to teraooms for sex seems seems for these man one of the view possibilities to get cheap sex with no social involvement. cheap it has to be because they do not have money. no social involvement is necessary because otherwise it would jeopardize their marriage and their social status. they are also the most vulnerable group: they do not have the possibility to bribe policemen, and by not having many friends, and none that know of their deviant behaviour (and certainly no gay ones), they do not have the subcultural knowledge (important to know for knowing when places get raided, what to do in case of arrest, and as a moral backing). in more modern words: rather lonely men that certainly identify as straight. and having sex in tearooms just seems to be one of the few possibilities for these men to have sex – is there homosexual desire involved? this question remains open…

type II: ambisexual

24%, the wealthiest group, often working independetly, mostly married with kids, well educated, lot of friends. identify themselfes as ambisexual, sometimes as bisexual, sometimes as plain randy. see their tearoom activity as just an additional outlet of their sexual activity – one that fullfills their desire for man to man sex, without having to go to gay places. are usually at ease with their sexuality. although one would think that this is also a rather vulnerable group, due to their normally social high standing, this group has some advantages to avoid problems: they have the money to be able to pay the police off. then their circle of friends includes also other people frequenting tearooms, so they do have some subcultural knowledge.

type III: gay

14 %, well educated, but not making a lot of money (maybe also due to the fact that this group includes the youngest men). mostly working indepently. not married. no kids. lot of friends – this gives them a lot of subcultural knowledge, balancing the fact that they are the poorest group, i.e. can not bribe their way out of an arrest. identify themselves as gay. there has been an interesting remark regarding the reasons to frequent a tearoom in one of the in-depth interviews with one gay man: since he lives now in a partnership with another man, he can not be seen cruising the bars…

type IV: closet queen

24%, lower education, lower income, employed, not married – not many friends, close to the trade group. the differences lies in not being married, and in “admitting” their homosexual desires, but not being able to or willing to let it be socially acknowledged. nearly as vulnerable as trade, since there is also not much money available and there are hardly any connections to subcultural knowledge.

to sum it up: the groups presented can be divided according to the following factors: education – occupation – social class (another way of expressing occupational independence), and marital status.

these factors determine how these men are able to deal with their deviant behaviour – or to term it differently: how many resources they have to exercise information control. this is also what i called above “being vulnerable”. all these men depend on their activity not being known (information control) – by having enough money and subcultural knowledge they can avoid getting into trouble. factors as money, subcultural knowledge (and support) and working as independent as well as not being married can all take off the force of the blow once this information gets out (in the case of arrest).

so assuming that men frequenting tearooms are married men in the closet is – not really right. assuming that men frequenting tearooms are not gay – is somehow right. if we analyze the data presented, then there is only a minority of self-identifying as gay. there is the group of the closet queens – but i am somehow hesistant to call them gay. it would not be their self-description. and it would certainly not be the selfdescription of the trade and the ambisexuals.

so three groups present us wiht some definition problems: the closet queens experience their sexuality as a problem. a problem you might deal through therapy with (if you can afford it) – if they ever (can) adopt a gay identity will depend on their social circle, on their education, i would guess also on their not getting married, and maybe to a degree on luck: either of meeting open-minded people that show them that you can live gay, or on the other side people that show them that you can live in the closet. in contrast, the ambisexuals are at ease with their sexuality – usually well educated and having a quite wide array of friends, some of them sharing their taste for tearoom sex, they nevertheless reject clearly the label gay. yes, it is pissing off any out gay that there are men enjoying sex with other men and then neither admit to be gay nor feel guilty about it. today one has the option to call himself bisexual – but i have seen time and time again that not only straights are rather severe in not allowing members of their group some homosexuals desires, also the gays are rather strict about memebers of their group not having any heterosexual desire. to me it seems that there is still this big taboo of self-identified gay men enjoying also sometimes some physical love with women. obviously men that are not so strictly defined in their sexual desires pose a problem to a lot of people. i guess bisexuals can tell us a lot about that – to my observation they seem always to be forced to “finally decide for one side”. that much about openness and fluidity of sexuality. when it comes to identity-politics the tone gets harsher…

and then we have the biggest group: the trade. they never will identify themselves as gay. there is the interesting question if they are choosing tearoom sex because they want to have sex with men, or if they have sex with men just to have sex? so they don’t mind having sex with men, because what is important to them is that sex is cheap – financially and socially. furthermore, due to their social place, they also do not have the option to identify as gay – to put it differently: they can not afford to be gay. it would destroy their social standing, all their relationships, their selves. so can we call these men gay? that would seem to be terribly patronizing. we could at least be aware and respect that they have no choice – and again we should be aware that other people have another sexuality and deal differntly with it.

so how do we gays deal politically with tearoom trade? do we protect them as our brothers, or do we say: hey, the majority isn’t gay – we don’t care? well, my reasoning should be quite obvious from the last posts. from society these men are seen as gay the moment they are seen, meaning arrested and their behaviour exposed. they are then homosexuals and will be sentenced accordingly. therefore we have to defend them. but we also have to be very aware to not humiliate these men even further by belitteling them as “just a couple of more closet cases”. they are in their view not gay and they do not want to have anything to do with gays. i would like to stress again the the options to lead ones life one has depends on his social standing and might be very limited. but they get (rather brutally) ascribed a certain identity. as gays we should not do the same to these men – but what remains is a responsability, because we are the only ones that can defend them – be it even under the wrong label. we as “out and proud” homosexuals know how to deal with the label homosexual, we know how to defend our deviant desires. so nobody else will be able to defend them – they have no lobby and can not build any lobby, since their behaviour is in the true sense deviant. if they can accept our help will be another question – one for them and one for us, having to think about how to offer these men our help.

but from where comes that very emotionally loaded reasoning that these men, engaging in sex in public toilets are no gays and should be – well, persecuted and arrested? why is the discussion about this topic getting everybody so worked up? where does all this righteousness come from? and what more can we say about the lives of these men that might explain even quite a bit more about certain aspects of the discussion? well, laud humphreys has a theory on that, based on some not so surprising and some surprising findings – but that will be for the next post about his study.

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