tearoom trade – the breastplate of righteousness

we have seen how the negotiations work, and who negotiates in the establishing of a contract in tearooms. since we are talking about deviant behaviour, about in many countries illegal behaviour, the most important point for the men participating in this behaviour is to protect themselves of social and legal consequences. termed differently: the problem is information control. how does one assure that my deviant behaviour does not get known?

to ensure security in this sense for the participating men there are some ways to diminish the risk – the risk to get caught and their behaviour exposed.

one risk-reducing technique open to all the participants is the way preliminary negotiations are done, the way one communicates. on the one hand it is by giving as little information as possible out about oneself, and on the other hand by having a very specific way of communicating interest: the signs of interest have to be very obvious to be acknowledged. this explains why there is normally silence in a tearoom, and it also explains why tearooms are not the place for seducing someone who does not know the game, the specific way to communicate.

other risk-reducing strategies depend on the social and economic status of the men themselves and are therefore not open to every participant. working independently, not being married, being out, and having enough money are all deciding factors of how risky sex in a public toilet is. all these factors help avoiding arrest (subcultural knowledge about raids, cameras in toilets, and how to behave once one gets caught) and make exposure less likely or let exposure have less consequences (bribing ones way out of arrest, and once arrested having less to fear about exposure).

then it is somewhat surprising that the two groups, the trade and the closet queens, not only frequent tearooms at all, but form together a majority of 62%. by having all the odds against them (low income, no connection to the subculture, being employed, being married) one wonders if there is not another defense mechanism to protect them? yep, there is.

we remember that laud humphreys did that ethically somehow muddy thing to interview some tearoom regulars at home under the pretense of another study. a study that not also worked as a kind of cover-up, but was actually essential to provide him with some more interesting findings. not only did he have that way a control group of straights, but he also could get data to a lot of different topics, including attitudes.

with all this information an interesting picture emerges. the above mentioned groups trade and closet queens are model citizens: they do work more (and make more money) then their straight counterparts. their marriages tend to be “smoother”. they are more involved with their respective church. and they keep their homes and gardens neater: to the extend that humphreys writes that in most cases he actually spotted their homes without looking at the address: more often then not it was the best kept house, the nicest appartment block in the street. what has that to do with these men building up a defense mechanism? well, it is easy to analyse these men being model citizens as a compensation, as to compensate for their guilt. but this psychological way of explaining things might be less fruitful then another approach.

so it is about information control. how can i control information about my deviant behaviour if i do not have many other ressources at hand? i make it unlikely that one even suspects i would engage in such behaviour. this has been explained in other sociological literature at the time as concealement. laud humphreys is not happy with this term, which he sees as too negativ. so neither psychological theory nor contemporary sociology gave him a vocabulary, a term to descripe a certain technique of information control and its mechanisms. so he invented a term: the breastplate of righteousness.

“In donning the breastplate of righteousness, the covert deviant assumes a protective shield of superpropriety. His armor has a particularly shiny quality, a refulgence, which tends to blind the audience to certain of the practices. To others in his everyday world, he is not only normal but righteous – an exemplar of good behavior and right thinking. However much the covert participant may be reacting to guilt in erecting his defensive barrier, he is also engaging in a performance that is part and parcel of his being. Goffman remarks that “there is often no reason for claiming that the facts discrepant with the fostered impression are any more the real reality than is the fostered reality they embarass.” The secret offender may well believe he is more righteous than the next man – hence his shock and outrage, his disbelieving indignation, when he is discovered and discredited. (humphreys, pp. 135)”

to say it in terms of identity: the man having sex in public toilets and is not able to integrate this behaviour in his identity constructs an identity which makes it very unlikely to engage in such activity. so if one can not be gay or at least ambisexual, one must be straight. very straight. so the basic problem here is that society thinks everybody having sex in a public toilet (or, more general: every man having sex with another man) is gay. but some men can not be gay. so these men have two options: not having sex with other men. or having sex with other men. and the least risky, because most impersonal sex is tearoom sex (and it’s cheap). so does having sex with a man make you gay? society says yes. but quite some men say no – they can not say yes, because that would mean their self-elimination, it would destroy their social selves. so how do they deal with it? by putting on their shiny armor, their breastplate of righteousness. this technique of information control, of risk avoiding has then some interesting effects: it seems that this technique manages to cut off this deviant behaviour from their identity. one reasoning could go like that: i am a good straight man, and only gays participate in sex in public toilets. since i am not gay, my activity is something else. wicked, i know. but that explains some attitudes – then by also questioning their attitudes in his survey, humphreys can show us the breastplate of rightousness via data:


the above table shows us a liberalism index, divided in four topics: economic, police, civil rights, vietnam. not surprising after all these explanations is that especially type I, trade, and type IV, closet queens, are a lot more conservative then their straight counterparts. very interesting, i thought, was the fact that also the gays were a little bit more conservative then their straight control group – not really a breastplate, but maybe a bib of righteousness? sometimes it seems so: by being more “respectable” then our straight counterparts we seem to try to defuse criticism for that one odd thing, our sexual desire. well, we all know that gays have more taste and are more sensitive, but they are also bettter workers, better family members, better parents, better in bed. right?

but let’s get back to the data: the problem for me here is that being conservative seems to be just the effect of a information control mechanism. best explained in an interview quote:

Interviewer: Have you ever participated in a civil rights march, picket line or other such demonstration?

Marvin: Look, I’m black and I’m gay! Isn’t that asking for enough trouble without getting mixed up in this civil rights stuff, too? (humphreys, pp. 139)”

there is also other evidence presented, like quite radical shifts in attitudes (becoming more liberal) the moment someone has his coming out. so if one is in the closet, he is afraid of being liberal. ironically, once he would be more liberal, his deviant behaviour would also be judged less harsh. we have a viscious circle of being conservative, engaging in deviant behaviour and having to be conservative, and so on. not only a circle, but sometimes even a spiral: that is when the breastplate becomes a full body armor, and the man a moral crusader. so the more he insists on conservative morals, the less he can integrate his having sex with men on a public toilet, the more he has to defect any possible affiliation, the less he will be able to integrate…and so on. so here the saying rings true: behind every witchhunt is a witch. it is rather telling that the men of the trade and closet queens groups were nearly all favourable of the work of the vice squads – and often even in favour of more raids.

so these men engage in something like self-destructive behaviour, all the while pretending it is not their selves. and maybe it is not. then what is their real selves: their social, daily life or some clandestine sexual activity?

so now we know who they are, what they do and how they protect themselves from eventual consequences of what they are doing. that brings us back to the question: what should we do about it? how should society and the gay community deal with that sort of deviant behaviour?

well, if society wants more conservative citizens, which have the added “bonus” of being afraid (and therefore easier to manipulate), then society should keep on judging that activity as illegal and socially unacceptable.

but if society looks at the harm inflicted on society in general – well, there are no real reasons to persecute tearoom trade. the worst thing that can happen to uninvolved parties is being offended. by easing the pressure on the men participating in tearoom trade society would acutally gain more reasonable citizens, citizens with its attitudes not dictated by a self-defense mechanism.

and the gay community? well, we should be aware that we are the subculture for the men visiting tearooms – we are the ones who could defend them and supply them with specific knowledge. if these men can actually allow to have any contact to gays, respective a gay community depends on quite some factors. but maybe we should not make it even more difficult by slamming the door in their faces. especially since that slamming seems sometimes motivated by our breastplate of righteousness.

and now we are finished with looking at laud humphreys study. there would be of course a lot more to say, other points to make, and to discuss how valid his findings are after nearly 40 years. if you want to have a closer look, here the details:

Humphreys Laud: Tearoom Trade. Impersonal Sex In Public Places, Chicago, 1970

if you are interested in the ethical discussion surrounding his study design be sure to get the enlarged edition that came out a couple of years later.

then, in the citation above (pp. 135) there is a citation of goffman, also an american sociologist and specialized in face to face interaction. i highly recommend his book stigma – a classic, entertaining and giving many valuable insights. but the cited sentence comes from another book:

Goffman Erving: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York, 1959, pp. 65

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