Archive for the ‘laud humphreys’ Category

tearoom trade – the breastplate of righteousness

October 14, 2007

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

tearoom trade – who are you?

October 10, 2007

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.

tearoom trade – a positive sum game

October 9, 2007

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.