Tearoom trade

There is a fascinating article by Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed on the original Tearoom Trade book by Laud Humphries, first published in 1970. Seems the Larry Craig scandal has resurrected interest in this book, which turns out to have its own problems.

Rarely does a political scandal inspire anyone to discuss sociological research done 40 years earlier. But whatever else Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) may have contributed to public life, he certainly deserves credit for renewing interest in Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places, by Laud Humphreys, first published in 1970.

Humphreys, who was for many years a professor of sociology at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California, died in 1988. But his analysis of the protocols of anonymous encounters in men’s rooms — “tearooms,” in gay slang — has been cited quite a bit in recent weeks. In particular, reporters have been interested in his findings about the demographics of the cruising scene at the public restrooms he studied. (This research took place at a public park in St. Louis, Missouri during the mid-1960s.) Most patrons visiting the facilities for sexual activity tended to be married, middle-class suburbanites; they often professed strongly conservative social and political views.

Humphries, who was married, carried out the research in a manner which would not pass today’s review boards. He deceived his subjects, at one point disguising himself to collect data. At a dramatic meeting of the American Sociological Association he outed himself in response to accusations that he was exploiting his gay subjects, which led to his divorce and breakup of his family.

But Humphries continued to work on these themes and a recent biography of him discusses some of this later work. It makes a fascinating story because of its resonance with the Craig/Foley scandals of today:

His biographers give a detailed account of the manuscript Humphreys worked on during his final years but never finished. It was to be a book revisiting one of the themes in Tearoom Trade – the idea he called “the breastplate of righteousness.” That phrase was borrowed from an epistle by St. Paul, while the argument owed a lot to the Frankfurt School’s analysis in The Authoritarian Personality.

Men he had observed having anonymous sex in a public place often turned out to be ardent champions of law and order. Unable to control themselves in that part of their lives, they put on the defensive “breastplate,” redoubling their efforts elsewhere: “Motivated largely by his own awareness of the discreditable nature of his secret behavior,” wrote Humphreys in his dissertation, “the covert deviant develops a presentation of self that is respectable to a fault. His whole lifestyle becomes an incarnation of what is proper and orthodox.”

One Response

  1. dr humphries was a prof at suny-albany in the 1970’s, where we met him and his family. a good family, and we socialized with them. he was an anglican priest also, and attended st george’s church in schenectady. after they left for ca, lost track of them–appreciate hearing about him. we knew about the book; it was popular in the gay community here, and he certainly was spot on when he spoke about the larry craigs among us. if you can get the book, it is very interesting..wonder where his children are. they were the ages of my children and they were close too. sorry about his death+

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