Friday, August 31, 2007

The Curious World of the Tearoom Trade

Why are some seemingly heterosexual men drawn to play "Mr. Microphone" with strangers in public places, such as restrooms and parks?

Well, that question has been around for a while. It didn't start with Idaho Senator Larry Craig, although the fact he's a "family values" Republican sure makes it fun to discuss the topic now.

Actually, the issue has been the subject of serious academic inquiry. Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, example is Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Sex, a study done in the mid 1960s by Laud Humphreys, a sociology doctoral student at Washington University in St. Louis. Humphreys initiated his research in restrooms at Forest Park, the huge public facility that includes the famous St. Louis Zoo. You can read about the study here, and background about Humphreys is available here.

Some academicians considered Humphreys' research techniques to be improper, and the study became highly controversial. But Humphreys' findings were significant, destroying many stereotypes about gay sex. Fifty-four percent of his subjects were married and living with their wives, self-identifying as heterosexual. Only 14 percent of his subjects corresponded to society's stereotype of homosexuality.

Humphreys' study is available in book form. Don't know that you will find it at Barnes & Noble. But it seems to be available at a number of academic libraries. It's pretty interesting reading and gives you the sense that Humphreys was ahead of his time. His work was done more than 40 years ago, and I'm not aware of any research of similar scope since. Perhaps the controversy scared researchers away.

But the issue is real and far more prevalent than I would have believed before looking into it.

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