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Criminological Praxis And Tearoom Trade Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 3600 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Laud Humphreys study of the ‘tearoom trade’ has proved to be an extremely controversial piece of research, so controversial in fact that many called for his PhD to be revoked. Humphreys used covert observation in order to study impersonal sexual encounters between men in public restrooms, this is an extremely controversial subject, and was even more so at the time when the research was undertaken; furthermore, covert research is often heavily criticised for being unethical, leading to additional controversy. Covert research is where researchers go ‘undercover ‘to obtain their information.

“To lessen the potential for reactive effects and to gain entry to otherwise inaccessible settings, some researchers have adopted the role of a covert participant. By doing so they keep their research secret and do their best to act like other participants in a social setting or group.” (Bachman and Schutt, 2007:267)

This essay will explore whether the controversy surrounding the ‘tearoom trade’ is a result of the subject matter studied, or the methodological approach used. The research undertaken by Humphreys will be discussed in some detail, describing what the research consisted of, and evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the methodology. Consideration will also be given to the use of covert research in general, assessing the pros and cons of the method, as well as covert research conducted by other researchers.

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Laud Humphreys conducted his research in the 1960’s and his book ‘Tearoom Trade: A study of homosexual encounters in public places’ was published in 1970, with a second edition published in 1975. Humphreys carried out his research in order to determine who the men were, who were willing to risk arrest in order to indulge in impersonal sex in public places, as well as to uncover the dynamics of the encounters between the men involved, and discover what this could tell us about human behaviour. The main finding of his research was that the majority of individuals engaging in homosexual activities within the tearoom led the rest of their lives at heterosexuals.

Humphreys used covert methods in order to enter in to the ‘tearoom’.

“A ‘tearoom’ is a public toilet where men meet for sex with other men.” (Banyard and Flanagan, 2005:27)

Humphreys (1970, pp page 2-3) suggests that the reason public restrooms are so ideal for ‘impersonal sex’ is because they can provide both a public and private setting. Public restrooms are easily accessible, yet they ‘provide little public visibility’. Due to this Humphrey’s focused his study on restrooms within public parks, as they were often frequented by men seeking ‘instant sex’ due to their easy access and limited use by general members of the public.

In order to be accepted by the participants of the tearoom trade, Humphreys,

“…assumed the role of tearoom “watchqueen” by serving as a lookout with the responsibility to warn of approaching strangers in exchange for the right to observe the homosexual activity.” (Kimmel, 1988:22)

By acting as the ‘watchqueen’, Humphreys was able to freely observe what was occurring in the ‘tearooms’ without suspicion from the genuine participants. This use of deception has been heavily criticised by many, as deception within research is seen as highly unethical.

“Many social scientists feel that it is unethical for a researcher to conceal his identity to gain inside information. Others feel disguised observation is ethical as long as the welfare of the subjects is protected.” (Fitzgerald and Cox, 2002:133)

Although he did use deception, Humphreys did go to some lengths to protect his participants, which will be discussed later. Furthermore if he were to have entered the tearooms, and announced his role as a researcher, the likelihood is that all sexual activity would have been terminated and the men who frequented the tearooms would have left, either for fear of being discovered as a person who seeks impersonal sex, the fear or criminal conviction, or for the sheer fact of not wishing to be observed by a researcher. Even if the participants remained, it is likely that they would have altered their behaviour, as they knew they were being observed. If Humphreys had informed the tearoom goers of his research, the results which he obtained would probably not have been as valid, as the results he obtained by using covert methods.

Another issue that arises from the use of covert methods and deception is that of informed consent.

“Covert participant observation is clearly a violation of the principle of informed consent.” (Bulmer, 1982:218)

Covert methods rely on the research subject being unaware of the research taking place; it can therefore be argued that by studying people without their prior knowledge is a breach of human rights. People should clearly have the right to decide whether or not to participate in any research, and their decision should be based on full understanding of what the research consists of, and how any personal information or data obtained will be used.

“Every code of ethics designed to guide research involving human subjects gives primacy to the requirement of fully informed voluntary consent on the part of the individual concerned. (Gregory, 2003:35)

Humphreys’ research clearly violates this need for informed consent; however, it again can be argued that his research findings could not have been obtained by any other means. It is also important to note, that at the time the research was conducted, there were no professional guidelines making informed consent a research requirement.

By observing the participants covertly it can be argued that Humphreys was also invading their right to privacy, however, as they were conducting private acts, in a public domain, is this criticism justifiable? Any male is free to enter the men’s restroom, and observe the goings on, it was only by recording his observations that Humphreys can be criticised for invading privacy.

As well as observing the homosexual acts conducted in the tearooms, Humphreys engaged in verbal relationships with twelve men he encountered during his research, he named these the “intensive dozen”. Humphreys revealed his true identity to these twelve men, informing them of his true reason for attending the tearooms. This enabled him to conduct in-depth interviews.

“With the help of some meals together and a number of drinks, all agreed to cooperate in subsequent interviewing sessions.” (Humphreys, 1970:36)

It can easily be argued that the intensive dozen, were the only participants in Humphreys study who gave full informed consent. Interestingly, especially to those who criticise Humphreys’ use of deception, Laud himself states that,

“Apart from the systematic observations themselves, these conversations constitute the richest source of data in the study.” (Humphreys, 1970:37)

This brings in to debate whether the covert methods used were really called for, as Humphreys obtained valuable information from the intensive dozen, by revealing to them his true identity and purpose. However, it could be argued, that without his use of deception, and the fact that he often frequented the tearooms, that the twelve men would not be willing to cooperate. If a total stranger had approached these men, would they be willing to confess all about their homosexual exploits?

“Social deviants inside restrooms and elsewhere develop careful defences against outsiders, including special gestures and extreme caution with strangers.” (Warwick, 1982:39)

Was it because they had become acquaintances with Humphreys already that they were willing to tell all? Unfortunately it is impossible to be able to answer these questions.

In order to gain even more information about the men who participated in the tearoom trade, Humphreys made notes about the physical appearance of the men he observed as well as noting the licence plates of their vehicles. By posing as a market researcher Humphreys was able to obtain the registration details for the vehicles in question from a ‘friendly policeman’; again this procedure is ethically questionable as Humphreys’ once again used deception to gain private information about people. Upon receiving the names and addresses of the participants, he visited their homes and made observations and notes about the physical appearance of the house, as well as the location. Humphreys then took advantage of his role as a research associate for a local research centre. He was asked by the centre to produce a questionnaire for a social health survey, for men in the local community. Humphreys saw this as an opportunity to include the tearoom participants in the survey, selecting 50 participants to be surveyed along with 50 other members of the community. Approximately a year after his attendance at the tearooms, he sufficiently altered his appearance, so that the tearoom participants would be unable to recognise him as the voyeuristic watchqueen, and proceeded to enter their homes, under the premise of a social worker, in order to conduct the social health survey. This again raises ethical issues, as Humphreys is once again using deception to enter in to the private domain of the men he is researching, and because of this deception he was able to gain private information under false pretences. It may also be argued that Humphreys was putting his participants in harm’s way, as the issue of impersonal homosexual encounters is a sensitive one. As many of the men he surveyed led heterosexual lives, with wives and families, he was putting them in real danger of being exposed, which may of led to their personal life’s being destroyed.

However, regardless of how the information was obtained, Humphreys ensured he took every measure to prevent the information being used by anybody else, and to protect the anonymity and confidentiality of the participants. The British Sociological Association state that,

“The anonymity and privacy of those who participate in the research process should be respected. Personal information concerning research participants should be kept confidential…Where possible, threats to the confidentiality and anonymity of research data should be anticipated by researchers. The identities and research records of those participating in research should be kept confidential… Appropriate measures should be taken to store research data in a secure manner.” (British Sociological Association, 2002)

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The survey data and all other research materials which were obtained by Humphreys, were secured in a safety deposit box, in a different city to where the research was conducted, and upon finishing with the data, it was destroyed. This is good ethical practice, despite the way the information was gathered. As the information was so sensitive, and could have been used for blackmailing purposes or to bring about criminal convictions, it was vital that Humphreys treated the information in such an appropriate way.

So far, it is evident that one of the major controversies surrounding Humphreys’ research was his repeated use of deception. Warwick (1982:46) suggests that,

“Humphreys’ research provides a unique case study of deception. The concatenation of misrepresentation and disguises in this effort must surely hold the world record for field research.” (Warwick,1982:46)

Warwick then continues with a list of shortcomings regarding the research Humphreys conducted. Included in the list are the facts that ‘Humphreys misrepresented his identity while serving as a ‘watchqueen’ in public restrooms’, the fact that he deceived the police in order to obtain personal information about the tearoom participants, and the fact he altered his appearance and conducted the surveys ‘in disguise’. When all the uses of deception are put so bluntly into a list, it is clear to see why there is such controversy surrounding the methodology used by Humphreys’. But is this criticism unique to Humphreys work, or can it be applied to all covert research? Many people strongly object to the use of covert research, this essay will now explore why this is so.

Roger Homan (1991, pp page 109-113) lists thirteen separate objections to the use of covert research. He argues that covert methods ‘flout the principle of informed consent’, ‘help erode personal liberty’, ‘betray trust’, ‘pollute the research environment’, ‘are bad for the reputation of social research’, ‘discriminate against the defenceless and powerless’, ‘may damage the behaviour or interest of subjects’, ‘may become habitual in the everyday life of the person doing the research’, ‘are seldom necessary’, ‘have the effect of confining the scope of the research’ and finally he suggests that the ‘researcher suffers excessive strain in maintaining the cover’.

With so many objections to covert research is it any wonder that Humphreys has been so heavily criticised for his work? All these objections and criticisms of covert methods, begs the question, why do some researchers employ covert methods? Many researchers do so, as they feel that they would be unable to infiltrate and obtain information from certain groups or settings, if covert methods were not used. For example, Calvey (2000) who went undercover for six months to research club bouncers and nightlife, states that,

“In terms of taking a covert role, some argue that such a stance is ethically indefensible. However, given my concern with authenticity and the lived experience of this dangerous work, it would have been nearly impossible to gain access any other way. (Calvey, 2000:46)

What Calvey is saying here, is that he felt that the only way to gain accurate, valuable information from his research was to adopt a covert approach; he felt that by honestly approaching bouncers as a researcher he would be unable to obtain information on their culture and way of life. Like Humphreys, Calvey has been heavily criticised for his work, due to his use of deception and the fact he was putting both himself and the people he was researching at risk. However, not all covert research has come under such heavy fire when it comes to criticism; an example of such research would be that conducted by Howard Becker on dance hall musicians and becoming a marijuana user. Becker also used deception, and often recorded conversations without informed consent, yet his work has not been criticised as relentlessly as Humphreys work has.

It would appear, that although covert methods are widely criticised as unethical practice, the subject matter being studied is capable of stoking the fire, and influencing people’s judgement even further, helping to produce heavier criticisms and distain for both the research and the researcher alike. At the time when Humphreys conducted his research, homosexuals did not have the same freedom to explore and enjoy their sexuality that they do today; the gay liberation movement was only just beginning to emerge. At the time, homosexual sex was characterised as ‘criminal sodomy’ and very little research had been conducted on the gay subculture in general, never mind research pertaining to sexual acts between members of the same sex. It is interesting to think that, if Humphreys conducted his research in today’s modern times whether he would have received the same criticism that he did when his book was published in 1970.

It is clear that, through his use of covert methods, and controversial subject matter, Humphreys has come under fire, and his research has been heavily criticised. But was his research justified and did the outcome of his research benefit those involved and society as a whole?

Although his use of covert methods are controversial and may be considered unethical, Humphreys probably would not have been able to uncover the information which he did without using such methods, therefore, in these circumstances, the use of such methods are justified.

“There are serious ethical and legal issues in the use of covert research but the use of covert methods may be justified in certain circumstances.” (British Sociological Association, 2002)

Humphreys also went to incredible lengths to protect the information he obtained, which can only be seen as a strong asset to his research. Also, it was due to the research undertaken by Humphreys, and other such research conducted at a similar time, that many of the current ethical codes and guidelines pertaining to research exist today. These guidelines have enabled recent research to be much more ethically sound, and therefore not be so heavily criticised. Therefore, Humphreys work has helped in the advancement and evolution of social research. It is also interesting to consider whether the research conducted by Humphreys should have received such criticism considering that these ethical codes did not exist at the time.

In relation to the impact his research has had on both the homosexual community and society as a whole, Humphreys managed to disprove many of the myths surrounding the tearoom trade. Many believed that the tearoom trade put young people at risk of sexual assault, yet Humphreys managed to show that the only sexual activity occurring in public restrooms was between consenting adults, and that no advances were made to disinterested parties. He also managed to show that the men engaging in the tearoom trade were not merely criminals or transients, but that the majority were upstanding members of the community, many of which were employed and had families, and a considerable amount were members, or had been members of the armed forces. This can only been seen as shedding a positive light on the then, underground homosexual subculture. As West (1970) states,

“…[there can only be] benefit in the long term from the information the author has been able to obtain about a little understood but important facet of deviant behaviour.” (West, 1970: viii)

In conclusion it can be argued that the controversy surrounding Humphreys’ research is down to a combination of his methodological approach, and his chosen subject matter. His work drew attention to a little known deviant activity, which many people may have been disgusted by, and his findings are somewhat graphically depicted in his book ‘Tearoom Trade’. This controversial subject matter coupled with his ethically flawed methodology is what has led his research to become so infamously controversial within the field of social research. Warwick (1982), one of Humphreys’ main critics acknowledges that some of the controversies surrounding the research come from the research topic, yet he defends Humphreys’ decision to research into the tearoom trade, and only finds fault with the research methods that he used.

“Undoubtedly public reaction to Tearoom Trade will be strongly affected by the subject matter and the way in which the findings are presented. Many readers, finding the whole topic revolting, will channel their distaste against the author and sociology in general…Even so I would strongly defend Humphreys right to study this topic, however controversial it may be…Social scientists have not only a right but an obligation to study controversial and politically sensitive subjects, including homosexuality, even if this brings down the wrath of the public and government officials. But this obligation does not carry with it the right to deceive, exploit, or manipulate people” (Warwick, 1982:54-55)

However in defence of his methodology, it is important to consider that there were no formal guidelines and ethical codes relating to social research at the time Humphreys conducted his study of the tearoom trade. Also, many of the criticisms relating to the possible harm to participants are ‘what ifs’. Is it justifiable to criticise a piece of research on the fact that harm may come to the participant? Humphreys went to incredible lengths to ensure harm would not come to his participants, and that their identities would not be disclosed. In relation to his use of covert methods, deception and lack of informed consent, it is difficult to see how else he would have been able to conduct the research and still achieve the same results. Furthermore, deception is not restricted to covert methods, as can be seen in the example of Milgram’s Study of Obedience, where informed consent was obtained, yet deception was still used.

It is my opinion that although Humphreys research is ethically flawed, the reason it has become so controversial is not solely down to the methodology, the controversial subject matter has served as an accelerant in fuelling the controversy surrounding the research.

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