Ethics Controversies: Case Studies - Debates about the ethics of the Tearoom Trade Study Methodology
In the 1960's PhD student in sociology Laud Humphreys studied men who have sex with other men in public restrooms of city parks. These restrooms were known as "tearooms". Humphreys got his information by acting as "watch queen", playing the role of lookout and warning the men if anyone was coming. The men involved did not know he was a researcher.
In addition to recording the sex acts of over 100 men Humphreys had a small subset who knew he was a researcher and spoke to him about sex in public places and homosexuality (which was in the 1960s criminalised in the United States).
Humphreys wanted to understand the relationship between these men's anonymous homosexual acts and their public lives. He recorded their licence plates as they returned to their cars, and then found out their addresses. A year later, he changed his hair, dress and car and went to the home of 50 of these men. Portraying himself as a social health researcher he interviewed them under false pretences to gain information on their marital status, sexuality and sexual orientations and occupations.
At the time of Humphreys' research having sex with men was a crime in most of the U.S. Men could be arrested and sentenced to years in prison for it. If the police had got hold of Humphreys' data or if the identities of the men involved had been revealed, they would have been severely stigmatised, their family lives ruined, they could have lost their jobs, or even been arrested and imprisoned.
In not identifying himself as a researcher Humphreys argued he was doing nothing wrong, he was merely observing behaviour in public spaces and said he masqueraded as a gay "watch queen" so as not to interfere with the research. Most social scientists agree that observing people's acts in public spaces is not unethical, as long as people are not identified.
On risk that his notes could have been seized to identify men engaged in illegal acts said he would have risked going to jail rather than hand them over. Others have said no researcher should have such power over others, no matter how good their intentions are.
Most have found his most serious ethical violation the way he disguised himself and went to mens' homes on a false pretext, invading their privacy. Humphreys argued his deception was justified as the acts were so stigmatised he would not have got the information otherwise.