Donald P. Warwick’s 1973 paper, Tearoom Trade: Means & Ends in Social Research, provides a thorough exploration and commentary on the ethics of Laud Humphrey’s social science study, Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places. Although this paper was published about 40 years ago, the issues discussed by Warwick are as pertinent today in a discussion of ethics as they were at the time of publication. Warwick’s paper analyzes ethically Humphrey’s research methods, the idea of human freedom, the benefits and costs of social research to individual participants, the effects of social research on society, and the role of the researcher and research profession.
Before delving into the ethical analysis of Humphrey’s study, Warwick thoroughly describes the research methods Humphrey used. Although some of the terms Warwick used in the 1970s are dated, such as referring to homosexuals as “social deviants inside restrooms,” the information presented is otherwise a fair summary of Humphrey’s research (28). Humphrey’s research involved observing the acts of homosexuals in public restrooms in which he played the role of Watchqueen; the Watchqueen is usually another homosexual with voyeuristic tendencies who provides signals when strangers or police approach the restroom where sexual acts are occurring (28). It describes Humphrey’s method of recording information via tape recorder hidden in his car and the type of information Humphrey recorded, including the mens’ automobile license plate information. It also describes the method Humphrey used to do further research on the men he observed, which included gaining access to the mens’ names and addresses via police officers who allowed him access to license registers. Following the collection of all of this information, Humphrey waited a year, changed his appearance and car so he would not be recognized as the former Watchqueen, and proceeded to personally interview 50 of his subjects in the guise of a “social health survey” (28). From this, he published his paper.
The first ethical element Warwick analyzes in context with Humphrey’s research is human freedom. He feels this is important because it “offers a vantage point for judging the impact of social research on both individuals and larger society” (29). Warwick makes a distinction between personal freedom and environmental freedom, and characterizes them as both possessing positive and negative views. For example, a positive view of freedom describes the choices available to individuals or groups in society, whereas a negative view describes things that limit freedom.
Warwick next discusses social research and its effects on individual participants. There are both benefits and costs to individuals as a result of social research. Benefits include things such as finding satisfaction in “providing information or expressing an opinion,” finding it helpful to discuss problems and life with an outsider, satisfying curiosity about what polls are like, reducing loneliness and boredom, and finding the ability to make sense out of confusing situations (31). Costs include things such as invasion of privacy, deception, and harmful use of research findings. All of these are important factors in examining the ethical impact of Humphreys’s study.
Deception was used indiscriminately in Humphreys’s study. During the observation portion, Humphreys never revealed that he was doing any research; instead, he spent his time passing as “another gay guy” in order to observe and pinpoint the identities of his subjects (31). Today, words that loom large over any study are “consent” or “privacy/confidentiality agreement,” which is something Humphreys obviously did not have at the time. Without this constraint, Humphreys exercised his personal freedom as a social researcher, but ethically crossed the line impinging on the mens’ personal freedom. The men had no choice about being observed as part of the study or Humphreys' follow-up with the police into finding out their names, addresses, and other personal information. Later in the research, after the year passed and he disguised his identity by changing his look and automobile, Humphreys attempted to deceive the subjects again by the change in his appearance and presenting the interview in the guise of a randomly chosen “social health survey of men in the community” (32). Warwick reports Humphreys justifies this strategy for gaining research material “on the grounds of ‘situation ethics,’” saying, “There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ methods—only ‘better’ or ‘worse’” methods of research (32). This strategy is highly questionable as a reason for conducting research in this method; as Warwick says, there is a very serious ethical problem with Humphreys idea that “there is no intrinsic evil in any research procedure,” including deception, and gives as an example the Nazis’ use of humans in torture and cancer experiments (32, emphasis his). Although Humphreys’ research is not heinous like the Nazis’ experiments, the rationale behind it is ethically unacceptable as a strategy for obtaining research information from subjects.
Privacy is another cost of social science research that Warwick presents. He writes, “The question raised by Tearoom Trade and other social research is how far the social scientist can intrude into the inner reaches of the self without jeopardizing freedom;” however, at the time the research was presented, other commentators and Warwick appear to agree that Humphreys’ study illuminated a conflict between the right to know and the right to privacy (33). Without question, by observing, seeking, and recording information about his subjects without their knowledge or consent, Humphreys invaded their individual privacy. However, it can also be argued, as Warwick writes, that Humphreys has an “obligation as a sociologist to pursue the truth, to create countervailing knowledge about homosexuality . . . to demystify ‘the shadowy areas of human experience’” (34). Despite this obligation, it appears that Humphreys’ choice in observation methods and use of his own information to obtain further research did little to consider personal freedom of the subjects. While privacy agreements concerning data collection are a big issue today, especially since the advent of the Internet, Humphreys took no such measures when collecting data about the private lives of his individual subjects. With little precedent for studying “tearoom” activities, his methods are unsurprising, yet even at the time of his study controversy erupted concerning privacy issues. Yes, he was successful in collecting information and performing interviews to collect more data, but the conflict between the public’s right to know and personal privacy as well as freedom remains.
Another cost of social research is the possibility that the data may be misused. As Warwick writes, “A critical problem with . . . social science data is that [it enjoys] no legal protection or privilege” (34). Today, companies and others who collect data such as doctors or researchers often present a confidentiality or privacy agreement offering a legal contract between themselves and subjects of data collection so that the exact use of the data are understood by all parties. It appears that no such agreement was common at the time of Warwick’s publication, and it is obvious that Humphreys employed no such method with his subjects. As Warwick writes, Humphreys’ research was “one of the few social scientific studies which would have lent itself directly to a grand jury investigation” (34). While researchers today may present subjects with privacy agreements, with caveats, to legally protect all individuals involved, Humphreys did not do this. His safety measure was to keep the master list of names of his subjects in a safety deposit box, and later destroy this list once the research was complete (34). Humphreys took measures to protect the identities of his subjects by doing this, but the idea remains that his intent as a researcher could have been much less respectful of his subjects. Had his intent as a researcher not been so pure as to simply publish a report on his findings, or had his information fallen into the wrong hands, it could have easily been used to blackmail or press criminal charges against any of his subjects.
In fact, Humphreys’ attitude about his own research seems very cavalier in respect to his subjects. He writes, “Let the clergy worry about keeping their cassocks clean; the scientist has too great a responsibility for such compulsion” (36). He also defends his research by insinuating, as Warwick writes, that “the more information we have about society, the happier we will be” (35). There is no evidence that knowing everything will make people happier; in fact, Humphreys tacitly acknowledged that by keeping the list of names of his subjects private. Although Humphreys showed basic concern for his subjects by keeping their names in the safety deposit box, destroying the list later, and not revealing personally identifying characteristics of individual subjects in his study, he ignored the idea that his study is only one of many leading to cumulative effects on the public’s attitude regarding freedom, privacy, and use of information. This cumulative effect has the possibility of inviting a public backlash against sociology research or even any other branch of research. Such a cumulative effect would negate the social scientist’s goal of enlightening and informing colleagues and the public with information.
Earlier in the paper, Warwick writes, “The problem is that there are no well-developed and generally acceptable ethical standards for judging serious research” (29). Although Warwick argues that Humphreys’ study would have an overall negative effect on the field of social science because of the methods used to obtain information, in the long run it provides a contrast to how many studies are done today and why. The most important thing Humphreys’ study has accomplished is not to report on the bathroom activities of homosexuals, but to illuminate for researchers the ethical problems of deception, privacy, and use of information involved in their studies. Today, researchers are much more aware of issues of privacy and consent, and have evolved better strategies for obtaining information about their subjects. It is likely that cases like Humphreys’ and commentary like Warwick’s are responsible for a long term positive effect on the freedom of fields like the social sciences in providing them with new strategies and strategies to reject in performing their research.
Warwick, Donald P. (1973). Tearoom Trade: Means & Ends in Social Research. The Hastings Center Studies 1(1). 27-38.