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Understanding and Applying Research Design by Jennifer McKinney, Martin Lee Abbott

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4

ETHICS

In the late 1960s, sociology PhD student Laud Humphreys began collecting data in “tearooms,” which referred to public restrooms that served as “locales for sexual encounters without involvement” (Humphreys 1975:2). Humphreys had been studying the lives of homosexual men and found that one aspect of this subculture not well studied was the behavior that took place in these tearooms. Humphreys found that many men—heterosexual, married, single, or homosexual—often wanted “instant sex” and would seek out these public restrooms (tearooms) in order to engage in this instant, impersonal, and anonymous sex.

Humphreys describes the intricacies of his field research by stating that in order to gather data on this type of private behavior, he had to pass as a “deviant.”1 Participating in the illegal activity of public sexual encounters was considered unethical, so how could Humphreys infiltrate these public spaces to learn about the behavior associated with this subculture? Humphreys discovered a way to participate as an observer. Due to the fear encountered by men who participated in “tearoom trade,” a role was created for a third party that fit the needs of a social researcher. Because acts of homosexuality were criminalized at the time, men who participated in these encounters had quite a lot to fear, thus opening an opportunity for an observer, in this case a lookout. Humphreys became the lookout (or “watchqueen” as it was called in the subculture), participating in hundreds ...

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