am 7. Juni 2000
This book is the first and one of the few and to study male-male sexual behavior as it occurs between men who do not primarily identify themselves as being homosexual or bisexual. Previous studies had been largely clinical, based on the reports of individuals undergoing psychotherapy, and most ethnographic studies have been of more or less gay-identified communities -- gay bars, gay organizations, gay neighborhoods -- or male prostitutes. This was the first to study men who have sex with men but who mostly have lives as apparently ordinary, married heterosexuals. The study revealed some surprising facts about such men, and fired a controversy over sociological ethics and propriety that continues to this day.
During the course of a year, Humphreys observed male-male sexual activity in certain public restrooms (known in gay slang as "tearooms") in an unidentified city in the US. A year later, after having identified many of the men he had observed, he arranged to interview them as part of a different, general sociological study, which allowed him to ask a number of questions about their backgrounds and personal lives without revealing their clandestine activities; he also approached about a dozen of the men in the tearooms themselves and was able to interview them openly.
Humphreys' findings contradict a number of previously held assumptions about male-male sexual activity, and carry some important recommendations. One is that the "seduction of teenagers" does not occur in these public places, and in fact teenage boys are actively excluded despite their frequent desire to participate. Another is that the chance of anyone being unwillingly approached in a public restroom, unless he is behaving in such a way as to invite sexual advances, is practically nonexistent. Third, the most frequent criminal behavior which results from these practices is blackmail, primarily from the policemen on the vice squad who are assigned to eliminate sex in public places.
Finally, the book devotes a significant space to the ethical issues which were raised by its methodology. At the time, practically nothing was known about homosexual behavior in the general population, despite a great deal of attention from police, clergy, and politicians. The study was carried out with no untoward effects, and several participants stated that they were glad of the opportunity to talk about themselves. However, the study involved potential danger to the subjects in the event that confidentiality had been broken, and the subjects could not be asked for consent without fatally compromising the study. The debate which followed among sociologists, journalists, and ethicists, regarding the balance between society's need for objective knowledge and the individual's right to privacy, has continued to this day. It is a must-read for anyone concerned with the debate over research on human behavior, both for the historical documents it contains (several of the major criticisms and defenses of the study) and for the way in which it is often misrepresented today by its critics.
The book is well written and extremely readable, and gives some interesting insight into both the state of American homosexual behavior and of the political climate in the years immediately before Stonewall. It won the C. Wright Mills Award of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, and the author was later elected to the national board of a homosexual rights organization, in part because of the importance of this research. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the sociology or history of homosexuality.