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social-media-conversionMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at classicalsympathies.com

Statement on Intent and Concern #II: On “role drift”

This post is the second in my thirty-fifth birthday series, and takes up that sexiest of subjects, “role-drift.”  In this post I will connect Laud Humphreys’ investigation of “the Tearoom Trade,” that is, casual homosexual encounters in public toilets, the initiation process in the United States military, and the conversion of Paul the Apostle.  Those easily offended by sociological explanations of religion, of sexual preference, or of the comradeship among soldiers should cease reading immediately.

Recently, I finished reading a book–which, as my next post will detail, is a somewhat rare occurrence.  The book was Laud Humphreys’ “The Tearoom Trade,” published in 1970.  It concerns men hooking up with other men, usually strangers, in the public restroom facilities in St. Louis, and it is an eye-opening read.  The blurb on the book jacket pretty much tells the story: “Many American men seek impersonal sex in public restrooms.  Called ‘tearooms’ in the argot of the homosexual subculture, these restrooms are accessible to and easily recognized by those who wish to engage in anonymous sexual encounters {…} By passing as deviant, the author was able to engage in systematic observations of homosexual acts in public settings.  Methodologists will be interested {…} in this unusual application of participant-observation strategies.”  Indeed, methodologists everywhere, I can say without hesitation, were and are all ears.  But the odd thing is that Humphreys, married and purportedly straight when he conducted his research, later divorced his wife and came out as gay.

Now, it may not be considered particularly odd that someone, sociologist or no, who spends several months or years in public toilets observing “insertors” and “insertees” would himself come out eventually, and Humphreys’ persistent use of “us” and “we” to refer to the denizens of the restrooms of St. Louis appears, in retrospect, to be something of a “tell.”  Consider, for instance, sentences such as the following: “when a group of us were locked in a restroom and attacked by several youths, we spoke in defense and out of fear {…} This event ruptured the reserve among us and resulted in a series of conversations among those who shared this adventure for several days afterward” (12), and several other similar uses of plural pronouns.  (It may be of interest here that Humphreys and his study of tearooms enjoyed a brief week in the sun a few years ago when Senator Larry Craig of Idaho was arrested in an airport bathroom stall for foot-tapping–Humphreys covered this topic as well, making clear that foot-tapping was, in 1970, a well-established method of making contact from stall to stall, and already in use by police decoys so many decades ago (20, 87).)

Indeed, the whole study is fascinating, and peppered with wonderfully matter-of-fact passages such as: “There is a great deal of difference in the volumes of homosexual activity that these accommodations shelter.  In some, one might wait for months before observing a deviant act.  In others, the volume approaches orgiastic dimensions.  One summer afternoon, for instance, I witnessed twenty acts of fellatio is the course of an hour while waiting out a thunderstorm in a tearoom.  For one who wishes to participate in (or study) such activity, the primary consideration is one of finding where the action is” (6) (alert readers will recognize the influence of Erving Goffman here; Goffman’s study of gambling establishments is titled “Where the Action Is”).  But the passage which really caught my attention deals with what Humphreys calls “role instability” or “role drift.”  He makes two major points; i) those who start out pitching tend to end up catching; “It appears that, during the career of any one participant, the role of insertor tends to be transposed into that of insertee” (55) (Humphreys attributes this tendency to “the aging crisis” common to tearoom participants); ii) “If {straights} remain exposed ‘too long’ to the action, they cease to operate as straights” (56).  Humphreys here is not referring to men who one day, by accident, may wander into an operational tearoom, but rather to members of the parks department or vice squad who, over time, may be exposed to a wider swath of tearoom activity.  Here is the key passage:

“When some communication continues to exist, parents tend to be ‘turned on’ by their pot-smoking offspring.  Spectators tend to be drawn into mob action, and kibitzers into card games.  Even police may adopt the roles they are assigned to eliminate:

‘It is a well-known phenomenon that when officers are left too long on the vice-squad–the maximum allowable at  any one time being four to five years–they begin to ‘go over’, adopting the behaviorisms and mores 0f the criminals with whom they are dealing, and shifting their primary allegiance'”(Here, Humphreys is quoting from Elliot Liebow’s Tally’s Corner from 1967.  My emphasis).

It is a well-known phenomenon that when officers are left too long on the vice-squad they begin to ‘go over’. The moment I read this, having known of Humphreys’ own history before I read his book, I immediately recognized either a brilliant justification for future defection or an alternative, sociologically-based, theory for how sexual preference is formed. Read the rest of this entry »

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