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Beyond Homophobia » 2007 » September » 03

September 3, 2007

Tearooms, Labels, and Double Standards

Posted at 9:20 am (Pacific Time)

The events surrounding Senator Larry Craig’s resignation last week provide an opportunity for considering some social science insights about sex in public places, sexual orientation, denial, and prejudice.

The Tearoom Ritual: Solicitation vs. Entrapment

Laud Humphreys’ 1970 book, Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex In Public Places, provided the first systematic account of men who engage in sexual acts in public restrooms, colloquially known as “tearooms.” (The book was based on Humphreys’ doctoral dissertation in sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, and received the prestigious C. Wright Mills Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems.)

As Laura Mac Donald noted in her Sunday New York Times Op-Ed piece, Humphreys’ research revealed that tearoom sex is a highly interactive ritual. The participants are just that — participants, who actively signal their interest with a variety of silent and subtle gestures that typically escape the awareness of unsuspecting restroom users. Participants are well aware of the danger of being arrested or attacked, and don’t try to force themselves on anyone. It’s a consensual ritual that excludes those who are unaware or unwilling.

All of which raises suspicions about the actions of both Sen. Craig and the undercover airport police sergeant who denied entrapping him. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could inadvertently become involved in the tearoom ritual, or that a participant would persist in signaling another man without some indication of the latter’s willingness. As Laura Mac Donald commented in the Sunday Times, Humphreys’ findings

“suggest the implausibility not only of Senator Craig’s denial — that it was all a misunderstanding — but also of the policeman’s assertion that he was a passive participant. If the code was being followed, it is likely that both men would have to have been acting consciously for the signals to continue.”

“Gay” vs. “Homosexual”

If Sen. Craig was indeed a willing participant, is he gay? Homosexual? These words have been used interchangeably in speculation about Sen. Craig’s sexuality. Although they are often equated in popular parlance, they have somewhat different connotations.

Homosexual usually refers in a purely descriptive manner to same-sex desires and sexual behaviors, whereas gay refers to an individual’s social identity as a member of a larger culture of men and women with similar identities. Some writers have also distinguished between “a homosexual” (one who simply engages in same-sex activity or wishes to do so) and a gay person (one who embraces his or her sexuality as a defining feature of the self, and identifies with the larger community of gay and lesbian people).

Prof. Humphreys’ research showed that many men who engage in tearoom sex are heterosexually married (54% in his sample) and don’t identify as gay, or even homosexual.

Thus, absent any affirmation of the label from Sen. Craig, characterizing him as gay seems off the mark. His consistent antigay stances throughout his political career, coupled with his public self-identification as a heterosexual, are not consistent with being gay.

This doesn’t preclude him having same-sex desires or engaging in homosexual behavior. Maybe he is secretly “a homosexual” or maybe his private thoughts and behaviors qualify him as “a bisexual.” But neither status is a part of his public identity.

Denial: Conscious vs. Unconscious

Armchair psychoanalysis is a popular sport, so it’s not surprising to hear speculation that Sen. Craig has been in a psychological state of denial about his homosexuality. Maybe so, but anyone who hasn’t spoken directly with Sen. Craig about his innermost thoughts and feelings is not in a position to make this call.

There’s a much simpler explanation for his denial, namely, that the stigma attached to homosexuality remains strong throughout the United States, especially in places like Idaho. Awareness of that stigma motivates many heterosexuals to take steps to publicly establish that they’re not homosexual. They avoid gender nonconformity, don’t touch friends of the same sex, verbally assert their heterosexuality, and even perpetrate acts of hostility and violence against people whom they perceive to be gay. Closeted homosexuals sometimes engage in such conduct to protect their cover.

These actions aren’t the result of unconscious defense mechanisms. Rather, they are conscious strategies for avoiding the labels of gay and homosexual. We shouldn’t equate a public, fully voluntary and conscious denial that one is gay or homosexual with private self-deception or unconscious repression.

Heterosexual vs. Homosexual Transgressions

Why have Republican politicians reacted so differently to the actions of Sen. Craig and to those of Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, who recently admitted to having used the services of female prostitutes?

Some have explained the discrepancy in terms of pragmatic political considerations. Sen. Craig represents a reliably conservative state with a Republican governor (who will almost certainly appoint another Republican to take his place), whereas Sen. Vitter hails from a state with a Democratic governor. Thus, keeping Sen Vitter in office while dumping Sen. Craig represents a safe strategy for the Republicans.

I don’t doubt that such a calculus has played a role in shaping GOP reactions to recent events. However, we can’t discount the importance of sexual prejudice. Sen. Vitter’s conduct violated his marital vows and broke laws against prostitution but, for most heterosexuals, a man having sex with women doesn’t conjure up feelings of revulsion. Sen. Craig’s actions in the airport didn’t even result in sex and wouldn’t have involved prostitution, although they presumably would have broken his marriage vows. But they have evoked a much more negative reaction.

The difference, of course, is that Sen. Craig would have been having sex with a man, whereas Sen. Vitter’s indiscretions were with women. Moreover, Sen Craig was arrested in a public restroom, a setting that evokes thoughts of bodily elimination. The combination of male homosexuality and public toilets arouses the emotion of disgust in many heterosexuals, what is sometimes called “the ick factor.” Indeed, last Tuesday on MSNBC, presidential candidate Mitt Romney characterized Sen. Craig’s behavior as “disgusting.”

The ick factor is an interesting component of sexual prejudice, one that I’ll discuss in a future entry.

* * * * *

Relevant Reading: Public Sex/Gay Space, a book of essays reexamining Laud Humphreys’ Tearoom Trade was published in 1999 by the Columbia University Press (edited by William Leap).

Update: Dr. Karen Franklin’s “In The News” forensic psychology blog for September 4 has some more insights based on Laud Humphreys’ study.

Update (September 15): For another perspective, check out “If Larry Craig Were Gay” on YouTube.

Copyright © 2007 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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