Statement of Intent and Concern: Part II

In Metaphysics, Organizations, Religion, Sociology on June 16, 2009 at 10:33 pm

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Intent and Concern #II: On “role drift”

saul epipharyThis 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.  After all, Humphreys himself spent several years researching and writing “The Tearoom Trade,” over which time he subjected himself to sufficient “action” to push him into shifting his primary allegiance, and to “go over.”  This theory, it goes without saying, flies in the face of the idea that sexual preference is genetic or established in the womb–and just as obviously it cannot explain all instances of same-sex attraction.  But, as a sociologically fascinating explanation for Humphreys own conversion, it remained in the back of my mind.

Several weeks later I was reading Robert Wright’s Atlantic article “One World, Under God,” about the relationship between religion and globalization.  Much of the article deals with the Apostle Paul, and I read something I had long known but never fully processed–Paul persecuted Christians right up until his conversion.  Here’s Wright: “The ‘Apostle Paul’ wasn’t one of Jesus’ 12 apostles.  Quite the opposite: after the Crucifixion he seems to have persecuted followers of Jesus.  According to the book of Acts, he was ‘ravaging the church by entering house after house: dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.’  But then, while on his way to treat Syrian followers of Jesus in this fashion, he underwent his ‘road to Damascus’ conversion.  He was blinded by the light and heard the voice of Jesus” (40).  The rest is history, of course, as Paul went on to establish ministries across the Near East, and, according to Wright, recast Jesus’ message as one of love and peace.  There are a couple of classic explanations for Paul’s conversion–first, as Wright says, that he heard the voice of Jesus or God and converted–simple enough.  Second, that Paul was epileptic and had a seizure in which he imagined he heard Jesus.  The first explanation is religious or mystical; the second medical.  But when I read this paragraph, the first thing I thought of was Humphreys–‘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.'” Had Paul spent too much time on the vice-squad exposed to this rogue new faith and fallen prone to “role-drift”?  This post is not a polemic, and I would not want to rule out religious, medical, or genetic explanations of human behavior–but the unifying thread excited me.

The general topic of role-drift has, in one form or another, been on my mind for several years, and I recently posted an extract of a conversation I had with Puritano two years ago.  The narrow topic is how men in the military adapt to the culture–the wider topic is social adaptation and investment in an ideology over time.

===== =====

MST: We’re here with U.S. army lieutenant Dean Williams, and he’s going to tell us a story from his military career. Dean, set the scene for us.

DMW: OK, so I was a lieutenant back in the 19–early 90’s in Germany and there was an officer party. And a group of lieutenants, with me among them, we’re sitting next to a very famous general, his name was General Michael Kelly. And he was famous because he had become a one star general in a faster time than any other general in the signal corps. So we were very honored to be sitting there, and having a drink or two, with this kind of military celebrity.

MST: So you’d never talked to a one star general before in such a close setting?

DMW: Yes, right, not a nice close setting. Not at a kind of a party where–he was being very open and honest with us, and we really got the sense that he had taken off his, kind of, stars, you know his general stars, he felt like more of a human being than is normally the case. And then I just, I felt this honesty and I felt it was a chance to tell him something that I had always felt in the last few years of being an officer and that was that you really got the sense that there was this vast, you know, impersonal, very powerful “they” that was above you; you had to do things, but “they” were up there controlling things, watching you, sometimes praising you, sometimes yelling at you, but they were there and you were here and there really wasn’t, there wasn’t much of a connection. And yet here was this general, he was part of the “they,” but here he was sitting right in front of us having a beer. And I said that to him; I said “so I really feel this gap between us so this is a good, you know, interesting chance,” and then I’ll never forget, he sat back and he put–he was smoking a cigar, by the way he was a very small man, like a lot of generals are…

MST: Were you smoking a cigar?

DMW: No, I was not smoking a cigar ’cause I would have gotten sick, but he was a very small, but very dynamic and powerful guy, with piercing blue eyes, drinking his beer and just very animated and dynamic and energetic, and he leaned back and he actually put his cigar down, and he said “young lieutenant, let me tell you something,” he said “I’ve been in the army around thirty years, and I know exactly what you mean.” But he said, “and I went through as a lieutenant, in Vietnam, and did many many things, and I’ve done many field problems and solved many problems, and yelled and gotten yelled at, and in all my long career, as I went through, at some point, that “they” you speak of became a “we.” And now I feel that I am that “we.” And we were all very impressed with that, and I’ve never–I’ve forgotten many things from that evening; I’ve forgotten many things from the military…

MST: But not that? Not that moment?

DMW: Yeah. It seems to me the most powerful statement of what it’s like to be part of an organization and to feel either powerless or have power…

MST: So what he meant is that over time, that you too would become part of that thing that you described as a “they,” you’d be part of it?

DMW: Yeah…

MST: You would become it.

DMW: You would, and as you spend time and invest in an organization, and as the organization gives you more power, more money, more reasons to stay, it doesn’t become–it gets nearer and nearer–it’s almost like some alien force but then it finally goes into you and you are part of it, actually, which is a very…at that time it was very positive. Now I’m more, I’m thinking was it positive or negative? For all of us.

===== =====

The vice-squad officer “goes over”

the straight becomes queer

the jailer of the faithful becomes an apostle of the faith

the hipster sells out

“every cheap hood makes a bargain with the world and ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl”

the would-be uncommitted passive intellectual confronts the realization that action is ideology and the personal is political

the they becomes a we

the world turns, stays pretty much the same.

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  1. “non-conformity is all to often its own evolution of conformity” indeed. This is an excellent summary of one of the major themes of this blog.

  2. ooops — that was supposed to be too in the fourth line… I hate when I fail to edit before I submit!

  3. I read this post several days ago and my thoughts keep drifting back to ruminate some more in a rather humorous vein: I agree that we are all subject to role drift in some form or another. I have always (well, always in my adult-i-have-recovered-my-mind state) held that non-conformity is all to often its own evolution of conformity. But, back to the idea of role drift… As I undertake this new challenge to teach a class made up entirely of students with autism… well, you get the drift (pun intended).


  4. Very creative to link all those disparate areas. About Paul, made me think of the saying, “with the zeal of the newly converted.” I would like to see you develop this line of thought more, see where it leads you. Wonder what it says about us all, that we can “go native” so easily. And there seem to be quite a few phrases dealing with this in at least a tangential manner; there’s “the Stockholm Syndrome” as well.


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