In an extraordinary article entitled “The Voyeur’s Motel,” published in the April 11, 2016 issue of The New Yorker, Gay Talese told the story of how he became involved with a serial voyeur named Gerald Foos. Foos, in the late 1960s, had purchased the 21-room Manor House Motel in Aurora, Colorado with the express purpose of using it to spy on his guests. He wrote to Talese in 1980, telling him that, for the 15 years preceding, he had taken thorough notes on the sexual and quotidian behavior of each of his guests. Foos wrote that he considered himself to be a modern day Alfred Kinsey, but better, and that his work might be helpful to “people in general and sex researchers in particular.”
Talese visited Foos at his motel after signing a non-disclosure agreement, where, at one point, he ended up in the roof of the motel participating in the voyeurism himself. There, his tie fell through the slats of the faux ventilators that allowed for observation, threatening his own exposure. Years later, Talese obtained Foos’ manuscript, “The Voyeur’s Journal,” and his permission to write about it using his name and identifying details.
While Talese clearly presents Foos’ project as the work of a disturbed mind, it is also clear that he believes that it has some kind of value—to the point that he has reproduced much of his work here, and will do in much greater detail in an upcoming book about the motel owner’s life. Talese has high hopes for the worth of the voyeur’s observations, and notes that his book publisher, Grove Press, actually paid Foos for the use of his manuscript.
In the piece, Talese wrote of his initial hesitation to trust Foos, who had so clearly “violated his customers’ trust and invaded their privacy,” but that he also couldn’t help but feel some sort of kinship with him, since they had both taken to learning about humanity in a similar way.
“As I reread the letter, I reflected that his ‘research’ methods and motives bore some similarity to my own in ‘Thy Neighbor’s Wife,’” Talese wrote, referring to his own book, for which he managed massage parlors and hung out in a nudist commune (all with the participants’ consent). He also thought of the opening line to his book The Kingdom and the Power: “Most journalists are restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world, the imperfections in people and places.”
In looking closely at the story, it’s clear that Talese’s ambitions outweighed the numerous ethical questions the situation presented.
“I was intrigued by the notion of the voyeur, in the course of his trespasses, inadvertently serving as a social historian,” Talese wrote, referencing a book called The Other Victorians by literary critic Steven Marcus, which includes accounts from a 19th-century English man who engaged in a number of sexual and voyeuristic experiences with women of varying social classes, including servants, prostitutes, and a marchioness.
The man had the memoir anonymously published, and it eventually became a hit in Europe and America. Talese wrote that Marcus considered it “a trove of insights into the social history of the period.”
As the anonymous author wrote in his memoir, “Man cannot see too much of human nature.” I hoped that Foos’s manuscript, if I obtained permission to read it, would serve as a kind of sequel to “My Secret Life.”
But what of Foos’ records? Do they really offer the insight into the sexual culture of the 1970s that Foos insists they do and Talese hopes they might?
A handful of actual researchers Jezebel spoke with say no, not in the slightest. The biggest issue, they say, is the lack of consent—an intentional oversight that invalidates the entire undertaking.
“We get informed consent from participants because we need to protect human subjects,” said Dr. Kristen Mark, an assistant professor and Director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky, and affiliate faculty at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University. “There’s a long history of why we have research ethics and I think that history needs to be respected and we need to uphold consent in research.
“All scientists are trained to be very critical of research methodology and here we have a methodology that really didn’t follow any kind of scientific protocol and therefore that is open to critique,” Mark continued. “There isn’t any scientific integrity there.”
Kristen Jozkowski, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, said Foos isn’t even in “the same ballpark” as traditional sex researchers like Kinsey or Masters and Johnson.
“As a sex researcher, as a consent researcher, as a human rights activist, as a sexual assault activist, whatever hat I’m choosing to wear, I think consent is extremely important,” she said. “If someone is forcing something upon them—like the observations without their knowledge—that’s a violation of your human rights.”
If Foos was going to argue his work was ethnographic research (in other words, the study of human behavior in the environment where those humans live), it would have to take place in the public sphere, or with the express consent of his subjects—both of which were the case for Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife.
And, whenever anthropologists and behavioral researchers (a title Foos had bestowed upon himself) participate in that sort of research in the U.S., they are required to abide by a set of regulations called “the Common Rule,” or the “Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects,” which are structured around three ethical principles that still set the bar for human research. From Fordham University:
- Beneficence: To maximize benefits for science, humanity, and research participants and to avoid or minimize risk or harm.
- Respect: To protect the autonomy and privacy rights of participants.
- Justice: To ensure the fair distribution among persons and groups of the costs and benefits of research.
Committees called Institutional Review Boards exist to make sure that research involving human subjects upholds these principles.
“They read these applications that researchers submit that say, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do; here are the risks involved; here are the potential benefits; here’s why I’m doing this; here’s exactly what’s going to happen,” Jozkowski said. “And the Institutional Review Board makes a decision about whether or not they can proceed with this study. A lot of it has to with informed consent.”
Foos’ solitary project obviously fails to meet any of the above guidelines, but it also fails to qualify as research because of another simple fact: Foos isn’t a researcher, nor is he operating like one.
“One of the requirements [of research] is that it has to be reproducible,” said Dr. Barbra Rothschild, an internist and Columbia University Bioethics faculty member with a research interest in research ethics on human subjects. “One man’s observation of people in their private lives is not a reproducible result.”
Legitimate sex research can consist of a number of self-report tools, like open- and close-ended surveys, daily diaries, interviews, and focus groups that seek to find out what individuals do and think and want. Research can also involve in-laboratory observation, like Masters & Johnson’s work, or embedding in a community in ethnographic research—but even in an embed, the scientist would take advantage of data collection. According to the American Anthropological Association, this could include “unobtrusive direct observation, participant observation, structured and unstructured interviewing, focused discussions with individuals and community members, analysis of texts, and audio-visual records.”
Foos used none of the above methods, as “unobtrusive” and “undisclosed” are not the same thing. The AAA notes, “The process of obtaining informed consent may be continuous and incremental throughout the course of the research, and review of consent obtained may be periodic.”
Foos argued to Talese that because his subjects had no idea they were a part of a study, and because he had purposefully failed to ask them for consent, they were better, more natural subjects and his observations were necessarily better than those obtained in a lab.
“I can appreciate [Foos’] perspective of wanting to observe like that,” Jozkowski said, noting the possibility for error in the scientific method. “[In a study] you’re recalling information... We as researchers are relying on people being honest, being accurate, and that might not always be the case.”
But research methods are constantly evolving in the interest of taking this factor into account. “We’ve figured out ways to ask people about these things, we’ve figured out ways to have them be more honest,” Mark said. “For example, collecting data in an anonymous way, asking questions in a particular way. There’s a lot of research that’s gone into even just how to research these things, and we do have methods that will allow us to get at some of that.
“[Foos] does have a point in the sense that this is observation of sex in a context where it’s not in a lab setting and the individuals don’t know that he’s watching,” Mark continued. “But I don’t think that that scientific discovery outweighs the ethical violations that were made. I don’t think those are pieces of information that we can’t learn in other ways.”
Foos’ observations were written to mimic what might appear in a scientific journal, using quantitative and qualitative data that was either approximated or imagined:
Subject #1: Mr. and Mrs. W of southern Colorado.
Description: Approx. 35 year old male, in Denver on business. 5'10", 180 pounds, white collar, probably college educated. Wife 35 years old, 5'4", 130 lbs, pleasing plump, dark hair, Italian extraction, educated, 37-28-37.
Of that couple’s sexual encounter, he wrote:
The evening passed uneventful until 8:30 p.m. when she finally undressed revealing a beautiful body, slightly plump, but sexually attractive anyway. He appeared disinterested when she laid on the bed beside him, and he began smoking one cigarette after another and watching TV. . . .
Finally after kissing and fondling her, he quickly gained an erection and entered her in the male superior position, with little or no foreplay, and orgasmed in approximately 5 minutes. She had no orgasm and went to the bathroom. . . .
Conclusion: They are not a happy couple. He is too concerned about his position and doesn’t have time for her. He is very ignorant of sexual procedure and foreplay despite his college education. This is a very undistinguished beginning for my observation laboratory . . . .
“There’s just as much bias in his interpretation of that situation as there is in having a participant consent to research, know they’re being watched, and the bias that might be introduced there. His bias is just as strong in that case,” Mark told Jezebel. “There’s a lot of context involved in a sexual situation that, from a voyeur’s perspective, is not taken into consideration. I don’t think there were scientific gains from watching these people have sex.”
Moreover, Foos would regularly interfere with his guests’ affairs using information he gained via spying. Once, when he couldn’t see a couple having sex, he turned on the headlights of a car in the parking lot to shine into the room; on several other occasions, he threw out illegal drugs in the rooms.
The veneer of objectivity in his journals become all the more far-fetched when, one day, Foos reveals that his meddling might have caused a murder, which he also observed. According to Foos, he flushed the drugs of two guests down a toilet when they were out of the room. When the male guest found them missing, he assumed his female associate was to blame and strangled her on the floor until she stopped moving. Foos, who witnessed the entire exchange, did nothing until he was informed of the murder by a maid. At that point he called the police, but failed to ever acknowledge his eyewitness role.
But Talese wrote that inquiries to the police department could not confirm that such a murder ever happened. Beyond that, Talese wrote that there were other minor factual inconsistencies throughout his manuscript:
Indeed, over the decades since we met, in 1980, I have noticed various inconsistencies in his story: for instance, the first entries in his “Voyeur’s Journal” are dated 1966, but the deed of sale for the Manor House, which I obtained recently from the Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder’s office, shows that he purchased the place in 1969. And there are other dates in his notes and journals that don’t quite scan. I have no doubt that Foos was an epic voyeur, but he could sometimes be an inaccurate and unreliable narrator. I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript.
Even setting aside Foos’ utter untrustworthiness, which Talese to some extent admits, a new question presents itself: how can we justify Talese’s role in this project as a journalist? Not only did he pay to reproduce unethically obtained observations (Jozkowski, Mark, and Rothschild all vocally cringed at the use of the word “research” in association with Foos), but he also protected someone who had likely broken the law hundreds and hundreds of time. While journalists often allow sources who have broken the law to maintain anonymity, such an allowance is done with the understanding that some sort of greater knowledge is being obtained—such is clearly not the case with Foos and Talese.
Todd Gitlin, a sociologist, writer and chair of Columbia University’s Communications Ph.D. program, doesn’t think that Talese presented Foos as a legitimate scientist.
“I didn’t feel that Talese subscribed to the view that this was actually some kind of legitimate social science research,” Gitlin said in a call with Jezebel. He sees Talese presenting Foos as a man who “has this grandiose idea of himself. This guy is a voyeur and he’s worked out this pseudo-scientific rationale for what he does.”
But where Talese may have gone wrong, in Gitlin’s mind, is in betraying the privacy of the subjects of Foos’ journals. If it were him, he would have redacted any identifying information about the couples and groups involved. For example, Talese recounts one anecdote of a couple and their male companion who worked at a regional vacuum cleaner store. The three checked into a room, engaged in a threesome, and then discussed vacuum cleaner sales. In that case, Gitlin argued, these individuals would be fairly easily identifiable if you lived near Aurora during that time.
In an email to the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, The New Yorker editor David Remnick defended the article: “While the scene is certainly disturbing (Talese writes that he was ‘shocked, and surprised’ to read the account in the journal), the New Yorker does not believe that Talese or it violated any legal or ethical boundaries in presenting Foos’ account of it to the reader.”
Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, who was also worried by the ethics of the article, reached out to Talese, who reportedly could not spare time to think about these issues at the moment:
[Talese] was writing from Denver; he had just arrived in the city, he said, and was “now worrying about the death threats to the voyeur my writing has just exposed. Many mean-sounding people here in Denver are warning him not to leave his house—and, for three days, he hasn’t. The police had been notified, they are patrolling the area around the clock.” He wrote that he planned to pay Foos a visit this weekend, before adding: “As he felt responsible for the death he did not prevent, I also feel responsible for communicating his very complicated and controversial relationship with his life-long compulsion to invade other people’s privacy. Now, with America a Voyeuristic Nation—so much of it in the name of security (which I explain in the magazine excerpt) it is almost pathetic to witness the petrified voyeur seeking privacy.”
In his article, Talese suggests that Foos understood the inevitability of backlash. Nonetheless, his belief in his “research,” and his desire for this research to be public, won out in the end. At the end of each year of observations, Foos would create an annual report—excerpts of which Talese published in this article (he will likely include more of these reports in his upcoming book). For example, in 1973, Foos found, among other things, that 12 percent of couples observed are “highly sexed,” 62 percent lead “moderately active sexual lives,” 22 percent have low sex drive, and three percent had no sex at all. One of the largest groups of guests that visited his motel, he reported, were “honest but unhappy people.” Conclusions like this could have been drawn through any number of more legitimate ways.
“I truly believe that asking people to participate in research, in the way we understand medical research today in particular, is that people are maybe altruistically... contributing to future knowledge,” Rothschild said. “So it’s a very special thing we ask them to do, to contribute their body to test a drug or even be observed. And so this idea that somehow he knows better, that he can say that people are more natural or that he’s going to get some result, I mean it’s ludicrous, it’s meaningless.
“Who is he to even make the observation or to judge? And why do we need this information anyway? To what good ends is this going to take us? How will this better the human condition?” Rothschild continued. “It betters his condition, I think.”
In aggregate, the New Yorker article is more of a character study of an odd, obsessive man than it is anything else. “Conclusion: I am still unable to determine the function I serve,” Foos wrote in one of his later journal entries. “Apparently, I’m delegated the responsibility of this heavy burden to be placed upon myself—never being able to tell anyone!”
He continues: “The depression builds, but I will continue onward with my research. I’ve pondered on occasion that perhaps I don’t exist, only represent a product of the subjects’ dreams. No one would believe my accomplishments as a voyeur anyway, therefore, the dreamlike manifestation would explain my reality.”
Perhaps Foos himself is surprised by how this ended—with his “research” eventually immortalized in a New Yorker-sanctioned book full of his own findings, and paid for his efforts, too.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.