Accidental Sexologist

When he was young, William Simon wanted to change the world. The late University of Houston sociology professor changed the way we view sex instead.

Back in 1986, when the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality gave University of Houston sociology professor William Simon its distinguished achievement award, he joked, "It's because I'm the only person who has succeeded in making sex both dull and unprofitable."

By helping this often taboo subject to seem more commonplace, Bill -- who died of cancer late last month just one day past his 70th birthday -- not only helped change how academics look at human sexuality, he also helped expand what kind of sexual expressions ordinary American citizens may view in the media. Famously persuasive, he was an early champion of gay rights and of a more tolerant view of all sexual behavior. He wrote or co-wrote books and a flood of academic papers arguing that sex was just another thing people learned how to do. He expounded his views everywhere, from a cover story he wrote in Psychology Today to analyses he co-wrote for Playboy's studies of homosexuality and of American men. By testifying as an expert witness in obscenity and pornography trials, both nationally and locally, he helped win cases that broadened the bounds of what sexually explicit depictions the law would permit consenting adults to watch.

A three-column New York Times obituary July 29 observed: "Dr. Simon ... brought a postmodernist sensibility to a field long bound by historical assumptions. His view was that there are no fixed points in the geography of sexuality, merely an ever-changing terrain that has less to do with biology than with accidents of history. "The most important truth about sexuality is that there may be no important truths about sexuality that are permanent,' he wrote in his last book, Postmodern Sexualities (Routledge, 1996)."

For the past six years, I counted Bill Simon among my best friends. My wife and I went with him and his wife, the painter Lynn Randolph, to movies and art openings and on other excursions. We were weekend guests in their Museum District home, and we regularly invited them to ours in Galveston. In those visits and others, Bill shared a lot about himself and his times. But until Lynn suggested that I write his obituary, I didn't know the half of it.

A handsome, olive-skinned man with a gray beard and mane of naturally jet-black hair, Bill was that rarest of breeds in Houston, a public intellectual with a passionate commitment to progressive causes. If you lived in or near Houston for any part of the past quarter century, you probably encountered him in the media. He was quoted in scores upon scores of newspaper interviews. If you read the Houston Chronicle, The Houston Post or The New York Times, you probably saw his frequent quotes and analyses about a range of urban subjects or, less often, his own political polemics on local op-ed pages. If you listened to KPFT-FM, you may have heard his deep, mellifluous, somewhat ironic voice when he co-hosted the Sunday-evening left-of-center political show, Class Notes. And if you watched local public television, you may have seen him on panel interviews or, in the late 1970s, in a prize-winning, socially conscious documentary series called The Invisible City.

Bill was as much an urban philosopher as a sociologist of sex, and reporters sought him out on any number of issues. They knew they could count on him to say something profound, unexpected, quotable or funny -- or maybe all four at once.

Once in the early 1980s, I asked him about some Houston controversy I was covering for the now defunct Dallas Times Herald. Struggling with where on the ideological spectrum to place this man whose elitist tastes seemed so at variance with his plebian politics, I finally asked how he would label himself. "You want a label?" he said. "Well, I'm a Neiman Marxist."

Back then I had no hint that Bill was an eighth-grade dropout and onetime Detroit auto assembly-line worker. Nor did I know that he'd earned a Ph.D. from the nation's top sociology department without a high school diploma, much less a bachelor's or master's degree. Or that as a young political radical struggling to support his family, he had been hounded by the FBI, losing one job after an agent visited his employer. Many were aware that he once worked for Alfred Kinsey's famed Institute for Sex Research, where Bill employed modern statistical methods to study the 1960s sexual revolution while it was happening. But few knew that he was an author of a sweeping theory of sexuality that stood the ideas of Kinsey -- and Freud as well -- on their heads.


Bill came to Houston in 1975, in the middle of the city's last energy boom. He was well grounded in municipal issues and had been hired to head the short-lived Institute for Urban Studies, then affiliated with the University of Houston, which he ran for its final couple of years. His blunt warnings about Houston's growing pollution and its neglect of the poor and powerless, as well as his criticism of what passed for city planning, earned him a permanent place in reporters' Rolodexes but few friends in the city's business-oriented political firmament. "He did become a lightning rod," said his friend Dick Jaffe, a former associate director of Chicago's National Opinion Research Corporation, who followed Bill to the Institute for Urban Studies. "The more he did it, the more he liked it, and the more difficult it was for him." Early in his tenure here, when a headline in the Chronicle described Bill as "Houston's prophet of doom," he wore the title as a badge of honor.

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