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.

Nor did Bill endear himself to Houston's bluenoses. Shortly after his arrival, he enthusiastically defended the noted Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini's sexually explicit film, Salò: The 120 Days of Sodom, based on a story by the Marquis de Sade. Vice squad officers had seized the film, and the Harris County district attorney's office had prosecuted the manager of the River Oaks Theatre, where it had been shown. Bill's testimony was pivotal in persuading the jury to acquit the theater manager, according to the manager's lawyer, Greg Gladden, an ACLU cooperating attorney. With that case, Gladden said, Bill helped end the pervasive practice of local police and prosecutors deciding what films consenting adults could see in Houston.

Bill had an equally laissez-faire attitude about sexual fantasy. Back in 1992, a Chronicle writer asked him about two local researchers' rather judgmental analyses of paperback romance novels. A number of these novels featured rape scenes, and in many of those scenes the women were said to experience orgasm. "These are fantasies," Bill patiently explained. "A woman may get turned on reading about a rape. It doesn't mean she wants to be raped." Fantasies, he went on, are exciting precisely because they aren't played out in real life. Then he quoted a good friend of his, the late UCLA psychoanalyst Robert Stoller, a leading scholar on sex, deviance and gender: "The kind of things ordinary people think about while having sexual intercourse are likely to make a monkey's hair stand up straight."

After he came to Houston, Bill sometimes introduced himself as "a burned-out sex researcher," saying he'd never go back to that work. And he might never have done so. But in 1977, the Texas legislature pulled the plug on the Institute for Urban Studies. By the time Bill arrived, one knowledgeable observer said, legislators were poised to defund it because they were angry over his predecessor's numerous missteps. Certainly Bill's against-the-grain critique of boomtown Houston did nothing to change their minds. But fortunately, as part of the bargain that brought him here, Bill got a tenured professorship in UH's sociology department. There he remained on the faculty for the next 23 years -- often marginalized, some said, by his less-distinguished and less-brainy departmental colleagues, but lionized by the press and, sometimes, his peers nationally.

Bill, says a friend, took himself more seriously after meeting painter Lynn Randolph.
Bill, says a friend, took himself more seriously after meeting painter Lynn Randolph.
Bill, says a friend, took himself more seriously after meeting painter Lynn Randolph.
Bill, says a friend, took himself more seriously after meeting painter Lynn Randolph.

Bill's road to academia seems like a cross between an 18th-century picaresque tale and one of those luck-and-pluck Horatio Alger yarns -- only told from a leftist perspective. Born in New York City on July 20, 1930, Bill was the middle son of Jewish immigrants from eastern Poland who later also had two daughters. His father owned a succession of failing fruit-and-vegetable stores in the Bronx. In 1940, when Bill was ten, Morris Simon moved his family to Detroit and became a produce clerk in an open-air market. According to Bill's older brother, Myron, a literature professor emeritus at the University of California at Irvine, when Bill reached the second grade, teachers summoned his parents, complaining that he challenged their authority and would not sit still. Frequently truant, he dropped out of the eighth grade and never returned to secondary school. After that, Myron said, Bill would talk their father out of a few bucks and simply run away.

But Bill always returned to Detroit, and there, when he was 15, he led a ragtag group of adolescents to a rally protesting the appearance of a leader of the isolationist America First movement. Bill then was "a raw, rough kid from the streets," said his old friend, Seymour Faber. Cops broke up the demonstration, said Faber, who was there, and Bill piloted his little group to the front of City Hall, where they protested the policemen's brutality. That action caught the eye of a Detroit organizer for the Workers Party, who arranged a meeting with him.

Before long, Bill was a rising star in the Detroit branch of the party, a faction of the Socialist Workers Party, which took its politics from Leon Trotsky, a more democratic, intellectual and internationalist adversary of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. When Bill was still 15, he used his older brother's name and birth certificate to prove he was 18 and got a job on the assembly line at the Chrysler Corporation's Dodge Main plant. He was fired, probably for trying to organize fellow workers on behalf of the party. By age 16, he was off to organize mine workers in West Virginia with Bernice Stark, a fellow socialist whom he met on a Communications Workers of America picket line. They subsequently married, and at age 20, he fathered his first son, David. (That marriage ultimately ended in divorce, and she died in 1957.)

Members of the Workers Party and an offshoot group Bill later joined, the Independent Socialist League, engaged in endless and spirited debates, requiring extensive research. For Bill, as for other onetime American Trotskyists -- including such academic and literary luminaries as Irving Howe, Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Bell, Dwight Macdonald and Lewis Coser -- the party polished his skills in thinking, debating, analyzing and writing.

But being a radical, even a democratically inclined one, wasn't easy. By 1948, America's so-called Red Scare period had begun. In 1949, while Bill was working nights as an IBM keypunch operator, an FBI agent advised his employer of his Trotskyist politics. The company had a U.S. Navy contract and was vulnerable to such pressure. Even though the Trotskyists were not known for spying and had a deep antipathy for Stalin's Soviet Union, "Bill had a lot of problems with the FBI," said his second wife, Marlene Bragman Simon, who was a fellow socialist and close acquaintance during this time. "And he lost that job."

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