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.

The institute had been founded by the late Alfred Kinsey, who was to sex research what Ptolemy was to astronomy. Kinsey, who died in 1956, had been a zoologist. Before tackling human sexual behavior, he had focused on the gall wasp. Statisticians complained that in researching human beings' sexual activity, Kinsey and his colleagues skewed their data by interviewing people who knew each other and by changing how and in what order they asked their questions, depending on their assessment of the interviewee's intellectual level. Bill and Gagnon employed more rigorous sociological methods, making the institute more academically respectable to sociologists. But they also challenged one of Kinsey's most cherished tenets: that sex was chiefly biologically driven.

Partly based on Gagnon's earlier work involving sexual behavior in prison, where it seemed as much about dominance as desire, the pair began to examine homosexual sex through a different prism. "We thought the way to look at homosexuality, like most human activity, was via the career model," Gagnon said. "How do people find and select partners and become proficient at it? We said homosexuality was like getting a job -- it was something people learned how to do in a specific historical and social context."

Ultimately, Bill and Gagnon espoused the view that heterosexual behavior, too, could be put to many social purposes. "It didn't have to be about reproduction or sexual pleasure," Gagnon explained. "We made the argument that you had to make sex interesting in order for people to do it." From there, it was a short hop to saying that sex was almost entirely social and that the biological element was but a very small part.

This view essentially turned Kinsey's biological theory on its head -- and its implications turned Freud's psychology upside down as well. When Bill and Gagnon finally presented their ideas in a book, Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality (Aldine, 1973), they caused quite a stir. Professor Robert A. Scott of Princeton, writing in the social science journal Society, called it "one of the most important sociological statements on human sexuality." In the Journal of Homosexuality, Gerald C. Davison of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, called it "one of the most important books to appear in the past 50 years." Predictably, the Journal of Biological Psychology was more restrained. "Freudian devotees and biologically minded social scientists will not be happy with this latest interpretation of sexual behavior," it warned its readers.

Despite praise for its novel ideas, even some academics found the book tough sledding. It did not attract a mass audience as had Kinsey and his colleagues' Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). And maybe that was fortunate. If the book had cracked the academic consensus that human beings' sexual preferences are hardwired, those convinced that homosexual teachers, scoutmasters and adoptive couples are hell-bent on converting children to gay or lesbian lifestyles might have used the book to argue that such conversions were easy to accomplish.

In any event, Paul Gebhard, who directed the Institute for Sex Research for 26 years ending in 1982, strongly disagreed with Bill and Gagnon's view that "human beings were the tabula rasa and that everything that happened was a result of social conditioning." But academic differences weren't the only sore points. "I was in an awkward position vis-à-vis Bill," Gebhard admitted. "Unbeknownst to me, he was a leader of the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society, a mid-1960s group that bridged the divide between the old left and the new left], and the administration didn't like that at all. I was always being told to control him or fire him."

No doubt things were even more awkward when the beat generation poet Allen Ginsberg descended on the Bloomington campus with his lover, Peter Orlovsky, and Orlovsky's schizophrenic brother, whom the pair had just sprung from a booby hatch in Kansas. Also in tow, according to Gebhard, was the cult band called the Fugs, whose hits included "Slum Goddess." They had all come, Gebhard said, "to celebrate the institute and meet with a faculty member named Alfred Lindesmith, an icon for the drug people because he was a champion for more relaxed drug laws."

Ginsberg "gave some speeches about homosexuality and Timothy Leary that outraged the citizenry," Gebhard said. At the school's main auditorium, Ginsberg also gave a poetry reading that was laced with four-letter expletives. Somewhere -- perhaps from Bill -- Ginsberg had learned that the institute had a library of films illustrating various sex acts. "Ginsberg demanded to be photographed in the act of homosexual intercourse," Gebhard said, and the institute readily obliged him. Bill once told me he was at that session, officially monitoring the sound equipment, as I recall it, because only technicians were permitted to be there.

Gebhard couldn't confirm Bill's presence, but he did defend the filmings: "How can you study a phenomenon if you can't look at it?" he asked. "Even before Masters and Johnson, Kinsey realized that if you were going to study something, you needed to film it. We took films of a selected number of people. Later Masters and Johnson and others did a lot of it, but we were the pioneers." Sociologist Jim Elias (who, with his wife Veronica, followed Bill to Bloomington) recalled a wild party honoring Ginsberg at the Simons' home in Bloomington. Was it a bacchanal? I asked. "I don't remember," Elias demurred deliberately. "It was, uh, a little bit for everyone."

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