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.


Finally it was a little bit too much for everyone. In 1968 Bill split for Chicago, where he spent the next seven years as a program supervisor in sociology and anthropology at the Institute for Juvenile Research. This was a state agency charged with tracking kids in the juvenile justice system and finding out what institutions were doing to deal with youths. With the move, Bill and Marlene split up, but she went to Chicago, too, allowing Bill to remain a regular presence in the lives of his three sons. At the IJR, Bill developed a new advocacy program for children, said his friend Dick Jaffe. "I can remember him arguing with everybody about what they should be doing but weren't," Jaffe said. "He took on the City of Chicago -- he wanted better programs, but he had to deal with all the frustrations and politics of a state agency."

Meanwhile, Bill continued to collaborate with Gagnon. Over the next 17 years, they produced a total of four books, many academic papers, and co-edited a 1971 Playboy Forum on homosexuality.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bill often visited Playboy's editorial offices at the invitation of a good friend, then-Playboy senior editor and later associate publisher, Nat Lehrman. Bill also sometimes attended parties at Chicago's Playboy Mansion, which the magazine's sybaritic founder, Hugh Hefner, then occupied. Lehrman and Bill had become acquainted back when Bill was still at the Kinsey Institute, the editor explained, "because Hefner was obsessed with updating the Kinsey reports." Hefner had donated something like $200,000 to the institute to update the sex research that had been reported by Kinsey and his colleagues 15 to 20 years earlier, Lehrman said. Hefner must have been nonplussed when, as Lehrman recalled, "Bill and John [Gagnon] explained that you couldn't replicate Kinsey because the [original] work was not scientific." In 1980, with his former graduate student Patricia Y. Miller, then teaching at Smith College, Bill analyzed a Playboy-commissioned survey of almost 2,000 men between age 18 and 49. In the somewhat anticlimactic Playboy Report on American Men, Bill and Pat Miller reported that men wanted a fulfilling life but ranked sex well below health, love, peace of mind and other qualities.

After he was recruited to Houston in 1975, well before the Institute for Urban Studies lost its funding, Bill began to make his presence felt on the UH campus. In spring 1976, he spoke at a university colloquium. "We had invited the president of the American Psychological Association to come and speak on the evolution of morality," recalled Ed Willems, a professor of educational psychology. "So here came Donald Campbell, a world-renowned figure, and delivered his talk. Bill got up to deliver the response and without any notes spoke for 24 minutes. He knocked Campbell dead. It was the most wide-ranging and most carefully articulated dismantling of Donald Campbell's arguments you can imagine. He based his response in history, social-political theory, art, philosophy, philosophy of science and very, very solid references to what was happening in the social sciences. It was the most articulate presentation I'd ever heard in my life. There were about 250 people there, and when he finished, the applause was deafening."

But the warm reception was not to last. Perhaps because of his politics, candor, sharp wit and inability to suffer fools gladly, Bill was by most accounts a pariah in the school of social sciences, including in his own department, sociology. "Most of the people in his department were aware of his national and international reputation," said one UH faculty member who asked not to be quoted by name. "He far outmatched them, and they were afraid of him." Even in his final year, Bill was saddled mostly with "service courses" -- introduction to sociology and big survey classes that would ordinarily be given to younger faculty -- rather than the graduate seminars one might expect.

Still, Bill taught undergraduates in the honors college and graduate students in the ed psych department, his friend Willems said, "and students worshiped him." Willems teaches only graduate courses. "In a great number of them," he said, "I'd have Bill come in and listen to what people were thinking about and comment on it. He was a magician at doing that. He was just incredible."

Bill could see merit in students' research plans before anyone else could, Willems said: "There was a woman who wanted to do a participant-observer study of lesbian bars. No one else would let her. Bill did, and she did a wonderful study. Another student did a study of minority group men who were homosexual, and it, too, got done and turned out well. There is still another woman who, with Bill's encouragement, was attending and reporting on sadomasochistic balls. A lot of these things wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for Bill."

Bill's multidisciplinary talents were often better appreciated outside UH. For instance, Adèle Santos, now a professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley and an architect with a private practice, would invite him to her architecture class at Rice, and he'd be witty and provocative. "He'd talk about all facets of daily life -- including masturbation -- and the need in houses for privacy to accommodate that." Noting the startled reaction of some of her naive students, she recalled, "I'd say, "Bill, this time let's not start with masturbation.' "

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