John H. Gagnon and William Simon.
Where does the drama get its materials? From the unending conversation that is going on at the point in history when we are born’. Kenneth Burke
John Gagnon and Bill Simon were amongst the towering intellectual influences of my early life. I read them throughout the 1960’s. They taught me that:
“ (1) Sexual conduct is entirely historically and culturally determined; (2) the meaning of conduct does not reside in a reading of the bodily activity of individuals; (3) sexual science is historically and culturally determined in equal measure ;(4) sexuality is acquired, maintained, and unlearned in all of its aspects and is organized by social structure and culture, and (5) gender and sexuality are both learned from of conduct and are linked differently in different cultures. (John Gagnon: The Interpretation of Desire p136 ID).
My first encounter with John was with the sociologists Michael Schofield who introduced me to him in 1970 in Wayland Young’s House – 100 Bayswater Road. He subsequently became the external examiner of my PhD, he visited Essex in 1984 (when I also met Cathy Greenblat), and I visited his hosting university Stony Brook in 1985. I first met Bill many years later at Santa Barbara in 1987 where we were both teaching summer school. I also met Lynn his wife. Together we had a wonderful summer together and Bill introduced me to the music of Andrea Marcovici.
John and Bill are both amazingly strong intellectuals in the best sense of that word.
They studied at Chicago in the mid 1950’s. Subsequently John went to the Kinsey Institute and Bill joined him a little later (with a Hugh Hefner grant). They worked ‘crazily together’ till 1968; and then wrote the book Sexual Conduct by 1973. By this time they were also getting new career structures – John at Stony Brook, Bill at Houston (and- as it happens- with new partners and families). But after Sexual Conduct, they remained friends: you could always see them together at conferences; but the critical moment was over. Their intellectual lives moved on differently. We must all be grateful that they spent those five years together at Kinseyland. Without the right time, the right place, the people mix would this have happened.
John writes in his biographical essay:
Two senses of the world that I know Bill and I shared. First, was a certain view of our lives as accidental and contingent, lives that could have turned out quite differently; and second, a recognition of our marginality to the larger sociological profession as advanced by the Graduate Program in Sociology at the University of Chicago and recorded by the official historians of the department and the discipline….. …. P287 SC 2
They were, of course, writing before Foucault’s influential work (though as John has remarked when he encountered Foucault: “What Foucault does is too texty; its too parochially French.. he is not very new except to folks who are not well read in history and the other social sciences’……. P280 Together John Gagnon and Bill Simon were a powerhouse of ideas. Here is a potpourri of some of their ideas in axioms:
Therefore, the authors reject the unproven assumption that “powerful” psychosexual drives are fixed biological attributes. More importantly, we reject the even more dubious assumption that sexual capacities or experiences tend to translate immediately into a kind of universal “knowing” or innate wisdom – that sexuality has a magical ability, possessed by no other capacity, that allows biological drives to be expressed directly in psychosocial and social behaviors. Pyschosexual Development 1969
In any given society, at any given moment in its history, people become sexual in the same way as they become everything else. Without much reflection, they pick up direction from their social environment. They acquire and assemble meanings, skills and values from the people around them. Their critical choices are often made by going along and drifting. People learn when they are quite young a few of the things they are expected to be, and continue slowly to accumulate a belief in who they are and ought to be throughout the rest of childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Sexual conduct is learned in the same ways and through the same processes; it is acquired and assembled in human interaction, judged and performed in specific cultural and historical worlds. John Gagnon Human Sexualities 1977: p2)
All conduct is scripted , and ..scripting theory is not merely to be applied to sexual conduct, but to all social conduct’ ID P136 Orig 1991
No Play Without A Script : We see sexual behavior therefore as scripted behavior, not the masked expression of a primordial drive. Pychosexual development 1969
We have allowed the homosexual’s object choice to dominate and control our imagery of him……..(we will) only begin to understand [ through]… those complex matrices wherein most human behaviour is fashioned’….. Formulation, 1967.
There was no magic in the world… The world is no longer enchanted, and it cannot be enchanted again. And the search for enchantment in sexuality must end in failure……. SSp284
The critical posture to maintain is that the future will not be better or worse, only different’. P233 SC2. P233.
It is abnormal to think scientifically. Most thought processes, as you go through the world, are impressions and fragments and pieces. You have to create an environment in which linear and highly coherent thought can go forward; you find a quite room, you close the doors, you turn on your computer, you look at the screen, you type. You pretend there is nothing else going on in your head. But that describes a specialized environment of a very specialized form of thinking…… SSp280
The most important permanent truth about sexuality is that there may be no important truths about sexuality that are permanent … all discourses about sexuality are ultimately discourses about something else; sexuality rather than serving as a constant thread that unifies the totality of human experience, is the ultimate dependent variable, requiring explanation more often that it provides explanation’ (Postmodern Sexualities 1996:142; xvii)