Remembering John Gagnon



On Thursday February 11 2016, my dear friend, mentor and guru John Gagnon died at the age of 84. He had experienced problems with his leg and his eye, but the final period starting in October brought a terminal pancreatic cancer. He has been an inspiration and will be loved and missed by many. An early obituary has been published (on February 25th) in the New York Times. (see

There will be plenty of times ahead to reflect on John’s enormous contribution to sociology and how he, along with the late and also much loved Bill Simon, laid down the foundation for what is now – forty years on – a flourishing and exuberant ‘critical sexualities studies’ in the social sciences and an underbelly of critique of modern sexology. John and Bill – initially working together at the Kinsey Institute- developed the core of a new way of thinking about sexualities, one which put the social and the cultural at its heart. A major critic of sexology, a pioneer of Gay studies, one of the earliest researchers on HIV /AIDS, John was a serious intellectual about sexualities. I have written an obituary for the journal Sexualities where I will discuss his intellectual achievements. See the obituary here. But here I glance back at just a few more personal memories. (John wrote his own autobiographical reflections some years ago, revealing a great deal about his past: his poor background, his late arrival at Chicago, his early work at the Kinsey Institute etc.– see Authors of Our Own Lives, edited by Bennett Berger (1990).)


I first met John, through a mutual friend, Michael Schofield, in the early 1970s when I was a very young graduate student and John was visiting London and staying at Wayland Young’s house at 100 Bayswater Road. It was quite an intimidating experience for a very young starting graduate student.  John was a big man: a striking presence, a massive intellect, an expansive speaker. He also loomed very large in my mind as the author of the most exciting writings on sexuality I had ever read. I recall being very quiet and somewhat overwhelmed.

I did not get to know him much better on my second encounter. John was a visiting fellow at Churchill, Cambridge and was willing to examine my PhD at the LSE. He was very warm and friendly; but John got so engaged in conversation with Paul Rock, my supervisor, that they spent much of the time debating the thesis between themselves (and leaving me way behind!). Made my viva easy!

It was not really till ten years later, when he arrived at Essex University as a visitor from the State University of New York at Stony Brook for a year that we really got to know each other well and became really good friends. It is the time when I also met Cathy Greenblatt (John’s second wife, and a distinguished sociologist and photographer herself, who shared her life with him for nearly forty years, and lovingly looked after him). John stayed in our Wivenhoe house and evenings and breakfasts were full of endless conversation, discussion and intellectual chat. John was a charm, a delightful, easy and warm conversationalist. I learnt so much from him not just about sexualities; his reading was expansive and he talked about art more than sociology; and he could also explain to me the elitisms of academic life in the USA. The following year, we continued our friendship, as I, in turn, became a visiting Prof at Stony Brook! So two years saw a very close bond develop. In these years I learnt so much about the seriousness of John’s intellectual talents – and the generosity of his spirit. I also realised he had a very extensive network of friends, families and admirers.

We kept in touch over the years. On John’s retirement he moved with Cathy to Nice and we visited them there (the photos accompanying this piece were taken there). He was re reading Proust and much of our time was spent in a gourmet world of good food (another love of John’s). John had a passion for France – Cathy even more so. They were good years: but John was tiring- walking was becoming more difficult, and his eyesight was weakening. They moved to the warmer Palm Springs: sadly I never visited him there. Our last meeting was in London a couple of years back. A good lunch: his mind as lively as ever, but his body clearly failing.

John trod the paths of ambivalence – the up and down roads of an intellectual maverick. On a good day, everything he said was brilliant and he was kind, loving and generous. On a bad day he seemed to remove himself from the social. He certainly had little time for fancy ideas or the latest trend. He was no fan of Foucault or Butler! As he said once of 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’ I might add that I don’t think he had much time for Bordieu and his followers either! They were all trends to come and go with later generations…

John published a lot but I think he found writing difficult. Despite his enormous influence, I think he was disappointed that he never made a bigger mark! Writing was, I think, a bit of a struggle. As one of his heroes Philip Roth says: “Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn’t completely wreck your life.” But beyond this, John was a spectacular discussant. He loved conversation and was a brilliant conversationalist. I recall being at a major conference a few years ago where the discussion was faltering and big problems were being faced: someone said: “Oh where is John Gagnon when we most need him most?”. He was needed for his stunning sharpness, his curious flair for argument, his genuinely original, creative insights. And his loving attentive kindness to others.

He will be much missed

My heart goes out to Cathy and all the family and friends. She has set up a Caringbridge.Com Web Site for memories. If you want to leave one, simply go to the web site Caring Bridge Com, register and search for John’s name.




Some words from John to reflect upon

No play without a script : we see sexual behavior therefore as scripted behavior, not the masked expression of a primordial drive.
Psychosexual Development 1969

All conduct is scripted , and ..scripting theory is not merely to be applied to sexual conduct, but to all social conduct’

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

There are many ways to become, to be, to act, to feel sexual. There is no one human sexuality, but rather a wide variety of sexualities’. John Gagnon, Sexual Conduct 1977, preface).

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.

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)

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

John produced some 15 books and over 100 articles. Here are a few of the key books  ….

2005     Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources Of Sexual Conduct (Second Edition). Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Books, 2005 (With William Simon.)

2004 An Interpretation Of Desire. Chicago: The University Of Chicago Press, 2004.

1994 The Social Organization Of Sexuality. Chicago; The University Of Chicago Press. (Co­author With Edward Laumann, Robert Michael And Stuart Michaels.) (Received The Gordon Laing Award For The Book That Added The Most Distinction To The List Of The University Of Chicago In 1995)

1977 Human Sexualities. Glenview: Scott Foresman, 1977, 432 Pp.

1973 Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources Of Human Sexuality. Chicago: Aldine Books, 1973, 316 Pp. (With William Simon) (This Work Is Still In Print).

1967 Sexual Deviance: A Reader, Edited With An Introduction Written With William Simon. New York: Harper And Row, 1967, 310 Pp. (Reprinted In JJ. Harper Edition,



And so:  a little poem for John. It is dark; but I think he would have liked it.

Dirge Without Music

Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Dirge Without Music” from Collected Poems 1928

  1 comment for “Remembering John Gagnon

  1. Rose Levy
    February 27, 2016 at 7:51 pm

    I met John and Cathy at a film in Palm Springs in 2013; so I met John at the end of his life. We spent time together seeing wonderful foreign films. They listened to me play my “new” old Steinway and I shall miss those moments. I introduced John and Cathy to Andrea Camilleri’s Commissario Montalbano’s comedic adventures which I believe brought some cheer to his final days. He was a gentle soul and brilliant man and I shall miss our conversations.

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