In Memoriam: John Gagnon (1931-2016)


(this obituary will be published later in 2016 in the journal Sexualities).

In Memoriam: John H. Gagnon (1931-2016)


John S. Gagnon was one of the most influential sociologists of sexuality of the 20th Century. A founder of our field of sexualities studies, a major critic of sexology, a pioneer of LGBT studies, and one of the earliest social researchers on HIV/AIDS, he died of pancreatic cancer on February 11th 2016.

Ken Plummer writes about an important and influential life.

John Gagnon, intellectual of the sexual life, has died on Thursday February 11 2016 in Palm Springs, at the age of 84. A warm and humane man, he was the founder and pioneer of the sociological study of sexualities and became a magnificent inspiration for several generations of scholars. He helped define and shape what has now become a major new field of study, establishing the idea that human sexualities were significant sociological intellectual and political puzzles.

John helped us to move away from the common sense and scientific wisdom that human sexualities are simply biological pushes, arguing that they could be very fruitfully analyzed by seeing their formation, organization, characteristics and consequences as deeply embedded in the social and cultural. Along with his early colleague William Simon, he rejected ‘the unproven assumption that “powerful” psychosexual drives are fixed biological attributes’ and ‘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’. [1]

John generated an intellectual frisson around the study of sex, bringing the field of sexualities to the center of sociological attention, even as the profession often marginalized him. His enormous contribution to sociology 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. It might be said that he was a critical sociologist who was too intellectual to be a conventional sociologist; a sex researcher too critical of sex research and sexology to be an orthodox sexologist; a ‘homosexualiste’ who had a deep sympathy for gay life even though he himself was not gay; and a man often out of his time – a Butlerite before Butler, a Foucauldian before Foucault. Although he disliked the labelling, he was in effect a prime explorer of the so-called constructionist theory of sexuality and a founder of critical sexualities studies.

John was born in Fall River, Massachusetts on November 22, 1931. His mother was a hotel maid and his father a miner – and an anarchist. He was not born into elite worlds of privilege and academia, which he later struggled to enter. He captures his childhood in a short but very telling autobiography that speaks of his life up to roughly 1975. He says:

I travelled, while in the womb, from a depression-gripped mining town in Arizona to be born in a dying mill town in Massachusets. My mother was 43 but I was spared visible birth defects…. My mother forced a decision about my fate: I was to be her child, a child of the church, a child of Irish respectability, a printer or a post office worker – no atheism, no anarchism, no working in the mines’[2]
John’s life did indeed turn out to be very different from his mother’s wishes. For this boy was to become a Professor of Sociology for thirty years (1968-1998) at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He was to gain his BA in liberal arts in 1955, and go on to graduate study at the University of Chicago, working simultaneously as assistant warden at Cook County Jail. He was to go to work at the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research in 1959; and it is here, from 1965, he collaborated with Bill Simon publishing his most influential work. His later accolades included an NIMH Post Doctoral Fellow in 1972-3, a fellow of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, a lifetime achievement award for research into sexuality in 1981, President of the International Academy of Sex Research 1987-8, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the Glasgow Caledonian University in 2006. He also sat on many a board and notably was engaged with the President Johnson’s 1969 Commission on Pornography. Since 2001, the Sexualities section of the American Sociological Association has given an annual award in sexualities studies under his name: The John H Gagnon and William Simon Award. And in 2007, Michael Kimmel published a festschrift in his honor, The Sexual Self, bringing together three generations of commentators. [3]

One of many turning points in John’s life was his arrival at the Kinsey Institute in 1959. Here the scale of engagement with sexualities research and the thrill of doing it excited him; even as he was disappointed at the lack of intellectual rigor. My sense is that having arrived at the Kinsey Institute, full of admiration for Kinsey’s bravery in working fields nobody had dared to plough before, he was also driven crazy by Kinsey’s naive empiricism. Here he was to be joined later by William Simon, who he knew from his graduate days in Chicago. Starting in 1965, a highly fruitful partnership emerged which produced over 30 articles and linked books that culminated in their path breaking study Sexual Conduct in 1973. This was a chance coupling and a moment of intellectual effervescence for which we must all remain permanently grateful: one day a fruitful study could be made of the co-operative work of Gagnon and Simon. Both were ‘working class depression babies, war time adolescents, postwar workers and students, apprentice sex researchers by accident’. Writing eloquently of their shared background, John remarks:

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….. [4]


(I might add they were also very different: John liked fine dining and had a strong Durkhemian streak; Bill was interested in Freud – and preferred hamburgers).

Both John and Bill were challenged by the Kinsey data and wanted to move it beyond the realm of the biological, the ‘natural’ and the empirical, beyond the most obvious and commonsensical view of sex: they saw Kinsey’s work as woefully uncritical and seriously under-theorized. Wanting to provide a theoretical basis for thinking about sexuality, their key claim was that human sexuality needed to be analyzed squarely in the realms of the social, the cultural, the historical and the symbolic. They made their key organizing idea the claim that human sexualities were best view as scripted, ultimately claiming that ‘All conduct is scripted, and .. scripting theory is not merely to be applied to sexual conduct, but to all social conduct. ’[5] Distinctively human sexualities were not simply biological processes but also highly complex, intricate social and symbolic dramas constructed and performed with the aid of emergent scripts. The task for social science was to understand these scripts on three levels: how they developed historically and culturally, how they were deployed dynamically and performed in everyday interactions and sexual encounters, and how they became personally scripted into our inner worlds and our subjectivities. In all this they drew heavily from the inspiration of the literary and musical critic Kenneth Burke for whom symbolism and drama was so central; from their Chicago based training in symbolic interactionism; and from the dramaturgical metaphors of Erving Goffman. Their ideas can be first sighted in a 1969 Transaction article on psychosexual development; it is there in the book Sexual Conduct, as well as the textbook by Gagnon, Human Sexualities (1977); it re-appears in at least five articles; and culminates ultimately in two separately authored books much later in their life: Simon’s Postmodern Sexualities (1969) and Gagnon’s An Interpretation of Desire (2004). Scripting alongside ideas of drama and performance have now been used in sociology for around half a century (and are explored in John’s festschrift, The Sexual Self edited by Michael Kimmel). Probably the best statement of their position can be found in John Gagnon and William Simon ‘Sexual Scripts: Permanence and Change’, Archives of Sexual Behaviour, Vol 15, No 2, 1986 p97-120 which appears in many reincarnations.

In an early textbook John put his theory into a very succinct form:

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.[6]

Throughout his career John was a great friend to the gay, queer, bisexual and ‘pervert’ community. Back in the pre GLF 1960s, his earliest writings helped steer us in to a new language for academia – one against pathology, against individualism – that helped reshape our thinking, writing and researching about homosexualities. More than this, in his personal, life he lived with many gay people and in his work his would never tolerate the slightest deviation from full and total equality.
John’s life work was disrupted by the death of many friends and the arrival of the pandemic of AIDS : from the mid 1980s he devoted much of the next twenty years to the study and containment of HIV. Working with a whole field of new scholars, he again brought new perspectives to research that went way beyond medical reductionism. He examined the changing shape of gay communities and identities in the face of the epidemic. He highlighted the shifting meanings of sexuality in a pandemic. And he conducted a major empirical study of the changing sexual behaviour of the US population. Decried by the political right, and facing funding problems, this major empirical research investigated the sexual conduct of a representative population of about 3,400 adults between 18 and 59. It was eventually funded and published in 1994, in both popular form (as Sex In America) and as an academic volume: The Social Organization Of Sexuality (1994) – receiving The Gordon Laing Award for the book that added the most distinction to the list of the University of Chicago in 1995.

My own life has been greatly enhanced by John, both through reading his work and knowing him. He became my mentor, guru and ultimately old friend. I first met him 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 Greenblat (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 in the later years). John stayed in our small 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. He could also explain to me the elitisms and follies of academic life in the USA. The following year, we continued our friendship, as I, in turn, became a visiting Professor 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 realized 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. 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 thought deeply and widely: about art, about literature, about the world and where it was heading. In the end, as he once said: “The critical posture to maintain is that the future will not be better or worse, only different.” He was a superb conversationalist – as much a listener as a talker, and a compassionate friend. But throughout his life, 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 withdrew.

In recent years, John had experienced health issues with his leg and his eye, but the final period starting in October 2015 brought a terminal pancreatic cancer. He leaves behind his dear wife, the sociologist and photographer Cathy Greenblatt, and his family from two marriages: two sons, Christopher Gagnon and Kevin Greenblat; two daughters, Andrée Gagnon and Leslie Greenblat Shah; and five grandchildren.
Let me end with a thought from the 1960s Liverpool poet Brian Patten who has pondered well on life:

How long does a man live after all?
A thousand days or only one?
One week or a few centuries?
How long does a man spend living or dying
and what do we mean when we say gone forever?

And replies, ultimately:

A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us,
for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams,
for as long as we ourselves live,
 holding memories in common, a man lives.[7]

John’s memory will live on as a founder of key ideas in the field of sexualities studies. He led a full and rich life and left his mark on many – friends, family, colleagues, students, and passers by. He will be remembered for a long time, and loved and missed by many.


John produced some 15 books and over 100 articles. A bibliography of his work till the mid 2000s can be found in Michael Kimmel The Sexual Self: The Construction of Sexual Scripts (2007) Vanderbilt University Press. His autobiographical reflections (until 1973) can be found in Authors of Our Own Lives, edited by Bennett Berger (1992) University of California Press
The key text was republished in 2005: Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality (second edition). Piscataway, NJ: Transaction (with William Simon). His final essays are to be found in: John S. Gagnon (2004) An Interpretation of Desire. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
[1] John S Gagon and William Simon “On Psychosexual Development”, in David A. Goslin, ed., Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research. New York: Rand McNally, 1969, pp. 733–752. Reprinted in Trans-action. 6:5: March, 1969, pp. 9–17. 1969, pp. 17–23.

[2] Bennett M. Berger ed (1992) Authors of their Own Lives, Berkeley: University of California Press.

[3] Michael Kimmel (2007) The Sexual Self: The Construction of Sexual Scripts Vanderbilt University Press

[4] John S Gagon and William Simon (1973) Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality. Chicago: Aldine, 1973 p287 SC 2

[5] id p136 orig

[6] John Gagnon (1977) Human Sexualities. Glenview: Scott Foresman
7 Bryan Patten (2007) ‘So Many Different Lengths of Time’ Selected Poems. Middlesex: Penguin


Ken Plummer,
University of Essex

April 2016


%d bloggers like this: