Skip Navigation

John Gagnon, sociologist who redefined nature of sexual behavior, dies at 84

John GagnonPALM SPRINGS, CA, February 22, 2016 -- John Henry Gagnon, the influential sociologist who went from writing the last volume of the famous Kinsey reports on sex to challenge the view that sexuality is basically biological, died of cancer on February 11 in Palm Springs, California. He was 84 years old.

Gagnon was Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he taught and researched from 1968 to 1998. After retirement he kept working and publishing and had an appointment at the Gladstone Institute of Virology and Immunology at the University of California San Francisco, in the laboratory of Robert Grant.

Gagnon’s far-reaching paradigm showed that sexuality follows “scripts” shaped more by larger society than by biological urges. With a colleague, William Simon, he developed the “social constructionist” model of sexuality. It was the first effort to understand the large component of sexual identity that is shaped by personal, cultural, political, economic and societal frameworks, according to a former colleague, Michael Kimmel, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook.

As Gagnon and Simon put it the 1973 book “Sexual Conduct,The Social Sources of Human Sexuality,” the second edition of which is still in print, “sexual conduct is learned, acquired and assembled in human interaction, judged and performed in specific cultural and historical worlds.”

Or as Kimmel describes the authors’ droll summation in a recent paper, “reversing the maculinist cliché that held that ‘penises have a mind of their own,’ Gagnon and Simon argued that ‘the mind had a penis or clitoris of its own.’”

“Their model became the dominant paradigm of social scientific inquiries into human sexuality,” Kimmel adds. “Like Marx and Engels or Astaire and Rogers, it was the collaborative synthesis that produced their best work; while each was talented in their own individual ways, their collaboration brought forth a third entity that redefined a field.”

Gagnon also was influential in reshaping public understanding of homosexuality. Early in the AIDS/HIV epidemic, he “challenged the way resources were … largely being distributed according to a biological medical model,” according to Pamela Gillies, the Principal and Vice Chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, speaking during a 2010 symposium there on his work. She said his studies led to an understanding that the spread of the disease should be understood as an outgrowth of social forces, and that slowing it would take increased emphasis on the roles of communities, organizations and governmental policies.

“Horney men.” In 1994 Gagnon and several colleagues co-authored a massive scholarly volume about an extensive study of sexuality done at the University of Chicago, “The Social Organization of Sexuality,” and a shorter version accessible to the general public, “Sex in America,” written with Gina Kolata. In addition, he published the textbook “Life Designs: Individuals. Marriages and Families” (1978) with his wife, Cathy Stein Greenblat, and “An Interpretation of Desire” (2006).

A clear and sometimes witty writer, his professional vita lists no fewer than 473 scholarly articles, book chapters, papers, book reviews, and invited presentations, as well as articles in popular publications like The New York Times, USA Today, McCalls and Psychology Today. His topics ranged from sexuality to criminality, families, drugs (including alcohol and tobacco), college and working class youth, and simulation and gaming. A 1987 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times was titled “What the Marines Need are a Few Horney Men.”

He is survived by his wife of 38 years, Professor Cathy Stein Greenblat, a sociologist and photographer; by his four children, Andrée Giselle Gagnon, Christopher Hans Gagnon, Leslie Greenblat Shah, and Kevin D. Greenblat; and his five grandchildren, Kathryn Rozen Gagnon, Charlotte Duren Gagnon, Alicia Nirada Inthasri Gagnon, Anjali Rose Shah, and Kiran David Shah.

 A memorial service will be held at a later date. The family welcomes messages at the Caring Bridge website established for him.