June Dobbs Butts, a sex researcher and therapist who argued for greater frankness among African-Americans about issues that were often considered taboo, died on May 13 at a care facility in Johns Creek, Ga. She was 90.
Her daughter, Florence Johnson, said she died a few days after having a stroke.
Dr. Butts was by many accounts the first African-American to train and practice at William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s famed institute in St. Louis, and she brought their modern, uninhibited view of sex therapy to black patients in the 1970s. A 1980 profile in The Washington Post, published after Dr. Butts had established her own practice in Maryland, said that “at Masters and Johnson, all of her patients were white; now 90 percent of them are black.”
Dr. Butts advocated honest discussion of topics like masturbation, bisexuality and gender reassignment. She hosted a short-lived radio call-in show in Washington and wrote articles for magazines like Jet and Ebony and a column, Our Sexual Health, for Essence in the late 1970s.
Not everyone was receptive to her ideas at first.
“When I first wrote the column, I sent a copy to one of my sisters,” Dr. Butts told The Washington Post in 1980. “I didn’t hear anything. Finally I asked her what she thought. You know what she said? ‘Well, to tell you the truth, June, it turned my stomach. I didn’t think black women would write about things like that.’ ”
Dr. Butts pressed on. She wrote about the need for African-Americans to embrace sex education and to discuss sexual issues with their children; the risk of AIDS and how best to mitigate it; and the problems caused by a lack of clinical and scientific research on African-American sexuality.
By the late 1990s, she wrote in an Ebony article in 1997, she had noticed some changes.
“I increasingly hear African-Americans in their 20s and 30s seriously discussing their sexual relationships,” she wrote in an article for Ebony in 1997. “These modern young Black couples should be applauded and encouraged, for they are moving in the right direction. By discussing honestly the pleasures and the pitfalls of sex — which any mature relationship is bound to encounter — they assess their attitudes not only about sex, but about values like privacy and decency.”
June Selena Dobbs was born in Atlanta on June 11, 1928, the sixth and youngest child, all daughters, of John Wesley and Irene (Thompson) Dobbs. Her father was a postal clerk who protected mail on the railroad, as well as a civil rights activist and a political leader of Atlanta’s black community; her mother was a homemaker. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of her playmates.
She earned a degree in sociology from Spelman College, the historically black women’s college from which all of her sisters graduated, in the late 1940s, and then a master’s degree from Fisk University, where she met Dr. Hugh Butts, a prominent psychoanalyst.
They married in 1953 and moved to New York City, where she volunteered with Planned Parenthood, an experience that sparked her interest in human sexuality. They divorced in the early 1970s, after she completed a doctorate in family life education from Teachers College at Columbia University.
In addition to her daughter, Dr. Butts is survived by a son, Eric, and a granddaughter. Another daughter, Lucia Butts, died in 2011. One of her sisters, Mattiwilda Dobbs, became a coloratura soprano and a principal singer with the Metropolitan Opera and died in 2015.
Dr. Butts met Masters and Johnson at a conference at the University of Notre Dame in the 1970s. They invited her to join them at what was then called the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation, where she studied their sex therapy techniques for 18 months. She worked with them for a time before continuing a teaching and research career that included stints at New York University, Fordham University, the Howard University College of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a 1983 profile in Ebony, Dr. Butts was quoted as saying that she knew her chosen field had its detractors, but that she had resolved to ignore them.
“I realize that there are a lot of critics,” she said, “but I’ve found out that nine times out of 10 they have a sex hang-up themselves.”