Critical Sexualities

In the mid 1960’s when I started to study sexualities in a sociological fashion, there were very few working in the field. Now it is a major sub-discpline with its own texts, journals, readers and thousands of scholars.

Ken has been editing the journal Sexualities since its first issue 1998. He retires in 2013.















I have recently charted the rise and shape of this field – which I call Critical Sexualities Studies – in several papers which can be found below. They serve as introductions to complex fields.


1. Critical Sexualities Studies

2. Social Change, Social Worlds and the Rise of the New Sexualities Studies

At present I am afraid there are no internal links so you have to scroll down the page for each article. I am sorry about this.



Ken Plummer

Below is a slightly extended version of the article published  in 2012 in George Ritzer ed The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Sociology (2012)   Ch 14  page 243-269                                

As sex goes, so goes society. As society goes so goes sexuality    Jeffrey Weeks : 2004:20

For the first hundred and fifty years of its existence, sociologists paid very little serious attention to the study of human sexualities. True, Max Weber wrote a little about the rationalization of love, the Chicago School made some small forays into the sexual underworld of that city, and Kingsley Davis looked at the functions of prostitution (Heap, 2003). But, as I documented forty years ago in the early 1970’s, in general, ‘sociologists have failed to study sex’(Plummer, 1975,1982). This is really surprising since we now know, from much social and cultural history, that far from this being a time of massive sexual repression, it appears to have been a moment when there was an incitement to a proliferation of discourses about sex (Foucault, 1976). More and more people started to talk about their sexualities (albeit usually behind closed doors) as a new sexual world started to take place. Sociologists must have known this but it must have been just too controversial and too difficult to study.

But that was then, and we have moved on. That was a world long before Viagra, AIDS, mediated  cybersex, and the globalization of erotic spaces. Now, by contrast, we live in a time where new social structures of cyberspace, global order and advanced capitalism have worked to reshape our sexual lives. For many, the Western world has moved from a great repression to a world which has been ‘made sexy’.(Rutherford, 2007). There has been a widespread sexualization of everyday life, the arrival of what Bauman calls ‘liquid love’, the spread of commodification and commercialization of  sex, and for some critics, ‘the demoralization of western culture’(cf. Attwood, 2009; Rutherford, 2007; Fevre, 2000; Bauman, 2003). And with this, over the past half century, there has been a major development of a new and critical sociology of sexualities.

Starting with a trickle of papers in the 1960’s, by 1994 The British Sociological Association could devote its entire Annual Conference to the theme ‘Sexualities in Social Context’ with over 250 papers being presented (See Adkins  & Merchant (1996), Holland & Adkins (1996), and Weeks & Holland (1996)). Two years later, the American Sociological Association set up its own section group for the study of Sexualities. A sense of some of the new research and study that has been going on in this complex, rich and varied field can be grasped through some of its key new journals like Sexuality and Culture, Culture, Health and Sexuality, GLQ and Sexualities. A review of the content of the first ten years of the journal Sexualities (1997-2007) revealed that it had examined:

Pornographies and erotica; sex work, sex industry and prostitution; commercial sex and sex entertainment; mediated sex; ; sado-masochism; cyber sexualities, internet and digital sexualities; heterosexuality; male rape, women rape, sexual violence and anti-rape education; female exhibitionism; HIV and sexual health; masturbation, intercourse, anal intercourse, fellatio, orgasm; dogging; bare backing; hints of pederasty and paedophilia; men/women/masculinity/femininity/ transgender/trans-women; inter-sexuality; the sexualities of the young  and the old; married sex and single sex; sex tourism; sex education; strippers- men and women – and ‘exotic dance’; pregnant bodies and sexuality; city sex and rural sex; bisexualities and poly-amory; Viagra; lesbian, gay and queer studies; circumcision; children’s sex books; migration; couples, gay and lesbian marriages; sluts; sexual dysfunction; bodies; cosmetic surgery; interracial intimacy; teenage mothers; contraception; celibacy; corporal punishment, professional wrestling and drag, fantasy, social movements around gender & sexuality; sexual politics, sexual citizenship, sexual meanings, sexuality and nationalism, sex hormones, safe spaces, post-modern sexualities, and sexualities in the primary school (Plummer, 2008:11).

This is quite a syllabus for the new critical sexualities studies (CSS), and one which has established a massive diversity of specialised areas now being developed by a field of global researchers. It was also surely a sign of the times, that by the start of the twenty-first century, we find a proliferation of journals, books, readers, conferences and research into the multiplicities of all social aspects of sexuality. In this short review article I plan to capture a little of its history, a few of its key themes, and a sense of the changes in the making.


The story is beginning to be told of this growing and shifting social understanding of sexuality during the mid- twentieth century. The earlier classic contributions of Ellis, Kinsey, Freud – even Masters and Johnson – should not be overlooked (Robinson, 1976). Some works have brought together some of the key ‘sexual documents’ of our time (Porter and Hall, 1995; Bland and Doan, 1998) and others provided major reviews of its ongoing development (eg Weston, 1998; Eriksen,1998; Irvine, 2005 ; Gamson & Moon, 2004). With flourishing optimism about the progress of this work, Jeffrey Weeks (himself a pioneer in its development) has outlined many of the key changes of the past half century in The World We Have Won (2008).

Early Days

There are always difficulties in chronicling the plotlines, progress and narratives of time (Zerubavel, 2003) and we know there are many world- historical antecedents to the western sociological study of sex. But our contemporary field of sociological studies of the sexual is probably best seen to begin in the 1960’s with John Gagnon and William Simon’s key idea that sexuality should be seen not as a biological drive but as a socially constructed script (Gagnon and Simon, 1973; Plummer,1975;1982). In multiple papers theorizing the sexual in the mid 1960’s, they aimed to bring the study of the sexual into the regular orbit of social structure and regular social learning. As John Gagnon said:

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.  (Gagnon; 1977: p2)

Based at the Kinsey Institute, and hence grounded in a major empirical effort, their theoretical work was paradigm breaking in bringing the social to the forefront of thinking about sexuality. It moved sexuality from being seen as essentially biological and reproductive to the challenge of taking seriously its socially grounded multiple meanings. .

Shortly after the publication of their key work, Sexual Conduct, in 1973 came the publication of Foucault’s extraordinarily influential book The History of Sexuality, which critiqued the old ‘repression hypotheses’ and led to sexualities being seen as a discursive formation embodying power circuits. For him,

Sexuality is the name given to a historical construct… a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of knowledge, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another , in accordance with a few major strategies of power.  (Foucault, 1978: 196)

Foucault’s work – with all its challenging polemic – became the canonical text of the neophyte sexual studies. But this was also the time of gay liberation and second wave feminism challenging the heterosexist and patriarchal orthodoxies of the time and producing their own analyses of sexuality, gender and power. The women’s movement generated an enormous and flourishing debate on sexuality in the 1970’s. It started with Kate Millet’s claim for a need for Sexual Politics (1969) and Adrienne Rich’s (1981) critique of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ and went on to examine the history of rape (Brownmiller, 1975) and ultimately the ‘feminisation of sex’ (Ehrenreich, 1987). Most of all, by the early 1980’s, the controversies of the  ‘pleasure’ and ‘danger’ debate created abiding factions:  prominent in their analysis was a focus on sexual violence and pornography contrasted with the potentials of female desire (Vance (1984), Leidholdt and Raymond (1990), Jackson & Scott (1996). Likewise many ideas of identity, culture and differences and the structuring of homohate & homophobia, sex negativism and ultimately heteronormativity  started to be fostered within the Gay and Lesbian Movement, a movement which has ultimately generated the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer ) Studies with its own panoply of courses, writings and histories (eg Abelove, Barale, Halperin eds 1993; Nardi and Schneider, 1998; Duberman,1997;  Aggleton and Parker, 2010). Taken together, these movements and moments helped to shape what came to be known as the ‘essentialist-constructionist’ debate – a debate  which dominated sexualities studies from the mid 1970’s to the mid 1990’s, leading to major world conferences about it. Even today, its core debate hovers over much of the work in the field. I will not rehearse this here (see Altman, 1989; Fuss,1989).

From AIDS to postmodern queer

In the early 1980’s, the world started to confront the pandemic of AIDS / HIV. Tragic and fearsome as it was, it had the curious side effect of generating a world-wide programme of sex research, often with much furore over funding. Much of this research was indeed moribund, opportunistic and limited to a very dull and expensive programme of behavioural studies in classic positivist mould which revealed little; but some of it produced striking work on sexual differences and behavior – and in particular an awareness of how local knowledge, local communities and local identities infuse sexual practices and generate new and changing sexual meanings and scripts. It established beyond doubt that sexual practices bring different meanings; they differ from situation to situation; local communities generate different  responses and epidemiologies. AIDS research became a global industry and through this we start to see a growing awareness of the differences of sexualities across cultures (now regularly revealed through papers in the journal Culture, Health and Sexualities). Sex research gained a funding, a professionalism, and a degree of legitimacy –even respectability – across the world.

Towards the end of the 1980’s, a significant theoretical turn emerged through the amplification of post-modern theorising and the development of queer theory. Building on the ideas of Gagnon and Simon, Foucault and feminist theory, the notion of any one true sexuality was attacked, and binary systems of gender and sexuality and heterosexual dominance were challenged – ultimately urging more transgressive and postmodern readings of human sexualities. Here, as William Simon developed in his important book on Postmodern Sexualities (1996), the Grand Narrative of Sexuality came to an end.  ‘Sex’ was no longer the source of truth, as it was for the moderns with their strong belief in science. Instead, human sexualities become destabilised, decentred  and de- essentialised : the sexual life could no longer be seen as harbouring any essential unitary core locatable within a clear framework (like the nuclear family)  with an essential truth waiting to be discovered : now there were only fragments. At this time philosophy, literature, cultural studies and history took over the lead from sociology – and Queer Studies arrived in the academy. Whilst the ideas of Michel Foucault certainly loomed large in this (with his talk of ‘regimes of truth’), the roots of queer theory (if not the term) are usually seen to lie in the work of Eve Kasofsky Sedgwick (1991) and Judith Butler (1990). The former argued in The Epistemology of the Closet that:

….many of the major nodes of thought and knowledge in twentieth century Western culture as a whole are structured – indeed fractured – by a chronic, now endemic crisis of homo/heterosexual definition, indicatively male, dating from the end of the nineteenth century….. any understanding of any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern Homo/heterosexual definition.. (Sedgwick, 1991: 1)

‘Queer’ deconstructs discourses and creates a greater openness and fluidity by suggesting that very few people really fit into the straightjackets of our contemporary gender and sexual categories. It hence becomes a stark attack on ‘normal business in the academy’ (Warner, 1992: 25) challenging the thoroughly gendered mode of thinking behind much academic work. One early leading proponent, David Halperin, suggests that , “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers” (Halperin, 1997:62). For much of this work, a key theme became sexual transgression and sexual dissidence: ironically many of its ideas have now become institutionalised in universities, readers and careers (see: Corber & Valocchi, 2003; Lovaas, 2006; Giffney & O’Rourke, 2009). Trangression has become normalised. In sociology, the earliest contribution to this work was to be found in Steven Seidman’s Queer/Sociology (1996) and following a queer path has been one option open for critical sociologists. Many have followed. But equally many have not taken this route: queer theory is seen as following a path that is too literary, philosophical and lacking an adequate empirical analysis of comparative social structures (c.f. Stein and Plummer, 1994 ; Gamson & Moon 2004).

From Sexual Rights to Global Citizenship

During the 1990’s, more and more thinkers moved to the ideas of inclusion of sexual minorities through the development of ideas around sexual and reproductive rights, and their links to citizenship. David Evan’s Sexual Citizenship (1993) pioneered the idea theoretically, whilst international campaigning started attempts at establishing gender and sexual rights on world agendas through the work of the United Nations, the World Women’s Movement, UNICEF, and the formation of the International Lesbian and Gay Movement, and others. (Weeks,1998; Richardson1998,2000; Petchesky,2000; Plummer,1992;1995;2001).  Growing out of this, the even broader ideas of intimate citizenship have been developed (Plummer, 2003; Roseneil, 2010 ). The emphasis is placed on citizenship as the right to choose: to choose your partner, your sexual activities, to have a child or not, or to control your own body. Couched in the language of   ‘intimate citizenship’ (Plummer,2003), it is a citizenship of ‘the right to choose’ a personal life. All this, of course,   raises the issue as to whether citizenship can ever allow for a radical, transgressive, dissident  or queer citizenship  (Bell and Binnie, 2000; Phelan,2001): can you, in short, stay ‘queer and radical’ and yet be a ‘good citizen’? All this talk of sexual citizens subsequently led to talk of dissident sexualities showing how citizenship may well work directly against the ‘bad gays’ and foster social exclusion processes.

These agendas became more and more prominent at a global level. Notably in Asia and Latin America, but also in Muslim Countries and African Nations, the issue of the human sexualities of every ‘imagined community’ and nation state – along with their control and regulation -became more and more an issue. Can ( and should) Western sexualities and western rights be transplanted across the world?  By the turn of millennium, we see a major trend to examine sexualities as they are refashioned across the globe. The globalisation of sexualities became a major theme. Contemporary sexualities become hybridic sexualities, subject to wider processes of globalisation and glocalisation, in the process of which human sexualities became increasingly cosmopolitan (Binnie, 2004). We enter the age of the  sexual diaspora.

Dennis Altman’s Global Sex was perhaps the pioneer of this approach but it has been joined now by a multitude of studies. In Muslim cultures, in Latin America, in South Africa, in India, and in South East Asia, but everywhere- studies have started to look at the shifting internal and external borders of the sexualities of nations and countries.  In all this, there has been a recent flourishing of work by new scholars who reject the presumptions of much Western theorisation about both queer and gay. In 2000, the International Association for the study of Sexuality, Culture and Society (ASSCS) was established; and by 2005 the Asian Queer Studies Conference  could bring together in Bangkok some six hundred academics and activists, marking a turning point for all this challenging new work.  (The most recent conference (in Hanoi in 2009 )welcomed 432 delegates from 46 countries).  What is starting to be critically examined here are hybridic and cosmopolitan sexualities as they are lived in their political contexts.  This research  typically produces ethnographic work of the complexities and subtleties of grounded lives in specific locations which are always much more messy, contradictory and ambiguous than wider theories or dogmatic positions allow for. (e.g .Aouyma, 2009; Boellstorff , 2005; Kulick, 1998; Manalansan, 2003; Kong, 2010;

Parker, 1999; Reddy, 2005; Zheng 2009).

Sexual Cosmopolitanism/Sexual Fundamentalism     

In a sense much of the most recent work may be seen as investigating a kind of  sexual cosmopolitanism: an awareness of, and a willingness to live with, human sexual variety both within and across cultures.  (Cosmopolitan sexualities by contrast might be used to refer to the variety of sexual conducts). The history of cosmopolitanism (like the history of sexualities) is a long, complex one .Holton’s recent study (2009) has catalogued over two hundred meanings. What I certainly do not mean , as it is often made to suggest as in the magazine of that name, is a kind of sophistication, even superior life style (usually associated with metropolitan living) – an elitist cosmopolitanism: the sort that we find in writings of metropolitan sexualities – where the world of the young and the hip are the focus. I am rather closer to the ideas of the Ghanian-American Kwame Anthony Appiah (2006) that it is a ‘universal concern and respect for legitimate difference’.  In some ways its oldest meaning works best: ‘citizens of the cosmos’.

In the new sexualities studies, we might detect three strands of this cosmopolitanism: the political, the cultural and the personal dimension. Cultural cosmopolitan sexualities reveals the wide array of meanings and practices of human sexualities that form the ways of life under conditions of multiple modernities – a vast array of different sexual cultures of all sexual tastes and relationships. Political sexual cosmopolitanism takes us into debates about sexual rights and governance – of global intimate citizenship and ways of loving and living with differences in our lives.  And personal cosmpolitianism suggests -following on from Ulrich Beck’s influential study of The Cosmopolitan Vision (2006)- the ability or attitude to sense and empathise with a range of different positions in the world, many of which will be contested, and to seek out some common ways of living around them, and moving on. Sexual cosmopolitanism means that we look outwards globally and learn to empathise with the sexual worlds and perspectives of others (even those others who call themselves our enemies).

Sexual fundamentalism is the worldwide enemy of sexual cosmopolitanism. By this I mean those who (a) reject pluralistic views of sexuality; (b) promote conservative and traditional beliefs about sex in an absolute way, often critiquing all those aspects of modernity which foster diversity; and (c) usually refer to a time honoured (often sacred) text which is a given a strict and single interpretation of what sex is about (eg The Bible, the Koran). At its most blatant, it calls for maintaining a strong divide between men and women, the overwhelming superiority of the heterosexual, and the extermination of all perversities. Just as we have seen the rise of sexual cosmopolitanism in recent decades, so we have also seen the continuing journey of sexual fundamentalism. This tension is a long historical one and it is not likely to go away or be easily resolved. It may indeed be a feature of social life that needs dealing with in each generation.



CSS claims that for human beings sexualities is a profoundly social matter: the simple reduction of it to a biological or psychological fixed feature is inadequate. Although it has grown through many twisting theoretical, empirical and methodological turns, there is a common ground- an ‘essence’ upon which all agree. In sum, I argue that human sexualities emerge through complex symbolic systems in specific social worlds (or cultures), grounded in material, biographical and bodily lives and embedded in wider historical structures – themselves always on the move, shaped by time and space, and orchestrated through power and inequalities. Sexualities harbour few – if any –  fixed or permanent forms but derive their essences from the structural and cultural milieu, historical moments and relationships in which they are embedded.  And within this, what all this thinking and researching has undoubtedly concluded is that human sexualities are multiple, varied and contradictory.

There are roughly seven billion people who live on the earth in 2010 and their various sexual practices, meanings, identities and worlds are mind boggling. Whilst millions scarcely give sex a thought (from the abstinent to the asexual (Scherrer, 2008)), many others probably spend all their lives dedicated to it (from the aficionados to the addicted (Irvine, 2005)). Understanding this social complexity requires ways of slicing into this seething matrix of desire and practices. This was the project started by the pioneer sexological work of Krafft-Ebing, Hirschfield, Ellis and Freud in the nineteenth century.  The trouble is that their way into sexuality was through individuals and their desires. What sociologists are now trying to build is an understanding of the ways in which social patterns can be found in our worlds of sexualities: to put the social in the sexual. In what follows, I suggest a broad (incomplete) set of sensitising terminologies that are helping to frame this understanding: sexual meanings, sexual selves, sexual cultures, sexual structures, sexual differences, sexual conflicts, sexual regulations, sexual embodiments and sexual feeling worlds. There are others.

Sexual meanings/ sexual selves

First, the foundational argument of CSS is very straightforward: what marks all human sexualities (from other animals) is that it is always symbolic and meaningful. These meanings are a core problematic to be puzzled: contrasting ideas of scripts, stories, narratives, discourses, subjectivities and the ‘sexual metaphors we live by’ have all been evoked to help do this.  Gagnon & Simon’s pioneer work argued that sexual conduct is always scripted conduct in three ways. Personally, it guides sexual thoughts, fantasies, feeling and behaviours. Interactionally, it guides sexual encounters.  And thirdly, cultural-historical-politically, it lays down wider cultural codes and narratives: what Steven Seidman has called the ‘macro-structuring of scripts’ (2007:251). “Scripts”, says Gagnon, “specify, like blueprints, the who’s, the what’s, the when’s, where’s and why’s for given types of activities” (Gagnon, 1977 p6). Other ideas have also been influential: Foucault’s guiding imagery was that of discourse in a power/knowledge spiral, whereby new species- like the homosexual, the pervert, the masturbating child, the Malthusian Couple and the hysterical woman had appeared as targets for study (Foucault, 1976).  On a much smaller scale, my own work suggested the importance of sexual stories (Plummer, 1995).  A very wide array of sexual meanings have now been studied ranging from rape and gay youthful coming out to sado masochist practices to the narratives of many books and films. (See Kimmel (2007) for a selection of such articles). In these arguments, sexuality is rarely a simple biological release, but is engaged in for multiple social purposes (Plummer, 1999).

Part of this ‘symbolicity’ (as the critic Kenneth Burke called it), is that of our public and private identities: we have sexual selves (Kimmel, 2007).  This is central to the work of  William James, Charles Horton Cooley and William James and their arguments have now for a century or so stressed that the self is a process, always subject to change, contingent upon contexts and others, multiple in its forms and embedded in shifting environments which gives it its meanings. The search for a cosmopolitan self is even recognised in some of this earlier work (Aboulafia, 2001). Indeed, CSS has been haunted by the identity problem since its earliest days.  In studies like Carol Warren’s (1974) Identity and Community in the Gay World, Barbara Ponse’s (1978) Identities in the Lesbian World and my own Sexual Stigma (Plummer: 1975), a key concern was with the way gay identity works. A major research agenda emerged to ask about the nature of sexual categories and identities and to question how they came into being (personally and historically), their evolution and ultimately their impact on both lives and cultures (cf Plummer, 1981). Here the problem was defined as the very social and complex nature of the category of the sexual: in this case what is the nature of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered identity? And , these days, just how is the category of  masochist, paedophiliac, sex addicted, sex worker, heterosexual, asexual  made to assume the nature of an identity?  How do such identities work?  Over time, of course, the notions of identity have become even more and more complex as stage models of identity were challenged, variations of ethnicity and sexualities were confronted, and a new politics of hybridic, diasporic and global sexual identities was developed (Seidman,2002; Phelan, 1987; Boellstorff, 2005; Kong, 2010). The making, transformation and instability of emergent sexualised identities has been a recurrent theme of CSS for over forty years.

Sexual cultures / sexual structures


A third, and loosely connected theme, suggests we can see that every kind of human sexualities is grounded in a social world. Sexualities can eventually be teased into sexual cultures as ways of human life. There is now a multiplicity of cultures which sociologists have studied: from  weddings  (Ingragam, 2008) to multiple sex work worlds (Agustin, 2008; Sanders, 2008; Bernstein, 2007); from drag  and transgender worlds (Rupp and Taylor, 2003; Eakins and King, 2006 ) to paedophile and polyarmory worlds (Goode, 2010; Klesse, 2007); from teenage worlds (Pascoe,  2007 ) to BDSM  (bondage, domination, submission and masochism) worlds (Beckman, 2009)- and , of course, the more routine worlds of mundane heterosexualities ( Hockey, Meah, Robinson, 2009). These multiple worlds have been characterized through theories as sexual worlds, sexual tribes, social movements, counterpublics and sexual networks (Plummer 1995; Maffesoli,1996; Warner, 2002). And by the start of the twenty first century, this cumulative research has clearly shown that these worlds are never unitary phenomena – but that each always exists in their own multiple varieties: each splinters into many linked worlds and remains in process, always segmenting, creating new forms. Sexual cultures are never harmonious, well ordered or consensual wholes – they are  multi-layered, fluid, negotiable and emerging. Thus, there is no unified gay culture, sex- worker culture, drag culture, heterosexual culture or sado- masochist culture: there are multiplicities of scenes. ‘Worlds’ –often imagined- which are only momentarily held together before they splinter and fragment.  There is, for instance, absolutely not one gay community or world. Gay cultures – like all cultures- exist in the plural. To enter a ‘gay world’ is to stand on the brink of many possibilties: old and young, trendy and not so trendy; the ‘ Faeries, Bears and Leathermen, the drag queens and the drag kings,  the ’butch in the hood’ rappers, trans-butches, the bisexuals, the queers, the couples, the gay Christians, the cruisers and the barebackers. There is absolutely no gay community or gay scene, only a vast web of conflicting and variable social worlds (e.g Hennen 2008; Halberstam, 1998; 2005).

Fourthly, and despite ‘liberationist’ and ‘transgressive ‘ talk, it is important to grasp that there is no such thing as “free love”: human sexualities never function in a free for all – but depend upon, and are enabled by, human communities and structures. Human sexualities are fashioned by time and space, history and location – what we might indeed call  sexual structures. Like all social structures, they are constituted through human negotiation yet give a society deep patterns which both enable and constrain social life. And over the past thirty years, social thought has unpacked more and more of these structuring processes. It has started to see how family processes and  personal and friendship communities are lodged in structures of religion, economy, community and organization – how intimacies are habitualised into social institutions and social practices through power relations and symbolic forms.  Critical sexualities studies is starting to identify the ways in which sexualities are enmeshed in structures and intersecting stratification systems such as age, ethnicity, class, disability, nation – as well gender: the key divisions of social life found across most if not all societies. As they change and move, so our sexualities are organised and shaped by them. Sociologists are compelled to ask how structures of family and relationship along with a matrix of inequalities interconnect, intersect and weave their way into human sexualities? (The word and paradigm used  most commonly now for this is intersectionality, as found in the work of Kimberle Crenshaw (1991), Patricia Hill Collins (1990) and others). Already within this frame they have detected the structures of homophobia (Adam, 1998), sex negativism (Davis,1983) sex hierarchy (Rubin,1984 ), compulsory heterosexuality (Rich, 1981), a continuum of sexual violence ( Kelly,1989), hegemonic masculinity (Connell, 1995), the heterosexual imaginary (Ingraham,1999) and heteronormativity (Warner,1993). This later term, for example, was introduced by queer theorist Michael Warner, and defined as the practices and institutions that work to legitimize and privilege heterosexuality in a society – making them seem fundamental and ‘natural’. All these ideas-and more- capture structures that are important in understanding sexuality.

Ultimately, these sexual structures are located in a matrix of inequalities embedded in power within systems of oppression, dominance and exclusion organised through a set of structural arrangements centered around gender and sexuality (cf Young, 1990). The most apparent feature here is the structuring of sexualities through families. As Goran Therborn (2004) has shown in his history of twentieth century families, they can be usefully seen to be underpinned by patriarchy (and the relative rights and duties of parents and children, men and women), fertility and birth control (with implications for ageing), and marriage systems. His own work charts five dominant world patterns (African, European, East Asia, South Asia and West Asia/North Africa) and the sexual structures differ in each. It is only in the European (which includes New World settlements) where we see major changes in the twentieth- century sexuality as the family forms change.

There are many structures to be analysed here. Most of the key features of sexual life are organized through the binaries of male and female, though these very ideas are the products of historical forces (Lacquer, 1990) and subsequent daily performative reinforcing (Butler (1990); Zimmerman and West (1987). At the very least we have to ask why it is that women are the most likely to abused, the victims of rape, the sellers of sex- and also the least likely to be the fetishists, the sex addicts, the sex offenders.  There is also what Joanne Nagel  (2003) calls an ‘ethnosexuality at work’ which considers how sex gets racialized and race gets sexualized. It is found in the construction of the boundaries of nations and communities and in the long history of conquest, rape and sexual violence –in slavery and wars.  These days it is to be found in widespread sex tourism and trafficking.  Here the new critical sexualities studies poses a massive research agenda asking about the global degradation, defilement and terrorization of many women; the class organization, commodification and exploitation of sex; the trafficking and scaling of sexed bodies; the pauperization of intimacies; the racialization of sex; inter-generational conflicts; the sexualities of disabilities, and the problem of migrating, border crossing and diasporic sexualities (cf Plummer, 2005b).

Sexual differences / sexual regulations

Sexual differences are a further essential hallmark of all societies and it is clearly visible in human patterns of sexual experience (though this is also present in much animal life too (Roughgarden, 2004). From ancient texts to moderns, it is not possible to travel far in the worlds of desire without encountering the documentation of massive human difference. There are multiplicities of sexual meanings, behaviours, identities, cultures, and politics: and all are routinely in contradiction and tension with each other. The (postmodern) world reveals this even more clearly: sexualities are never fixed or stable, they do not harbor one grand truth, and do not they reveal our essential nature.  In all this change, we may well find a multiplications of desires and differences which may, as I suggest below, even be proliferating.

With these differences human sexualities dwell ubiquitously in sexual conflicts, contradictions and contestations. Look at any area of sexual life and you will soon find disagreements. Unlike other animals, human cultures are riddled with sexual conundrums found across and within cultures, across and within groups, and across and within people. The multiplicities of sexualities and their accompanying talks flow labyrinth-like perpetually into endless puzzles: scratch the surfaces of everyday life, and the contradictory puzzles of sexual life appear. People never agree about sexuality.

Given this, all societies proceed to channel and regulate human sexualities – through various laws, customs and habits. The vast world of desire is always placed under certain sexual restrictions. The when, where, why, what and how of sexualites are usually given scripts and rules which channel these puzzling complexities into patterns or structures. As a consequence, most social orders function with notions of good (or insider) sexualities, and bad (or outsider/ transgressive) sexualities. They are mutually reinforcing: boundaries mark out the good and the bad. But there is a lot of range even here with both the varieties allowed and the conventions established. At the heart of all human sexualities lie human- made systems of sexual regulations. Unlike animal life which depends mainly on programmed instincts, all human societies necessarily develop their own systems of norms, rules and laws which help to regulate, classify, order and set boundaries to sexual behaviours. Such systems can move from the simplest to the most complex, from the most authoritarian to the most democratized, from the most formal to the most informal: but systems of regulation there will always be.  The 21st century sees multiplicities of such systems at work- often clashing with each other and creating ceaseless contestations over the boundaries of sexualities organized through political crusades and moral panics (cf Showalter, 1991; Herdt, 2009). Murray Davis’s much neglected study of Smut (1983) draws out the basic contestations across modern societies as one between Jehovanists, who make strict divides between the normal and the abnormal, and the Gnostics and Naturalists who see sex in more open terms.

Sociologists know that differences cannot live in worlds without some kinds of borders – however widely they may be stretched and negotiated. This is surely a sociological truism. As Alan Wolfe says : ‘It is impossible to imagine a society without boundaries’ (Wolfe, 1992:323). I have argued in more detail elsewhere that classification systems are needed in order to make sense of the world and boundaries are needed to mark out ‘group belonging’ (the we) from others. (Plummer,2007). If we accept this, then although we can certainly push and pull at sexual boundaries and indeed change them, we cannot get rid of them. Sexual transgressions meet sexual boundaries and this complex interchange at the borders of a society is an ongoing project for the sociology of sexualities.

Embodied sexualities / emotionalized sexualities

All of the above essential features of human sexualities highlight the significance of the social and it might be claimed that all this can lead to a minimising of the importance of the biological and emotional worlds of sexualities. The meaningful world may indeed be what distinguishes us from most other animals, but we are also pumping fleshy biological creatures who heave and hump, sweat and slide, and deliver orgasmic frenzies. We also harbour deep emotional worlds and worlds of sexual feelings. CSS recognises the centrality of this in what it analyses – sexual embodiment flows through sexual biographies and sexual  subjectivities. Here we have started to investigate sex as body projects (Schilling,1993), and Australian activist, sociologist and AIDS researcher, Gary Dowsett, has done more than most to bring this sexed body  and ‘bodyplay’ back into our studies (Dowsett,1996; 2000).  Elsewhere I have remarked on the significance of this return to the body for sex studies:

We might start to speak of the embodiment of sexual practices; of doing body work around sex. ‘Sexualities’ involve social acts through which we ‘gaze’ at bodies, desire bodies, taste (even eat) bodies, smell bodies, fashion and adorn bodies, touch bodies, hear bodies, penetrate bodies, and orgasm bodies. These bodies can be our own or those of others. ‘Doing sex’ means ‘doing erotic body work’. Sex body projects  entail, at the very least, presenting and representing  bodies (as sexy, non-sexy- on the street, in the gym, in the porno movie), interpreting bodies and body parts (‘the gaze’ and the ‘turn ons’ and ‘turn offs’- sexual excitements of different kinds from voyeurism to stripping), manipulating bodies (through the use of fashion, cosmetics, prosthetics), penetrating bodies (all kinds of intercourses from body parts like fingers and penises to ‘sex toy objects’), transforming bodies (stages of erotic embodiment, movements towards orgasms), commodifying bodies (in sex work, live sex acts, stripping, pornography and the like – Chapkiss etc), ejecting and ejaculating bodies as all kinds of bodily fluids – semen, blood, sweat, saliva – even urine and fecal matter – start to commingle; possessing bodies( as we come to own or dominate others bodies), exploiting bodies (as we come to abuse or terrorize them), and transgressing bodies ( as we go the extremes in the use of our erotic bodies) (Plummer, 2004:

But the body does not stand alone. There are also the socialized sexual emotions.  Human sexualities also deeply connect to sexual feeling worlds,  the ‘structures of feeling’ and the ‘realm of the senses’. Sociologists are starting to take this more seriously though they have rarely confonted sex with emotion. They are much more prone so far to look at love and relations and their feelings. Thus Ann Swidler’s Talk of Love (2001) suggests how people find ‘love’ through a  language of love widespread in their culture;  Giddens (1990 )  has famously suggested the emergence of a ‘plastic sexuality’ and a ‘pure relationship’; Eva Illouz  (2007 ) has suggested a ‘cold intimacy, Elizabeth Bernstein (2007) a new kind of ‘bounded intimacy’ and Lynn Jamieson (1998) a ‘disclosing intimacy’.More specific emotions such as shame, and rage have also have also been studied (e.g Ahmed, 2004; Munt,2007; Stein, 2006).



All the above flags the social constants and constraints of human sexualities: their symbolic, material nature to be found in human subjectivities, sexual cultures and structural inequalities. But it also suggests ceaseless change: never fixed or stable human sexual life is persistently up for reworking and re-organising; and the twenty first century appears to have been accelerating its pace of change. The old orders have not gone – but new ones are certainly appearing alongside them. Hence we all now live simultaneously in traditional, modern and post-modern worlds (though at different paces and to differing degrees). There are many terminologies and shifting arguments about all this, but I think it provisionally useful to think of these as multiple modernities where there are different routes back to the past and different pathways into the future (Eisenstadt, 2000).

In this final section, I want to briefly outline some of the sources of this continuing transformation of our sexualities. Some, have already been located: the work of social movements like feminism and queer, the significance of globalization, the arrival of AIDS and the development of cosmopolitanism. Here I focus briefly on just eight key structural changes that are facilitating new sexual forms. These are changes in capitalism (and the economy), the new communications (old and new media), in technology, in the move from rural to urban, in the creation of professions, and in individualization. Each in their own way works towards a possibly even greater expanse of the variety of human sexualities – an increasing proliferation and multiplications of sexual diversities.

  1. 1.     Globalization Revisited

We have already seen some of these changes. The history of CSS is in fact an ongoing reflection on this change, suggesting shifting interests and concerns. A key dimension we have already touched upon is globalization and hybridization.  Classical sociology has tended to read the wider world through ‘Western lenses’ and it is only in  recent years that the study of sexualities has broadened out to take on board the full range of sexualities across the world and to sense their differences and interconnections (cf Connell, 2007).  To some extent, it was research on the global pandemic of AIDS and HIV  which, as it seriously impacted the entire world, led to more and more research and thinking on the sexualities of different cultures across the globe. But theorisations from post-colonialism, world systems theory and globalization theory, as well as the world activist movements of feminism, the LGBTQ movement, and international sex  workers and others have started to put the interconnected wider worlds of  sexualities firmly on the agenda.

From now on, then, the analysis of one isolated sexual culture on its own will prove very limited. Human sexualities have become embroiled with wider processes of globalization, glocalization and transnationalism. The diversities and sexual organisation of one culture now transforms itself into other cultures through a wide cluster of new processes which I outline below: mediazation, digitalization, commodification, consumption and global markets, urbanization, travel and global cities, as well as migration and  tourism and travel. There are, as Weeks has so cogently listed, multiple ‘sexscapes’ to facilitate the flows of sexualities through transnational friendships, global social movements (feminism, queer, transgender), global sex media (including porn and digital – see below), sex trafficking, sex tourism, gay global parties (the celebrated ‘white parties’) and the wider sexual diaspora with dialogues across the north and the south, and the east and the west. (Weeks,2007: 206-9). We now have ‘queer diasporas’ (Patton and  Sánchez-Eppler, 2000), ‘multliple queer modernities’ (Jackson:2009),   ‘lifestyle Travel’ (Frank 2007), ‘Cross-Border Marriage (Constable; 2004), ‘unruly immigrants’ (Das Gupta,  2006), ‘mobile cultures’ ( Berry, Martin and Yue, 2003)– and Love and Globalization (Padilla, 2007), the title of a useful collection of readings.  Throughout these studies the flow is not seen as one way – the Americanization or Europeanization of sex. Rather, it is persistently seen within a frame of dynamic change. Martin Manalansan(2003) for example shows that queer migrants  do not simply  assimilate to their new cultures, but bring their own experiences. New lives and new sexualities emerge. Likewise, James Farrer (2002) shows that Shanghai discos become Western styled places for sexual encounters, but take on distinctive forms; whilst Travis Kong (2010) shows the complex movements of Chinese identities across London, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Against this background, I want to suggest a number of broader structural changes that appear to be fostering many changes in our sexualities – and usually in the direction of diversity.

  1. 2.      Capitalism: Commodification and Market Sex

Sex has always been open to a certain amount of selling – as histories of prostitution detail. Viviana Zelizer’s provocative The Purchase of Intimacy (2005) has argued that intimate ties and connections are bounded by economic activity. Love, sex and money are ultimately intertwined, and she develops an argument for connected lives – how lives bridge the public and the private, the personal and the economic. In the current moment, this means looking for the deep interconnection between money and sex under capitalist and neo-liberal orders which form a ubiquitous (if highly differentiated and shaky)  world economic system: sexualities are everywhere up for sale. Every aspect of sexual life has become commodified and turned into a sellable commodity.  Sex is on sale in pornography, in strip clubs, in the army, in tourism, on line – locally and globally (Jeffreys, 2008). This is not just a world of sex workers or pornography, but a deeply pervasive market which will sell any kind of sex it can and use any sexual tricks to sell anything. Amongst other things we have seen, alongside sex work and international sex trafficking, are the growth and diversity of sexualized technologies (Viagra, contraceptives, cosmetic surgery); mail order brides; the pink economy; the sale of  ‘sex toys’, s/m costumes, nitrate inhalants (‘Poppers’), vibrators, and Ann Summers shops. And with this has come the massive commercial worlds where sex is used to sell anything and everything.(Attwood, 2008; Hennesy, 2000 ; Storr, 2004; Haiken,1997; Sender, 2005  Farrer, 1999; Plummer, 2007).

Elizabeth Bernstein (2007) has examined the broad trans-historical shifts in the sexual economy from pre-modern to post-modern societies and developed an overarching thesis about the changing nature of sex commerce in late modern society. She schematises the differences between ‘early –modern sexual barter, modern-industrial prostitution and post industrial sexual commerce’ (170). The latter she claims has a very different shape, and it is one which all studies from now on should have to engage.  Yes, sex work and prostitution have become more diversified than ever before with a wider range of services; it is dispersed everywhere –breaking down the old distinctions of private and public, and no longer necessarily locating itself within specially stigmatised areas or red light districts. New technologies have become endemic in much of its organisation. But more telling still is the suggestion that there has started to be a real shift  in the meaning of sexuality in these times – towards what Bernstein calls a  ‘bounded authenticity’. Here a new’ relationship meaning’ is evolving; and it is becoming more and more common. Sex is not just a sexual release (if it ever was), but is developing into a more complex relationship linked to intimacies. She claims that there is no longer a simple cash nexus and market relation, but increasingly one where many sex workers are paid to provide erotic acts premised upon the promise of an ‘authentic’ interpersonal connection. The public/private boundaries between intimacy and commerce are being reworked in new and challenging ways.

  1. 3.     Communications: Mediated sex, digitalized sex.

The historical evolution of societies has gradually moved sexuality into an electronic age where a great deal of sexuality becomes highly visible and ‘mediated’ into our lives: contemporary sexualities dwell in these new global media. Sex, once hidden in private spaces, now proclaims its sexual stories loudly from traditional media like film, photographs, music, advertising, drama, radio, and television- but also now the new media: websites, I phones, blogging, twitter.  This new public telling of sex invades what was once seen as the private: what was once experienced as a very personal and hidden sphere is now made accessible to all.  The so called ‘pluralistic ignorance’ of others in past times, has now become public knowledge as human sexualities become increasingly visible or prone to disclosure (Jamieson, 1998). So here we now see the massive development of pornographic photos and films (‘pornorgraphization’, ‘pornification’ and the  ‘pornographication’ of culture’ (McNair, 2002; Paasonen, 2009) along with the widespread sexualization of media saturated with erotic availability. The presence of Elvis’s hip wiggling in the 1950’s seems mild when compared with the remarkable inventory of full scale sexual global antics of Madonna in the 1980’s and 1990’s (and a string of women before her). Look for example at Paul Rutherford’s instructive detailed chronology of Madonna’s Music Videos (1984-1995) which lists just what she did publicly over ten years. In addition there was the bestselling book, Sex ( 1990). Much contemporary media has become saturated sex: what has been called sexualization (Attwood, 1999)  a process which might have started in the 19th century (Wouters, 2010).

As the song in the musical Avenue Q goes: ‘The internet is for porn’. All the new digital media from cell phones and games to web cams and chat rooms have been swamped globally by the erotic. Valid estimates of use are very hard to collect- some suggest that up to forty per cent of the male population in the UK use the internet for porn (Independent, May 28th, 2006); others suggest it is much higher (especially organizations crusading against it). But porn is only one of many possible ways the internet can be used for sex –  a global and ubiquitous cybersexual smorgasbord has developed  fostering new modes of sexual meeting and communication on a truly massive scale: every desire charted  by Krafft-Ebbing in the nineteenth century now has its own web site followers! This has generated ubiquitous new ways of doing sex across groups and generations. e.g. self-made digital porn; cybersex; web cam sex; mobile phone sex; on line dating; sex chat rooms for all kinds of sexual tastes; proliferation and ease of access to porn of all kinds. It is the age of cyber-porn, cyber-queer, cyber-dating, cyber-stalking, cyber-rape, cyber-victim, cyber-sex and cyber grooming. (cf Waskul, 2004; Attwood, 2010).  More than this, new sexual cultures and new sexual knowledges become available (with different degrees of access) across the globe. (c.f.Berry, Martin & Yue, 2003).

  1. Science and the ‘Technology fix’: Techno sex

Many developments in science have also transformed the sexual. Much of it has had the consequence of disconnecting sexualities from its long presumed biological essence and coupling with reproduction. With the new technologies and pharmaceuticals we have seen a reproductive sex under greater control as we move to a sexuality that is more relational, representational and recreational.  Sex is no longer ‘simply’ needed for reproduction; and the life of a sexually active person has been extended and diversified. Thus Viagra prolongs sex way beyond the reproductive years; contraceptive pills, morning after pills (and condoms for men and women) facilitate sex without reproduction; the new reproductive technologies make pregnancy and child birth possible without sex. Put these together and we have a heady mix: sex and reproduction are no longer linked (for the first time in history).  On top of this, a whole array of new techno-fetishes have been developed around machines -with robots and cyborgs and electrical BDSM, as well as new materials like the fetish of plastic and leather; and the rise of  pharmaceuticals, like poppers to enhance sex. There is also the new worlds of body enhancement – from breast enhancement surgery to transgender surgery. Some claim we are moving to the post-human. (cf: Loe 2004; Tieffer, 2006; Shapiro, 2010).


  1. 5.     From rural to urban: Urban anonymity and sex in the city

As the scale of cities has grown from half a million in pre-industrial to the current megacities of 17-20 million or more, so social life has gradually become more and more prone to segmentation, annomymity and massness. It is easy to get lost in the city. And this in turn re-works sexual life as the city becomes divided into housing spaces for singles, sex zones, and ecologies of sexual markets and ‘life style enclaves’. Modern cities often bring gay networks and communities; neighbourhoods of sex work; no go areas – safer and unsafe sex areas. The move to cities, global cities and urban conglomerations links with the growth of singles, the rise of diverse urban enclaves and the fostering of  blasé attitudes.  Social life can become more fleeting, transient and many more places can develop for street sex , public sex and anoynmous encounters.

At the simplest level, sex is everywhere spatially organized but it is also on the move. As Laumann (2004) shows in his survey of over 2,000 people in four Chicago neighbourhoods, sex is significantly shaped by the neighborhood you live in, your ethnicity, your sexual preference, and the circle of friends to which you belong.  Others have shown how small towns and commuter suburbs or rural areas can also bring distinctive patterns of, for example, gay life (Gray, 2009; Peacock, 207). But human sexualities are also open to flows, movements, mobilities. They are constantly being reworked, re-drawn, re-shaped. – more and more subject to flows, fluidities, networks,  contingencies, movement, scapes.  John Urry’s Sociology Beyond Societies (1999) talks of mobilities; and suggests that in such a world, borders and boundaries cannot remain fixed: they become a shifting presence as the edges are always being re-negotiated: in international trafficking, in the flows of sex tourism, in the movements from country to cities, in the flows of cyberspace. There are ‘sexscapes’ at work, as Travis Kong has shown in his work on the mobilities across Hong Kong, London and Shanghai (Kong 2010). In recent works, then, there has been a major rethinking of sexual ‘spaces and places’.


  1. 6.     Professionalization and Medicalization: Sexperts

Contemporary social life is characterized by more and specialisations, divisions of labour and professions- in medicine, in law, in education, and even in sex itself. This is the age of ‘professional dominance’, the audit culture and the culture of the expert.  Not surprinsgly, the experts have invaded the zones of intimacy to capture the ‘sexual soul’– from the psychiatrists, the counselors, the sex therapists and the sexologists through to the library of self help books, self-help groups, agony aunt columnists and  TV confessionals (Illouz, 2007; 2008; Plummer, 1995). Every aspect of our sexualities has been documented, probed and ‘therapised’ by an army of ‘sexperts’ – from the lowest of drives (the asexual and those lacking desire – now seen as medical disorders) to the hypersexual sex addicts (which became a clinical entity in the early 1980’s) (Irvine, 2005). In a major way, every aspect of our sexual life has been placed in ‘expert’ hands – from birth control to ‘death by Viagra’. We have sexperts running education programmes, couples visting sex therapists, and a veritable ‘science/fiction’ of sex has been constructed in sex guides and sex manuals (Potts,2002). There is even a ‘rescue industry’ for sex workers (Agustin, 2008).

  1. 7.     Power, Democratization and the New Social Movements: Sex Rights 

In tandem with these changes has been the rise of the ballot box, the search for democratic governments and the development of social movements. Charles Tilley (2004) and others have shown how, over the past two hundred years, social movements have evolved developing claims, mobilizing resources and shaping arenas of public discourse over many fields of social life. One of these has been the claims of movements over intimacy and sex – which can be traced back at least to the late eighteenth century, and is most clearly represented by the women’s movement  with claims over birth control, abortion rights, sexual violence and women’s sexuality), and the gay movement (with claims of equality over sexuality). There are many others – protest movements over sex laws, purity crusades, erotic minorities, and tribes of all kinds have made sexual life one of public contestation. More and more, social movements have their role to play in the shaping of sex. And in recent decades, a major language and rhetoric of human sexual rights and the right to choose the nature of one’s sexual life has become central to contemporary debates on human intimacy (Plummer,2006; 2010).Here  a major conflict usually appears. For gays, sex workers, transgender movement and the rest there has also been a history of conflict between assimilationists and radicals. The former want to argue they are normal, deserve equal rights, and want to be ‘good citizens’. They want to stay inside the boundaries set by a patriarchal and heteronormative society. By contrast, ‘radicals’ argue that these sexualities are indeed invariably ‘outside’.  Getting rights and becoming  citizens is to become normalized and to reinforce the dominant values. Radicals usually celebrate sexual desire in all its hedonistic forms – providing a ‘seductive  (and dangerous) vision of alternative possibilities’. These are the Sexual Outlaws and sexual citizenship is not the name of their game (see Adam, Aggleton and Parker 2010).

  1. 8.     Informalism, individualism and the Liquid Society: The Personalization of Sexualities


Finally there is a large rag bag of other changes that centre around the re-organisation of the personal life. There is a long history – from at least deTocqueville- which has suggested how personal life has become more individualized and open to a sense of personal choice which was not to be found in all societies. We have arrived at the time of impulsivity (Turner, 1976), mutability (Zurcher, 1977), narcissism (Lasch, 1979), informalization (Wouters, 2004), individualization (Bech & Gernsheim, 2002), liquid life (Bauman, ) and ‘the new individualism’ (Elliott and Lemert, 2010). These changes are not about sex per se, but they all touch on key themes about the personal life. They suggest how the formality of sexual emotions, manners, language, groups and hierarchies of the past have become increasingly supplanted by more informal relations, so sexual patterns have been ‘deregulated’. We now live in a world of sexual choices (Plummer, 2003), pure relationships (Giddens, 1990; 1992), cold intimacies (Illouz, 2007, 2008) and disclosing intimacies(Jamieson, 2002 . Tight codes and formal rules have given way to more fluid rules and a highly questionable set of choices about the personal life. A seeming ‘endless hunger for instant change’, ‘self reinvention’ and ‘short term living‘ have become themes which characterize the new personal – read also sexual- life.

There are two rather different approaches to this increasing level of individual choice and the balance of individualism and individualization in these accounts. One is critical and suggests growing levels of narcissism, selfishness and egoism. It is the view that prevails- speaking of how ‘togetherness is being dismantled’ ( Bauman, 2003:119). Indeed, for some it has led to the ‘breakdown of character’ (Hunter, 2000), and even ‘the demoralization of western culture’ (Fevre, 2000). The alternative suggests growing levels of autonomy, choice and independence- much of the change has given greater scope to personal life. Carol Smart’s Personal Life (2007), for example, draws from empirical research (something the theorists often ignore) to show the connectedness, relationality and embeddedness of many personal relations today –  rejecting many of the assumptions found in theories of individualization. As personal life goes, so goes sexualities.


This essay has taken stock of a complex and quite vast new field of study which moves under many names and has many disagreements within itself. I call it Critical Sexualities Studies (CSS), and I have hardly been able to do justice to the  labyrinth of complex inquiries it has generated over the past fifty years. It is now a large, lively and distinctively challenging arena of global, cosmopolitan analysis and which is usually driven by a passionate concern for a better sexual world for all. Of course, in reality it has a very long history, and it bridges into key longstanding dilemmas of sociological analysis. And so a final issue: recently I have been exploring the importance of seeing sexualities as always generational (Plummer, 2010b).

What I have been locating in this review article are shifting generational sexualities. We see a new version of sexualities being created for twenty-first century life by a questioning millennial, digital and global generation, one that will not put up with the old orthodoxies that have created much sexual suffering in the past(though doubtless they will generate their own). A new world is in the making. At the same time, recent generations have been helping make this new world – critical sexualities, for example, has a lineage of over a few decades and it brings to the forefront the deep ways in which our sexualities are structured by the social and the political. The old simple sense of any unified sexuality and the inevitable powerfulness of biology alone has been placed seriously under question since at least the generations of Ellis and Krafft-Ebbing even as such an idea still rages in popular culture. The constant struggles between difference and sameness, the unique and the general, the cosmopolitan and the fundamentalist – and the optimists and the pessimists- are all found here. Bridging human rights and intimate citizenship with sociology and queer theory, the personal with the political, and the local with the global, Critical Sexual Studies has established itself as a major field within sociology and the wider intellectual landscape.


Short introduction to the sociology of sexualities include:

Chris Beasley (2005) Gender and Sexuality: Critical Theories, Critical Thinkers. London: Sage
Veronique Mottier (2008) Sexuality: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Steven Seidman (2010 2nd ed) The Social Construction of  Sexuality. NY: W.W.Norton
Jeffrey Weeks (2003 3rd ed) Sexuality. London: Routledge

There are a number of useful readers in the field of sexualities studies including:

Peter Aggleton & Richard Parker eds (2010) Routledge Handbook of Sexuality Health and Rights. London: Routledge
Jo Eadie ( (2004) Sexuality: The Essential Glossary. Oxford: Hodder
Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott Theorizing Sexuality (2010) Maindehead: Open University Press
.—————-eds (1996) Feminism and sexuality: A Reader  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
Michael S. Kimmel and Rebecca F.Plante (2004) Sexualities: Identities, Behaviours and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Richard Parker and Peter Aggleton (2006 2nd ed)    Culture, society and Sexuality: A Reader. Londn: UCL Press
Steven Seidman, Nancy Fischer & Chet Meeks  (2006) Introducing the New Sexuality Studies. London: Routledge
Jeffrey Weeks, Janet Holland & Matthew Waites ( (2003) Sexualities and Society: A Reader.Cambridge: Polity
Christine Williams and Arlene Stein ed (2002) Sexuality and Gender Oxford: Blackwell


 Abelove, Henry,  M.A. Barale & D. Halperin eds (1993) The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: Routledge

Aboulafia, Mitchell (2001) The Cosmopolitan Self: George Hebert Mead and Continental Philosophy.  University of llinois.

Adam, Barry & J.W. Duyvendak & A Krouwel eds (1998). The Global Emergence of Gay and Lesbian Politics,  Philadelphia: Temple UP
Adam, Barry (1998). ‘Theorizing  Homophobia’ Sexualities. Vol 1 .No 4 p387-404

Adkins, Lisa & Vicki Merchant eds (1996) Sexualizing the Social: Power and the Organization of sexuality.New York: St Martins

Aggleton, P & R.Parker (2010) eds  Routledge Handbook of Sexuality, Health and Rights London: Routledge

Agustin, Laura Maria ((2007) Sex at the Margins; Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry London: Zed Books

Ahmed, Sara  (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press

Altman, Dennis et al (1989) Homosexualiy? Which Homosexuality? London: Gay Men’s Press.

———-(2001). Global Sex: Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Aoyama, Kaoru (2009) Thai Migrant Workers: From Modernisation to Globalisation. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan

Appiah, Kwame Anthony (2006) Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of Strangers Allen Lane

Attwood, Feona ed (2009)  Mainstreaming Sex:  The Sexualization of Western Culture     I.B.Tauris

—— ed (2010) Porn.Com. NY .Peter Lang

Bauman, Zygmunt (2003) Liquid Love. Cambridge: Polity

Bland, Lucy & Laura Doan (1998). Sexology Uncensored: The Documents of Sexual Science. Cambridge: Polity Press

Beasley, Chris (2005) Gender and Sexuality: Critical Theories, Critical Thinkers. London: Sage

Beck, Ulrich and Elizabeth Beck Gernsheim (2002) Individualization. London: Sage
Beck, Ulrich (2006)   The Cosmopolitan Vision.  Cambridge: Polity

Beckman, Andrea ((2009) The Social Construction of Sexuality and Perversion: Deconstructing Sadomaoschism. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave

Bell, David & Jon Binnie (2000) The Sexual Citizen : Queer Politics and Beyond Cambridge: Polity
Bernstein, Elizabeth  (2007) Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity and the Commerce of Sex. Chicago: University of Chicago
Berry, C, F.Martin &  A.Yue (2003)  Mobile Cultures: New Media in Queer Asia. Durham: Duke U.P.
Binnie, Jon (2004) The Globalization of Sexuality. London: Sage
Boellestorff,  Tom (2005) The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia  Princeton
Brownmiller, Susan (1975) Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. NY Simon Schuster
Butler, Judith ( 1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of indentity. London: Routledge
Collins, Patricia Hill ( 1990)  Black Feminist Thought London: Routledge
Connell, Robert  (1995; 2nd ed 2005) Masculinities. Cambridge: Polity
Connell, Raewyn (2007) Southern Theory . Cambridge:Polity
Corber, Robert J & Stephen Valocchi ed (2003) Queer Studies. Oxford: Blackwell
Crenshaw, Kimberle Williams (1991) ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of colour’ Stanford Law Review. 43, 6 p1241-99Das Gupta, Monishs Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Activism, and Transnational South Asian Politics in the United States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006)
Davis, Murray. (1983 ) Smut: Erotic Reality/ Obscene Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago

Dowsett, Gary (2000) ‘Bodyplay: Corporeality in a Discursive Silence’ in  Parker at al, 2000 op cit p29-45

Dowsett, Gary (1996) Practicing Desire : Homosexual Sex in an age of AIDS. California: Stanford Press

Duberman, Martin (1997)ed A Queer World. NY. NYU Press

Dworkin, Andrea (1981) Pornography: Men possessing women New York : Perigree

Eadie, Jo ( (2004) Sexuality: The Essential Glossary. Oxford: Hodder
Ehrenreich, Barbara, Elixabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs (1987) Remaking Love: The Feminization of Sex

Ekins, Richard & Dave King (2006) The Transgender Phenomenon. London: Sage

Elliott, Anthony and Charles Lemert (2010: 2nd ed) The New Individualism.London: Routledge

Eriksen, Julia (1998) Kiss and Tell    Cambridge: Mass: Harvard University Press

Evans, David (1993)  Sexual Citizenship. London : Routledge.

Farrer, James  (1999) ‘Disco Super-Culture : Consuming Foreign Sex in the Chinese Disco’ Sexualities Vol 2 No 2  p147-66

——–    Opening Up : Youth Sex Culture and Market reform in Shanghai .Chicago

Foucault, M. (1980), The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (R. Hurley trans.), New York: Vintage Books (originally published in 1976).

Fevre, R.W. (2000) The Demoralization of Western Culture: Social Theory and the Dilemmas of Modern Living. London: Continuum

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 KEN PLUMMER is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex and the founder editor of the journal Sexualities. His works include Sexual Stigma (1975), Telling Sexual Stories (1995), and Intimate Citizenship (2003). His most recent book is Sociology: The Basics (2010).







Ken Plummer (University of Essex)

(Visiting Professor of Sociology, University of California at Santa Barbara)


Draft of paper for Cambridge Socio-Legal Group Sexuality Project Pembroke College, University of Cambridge

31st March – 2nd April 2003; and finally published in

in Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Loraine Gelsthorpe, Martin Johnson and Andrew Bainham eds. Sexuality Repositioned: Diversity and the Law. (Hart: 2004)


……all discourses of sexuality are inherently 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 than it provides explanation… (Simon, 1996)

…..This is the real mark of what is different about the late twentieth century: those who used to be spoken of are now struggling in various ways, using different, often hesitant or incoherent languages to speak for themselves. The result is inevitably confusing, but enormously significant. We are here in a world where the imperatives of history, nature and science are being displaced by the norm of sexual choice, and where a master narrative is being displaced by a multiplication of new narratives, each claiming its own truth… (Weeks, 2000)


Introduction: The Social Worlds of Studying Sexuality

 The study of human sexualities now has at least a century of research and thinking behind it. As with all study and research, it congeals into various ‘social worlds’, which often have little connection with each other (Clarke, 1998; Starr, xxx; Strauss, 1983). One world – such as ‘evolutionary thinking’ – will have its own history, language, ‘gurus’, journals, conferences, ideologies and may have little contact with another – such as ‘queer theory’, which will also replicate its own history, language, gurus, journals,[2]  and conferences. What may be called ‘social world theories of science’, then, suggests that academic worlds have their own spaces, languages, memberships, identities, histories, and technologies which are always in dynamic process: shifting, changing, interpenetrating and, these days,  increasingly global. They set boundaries of who is in and who is out of the debate; who can be listened to and who ignored; they fashion out ‘publics’ and ‘counter-publics’ (Warner, 2002).

The social worlds of studying sexualities can and often do overlap, but in the main they function more or less autonomously. They will have their own sexual study habitus and will assemble their own shared histories and intellectual memories. Some may be lofty and elite; others much more mundane and open. Some may claim ‘science’ and seek objectivity; others may be much more avowedly political. Many will depend upon the creation of enemies to function: the debates they generate spearheaded by the creation of a counter-public. Tensions across worlds may be so great that they will not even look at what each other is interested in (except perhaps to attack it).  Thus, to juxtapose some of the writings from GLQ alongside the Archives of Sexual Behavior would be to be enter different planets (ironically, Warner’s book is called Queer Planet). It might be an odd, even marginal, person who would read both! Or to take another instance: a recent analysis of ‘theory in sexuality research’ by Robert L Weiss tries to bring together some 25 ‘classics of sexual theory’ for the Journal of Sex Research (1998). (The listing is reproduced as Table 1).This journal is one of the leaders of ‘the field’, but it provides what some might consider a generally odd listing. Despite the major contributions of feminist and queer scholars to the emergence of recent theory, with the exception of Foucault and Tieffer, they all seem to be ignored. What we are left with is a curious North American and ‘sexological bias’, which reflects the different social worlds I have been locating above.

All these scientific social worlds themselves are also riddled with their own splits ands tensions. Thus, the ‘sex wars’ within academic feminism are well known and formidable and in their time have been well documented (eg. Vance, 1985…)  But likewise, to look at the Journal of Homosexuality and then Queery would not lead to the discovery of much consensus. Worlds of research around HIV and AIDS are also notoriously at odds with each other on a global level. Assumptions, languages, histories, referential communities are in tension. There is a continuing academic ‘Rhetorical War Over Sexuality’ (Smith & Windes, 2000).

Whilst there are already some interesting histories of researching and theorizing the sexual [3], an account of their social worlds and the tensions therein must be awaited. Paul Robinson’s The Modernization of Sex is now a classic and details the work of Kinsey, Masters and Johnson and Ellis in terms of both their content and their social impact. More recently, Kath Weston’s  long slow burn :sexuality and social science (1998), Janice Irvine’s Disorders of Desire, and Julia Eriksen’s Kiss and  Tell have provided major critical reviews (though again strongly tied to the US traditions). Other works have brought together some of the key ‘sexual documents’ of our time (including the works by Jeffreys,1987; Porter and Hall, 1995; Bland and Doan, 1998). We do have starts then in looking at the histories and social worlds of sex research and theory and it is clear that there is both massive data and secondary sources for such a project. But it is a huge undertaking and way beyond the aims of this sort of short paper.  Nevertheless, as a nod in this direction, I could perhaps itemise some of the key players and positions. All have their own histories and all are around today. First there are the fieldworkers – ethnographers, anthropologists, travellers. These include the early writers who brought back accounts of the sexual in ‘foreign parts’; and whose contemporary counterparts are the anthropologists and the ‘urban ethnographers’. Many of these have recently been criticised for their interest in exotic specimens and bringing a kind of colonialist type of mentality to the study of sexualities (eg Weston, 1998.). Some have now re-surfaced as ethnographers of the queer. (eg Haberstam,1998). Next are the clinicians – from Krafft-Ebing and Freud to the more contemporary work of the late Bob Stoller and a legion of others. These bring back accounts of the workings of the inner psyche and its turmoils (cf Osterhuis, 200). By contrast are  the biologists and medical people who start to specialise in the reproductive sciences (cf Clarke, 1998), and who generate eventually the science of sex: sexology.  Of growing current concern are the socio-biologists and evolutionary psychologists, whose work suggests how much sex is shaped by the key adaptive biological differences between men and women. Then there are the sex surveyors – symbolised by Kinsey, though he was far from being the first, whose task seemed to be to tell the tale of who does what to whom how often. These range enormously from the large scale but solitary works of a Shere Hite to the funded researches which many countries conducted in the wake of the HIV /AIDS Pandemic (like those by Wellings et al in the UK and Laumann et al in the US). The symbolic interactionist theorists  are a relatively small groups, spearheaded by Gagnon and Simon, were closely allied with the urban ethnographers above and who became the forerunners of what is now known as social constructionism. .The political activists in the academy –notably  the Women’s movement and the Gay/ Lesbian Movement –started to challenged many orthodoxies of the worlds of sex research from the 1970’s onwards, producing their own analyses of sexuality, gender and power. Some of them also brought Marxist / materialist accounts. Since the 1980’s we have seen the arrival of the social worlds of AIDS / HIV research – an important world wide pandemic which has had the curious consequence of generating a major global programme of sex research and international conferencing. It has been dubbed The AIDS Industry. And at about the same time, we started also to see what I have called the Foucauldian Deluge – work which followed in the wake of Michael Foucault extraordinarily influential book The History of sexuality, and which led to sexualities being seen as a discursive formation. Many of these social worlds (and there are others) function in relative ignorance of each other.

Paradigm Ruptures, Epistemological Crises and the Emergence of New Critical Sexualities Theories?

 Moving under various (often contradictory and contested ) guises over the past few decades we  have seen a paradigmatic shift, a continuous attack  and sustained critique on the orthodoxies of our time. Critical theory, epistemological anarchism, feminism, multiculturalism, discourse theory, constructionism, standpoint theory, queer theory, critical realism, critical humanism, postcolonialism, Interpretive ethnography and other stances have all made their challenges. At their hearts, they have made us take rendered or traditional ‘knowledge’ about social life given to us in earlier times much more problematic. Indeed, the social theorist Ulrich Beck refers to ‘Zombie knowledge’ from the past – knowledge which simply hasn’t taken on board the rapidly changing times we live in. And he cites the importance of locating all our old ‘knowledges’ nowadays in a global frame- we have to always think beyond the local. Our social theorizing is embedded in moral and political structures which need to be made much more explicit and part of our work. Our methodologies suffer from what Norman Denzin has called ‘a triple crisis of representation, legitimation and praxis’ (Denzin, 1997:3). And our epistemologies may have suffered from too grand a claim for the search for the truth. Grand claims for finding one way have been replaced by a language of pluralized truths, multiple pathways, and fragments. And all of this must effect the ways in which we now study – think, argue, theorise, research and act – around the fields of  sexualities.

Although, it would be hard to locate a specific time, place or people who worked to challenge some of the dominant assumptions of many of the schools of sex research that were prominent in much of the twentieth century, there can be no doubt that it is a story of considerable growth over the past fifty years or so. From a few papers in mid century that were relatively underdeveloped in both their theory and analysis, there was a major explosion of work in all directions. Spearheaded by AIDS research, the gay movement, the women’s movement, and many wider social changes such as globalization, by the early 1990’s there were many people working in the field that helped to re-shape it and provide ‘New Agendas for Sexual Research’. From a number of differing strands which I would date from the late 1960’s, a momentum gathered during the 1970’s, became very prominent in the 1980’s,  and achieved almost cultish levels of interest towards the end of that decade and the start of the 1990’s. Maybe its hey day in the UK was the very successful conference on Sexuality organised by the British Sociological Association in 1994 [4] and the conference organised at Middlesex University around that time.[5] More recently, the whole position had become canonical in terms of texts, journals and readers[6]. But there are also some small signs of it attracting less interest. Indeed, in one recent study , Kath Weston – admittedly she is talking more about gender – starts to suggest that this research has ‘passed its glory days’ and is now haunted by a ‘sense of intellectual exhaustion’ (Weston, 2002 p1-2). This is probably a very common life cycle for a social world of research.


Given my own history, for me the most formative influence was a trail blazing paper published in 1969 which starts to bring into prominent focus the work of William  Simon and John Gagnon. As I have now documented in several places,[7] both worked at the Kinsey Institute for Sexual Behaviour in the 1960’s, collecting and unearthing mounds of empirical data yet felt in the midst of this the need to theorise sexuality more adequately  – to take the data out of the simple realm of the biological, the ‘natural’ and the merely factual and to place it squarely in the realms of the social, the symbolic and the theoretical. Starting in 1966, a highly fruitful partnership emerged which produced over 30 articles and linked books which culminated in their pathbreaking study Sexual Conduct in 1973. Drawing on the work of Kenneth Burke their Chicago based training in symbolic interactionism and especially the dramaturgical metaphors of Erving Goffman, they argued that sex far from being natural was located well within the realms of the social and the symbolic.  They introduced the key idea of scripting, an idea that has never to this day been exploited to its fullest.


But I am being personal and biased. There are many entrances into this new thinking, and whichever path taken, there are many things that they have in common. At the heart of this would be challenging view that sexuality is far from a given natural and is always for human at the intersections of the social and cultural. As I have remarked elsewhere:


their prime aim is to sense the ways in which human sexualities are social through and through, and to claim that any analysis which does not recognise this must be seriously flawed. Sexuality, for humans, never just is. It has no reality sui generis, and any concern with ‘it ‘ must always harbour wider social issues: human sexualities have to be socially produced (no human can ever just do it), socially organised, socially maintained and socially transformed. Human sexuality is always conducted at an angle: it is never just sex. …….Human sexualities are always more than ‘just human sexualities’. They overlap with, and are omnipresent in, all of social life (Plummer, 2002). 

What could perhaps be called Critical Sexual Theory or, better, ‘The New Sexualities Theories’ (and maybe ironically at a time when they are just beginning to fade!) would all probably agree that what matters in understanding human sexualities is not so much the raw bodily elements but the mapping of meanings between body and culture (what Gagnon & Simon refer to as cultural, inter and intra-psychic scripting – but others use other terms). They would all place major emphases on the diversities of sexualities with a heavy critique of unitary models and the presumption of any fixed, given, universal heterosexuality. The concern is with how sexualities have changed (and may change) – whether it is women’s sexuality, gay sexuality, sexuality linked to HIV etc, and that such changes have both long term and short term dimensions. There is also a constant returning to the ways in which sexuality becomes more and more a political focus – with many conflicts from those over pornography in the women’s movement to those over gay male sexuality (the ‘sex panic’ debates) in the gay movement.


Here a space emerges for new kinds of sexualities and a time when the Grand Narrative of Sexuality has come to an end.  ‘Sex’ is no longer the source of truth, as it was for the moderns with their strong belief in science. Instead, human sexualities become destabilised, decentred  and de- essentialised : the sexual life is no longer seen as harbouring an essential unitary core locatable within a clear framework (like the nuclear family)  with an essential truth waiting to be discovered : there are only fragments. As Jeffrey Weeks remarks: ‘the imperatives of history, nature and science are being displaced by the norm of sexual choice, and where a master narrative is being displaced by a multiplication of new narratives, each claiming its own truth ‘ (Weeks (2000: 238).

So now, at the start of the twenty first century, it is possible to detect a proliferation of books, readers, conferences, journals, and research into social aspects of sexuality. The situation seems radically different from when I started out in this field some thirty years ago: no longer is it a minority, or even stigmatising, business. It is true that some of this new work I find problematic. (Some of it for example is fast sending itself into a self made ghetto; some of it does continue to suffer from the old illusions of the search for a fixed truth; some of it engages eccentrically with just one or two ‘texts’; some of it continues in time worn ways of uncritical empirical fact gathering; some of it wallows in a theoretical obscurantism of the sexual world; and some of it remains too firmly wedded to a Freudianism with a dark history and too many problems). Nevertheless, just to provide a partial check list (a very postmodern tool!) in no particular importance of some of the issues on the agenda of sexual theorists at the start of the twenty first century is to sense something of the vibrancy of this field. I have decided not to clutter this list with references!

  • The continuing challenges of feminism, anti-racism, the LGBT movements, post-colonialism, multi-culturalism  and anti-ageism – most of whom continue  to provide full blown critiques of theory, method  and substance in the study of sexualities. Closely allied has been the call for a return to seeing the role of materiality in sexualities – the return of what has been called a ‘political economy of sexualities’[8]
  • The continuing significance of AIDS /HIV and its role in galvanising research, politics and new world wide debates about the meaning of sexualities and the nature of sexual acts. Much of this has been directly linked to the gay movement  and more recently much of it has raised issues of globalization and the plight of low income societies.
  • The ‘problematisation of ‘heterosexuality’’. Assumed and taken for granted in much early research, activists within feminism and within the queer movement have started to chart the history of this idea ( it appears after homosexuality) and the ways in which its binary split with homosexuality tends to become an organising assumption of much western thought.
  • The importance of the post-modern as a challenge to any unitary theory of the truth. Although post-modernism may now be less ‘fashionable’ than it was in the 1980’s and the 1990’s it has left its legacy both on sexual analysis (where there is no longer and Grand Truth of the Sexual – ‘King Sex has been dethroned’) and indeed on the social organisation of sexualities themselves (where they are now more likely to be seen more in their multiplicities, diversities and local embedded contexts).
  • The much clearer positioning of reproductive politics and reproductive health within the field. The rise of new reproductive technologies in particular has severed the presumed link with biological sex, and has raised  new practices of reproduction without ‘genital sexual activities’. This starts to shift around centuries old understandings of the purpose of sexual activities and reproductive methods.
  • The concern with both the performativity, the doing of gender  and the nature of sexualities conceived as ‘doing things together’. In removing a broad essentialism from the study of the sexual, we turn more and more to daily practices of doing sex.
  • An interesting return to, and problematisation of, the body and the corporeal, seeing the need to bring ‘lust’ and the body back into sexuality studies whilst not overstating it. Much of the new constructionism played down the body, or reduced it to a text. New trends suggest this is changing.
  • The persistent concern with boundaries, borders, differences and who is inside/outside. More than anything, this now seems to be the function of the established skirmishes around ‘queer theory’. Whilst many patterns of same sex relations are becoming normal, others stay on the agenda of taboo and stigma. The case studies of the paedophile and child sexualities will prove instructive here. There are also core issues of social exclusion  and difference which highlight ethnicity, class, gender, age, disabilities, nation which are gradually becoming more focused.
  • The power of the media, representation and what has been called ‘the media-sation of sexualities’. Sexual lives are increasingly lived in worlds of mediated forms – from hip hop worlds to reality television. Most centrally here has been the rise of cyber-worlds of sexualities – which come with a whole new language and series of issues. Here are  sex chat rooms, sex news groups , camcorder sex, and virtual sex, along with new approaches to the body  and emergent ‘techno- identities’ and  ‘techno-cultures’[9] Here we have a new language that maybe mirrors new forms of sexualities – cyber-porn, cyber-queer, cyber-dating, cyber-stalking, cyber-rape, cyber-victim, cyber-sex.
  • The centrality of the process of globalization and its impact upon sexualities, as some groups have more and more, and others less and less. Access to, and exploitation by, sexual markets is highly differentiated by class, ethnicity, gender. And we could also start to talk of the global clash of sexual civilisations, to flag important schisms over gender and sexualities between fundamentalist worlds (Christian and Muslim) and non fundamentalist worlds.
  • Issues of power and sex continue to be important, and along with this come new political debates identified as ‘the sexual citizenship debates’, especially as they move more and more into a global concern with human sexual rights.

Two things strike me as significant about this quickest of listings. The first is the sheer range of new issues on the agenda. The list is not at all complete but it pushes us to question the very foundations of much earlier thinking, challenges us to look at the rapidity of change taking place in this field today and makes us confront the ways in which the sexual is embedded in a matrix of inequalities – of class, nations, race, gender, and age alongside processes of marginalization, exclusion and domination.

The second significant feature about such a listing is just how little input has come from the traditional social worlds of research into sexuality: sexology. And indeed just how different would be a similar listing of issues raised by them. In one major sense, nearly all the listing above comes from activists in the academy. Not neutral at all in their agendas, their goals have been to radically transform the sexual scene and the linked gender regimes. In all of this we see that the simple study of sex as sex has gone. This means that any understanding of the critical development of the new thinking on sexuality has to engage with the ideas of these new social movements: the understanding of new sexualities theories was profoundly shaped by ideas from both the lesbian and gay movement and the women’s movement.

Bringing the Body (Back) In

One of the ironies of these new developments however has to be the ways in which in its quite proper rush to show us that the sexual was not a simple matter of bodily sex drives, but social through and through, the new theories started to study sexuality without giving much attention to bodies. There were exceptions – Martin Weinberg’s early work on nudism looked at the management of bodies, for example; and Foucault’s work talked about bodies a great deal (but only in discourses). But in general, for some twenty five years or so, the lusty, corporeal body went missing!

There is, it seems to me, to be a need to bring ‘lust’ and the body back into sexuality studies’ (cf. Plummer, 2002/3; Dowsett, 1996; 2000).[10] This may seem an odd claim. It is odd because the original claims of constructionism were to get away from too bodily a focus on  sex – to weaken the ‘drive’ and biological essentialist models. And it odd too because one of the major developments within social science thinking over the past twenty years or so has been the social theorizing over the body: whilst Chris Shilling can speak of the past as harbouring the body as ‘an absent presence in sociology’ (Shilling, 1993: 9) there has been much recent work on the ‘sociology of bodies’ by which ‘the body’ has moved centre stage. [11] For me, though, it remains a bit perplexing that the new literatures on sexualities and bodies somehow remain disconnected. So whilst it is true that the gendered body has been much discussed, the sexualised or eroticized body has received much less attention. When it is discussed it is usually in the form of the sexualised text or representation and not the fleshy, corporeal body. But the body, surely, is both a central site of concern for the practices of sex (as well, of course, as the symbolism). Hence whilst we can see the body as an erotically charged symbol swamped with sexual meaning, we must surely also see it as a series of material practices of embodiments. It is both bodily sign and bodily project. Since more is known of the former than the latter, let me suggest some themes around the idea of sexual body projects. To start with- some imagery. For here, we can start to think of commingled skins, of being inside another’s body or having another’s body inside you: to penetrate and be penetrated, to invade and be invaded, to engulf or be engulfed, to take or be taken. What too of a sociology of embodiments around the erotic activities surrounding the mouth, the vagina, the anus, the breast, the toe? The corporeal body needs bringing into the new sexuality studies.

We might start to speak of the embodiment of sexual practices;  of doing body work around sex. ‘Sexualities’ here will involve social acts through which we ‘gaze’ at bodies, desire bodies, taste (even eat) bodies, smell bodies, fashion and adorn bodies, touch bodies, hear bodies, penetrate bodies, and orgasm bodies. These bodies can be our own or those of others. ‘Doing sex’ means ‘doing erotic body work’. Sex body projects  could be seen to entail, at the very least, the following: presenting and representing  bodies (as sexy, non-sexy- on the street, in the gym, in the porno movie) ; interpreting bodies and body parts (‘the gaze’ and the ‘turn ons’ and ‘turn offs’- sexual excitements of different kinds from voyeurism to stripping); receiving bodies;  manipulating bodies (through the use of fashion, cosmetics, prosthetics); penetrating bodies (all kinds of intercourses from body parts like fingers and penises to ‘sex toy objects’); transforming bodies (stages of erotic embodiment, movements towards orgasms); commodifying bodies (in sex work, live sex acts, stripping, pornography and the like); ejecting and ejaculating bodies as all kinds of bodily fluids – semen, blood, sweat, saliva,  even urine and faecal matter – start to commingle; possessing bodies( as we come to own or dominate others bodies); exploiting bodies (as we come to abuse or terrorise them);transgressing bodies ( as we go the extremes in the use of our erotic bodies) and desiring bodies ( Thurgood, 1999etc). .

From this we could also start to talk about the new body technologies of sexuality. These new technologies include at one extreme how erotic bodies are (and have been for some time) managed through medical interventionism. I think here not only of the long histories of birth control, but of the more recent medical interventions such as viagra which work to engorge the body with eroticism, with transgender realignment surgery which helps  refashion the genitalia; with the new methods of assisted conception (artificial insemination AI, in vitro fertilisation (IVF), embryo transfer (ET), gamete intra-fallopian transfer (GIFT)) which further separate out acts of sex, reproduction, gestation, and childrearing : sexed bodies, genetic bodies, nurturing bodies, gestating bodies; and with the multi-billion dollar industry of the cosmetic industry, where the breast, the face, the body becomes transformed through medical procedures often for a sexual end. These are but instances of technology at work to shift the sexualising body (see Melluci, Marshall, 2002; Holmes, 2002).And they also start to suggest an iceberg tip of such transformations.  According to a number of authors, [12] the body is being reconstituted for post modern times and we are entering the age of the post-human and the cyborg (e.g. Haraway, Bray,  Hales). This also means new modes of  (dis) embodied sexualities such as may be found in the worlds of the seemingly rapidly growing cybersex. Through telephone sex, on line porn, sex chat rooms, web cam erotics, virtual realities etc new disembodied sexual worlds may be in the making. Masturbation, solitariness and isolation may be one hall mark of such a world. But accessibility to sexual imagery on a global scale and a permanent supply of partners is another.

All this suggests the importance of the changing erotic body: how has the use of the body erotically changed over time – is the  post-modern body becoming different (post -human, cyborged?). If we follow the tradition of Norbert Elias, we may see bodies as becoming more and more ‘civilised’ ( Schilling summarises this as a ‘progressive socialisation, rationalisation and individuation of the body’ (p163-4)). But if we follow Foucault, we may see them becoming more and more ‘disciplined’. Which ever interpretation is given, they become more bounded and with that more open to inspection as embodied citizens with rights and duties. Medical interventionism – from viagra to the huge sex therapy industry, from AIDS education to transgender, along with cyberworlds may be seen as micro-circuits of power, ever more finely regulating and modifying aspects of erotic embodiment.

Fragments of Sexual Theorisations: Accounting for Sexual Actions

Although post-modern sensibilities must tell us that the days of ‘Grand Theory’ and ‘Total Systems’ are over, we can, I think see with some clarity now the ‘fragments’ that we now need to take on board in sexuality studies which we did not some thirty years ago. We know of course that we must always talk about the local communities being studied; grand claims are ruled out. But we can surely also start to talk now about how the many fragments which we do partially understand may be brought into play. A little consolidation may be in order? Many of these fragments can be framed with the classic action-structure debates of social theory; raising on the one hand the issue of a wider social and sexual order that constrains sexual life; and on the other the micro-processes of sexual action through which sexuality is accomplished or achieved.[13]

In my view, one useful way of thinking about a theory of sexuality should be to start with a grounded theory of sexual action. Through a range of close empirical tools (from grounded and queer ethnographies to self stories and queered life histories), a set of mini concepts appear [14]which suggest tools for grasping what actually goes on in the stuff of everyday socialised sexual life. (This was one of my original aims for the journal Sexualities when it was established, but I am afraid very little of this kind of work is submitted). At the heart of this will lie human agency, albeit always one constrained by the contingencies of its everyday habitus.  We start with the living and breathing, sweating and pumping, sensuous and feeling world of the emotional, fleshy body acting in the world as I have suggested above. We start, where we can and  it will probably proves very difficult to do this, with the actual doings of sexualities – that bodily charged messy business when we get right down to it! It won’t do to simply see it as the release of various drives and hormones – we now know now that it is deeply articulated through the social and can only happen when the social erupts! Nor will it do to see it as a simple repertoire of orgasms and behaviours. We need to carefully home in on the elements of this social act through which sex gets done, to locate it in biographies and contexts; and to see it as a ‘continual permutation of action’ (Strauss,1993). Here are some phrases – or sensitising concepts – that may well be worth expanding upon.

Can we talk – and if so, how? – of

  1. Establishing intimate encounters with self and others
  2. Being ‘turned on’ by who, what, where, when and why?
  3. Getting sexually excited
  4. Handling sexual excitement
  5. Doing sex acts
  6. Embodying eroticsms

moving on to consider:

  1. Making sexual scriptings
  2. Producing sexual feelings
  3. Performing sexualities
  4. Constructing sexual meanings
  5. Evolving sexual habitus
  6. Organising sexual subjectivities
  7. Sustaining sexual commitments
  8. Enacting sexual identities
  9. Narrating sexual stories

moving on to:

  1. Making sex codes
  2. Organising sexual worlds
  3. Making sexual networks
  4. Building sexual cultures

And then locating them within the elements of a wider sexual order:

  1. Patriarchy
  2. Compulsory Heterosexuality
  3. Sex Negativism
  4. Sex Hierarchy
  5. Homophobia and heterosexism

And finally locating them in the wider worlds of time and space

  1. Situation
  2. Network
  3. Community – Public Spheres
  4. Society
  5. Global space

Built into these last series of concepts are much wider concerns of social order – and we might start thinking about the idea of (following Bob Connell (1995) and Anselm Strauss(1993)) a  Negotiated Sexual Order. These link to the broadest matters of social organisation, social hierarchies and ultimately matters of power and social exclusion. It has been well demonstrated through a mass of (mainly historical) studies that human sexuality is bound up with basic social institutions of family, religion, economy, and polity; and enmeshed in stratification systems such as age, ethnicity, class and gender as well as its self generated systems of dominance and exclusion organised through patriarchy, compulsory heterosexuality, sexual violence, homophobia, and sex-negativism. We might see sexualities as embedded or nested in such emergent orders. Nearly twenty years ago, Jeffrey Weeks established a broad context for all this in his classic small study Sexuality (1986) where he outlines a framework of key social institutions in which sexualities are inevitably embedded and nested (although he does not use these terms). These are kinship and family systems, economic and social organisation, social regulations and control, political interventions, and cultures of resistance. He seems to overlook religion, which must play a key role too. All of these connect to power.  No society accepts a sexual free for all: instead patterns of power congealed in rules – overt or hidden – guide the acceptabilities of different forms of sexualities. Amongst the concepts developed over the past few decades which help capture some of this are: patriarchy, which organises sexualities around the key axis of male power and domination and the gender order  which more widely suggests the gendered nature of sexualities (cf. Sylvia Walby; Bob Connell, 1995). Compulsory heterosexuality, which suggests the primacy given to heterosexual forms of sexualities ( cf. Adrienne Rich). Sex negativism, which organises sexuality in a climate usually of fear and negativity (cf. Murray Davis). Sex hierarchy  which more broadly suggests how sex is valorised positively and negatively for certain experiences (cf Gayle Rubin). Continuum of Sexual Violence  which suggests how much sexuality becomes embroiled with power and violence (cf. Liz Kelly). Homophobia which suggests the negative stances given usually to same sex patternings (Adam, 1998). Sex stratification  which suggests a hidden and almost ‘secret’ ways in which love and passion swirl through societies and provides a hierarchy based on ’emotional overcomeness’ (cf. Hans Zetterberg).

Sexual Suffering and Sexual Justice in an Unjust World:

Making the World Safe for Sexualities:


Developing new theories of sexualities will however never be enough for the new sexualities theorists. As I have suggested above, their raison d’être has never just belonged in the academy: many of their ideas have clear political origins and purposes. The social worlds in which they are grounded are largely those of the new social movements, and they do not just want to theorise the sexual world, but to change it.[15] There can be little doubt that the tacit (and sometimes not so tacit) agenda of the new critical sexualities theories has been to make the world a better world for our sexualities. And this is not quite the same wish as those who work in the field of sexology etc who wish to make our sexualities better  ( better orgasms and better intercourse, ‘good sex’ and ‘safe sex’) but who do not see such concerns as so profoundly bound up with cultural meanings and social inequalities.

In looking a this, it might be helpful to suggest five potential (or putative) forms of sexual suffering linked to sexuality, which need social and not just clinical or sexological analyses. Briefly I can summarise them as:[16]

  1. The Sufferings of Desire and Sexual Excitement.   This is the issue of who and what is found sexually exciting – what  ‘turns you on’? This is the classic problem of the nineteenth century- from Krafft Ebbing to Freud- focused upon the nature of our sexual desires. Just who do we wish to have sex with (sexual orientation as it came to be called) and how often (the issues of addiction and lack of desire). Traditionally, these have been seen as the issues of men, with women suffering a lack of desire; though in recent times, there are many signs of change here.
  1. The Sufferings of Relationships. This is the issue of just how we integrate (or not) our sexual life into our relationships with others? This ranges all the way from not relating (as in masturbation) to those where the relation is transitory (as in casual sex, and maybe ‘promiscuity’) to those held sacred within stable patterns of relationships such as the family and the couple (monogamy etc). Traditionally, religion has played a major role in structuring this.
  1. The Sufferings of Coercion and Violence. This is the issue of handling sexual acts when they are unwanted and often violently imposed? Here sexuality is experienced as unwanted and coerced. The patterns move from simply disliking sex with a partner who imposes it upon you to more extreme versions of abuse, pressured sex, rape and even sexual murder. Again, there is usually a strong gender pattern to this, with men predominantly the aggressors.
  1. The Sufferings of Reproduction. This is the issue of sexuality as a means of conceiving children. Here sexuality is experienced as a means of having children or not; and the issues it brings in its wake are linked to abortion, infertility, impotence, illegitimacy, being single, and family size. The ideology of pronatalism plays a major role in all this (cf Peck et al, 1974).
  1. The Sufferings of Disease. This is the issue of how diseases may be linked and spread through sexual activities. Here sexuality is linked to diseases of all kinds. Some have conventionally been called the ‘venereal diseases’ or the sexually transmitted diseases’ (from syphilis to herpes); others such as AIDS have been connected more widely; and still others such as impotence and frigidity, sex addiction and low drive, have become the province of sexological experts.

It is true that all these ‘issues’ can be found as personal sufferings. They are experienced as frustrations, fears, anger, pain, loneliness, hysteria, and just plain ‘common unhappiness’ linked to emotional and embodied worlds. And they may require personal, therapeutic work. Yet these problems are also deeply shaped by the social times in which we live. Thus, the problems are frequently compounded by sexual stigmas and social inequalities.

For instance, much of modern medical science has spent much time sorting out the different desires and dysfunctions of desires and arranging them into a kind of stigmatising sex hierarchy (Rubin, 1984). Indeed, the nineteenth century was a major period for the creation of all kinds of sexual clinical taxonomies and perversions which did not simply label ‘neutrally’  but which served also to evaluate and exclude. Today, some still remain totally taboo- paedophilia for instance; whilst others such as homosexuality have become significantly more acceptable, been removed from the list of medical complaints and incorporated into prime T.V. sit-coms like Will and Grace! Likewise some relationships like the family couple are strongly supported while others are less accepted (the spinster was long a suspicious character in the past (Jeffreys, 1985). Some violence and coercion is accepted: marital rape has only very recently been recognised as a crime in the West, and in many countries throughout the world all kinds of sexual indignities still seem to be imposed legitimately on women or gays with full approval of the society and its religious leaders. ‘Having children through coitus’ is nearly always the most acceptable reproductive strategy, whilst patterns of sexuality are often condemned. Contraception is often taboo, and indeed, this becomes more and more controversial as we enter the world of new reproductive technologies. Finally, of course, most diseases carry a degree of stigma subject to social exclusion: AIDS is only the most recent instance of this stigma at work

Sexual sufferings are also linked to social divisions and inequalities. In a now classic study, Iris Marion Young talks about the five faces of oppression and lists them as exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence (Young, 1990). All the problems above are open to such processes. Some sexual sufferings are drenched in exploitation of others bodies (much sex work, some forced and arranged marriages, indeed many relationships). Some desires can be ignored and marginalized (e.g. those of gays, fetishists, or the trans-gendered). Some people find themselves in sexual acts where they hold no power (the simple consensual sm. act often means the masochists does indeed hold power: I am talking more about the elements of sex when it has to be done but it is really not desired by one of the doers). Cultural imperialism and sexual problems may be found when certain desires and identities (e.g. western gay identity) are presumed to be universal, or when reproductive strategies differ across societies (e.g. cultural versions of abortion, new reproductive technologies, birth control programs). And violence is universally found in sexualities through abuse, rape, hate crimes and the like.

Sexual Utopias / Sexual Dystopias

It might help to close this paper by suggesting the need to think a little more about the ways in which sexual sufferings and problems may be shaped by wider social contexts in the immediate future. As Table 2 suggests, in one image, the world goes brutal: intimacies become subject to continuing polarised inequalities and ideological positioning- strong disagreements, massive exploitation, damaged lives everywhere. In the other, the world goes democratic: intimacies become subject to equalities, acceptance of differences, openness.

At one end of possibilities, then, are the optimistic scenarios of the sexual future suggesting we are witnessing the appearance of a cosmopolitan and diverse array of sexual cultures of choice, located within an active civil society, and organised increasingly through a thorough ‘democratising of democracy’ throughout all institutions, all relationships and all sexualities. As Anthony Giddens writes at a general level:

Democracy is perhaps the most powerful energising idea of the twentieth century. There are few states in the world today that don’t call themselves democratic… democracy is spreading all over the world, yet in the mature democracies.. there is widespread disillusionment with democratic processes. In most Western countries, levels of trust in politicians have dropped over past years…..what is needed in democratic countries is a deepening o democracy itself.. democratising democracy…(Runaway)  p68, 71, 75

This ‘democratising of sexualities’ is found infamously in Gidden’s own much criticised ideas of plastic sexuality and pure relationships. It is to be found in the optimism of some early gay activists who now argue that discrimination against gays has been significantly weakened in the past thirty years and has led to gays and lesbians now having ‘ a place at the table’. It has led Jeffrey Weeks and others to champion new families of choice and  new social experiments in living. Important too has been (some of ) the post modern theorisations which recognise the diversities of gender and sexuality – which speak of masculinities, femininities and , indeed , genders- as pathways to a future where grand narratives have broken down.  Whereas the past spoke of sexuality, now there is a recognition of sexualities. And much of this newer debate has been linked to the development of a new language of sexual identities, sexual rights, and intimate citizenship[17]. Indeed, my own recent work looks at the need for a dialogic intimate citizenship where people may be able to talk through their contrasting intimacies and sexual differences (Plummer, 1992, 1995, 2002, 2003). And now, new social movements come to play roles in doing just this on an international scale – witness the recent struggles of women in the United Nations for Sexual Rights discourses around human sexual rights and the sexual citizen (cf Bell and Binnie, 2000; Nussbaum, 1999; Richardson, 2000, 2000a; Petchesky, 2000; Plummer, forthcoming; Weeks, 1998).[18]  Table 3 suggests some of these new rights being championed.

Still others have noted the role that individualisation is playing in all this.  As many people are increasingly released from the traditional (especially gender) roles prescribed by industrial society and instead are encouraged ‘to build up a life of their own’, relationships must now become more self conscious, more disclosed, more ‘worked out, negotiated , arranged and justified in all the details of how, what, why or why not..’ (p5,6). Individualisation means  ‘the dis-embedding of industrial society ways of life’ and the ‘re-embedding of new ones, in which the individuals must produce, stage and cobble together their biographies themselves’ (Beck: 1997: 95).. The individual is actor, designers, juggler and stage director of his own biography, identity, social networks, commitment and convictions’ (95). Indeed, Ulrich Beck has commented that:

We live in an age in which the social order of the national state, class, ethnicity and the traditional family is in decline. The ethics of individual self-fulfilment and achievement is the most powerful current in modern society. The choosing, deciding, shaping human being who aspires to be the author of his or her own life, the creator of an individual identity, is the central character of our time. It is the fundamental cause behind changes in the family and the global gender revolution in relation to work and politics. Any attempt to create a new sense of social cohesion has to start from the recognition that individualism; diversity and scepticism are written into Western Culture. (Beck, 2000b: 165)

Much of this may sound like the good news. But it is only one side of the story. There is also a major downside. I am glad that Ulrich Beck says –finally in the last two words – ‘Western Culture’. Some of this new thinking and theorizing speaks of ‘the world’ whilst ignoring the vast majority of it. Whilst this is certainly an important issue for many, it is not an issue for most. For hiding too much in the background of too many studies of the sexual is the sheer global inequalities of the contemporary world. Just what kinds of sexual meanings do people bring to the fourth world?  As Manuel Castells – speaking of globalization and informationalism- comments that

…a new world , the Fourth World, has emerged made up of multiple black holes of social exclusion throughout the planet. (It) comprises large areas of the globe, such as much of Sub-Saharan Africa, and impoverished rural areas of Latin America and Asia. But it is also present in literally in every country and every city in this new geography of social exclusion. It is formed of American inner-city ghettos, Spanish enclaves of mass youth unemployment, French banlieues warehousing North Africans, Japanese Yoseba quarters and Asian mega-cities’ shanty towns. And it is populated by millions of homeless, incarcerated, prostituted, brutalised, stigmatised, sick and illiterate persons…. Everywhere they are growing in number….(Castells, 1996-8. Vol. 3, p161-65)

This is a world where one billion people cannot satisfy their most basic needs; where around 4.4 billions have no access to basic infrastructures – accommodation, water, sanitation; and where, at the same time, ‘the three richest men on the globe have private assets bigger than the combined national product of the 48 poorest countries’ (Bauman, 1999: 175-6) These are also usually societies with high reproductive rates, high prostitution rates, high rates of HIV and AIDS so we must assume that a considerable amount of sex is going on. But just what kind of sex is this? There are many hints from the HIV /AIDS research that there is a significant gender imbalance within it, and whilst men follow traditionally perceived roles, women become passive receptors, but also spending much time in child bearing, and witnessing the deaths of many of their children.

Certainly the world of cyber sex is not their everyday experience. For as Zillah Eisenstein has so powerfully shown, this is often linked the polarisation of vast groups with no access to cyberworlds, what Eisenstein calls ‘ the information haves and have-nots’ (p72). Talk of a ‘media-ted’ reality or of a cyberworld makes little sense to huge populations that do not even have access to basic water, medication, or shelter.

The Culture Wars and the Clash of Sexual Civilisations

Alongside these inequalities are also the struggles and conflicts over how to live a life. A major issue is not just dissent and conflict within cultures, but across cultures. Speaking across cultures there are major disagreements on issues such as child marriage, sex work and sex markets, homosexuality and gay rights, genital mutilation and circumcision, women’s sexual rights, marriage and the family, abortion and contraception – all of which suggest what we might call a clash of sexual civilisations. Whilst traditional values of the personal life are championed by some, for others they raise issues of major dissent and conflict on a world wide stage. Can they co-exist, and if so how? What are the possible relationships of different positions to each other? Ultimately, we enter here many of the classic problems of contemporary political philosophy – where issues of democracy, freedom, community, participation, empowerment, equality, and justice. Detecting major divides, I suggest at least five broad kinds of arguments being made and positions being taken.[19] Briefly these are:

  • Traditionalism: seeking a return to the past, usually based on a religion. At its extreme, this position can become fundamentalist.
  • Progressivism: recognising the significance of contemporary change and trying to make the world adjust to it.
  • Relativism: adopting a ‘do your own thing’ mentality and arguing that anything goes which does not directly harm others.
  • Critical positions: transcending the whole society / system and offering critiques from beyond.
  • Dialogism : rejecting one stance and a monologic position and trying to foster a mutuality of voices.

I can personally align myself with all but the first position. But this is the most difficult one to confront in a late or post-modern world. With varying emphases, traditionalists all see chaos around them and seek a return to an old order with a clear authority and firm moral structure. The extreme version  of this is fundamentalism and a number of major ideological features of this way of thinking can be detected.[20]‘ Fundamentalist arguments are always concerned ‘with the erosion of religion and its proper role in society’: they react to what they sense to be its marginalization. Fundamentalists usually become highly selective in the issues they pick out and in what they choose to ignore. They see the world as ‘ uncompromisingly divided into light which is identified with the world of the spirit and the good, and darkness which is identified with matter and evil’.  For them, there is an absolute (and usually literal) belief in the sacredness of key texts. And finally, there is a belief in millennialism and messianism – ‘ a miraculous culmination. The Good will triumph over evil, immortality over mortality; the reign of external justice will terminate history’. Fundamentalist groups tend to have a clear, chosen membership, sharp boundaries, an authoritarian organisation and strict behavioural requirements. The issues they focus upon are also usually very clear: the reinstatement of  ‘a unified faith, race, reason, gender duality, normal sexuality, nation and or territory that never was secure’. [21]

But, as William Connolly has suggested, fundamentalism may well go further than we think. In one sense fundamentalism resides almost everywhere. Even those who champion ‘difference’ and ‘pluralization’ may find that their own positions ‘ rest upon fundamentals more or less protected from internal interrogation’.[22] All positions, in so far as they are positions, must carry an element of foundational belief – and with that some weaker version of fundamentalism. We have then to be very careful for we may all turn out to be creeping fundamentalists at heart! How can we move beyond the limiting constraints of the various fundamentalisms that may lurk behind all our arguments? Without being fundamentalists proper, the seeds of fundamentalism may be found in many arguments. We are led back to ask the impossible question: can we ever find a common ground? Can we ever just sit down and talk with our enemies? Is it all impossible, since fundamentalisms in different guises may be lurking everywhere? How can we create bridges, find connections, make links across divides? These are key questions for a future political theory of sexuality to answer.[23]

In Conclusion


This paper has worked on a number of fronts and in many ways can be seen both as review and agenda setting. I started by arguing the need to see sex research as composed of many diverse, fragmenting, conflictual and global social worlds each busy constructing their own histories and rhetorics and by and large not engaging with each other. One of these worlds has grown out of new social movements since the 1970’s and has brought with it a view of sexualities that gives much greater prominence to the social and the political than it does to the presumed natural and biological views of an essential sex. I have tried to piece together a provisional version of the bits needed for theorising some of this – but in a highly schematic way. Most centrally, I have turned to conflicting political messages. I am personally caught in ambivalence: with the good news of a possible democratic sexuality and open dialogic intimate citizenship on one side. And a painful world of growing intimate inequalities and tribal sexual clashes on the other.  We do not live in easy times.






TABLE 1: 25 CLASSIC WORKS OF SEXUAL THEORY ( as designated by David L Weiss in The Journal of Sex Research, 1998 Vol 35 No 1).


Authors Date


Ellis (Havelock) 1901/1936 Non-judgemental approach to analysis of sexuality, explored various sexual concepts, early conceptualization of sexual orientation.
Freud 1905/1957 Early presentation of specific theoretical framework, theory of sexual development.
Malinowski 1929 Early Anthropology.
Mead 1935 Early Anthropology, concept of Gender.
Pitts 1964 Review of Structural-Functionalism, concept of social control of sexuality.
Broderick 1966 Mini-theory on childhood sexual development.
Reiss 1967 Mini-theory combining research and theory, formulation of specific propositions, concept of sexual permissiveness.
Trivers 1972 Evolutionary perspective, concept of parental investment.
Gagnon & Simon 1973 Concept of Sexual scripting, early social constructionism.
Beach 1976 Concepts of proceptivity and receptivity, female selection.
Foucault 1976/1980 Early social constructionism, critique of positivism.
Byrne 1977 Affect-reinforcement theory, causal model.
Symons 1979 Evolutionary perspective.
Fox 1980 Anthropological approach, incest.
Herdt 1981 Anthropological approach, development of sexual orientation.
Maltz & Borker 1983 Patterns of communication, concept of male and female cultures.
Maddock 1983 Family systems theory, focus on non-pathological family dynamics.
Van Wyk & Geist 1984 Sexual development processes, sexual orientation.
Green 1985 Causal model, childhood and adolescent experiences.
Reiss 1986 Cross-cultural meta-analysis.
Allgeier 1987 Causal model of sexual orientation.
Geer & O’Donohue 1987 Metatheoretical approach to numerous sexual theories.
Levine & Troiden 1988 Analysis of concept of sexual addiction.
Tiefer 1991 Feminist critique of various sexological concepts.
Laumann, Gagnon, Michael & Michaels 1994 Testing theoretically derived hypothesis with national probability sample.




the ‘tragic’ ‘dystopian’ view


abject sexualities – poverty, inequalities, divisions


violent / exploitative sexualities



fragmented sexualities ; the balkanisation   of sexualities


hi tech intimacy

impersonal sexualities

a world of strangers



cyborgs as monster


intimate narcissism and intimate egoism


intimate unsichereit


mcdonaldization of sexualities


commercialisation and commodification of sexualities


the dumbing down of sexualitythe romantic ‘utopian’ view


luxuriant sexualities- higher standards of living


democratic sexualities




pluralized sexualities: differences celebrated


hi tech sexualities

new ‘communities’ of sexualities and communication


cyborgs as helpers


‘individuated sexualities’



 sexual openness


globalization of sexualities


‘real’ sexual choices



reflexivity sexual self awareness  

moral decline

& sexual incivility 

intimate citizenship, new ethics,

moral effervescence

 entrenched hierarchies of sexual exclusion


intimate tribalismthe democratization of personhood & relationships


intimate dialogue

 uncertainty, chaos, a world out of control, risk, runaway worldchance for ‘a new world order’, human rights, a new politics

Source:  Plummer , 2003.




Eleven problems areas for women’s rights : the rights to :

life and health

bodily integrity

employment rights

mobility and assembly rights

rights of political participation and speech

rights of free religious exercise

rights of property and civil capacity


family law

education rights

reproductive rights   ( Nussbaum, 1999: 88-102)


1. To various forms of sexual practice

The right to participate in sexual activity (usually found -when -in age of consent type debates; where – in public private debates – with whom – orientation debates – what kind of sex etc


The right to pleasure


The right to sexual  (and reproductive) self determination)

Cf. rape and the rights to say ‘no’

2. To the development of identities

The right to sexual self definition


The right to self-expression

(cf. Don’t ask/ Don’t tell)


The right to self realisation

3. To rights within social institutions

The right of consent within relationships


The right to freely choose our sexual partners


The right to publicly recognised sexual relationships

Source: Diane Richardson (2000) ‘Constructing Sexual Citizenship’ Critical Social Policy Vol. 20 (1) p105-135


  1. The right to be protected against violence, and in general, the right to equal protection under the law
  2. The right to have consensual adult sexual relations without criminal penalty
  3. The right to non-discrimination in housing, employment and education
  4. The right to military service
  5. The right to marriage and/or its legal benefits
  6. The right to retain custody of children and /or to adopt

Source: Martha C Nussbaum Sex and Social Justice  1999 Ch 7 ‘A Defense of Lesbian and Gay Rights’


Adam, Barry & J.W. Duyvendak & A Krouwel eds (1998). The Global Emergence of Gay and Lesbian Politics,  Phildelphia: Temple UP

Adam, Barry (1998). ‘Theorizing  Homophobia’ Sexualities. Vol 1 .No 4 p387-404

Abelove, Henry,  M.A. Barale & D. Halperin eds (1993) The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: Routledge

Allgeier, E. R.  (1987)  ‘Coercive versus Consensual Sexual Interactions’ in V.P. Makosky (Ed.), G. Stanley Hall Lecture Series, volume 7  (pp. 9-63).  Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Altman, Dennis (2001). Global Sex: Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Amnesty International  (1994) Breaking the Silence, London: Amnesty International

Bauman, Zygmunt (1993) Post-Modern Ethics, Cambridge: Polity


Bauman, Zygmunt (1999) In Search of  Politics, Cambridge : Polity

Beck, Ulricj (2000a) ‘Living your own life in a runaway world: Individualization, globalisation and politics’ In Hutton, W  and Giddens, A ed On the Edge : Living with Global Capitalism p164-174

Bland, Lucy & Laura Doan (1998). Sexology Uncensored: The Documents of Sexual Science. Cambridge: Polity Press

Beach, F. A. (1976), Sexual Attractivity, Proceptivity, and Receptivity in Female Mammals.  Hormones and Behavior, 7, 105-138.

Bell, David & Jon Binnie (2000) The Sexual Citizen : Queer Politics and Beyond Cambridge: Polity

Boswell, John (1996) The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex unions in Pre-Modern Europe. London: Fontanta Press

Broderick, C. B. (1966). ‘Sexual Behaviour Among Pre-Adolescents’.   Journal of Social Issues, 22, 6-21.

Browning. G, Abbey Halcli & Frank Webster, eds (2000) Theory and Society : Understanding the Present. London: Sage

Byrne, D. (1977), ‘Social Psychology and the Study of Sexual Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 3, 3-30.

Castells, Manuel (1997) The Information Age 3 Volumes, Oxford: Blackwell

Clarke , Adele (1998) Disciplining Reproduction. Berkeley: University of California Press

Connell, Robert (1995) Masculinities : Oxford: Polity

Connell, Robert  ‘Bodies and World Society’ Men and Masculinities Sage Vol 1 No 1

Conrad, Peter (1992) Deviance and Medicalization. Temple University Press

Dowsett, Gary (2000) ‘Bodyplay: Corporeality in a Discursive Silence’ in  Parker at al, 2000 op cit p29-45         

Dowsett, Gary (1996) Practicing Desire : Homosexual Sex in an age of AIDS. California: Stanford Press

Duberman, Martin (1999) Left Out: The Politics of Exclusion. NY: Basic Books

Eisenstein, Zillah (1998).  Global Obscenities : Patriarchy, Capitalism and the Lure of Cyberfantasy NY New York University Press

Ellis, H. (1936), Studies in the Psychology of Sex,  Volumes 1-4.  New York: Random House (originally published in 1901).

Ellison, Nick  1997 ‘Towards a New Social Politics: Citizenship and Reflexivity in Late Modernity’ Sociology November Vol 31, No 4 p 697-717

Eriksen, Julia (1998) Kiss and Tell    Cambridge: Mass: Harvard University Press

Evans, David (1993)  Sexual Citizenship. London : Routledge.

Farrar, James  (1999) ‘Disco Super-Culture : Consuming Foreign Sex in the Chinese Disco’ Sexualities Vol 2 No 2  p147-66

Flowers, Amy (1998) The Fantasy Factor: An Insider’s View of the Phone Sex Industry. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Foucault, M. (1980), The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (R. Hurley trans.), New York: Vintage Books (originally published in 1976).

Fox, R.  (1980), The Red Lamp of Incest.  New York: Dutton.

Franklin , Sarah (1997) Embodied Progress London : Routledge

Fraser, Nancy (1997) Justice Interruptus : Critical reflections  on the Postsocialist condition. London: Routledge.

Freud, S. (1957), ‘Three Essays on Sexuality’. In J. Strachey (Ed. and trans.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 7.  (pp. 123-243). London: Hogarth Press (Originally published in 1905).

Gagnon, J. H. & Simon, W. (1973). Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality.  Chicago: Aldine.

Geer, J. H.,  & O’Donohue, W. T. (Eds.),  (1987).  Theories of Human Sexuality.  New York: Plenum.

Gibbins, John R & Bo Reimer (1999) The Politics of Postmodernity London : Sage

Giddens, Anthony ( 1991) Modernity and Self Identity, Polity

Giddens, Anthony (1992) The Transformation of Intimacy.  Polity Press

Giddens, Anthony (1999) Runaway World : How Globalization is Shaping Our Lives. London: Profile Books

Green, V. (1985), Experiential Factors in Childhood and Adolescent Sexual Behavior: Family Interaction and Previous Sexual Experiences.  The Journal of Sex Research, 21, 157-182.

Halberstam, Judith (1998) Female Masculinity Duke UP

Halperin, David M. (1993) ‘Is there a history of sexuality?’ in Henry Abelove, Michele Barale & David Halperin’s The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, 1993, London Routledge

Haraway , Donna J. (1991)  Simians, Cyborgs and Women : The Reinvention of Nature, London: Routledge

Herdt, G. (1981), Guardians of the Flute: Idioms of Masculinity, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hunter, James Davison (1994) When the Shooting Begins, Oxford: Free Press/Macmillan

Huntington, Samuel P (1996) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order New York : Simon and Schuester.


Hutton, Will & Anthony  Giddens (2000) On The Edge: Living with Global Capitalism. London: Jonathan Cape

Irvine, Janice M. (1990) Disorders of Desire: Sex and Gender in Modern American Society. Philadelphia: Temple University Press

Jackson, Stevi  & Sue Scott eds. (1996) Feminism and Sexuality :A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Jamieson, Lynn (1998) Intimacy: Personal Relationships in Modern Societies, Cambridge: Polity

Jeffreys, Sheila (1985) The Spinster and her enemies  London:

Kymlicka, Will (1995) Multicultural Citizenship, Oxford : OUP

Lambevski, Sasho A (1999) ‘Suck My Nation- Masculinity, Ethnicity and the Politics of (homo) Sex’ Sexualities Vol 2 No 4 pp397-419

Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H.,  Michael, R. R., & Michaels, S. (1994), The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lancaster, Roger  and Micaela di Leonardo eds (1997) The Gender/ Sexuality Reader  London: Routledge

Levine, M. P. & Troiden, R. R. (1988), The Myth of Sexual Compulsivity.  The Journal of Sex Research, 25, 347-363.

Lister, Ruth (1997) Citizenship : Feminist Perspectives, London : MacMillan

Maddock, J. W. (1983), ‘Sex In the Family System. Marriage and Family Review, 6(3/4), 9-20.

Malinowski, B. (1929), Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia. New York: Halcyon House.

Maltz, D. N., & Borker, R. A. ‘A Cultural Approach to Male-Female Miscommunication’.  In J. J. Gruperz (Ed.), Language and Social Identity (pp. 195-216).  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Marty, Martin E. & R .Scott Appleby Fundamentalisms Comprehended 1995. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Mead, M. (1935), Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, New York: William Morrow.

Murray, Stephen O (2000) Homosexualities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nardi, Peter N. and Beth E. Schneider eds.(1998) Social Perspectives in Lesbian and Gay Studies. London: Routledge

Nussbaum, M (1999) Sex and Social Justice. Oxford University Press

Osterhuis, Harry (2001) Stepchildren of Nature: Krafft-Ebing, Psychiatry and the Making of sexual Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Parker, Richard and John Gagnon (1995) ed Conceiving Sexuality: Approaches to Sex Research in a Postmodern World London: Routledge

Parker, Richard and Peter Aggleton eds. (1999) Culture, Society and Sexuality: A Reader London: Taylor and Francis

Parker, Richard (1999) Beneath the Equator: Cultures of Desire, Male Homosexuality and Emerging Gay Communities in Brazil  London: Routledge

Parker, Richard , Regina Maria Barbosa & Peter Aggleton ed (2000) Framing the Sexual Subject: The Politics of Gender, Sexuality and Power  Berkeley: University of California Press

Petchesky Rosalind (2000) ‘Sexual Rights: Inventing a Concept, Mapping an International Practice’ in Parker et al 2000 op cit Ch 4 p 81-103

Petchesky Rosalind & Karen Judd (1998) Negotiating Reproductive Rights, London : Zed Books

Pitts, J. R. (1964), ‘The Structural-Functional Approach’, In H.T. Christianson (ed.), Handbook of Marriage and the Family, (pp. 51-124), Chicago: Rand McNally.

Plummer, Ken (1984) The Social Uses of Sexuality: Symbolic Interaction, Power and Rape’ in J. Hopkins ed  Perspectives on Rape and  Sexual Assault London: Harper and Row p 37-55

Plummer, Ken (1996)’ Symbols of Change’. Introduction to William Simon’s Postmodern Sexualities. London: Routledge

Plummer, Ken (1995)Telling Sexual Stories: Power, change and social worlds  London : Routledge.

Plummer, Ken (2000) ‘ Intimate Choices’ in Gary Browning, Abbey Halcli & Frank Webster, eds (2000) Theory and Society : Understanding the Present. London: Sage

Plummer, Ken (2000a) Documents of Life-2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism. London: Sage

Plummer, Ken ed (2002) Sexualities: Critical Assessments. Four Volumes. London: Routledge

Plummer, Ken (2002a) ‘Rethinking the sexual in sociology: Bringing the body back in’ Rassegna Italiana di Sociologia  November

Plummer, Ken (2003 in  press) Intimate Citizenship: Private Decisions and Public Dialogues.  Seattle: University of Washington Press

Plummer, Ken (2004 in press) ‘The Sexual Spectacle: Constructing a Culture of Sexual Problems Talk’ in  George Ritzer ed the International Handbook of Social Problems. London: Sage.

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[1] Major sections of this paper are rewritings and reworkings of my introduction to Plummer (2002). Since this particular volume is for a very specialised and targeted market/ audience, and its print run is very small, the introduction is unlikely to have a wide readership. This paper therefore feels at liberty to draw from it. Nevertheless, the organization  of the paper is new, there are whole new sections, and it is all rewritten..

[2] There are now many journals in the field. But as the editor of one of them, I do wonder if there is much cross fertilization. Certainly, and perhaps wrongly,  I do not feel the need to read across all the journals but just make the occasional perusal to ensure that I really am not missing anything! See (inter alia) Journal of Sex Research, Archives of Sexual Behavior, Australian Journal of Sex, Marriage and the Family, British Journal of Sexual Medicine, Culture, Heath & Sexuality (began in 1998), International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies (Began in 1999. Formerly the Journal of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity), Journal of Sex Research Sex Education (began in 2000), Sexual and Marital Therapy (Carfax Publishing, Oxfordshire, UK) and of course, Sexualities!

[3] In a classic review of the field in 1971, Edward  Sagarin (see’ Sociology and Sex Research’  page ??xxx) also sketches out some key earlier positions. Writing in 1971, Sagarin[3] sets the widest of  scenes, showing how ‘the first stage in the history of sex research ..was dominated by the biological sciences and reached its apex and point of highest influence in the work of Freud. Sociology, a new discipline whose areas of study were not at all clearly circumscribed, was long and hesitant in entering this hitherto forbidden domain’ ( p382 original). the early part of the century (and indeed hints at roots in the nineteenth). It suggests the advance of other (non-sociological) disciplines, including Kinsey’s survey work  & the Sexological Sciences. In the early days, it was left to social science disciplines outside of sociology to pursue the subject of sex: in anthropology the classics of Mead, Malinowski and Westergaard; in psychoanalysis, the many pioneering studies of Freud and his fellow psycho-analytic  theorists; in social research, the work of Kinsey and others to pioneer the ‘kiss and  tell’ tradition (Eriksen, 1998). It seems to me (and I am not the first to note it) a supreme paradox that it befell a biologist of gall wasps asked to run a ‘marriage and the family’ course in the 1930’s to make the first major social inroads to sexuality studies. Biologically based as it was, it was Alfred Kinsey’s work which first set out some of the social parameters of sexuality

[4] The British Sociological Association’s Annual Conference was held in 1994 on ‘Sexualities in Social Context’, and over 250 papers were presented – mainly by young British sociologists. This was surely a coup on the parts of the organisers: to take over the major agenda of British sociology! See: the three volumes published as Sexual Cultures, Sex and Sensibility, and  Sexualizing the Social. Edited by Liza Adkins, Janet Holland, Vicki Merchant, Jeffrey Weeks. I review these volumes in Signs Vol 24 No 1.

[5] And published eventually as   New Sexual Agendas Edited by Lynne Segal (1997).

[6] See, for examples, Henry Abelove, M.A. Barale & D. Halperin eds (1993);Stevi Jackson & Sue Scott eds. (1996) ; Roger N Lancaster & Micaela di Leonardo eds (1997);  Peter M. Nardi and Beth E. Schneider eds.(1998); Richard Parker and Peter Aggleton eds. (1999);Ken Plummer (2002);  Donna C. Stanton ed. (1992) ; Arlene Stein & ……… (2001); Jeffrey Weeks, Janet Holland & ……….eds. (2002);

[7] I have written about this more fully in my Introduction to the second edition of Sexual Conduct (2003, forthcoming).

[8] Although probably more recognized  by anthropologists and historians than sociologists, there are also signs of a contrasting mode of analysis which highlights ‘political economy’. The reader by Roger Lancaster and Micaela di Leonardo (The Gender/ Sexuality Reader 1997) gathers essays which ‘contextualize.. gender, sexuality, and human bodily experience within the historical vicissitudes of colonialism, imperialism and class stratification’ (p4), and approving citing William Roseberry’s definition of political economy as: ‘The attempt to constantly place culture in time, to see a constant interplay between experience and meaning in a contexts in which both experience and meaning are shaped by inequality and domination (and the) attempt to understand the emergence of particular peoples at the conjunction of local and global histories, to place local populations in the larger current of world history’ (p4)… Williams Roseberry’s Anthropologies and Histories New Jersey: Rutgers UP 1990.

[9] The standard estimate seems to be that 50% of all web hits for sexual contacts; and a visit to any one web ring could well amaze in the sheer proliferation of web site desires.

[10]  The next three paragraphs are drawn from a paper published in the Italian Journal of sociology, and hitherto not published in English (Plummer, 2002a)..

[11] Indeed, by 1998 the British Sociological Association could organise its annual conference around the theme of ‘Making sense of the Body’, and just a year earlier the journal Body and Society was launched.

[12] Donna J. Haraway wants to break down bodily (and other) boundaries. Her histories of the recent past sense an abiding dualism around body and mind, matter and spirit, and  women and men. This dualist thinking is probably  a feature of the modern world : its dissolution is her aim. She argues ‘for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction’.(p150) She takes ‘cyborgs’ as her future dream….’I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’ (p181). The cyborg is part of ‘post-gender world’ (p150); is ‘resolutely committed to partiality, irony , intimacy, and perversity’.. and ‘’no longer structured by the polarity of public and private’. ….(P151)

It is no accident that the symbolic system of the family of man – and so the essence of woman- breaks up at the same moment that networks of connection among people on the planet are unprecedently multiple, pregnant and complex. ‘Advanced capitalism’ is inadequate to convey the structure of this historical moment. In the ‘Western’ sense, the end of man is at stake. It is no accident that woman disintegrates into women in our time     Donna J. Haraway  Simians, Cyborgs and Women : The Reinvention of Nature, 1991 p160

[13] This is a constant preoccupation in social theory and recent attempts to provide such a theory include

those of Anthony Giddens, Margaret Archer and Rob Stones. For me, a useful point of entry is to be found in connections to the work of the late Anselm Strauss.

[14] On this, I have found the work of Robert Prus to be valuable.

[15] I apologise for putting this into a Marxist cliché, but I just could not resist it!

[16]  This brief listing is derived from Plummer (2004) where I also distinguish between personal, social and sociological problems and go on to develop  further the ideas that such problems become part of a system of claims and social constructions.

[17] A workable – if tentative- account of  citizenship these days would highlight:

  • a plurality of rights and obligations-  a ‘differentiated universalism’(Lister)
  • shaped (constructed) through participatory, differentiated social worlds (& communities),
  • recognizing their persistently contested status
  • showing paths as to how these tensions may be resolved.
  • drawing  from a range of politics – redistribution / recognition / other
  • clarifying the problems of moral boundaries

It sees new public spheres (Fraser (1997), multiple, hierarchically layered and contested public spheres (e.g. the ‘gay public sphere’, ‘the sex worker sphere’, newish forms of public spheres need analysis : social movements and their ‘organic intellectuals’ (e.g. feminism, gays and lesbians, AIDS movement etc.( Adam, Duyvendak & Krouwel, 1998; Watney, 1987;Weeks, 1995; Wilton 1997)), media (e.g. talk shows, news, docudrama, films etc (Gamson, 1998; Shattuck, 1997); and including the new cyberspaces), mass education (e.g. conferences, books)  ‘art worlds’ (e.g. novels, ‘art’, music, photos  (Steiner, 1995)) and ‘ the drama of courts’(cf Clinton/Lewinsky). The role of the public philosopher and public intellectuals needs to be reconsidered.

[18]  Rosalind Petchesky suggests that sexual rights are ‘the newest kid on the block in international  debates about the meanings and practices of human rights’ (Parker et al, 2000: 13).

[19] In my book Telling Sexual Stories, 1995 I detected three positions; two more are now added here.

[20] In this I draw from the key work by Marty, Martin E. & R. Scott Appleby Fundamentalisms Comprehended 1995. I quote especially from Almond, Sivan & Appleby ‘ Fundamentalism: Genus and Species ‘ p405-8.

[21] Connolly.  The Ethos of Pluralization. 1995 p xii

[22] Connolly, op cit. 1995 :xii; xvi;  105-6

[23] I have lifted these last two paragraphs from my forthcoming book Intimate Citizenship, 2003, which starts to explore some answers to such questions. .