Generational Sexualities, Subterranean Traditions and the Hauntings of the Sexual World: Some Preliminary Remarks

Ken Plummer

University of Essex, U.K.

 Published in Symbolic Interaction Volume 33, No 2 Spring 2010. P163-190


In this paper I argue that generation is a relatively neglected concept for thinking about both the social and the sexual and that symbolic interactionism has much to offer in developing our understanding of this idea. Using both personal experience and the wide ranging literature on sexualities, I explore the role of synchronic and diachronic time in organizing both the flow of sexual lives and the hierarchy of age-sexual orders. The core organizing concepts developed are those of generational sexualities and subterranean traditions; and the approach is seen to provide a further complication to standpoint, queer, and inter-sectionality theory. The core of the paper suggests an array of sensitizing concepts and research areas which might sharpen future analyses. Schematic and exploratory, the paper draws from a wide range of examples.

Keywords: generation, generational sexualities, sexuality, age, subterranean traditions, auto-ethnography, intersectionality, queer theory, sensitizing concepts



Careful the things you say,
Careful the tale you tell,
Children will listen.

-Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods (1986)


Reality exists in a present…we look forward with vivid interest to the reconstruction, in the world that will be, of the world that has been for we realize that the world that will be cannot differ from the world that is without rewriting the past to which we now look back.

-George Herbert Mead, The Philosophy of the Present (1932/1959:1,3)

How long is a man’s life, finally?

A thousand days or only one?

One week or a few centuries?

How long does a man’s death last?

And what do we mean when we say, “gone forever”?

-Brian Patten, So Many Different Lengths of Time (2007:154)

To study social life one must confront the ghostly aspects of it.

-Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters (1997/2008:7)



Human sexuality is never quite like that of the other animals. Harboring endless conundrums, it is always contradictory, complex, and contested. It is embodied in dense polysemous social worlds of symbols and meanings. Its feelings and emotions are assembled in social situations and drenched in context. Our doings are never just like those of other animals because of the endless requirements on humans to be aware of the worlds and selves of others if human conduct is to take place. We are enmeshed in rag bags of cultures actively creating social worlds which always entail elaborate ethical systems (which try to tell us just how we should experience our sex), historical classifications (which provide us with guidelines for constructing our sexual memories), political actions (in which we try—or fail—to establish our own autonomous individual sexualities) and which proliferates in an endless stream of sexual stories which enable us to see how others live and imagine the human sexual life (the sexual imaginary). We are the story telling, historical, political, ethical, symbolic, imaginative, memorializing sexual animal. If people study sexuality without taking this vast complexity on board, they study shallow worlds. As Avery Gordon has remarked:

That life is complicated may seem a banal expression of the obvious but it is nevertheless a profound theoretical statement – perhaps the most important theoretical statement of our time (Gordon [1997]2008:3).

I sometimes stand in awe and amazement at this complexity—at the labyrinth of sexual worlds we have created for ourselves and each other now and in the past; and I have long been inspired by William James’s feel for a pluralistic universe, sensing its relevance as much to sexuality as religion. Apart from standing personally at the edges of many different contested sexual worlds over my own life span, I have also been the editor of the journal Sexualities where I regularly glimpse the densely complex worlds that others have researched and lived in. When I recently reviewed the contents of the first ten years of the journal I could lightly remark that:

During the course of the first ten years we have looked at: 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…. (at sexualities in ) social movements, bars, prisons, clinics, schools, discos, trade unions, public bathrooms, restrooms, bus stops, streets, couple’s homes, the military, internet chat rooms, the boy scouts, Christopher Park, circuit parties, the 801 drag Cabaret, churches, West Hollywood, pride, talk shows, streets and spaces classified as dangerous, safe, violent, erotic and New York’s Museum of Sex … (Plummer 2008)

This is quite a listing but it goes on. The worlds of sexualities and its meanings seems to be inexhaustible and the academic challenge for us is to give it some sense of coherence—even if only momentarily—as it dwells in perpetual emergence. In various past contributions I have tried to make certain key ideas—sexual stigma, sexual story, intimate citizenship—useful for understanding this inexhaustible complexity (at least for me). But when the editors of Symbolic Interaction kindly suggested that I write a little something for this special issue on sexuality, I decided it might be time to play around with another set of ideas that have haunted me for many years. In a short space like this, my ideas can only be sensitizing and suggestive but I see this as an opportunity to simply raise the somewhat neglected idea of sexual generations and generational sexualities. This highlights not merely the usual areas of study—age, age cycles, or the demographic age cohorts—but suggests age as a symbolically grounded position; one that perpetually moves groups through history together. For sociologists this also means also the development of a meaningful symbolically charged age stratified social world. Our social sexual worlds always lie at the intersections of our generations (along with other locations such as class, gender, nation and ethnicity). All sexualities dangle from an age perspective. They are situated in age standpoints. At any moment of thinking about the sexual, we will usually find at least five generations helping to shape that moment. And these are just the living generations—to this there will also be the legions of dead generations, whose ghosts may still be heard speaking past sexual stories.

A subsidiary idea, which connects closely to my argument, is that of sexual subterranean traditions—lived sexual cultures which run against the grain, where any ideas of a dominant world or a hegemonic dominance are subverted, resisted, quietly ignored or loudly challenged. It is a world of Mertonian adaptations to a dominant world: rebelling and retreating, ritualizing, and innovating; a world of resistances of all kinds. In the 1960s, as I was learning my trade of social science, the key words for this seemed to be subculture, counterculture, and contra culture; these days the terms of tribe (Maffesoli 1996), “others”, the subaltern and transgression have become more the fashion (the languages of social science are also generational). Whatever language is used, my belief is that there is a long history of emergent rival traditions to dominant orders found in most societies—which historians have often studied. And sexualities certainly have their many subterranean traditions across time and space—a good few of which have now been documented. Thanks to the Journal of the History of Sex and its many contributors we are building up a fine sense of these past generations of subterranean sexual worlds.


To help you see where I am coming from, I want look at some of the many ghosts in my closet—to briefly take you back roughly thirty-five years to when I started to brood on these ideas and the research program that I was then developing. In the mid 1970s I gained my first and only research grant to investigate “symbolic interactionism and sexual differentiation,” which was a euphemism to resist the tabloid media inclination to sensationalize funding awarded to controversial projects. Annabel Faraday and I interviewed and observed the life of a group of mid-twentieth century “perverts.” We interviewed around fifty assorted self-defined transvestites, sado-masochists, prostitutes, and paedophiles. Much of their news was mundane; but some of it dramatically shocking, even threatening. By definition, all were outside of the dominant sexual mores of the moment—then much more so than nowadays. All had their stories to tell and many things were learnt. But four lessons are relevant to this paper.

Sexualities as Products of Social Worlds

My first lesson suggested that even though these sexual differences were highly individualistic they in fact always connected up to wider social worlds. Sexualities of all kinds usually depend on a kind of otherness; they link to significant others and the creation of meaningful sexual networks. I was very interested in William James and George Herbert Mead—then, as now—and find their accounts of the self to be as telling as most of the recent materials that have been developed about self. For the self is always social—we live in the minds of others—and the sexual self means you can never really be alone (even in a masturbatory world). This is one of the great insights of Cooley, Mead, and James known and beloved by the readership of this journal. The early work of Mead focused on this along with the problems of ubiquitous change and time—of pasts, presents, and futures. All this helped me to see that these seemingly individual acts were in fact always implicated with otherness and changing time; and I had to consider who were these others and what their moments were. It led me initially into theories of the self, and then into reference group theory (via Merton, Rose, and Shibutani), and ultimately into what might be called social worlds theory via Anslem Strauss and latterly Adele Clarke (2005). My 1995 book Telling Sexual Stories, is actually subtitled “Power, change and social worlds.” And the creation and organization of social worlds is the key to my argument in that book. Nearly all of my interviewees lived on the edge of “different social worlds”: they knew others who engaged their sexual interests and helped them fashion their sense of self. But at this stage, I took little interest in age as such.

Sexualities as Subterranean Worlds

My second lesson was that these sexual lives were lived mainly by ordinary people—the everyday people you meet on the street who got up to sexual things that their “fronts” never revealed. They looked and acted as conventionally as anyone, seemed to subscribe to dominant values in most things, yet lived in a world of sexuality that went firmly against any dominant view of the time. The housewife who turned hooker during the day whilst her husband was at work; the transvestite who was a highly successful local business man; the pedophile who worked as a porter in a university; the doctor who relished sadomasochistic surgery; the genteel middle class gentleman who I interviewed with his wife and daughter about the sadomasochistic organization he had set up and run from his middle class suburban home; the publisher who held regular heavy leather sex parties, and so on. It was also a time when I did my major reading of all the sexological classics—Richard Krafft-Ebing, Magnus Hirschfield, Alfred Kinsey and the rest. And one of my first and abiding lessons from all this was—again, but now historically too—the sheer variety of concealed and subterranean sexual experience overlapping with the mundane routines of everyday life. There was a subterranean tradition to sexuality which was quite at odds with public ones. The world became almost a Proustian problem for me and it has haunted me ever since: in the vast mundanity of everyday life, how does one account for the sheer dirty mass of complexities going on beneath the surface? And what bits to select to tell about? Years later—in the mid 1980s—David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet starkly showed the nestling together of these worlds. In everyday community life, there are very strange subterranean worlds taking place. But how can these be tapped? Routine sociology conducts business as normal and ignores all this. Only in pockets of the so called “sociology of deviance” does it get a focus. Indeed, I came to develop an image that society was made up of masses of micro worlds conducting sexual lives far away from the dominant hegemonic order. The message was that sexual lives on the surface may be hegemonic; beneath there is a seething world of resistance, alternatives—of all kinds. Today, in 2009, some of these hidden worlds have risen more to the surface but other new subterranean modes—still largely hidden from sight—are doubtlessly shaping up too. (Although the arrival of the internet does seem to be bringing many of these subterranean worlds out of their closets—have a good look around!).

Sexualities as Life Stories: Synchronicity and Diachronicity

Above all this research was also my introduction to the life story method, which started developing my interest in age. Sexual life stories change over age and time. We experimented with collecting different kinds of life stories: some diachronic, some synchronic. Two diachronic life stories were gathered over several years, through many, many meetings. Others, which captured a more synchronic snapshot, were gathered through a series of interviews conducted over a short period of time. But my concern then as now was that the complexities of human lives cannot be easily accessed (even in this seemingly very “thick” mode of research)—that most of the tools of our trade are inadequate for the task of grasping complexity. Sympathetic to the ethnomethodological turn of the time, I was struck by the famous cases of Jane Fry, an elegant life story of a transsexual by Robert Bogdan (1974), and of Garfinkle’s celebrated Agnes in his Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967)—an intense life story, that was also built on lies. Even, I pondered, when you use these intense methods, they are still not adequate: oh the folly of the quick interview on which most social science is still built.

One of the key problems of the life story is that because it takes seriously the idea of a life, it has to deal with synchronic and diachronic age. Synchronic age means we can study sexuality at various given moments in time, whilst diachronic age means we can study sexualities through time—in their historical movements (terms most developed in linguistics).

The sexual lives I was studying were lived both diachronically and synchronically and were always emergent. Trying to capture a sexual life, I soon found the almost impossibility of this. For here was a stream of ever changing experience getting ritualized and habitualized in certain directions and with certain people, with selves and identities being worked on and out and up, and meanings being ever negotiated. Sexualities were flows with histories and moments, careers, changes, and contexts. Of course, I was a symbolic interactionist—then and now; and the world for me can hardly be seen otherwise. Still, it became clearer and clearer that just as we live our sexual lives through moments with others in the here and now, and tell our stories at this juncture, we do this also across a series of life stages and historical moments which we then carry through life with us to any particular sexual moment of the present. We live with perpetually reconstructed life others, life memories, life stories, life accounts, life selves—drawing continuously on our own imagined pasts. The sexual self moves through these age cohorts building at each moment on the others around, leaving residues behind, but always moving on and always being reconstructed (just, as I am reconstructing this story now). I learnt that my sexual life stories could never be told in any simple way (and much of this study remains unpublished precisely because of this radical doubt). I became more and more fascinated by time, age and its stories and the vast mass of meanings we leave behind us as we move ahead (Plummer 1995:Ch8; Plummer 2001). Human sexual life is constantly on the go and it is hard to grasp.

Generational Sexualities

So my fourth lesson comes now—thirty years on, as a post-gay man in his mid 60s. As I get older, the significance of generations for social organization becomes more and more striking. For when I was young, I only had a couple of decades of my own life: everything was new and exciting and many of the old ideas given to me by my elders had to be rejected—this was by now the 1968 generation of baby boomers after all. But now I have at least six decades to incorporate and so whilst I am still very excited by the new, I can also sense clearly just how the very new so soon becomes the very old. When I started this research, I was active in the (soon and now long defunct) Gay Liberation Front; these were probably the pivotal moments of my life. Gagnon and Simon’s Sexual Conduct was published in 1973, and Foucault’s History of Sexuality in 1977. During the research there developed the famous feminist “sex wars”—linked to the Columbia Conference and Carole Vance’s volume Pleasure and Danger. In the late 1970s, I wrote about the paedophile panics of the time—a battle which has proceeded unabated. (I am so glad that I decided to leave that area of research at any early stage—deeply cowardly as it was). Shortly after my research ended, in 1981, A.I.D.S came to thwart, haunt us, and change sexual meaning forever. Queer theory did not arrive till a full decade later—at roughly the same time as computers became widespread (but long before the Internet). All of this is now a generation or three away from me, but it does not die. It lives on in me and those of my generation in the present moment. We cannot unlive this and we are the carriers of history. And now in 2009 the world I live in is very different indeed from the world of my research. New generations are possibly surprised when they read Jeffrey Week’s book The World We Have Won (2008), where he traces the history of gay change and liberation in England over his life (which roughly parallels mine) and sees profound changes that have transformed sexual possibilities. Indeed, we have both witnessed this change over the short span of sixty years of our lives. The sexual world has indeed change massively over the past half century and each generation brings different understandings to this complicated whole.

So, coming up to date, I can now sense that sexuality is always locatable in social worlds, and that social life must be characterized as having both a generational and subterranean character. As I have never tired of saying, human sexualities are densely social, loaded with multiple meanings, complex, and many layered. There are no fixed norms but constantly emergent ones. Identities and selves depend on others and as they change so do our selves. Usually there is enough continuity to hold it together and give us relatively stable senses of who we are. There is never the norm, and sociologists who think there is live in a fictional world. Of course we invent the normal, there is a ubiquitous social process of matching our lives up with the normal—there is the daily invention of the normal, but lived social life connects to subterranean traditions. Now once this is clear, we need to go in search of these worlds. We live in invented worlds, constructing invented lives, organized through invented memories and invented selves.



Generational theory connects to standpoint theory, intersectionality, and queer theory. Over the past quarter of a century, three linked positions have gained much ground in social science analysis: standpoint theory (associated especially with Sandra Harding and Dorothy E.Smith), intersectionality (linked especially with Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins), and queer theory (linked especially with Eve Kasofsky Segwick, David Halperin, and Judith Butler). Broadly speaking I find myself in great sympathy with all three projects and they have been making striking contributions. What they all manage to do is recognize just how perspectives on social life are always grounded in social experience and are wide open to disruptions of various kinds. Knowledge is not fixed and stable but derived from social positions, organized by class, race, and gender, and structured through a legitimating hetero-normativity which are all open to scrutiny and question. How could a symbolic interactionist find any problems with such concerns? Symbolic interactionists above all others know that human life emerges through contested symbolic struggles, grounded in social worlds, and always precariously balanced and open to change.

But one thing I find curious about all three claims is their regular and narrow ignoring of other issues that can be linked into their claims. For example, queer theory seems to me to have ignored “paedophile relations” or sex with the elderly: they have only queered the scene a little and stayed well away from the most stigmatized of all sexualities. Or take intesectionality: over and over again we are treated to the new holy trinity of race, class, and gender (and if we are lucky a fourth spirit too—that of nation; sexual interest is another lesser brother or sister). But the mention of age and generation is rarely mentioned or just given lip service. My concerns are hence to widen the remit of these new approaches by suggesting there are generational and subterranean standpoints; that they provide bases for understanding both liberal and transgressive politics; and that they are one more vector of the growing list of “sections” that need intersecting or connecting.

Human sexualities are deeply generational and need analysis and study as well as a relatively neglected feature of thinking about human sexual life. What follows is simply a series of very brief observations of an area that I think needs opening up more. Ultimately, more studies of human sexualities should start to ask questions about which generations are speaking here, how do they interconnect and be much clearer about how the different generations at any moment in time come to live and talk about their sexualities. Which generations dominate, who speak and who do not? These are open questions to me at present.

Dimensions of Age and Generational Analysis

An obvious key organizing difference of all societies is age. Treating age simply and unproblematically, this is the presumed biological differences between infancy, maturity, and old age across the animal kingdom. But age for human animals is never simply a biological process and every human culture also experiences age stratification, generating social expectations and roles which are geared to specific ages (Eisenstadt 1956). There are widespread cultural variations on age: child rearing and infancy patterns vary enormously; not all cultures sustain the youth cultures we now find in the West (and which many sociologists have claimed grew in extent and variety with the development of consumer capitalism after the Second World War); in some cultures the elderly are highly valued for their wisdom, in others they are more or less discarded.

All of human social life is also generational. Generations rapidly take us back in history: a mere ten generations will land us back to the eighteenth century. And the social meanings of any life are profoundly embedded in and shaped by the specific set of historical and personal experiences. Unique to an individual, they anchor a life as a person moves through it..Any current moment bubbles with different generations.

All lives might be seen as organized through a specific age/place/time standpoint (cf Harding). Here are those born in the depression years; those who lived through the Second World War; those who grew up during the Chinese Revolution; those who lived under Stalin; those who were survivors of the holocaust; those who became the first cyber generation to take the world of cyberspace for granted. Intellectual life also has its group clusters or age cohorts (Darwinian Spencerites are now few in number but proliferated in the mid nineteenth century; Talcott Parsons was a core read when I was an undergraduate). In all these examples, people share common experiences which bond them together. Nobody else can ever move through life with these same shared experiences and they can be profoundly formative of key differences. We speak nowadays of various generations—Baby Boomers, the X or Y generation or the Millennium Generation to indicate this. I suggest then that it is helpful to be mindful of the social lives of groups moving together within a particular generational cohort or set of experience, common to them, bonding them but also creating major differences with others who are not part of this generation. Life is like an escalator, and as people move further and further along this escalator, they become more and more distant from those at the other end who are just boarding it. There are always major generational differences, generational understandings, built out of these different standpoints.

I suppose partly because I am now growing into old age, I can sense more than I have before the significance of age and generation as social categories to think with. I have long been interested in this problem but I now think its position needs elevating. All knowledge is shaped by and dwells within generational structures. There is a significant social science literature on age, life cycles, historical time lines, age cohorts, and generations which I have discussed elsewhere (Plummer 1981; 2001). The work of Gramsci (1971), Mannheim (1952), Halbwachs (1992), Elder (1974), Bourdieu (1988), and Edmunds and Turner (2002) have been important in my thinking. Some versions speak to objective matters: for instance to the idea of the life structure, as locating long-tempo rhythms of one’s career and family schedules, memories, and future plans (Elder 1974). Others speak more to issues subjective and connected to the significance of narratives. It is these that are of more interest to me. I believe that the stories we tell of social life are usually bound up with the generations we live in—we tell generational narratives. These can be seen as perspectives or standpoints on social worlds. Such stories we tell and the standpoints we take are deeply connected to the ways we organize and structure our memory worlds and our visual worlds. They all also link with inter-sectionalities: age is crucial in understanding the organization of social worlds but they connect strongly with class, race, and gender. Any specific generational sexuality can be linked to a generational narrative standpoint within a matrix of inequalities. Like all narratives, they are always multiple and plural.

What is a Generation? The Plurality and Contingency of Contemporary Generations

Throughout much of recent history, a generation has been designated as a biological .descent: a mother, daughter, and granddaughter would be three generations and it meant approximately a third of a life (about twenty years or so). It was roughly the time between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring. At any one long slice of history, this might bring between five to six generations into view. A classic demographic age pyramid would indicate the shape of a society and its ‘biological’ generations.

These days, however, change is so rapid, family organization so much less predictable, and birth patterns more variable that generational cohorts cannot so easily be named. In many cultures, there is a new liquid modernity and individualization which enables a much more flexible life career scheduling, and renders generational interconnections even more complex and much less linear (Bauman 2000; Beck and Beck Gerhsheim 2002). What seems to matter now are critical changing social experiences which mark off groups from each other across the life cycle—dramatic concerns like the holocaust or AIDS (The “Holocaust Generation”, “The Aids Generation”) are major examples. But there are also now much lesser items like pop groups and films which can be used (like “The Elvis Generation,” “The Harry Potter Generation”). Crucial in this too is the recognition that even in the same generation experiences are never that unified or held in common (think minimally of nation, class, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality and all the plurality found here alone). Here, generations are partially defined by a collective consciousness over shared experiences—usually a critical common life experience. It might help then to think about generations through shared critical life events—their crises and epiphanies—that are held in common and which can generate later in life what might be called generational collective memories. The war generation—living through World War II for example—must be a critical shape for millions of the western world. It could even be a key defining fact of identity. Past traumas and crises can help shape a collective memory life project. Generations and their narratives can be linked to many concerns. To objective world traumas (depressions, wars, terrorisms), to the creation of social movements (The Trade Union Movement, the Black Movement, the Women’s Movement), to literature, film, music and other cultural events, and to shifts in intellectual fashions. They can also suggest the “fate” (or the structure of opportunities) of a group: sharing assumptions and ways of lives. Generations may also come to develop distinctive ways of seeing and inhabit different symbolic worlds. And part of this is sexual: this is what I call Generational Sexualities, and what concerns me here.



There are several different logics for looking at generational sexualities. We can approach them through simple chronological age or life cycle models. But my concern here is with generational sexual worlds aiming to capture the feel of sexual lives lived both diachronically and synchronically. Diachronic generational sexualities exist cumulatively over time—incremental and rolling, with unique moments being added and reorganized by memory. They can be seen as diachronic generational sexual cohorts. But they can also be viewed at any one moment—synchronically, as several generations co-existing simultaneously in a culture, each linking to the other at any moment. Social orders can be seen as synchronic generational orders with new generations bustling side by side with older generations. A view like this helps us sense the contrasting critical moments in the evolutions of cultures sexual worlds and their inherent contradictions and tensions.

Age and Sexualities

The simplest, most apparent and researched idea here is that human sexualities are linked to age. Typically, even sociologists talk of childhood sexualities, youth sexualities and even old age in sexualities and we can sense we can chart them unfolding along a continuum. Many sexual life histories try to do this—but in effect they capture them at one time: they are sexual stories told about the past but not actually capturing the past. Only a longitudinal, panel, or cohort study could do this—to chart changes as they happen; and whilst there are indeed major studies of this kind, to my knowledge, few if any studies of sexualities exist which have tried to do this for anything more than a few years. We have no lifelong cohort studies of generational sexual change. We depend hence mainly on speculative “remembering” and re-storying to capture the past. More than this, for interactionists the view of social life as emergent and contingent makes the presumption of linear stages deeply problematic.

The Life Cycles of Sexualities

Another reasonably well known existing field of inquiry is to chart a sexual life as it unfolds through the life sequences: it follows a sexual life cycle (Rossi 1994). Here we may learn from the great development theorists of the past century: not just Freud, but Piaget, Erickson, Kohlberg, Gilligan and others. Our sexualities unfold across the life broadly within a sense of life developmental stages. Although Erickson’s enormously influential work in the 1940s through 1970s is now generationally defunct (the average intellectual idea may only circulates for a period of thirty years) and clearly has problems, it might nevertheless be a good starting point for sketching how each age poses different challenges. It raises for example the key ideas of sexual isolation or sexual intimacy, sexual generativity or stagnation, and sexual integrity or despair in old age as well as correlated values such as sexual purpose, sexual wisdom, and sexual hope.

In the contemporary world, sexuality in the earlier stages of life will typically assemble different meanings that are much more likely to be experimental, “testing,” risk taking, “new,” “with it,” “hip:” they will engage with the latest trend as they will confront the new world more forcefully than those who “have seen it all before.” By contrast, the later generations pile up their experiences and can no longer only see “the new.” They add some of the new onto the old: they are literally “old fashioned”—fashioning the old in the light of the new. Views of the new become different for the old. Often there is a clash here between the old “fashioned” sexualities and the new “fashioned” sexualities: it is a ubiquitous feature of generational sexualities and change.



Sexual lives are part of age cohorts—groups who move through the world connected by similar age experiences. A most apparent group here might be the liberation women of second wave feminism—a group of women born roughly between 1945 and 1955, who lived through the 1968 turmoil, who fought for a change around their sexual oppression in the 1970s, set up Rape Crisis Centers, developed ideas of Sexual Harassment, attacked porn and had the sex wars—all this and more; women who now in their sixties and seventies still reflect on such issues (they changed their lives) and whose ideas still bubble around in the culture (for one example among hundreds, see Segal 2007).

Similarly, we could start to look at the cohort worlds of gay and lesbian life. Arlene Stein’s Sex and Sensibuility: Stories of a Lesbian Generation in the USA (1997), Peter Robinson’s The Changing World of Gay Men in Australia (2008), and Phililip Hammick and Bernard Cohler’s The Story of Sexual Identity: Narrative Perspectives on the Gay and Lesbian Life Course (2009) have made brilliant starts on building our understanding of these differences. Indeed, we can start to tentatively identify, at the simplest level, the development during the twentieth century of seven gay and lesbian cohorts forming. In a sense all function in any moment now in the twenty first century as memory traces linger from each generation. They also constitute my own personal narrative of generations and so I will also speak a little of this too. These phases are:

  1. Criminal, sick, closeted worlds—what might also be called “Queer One” Worlds. Several early “Queer Generations One.” This is too general because it details several generations—for a good two thirds of the twentieth century, there were different generations which could be seen as criminalized, closeted, and “sick”—and covered several sub generations between at least 1900 and the early 1960s linked to World War I, the Depression, World War II, and its aftermath. All these generations, as the books put it, lived “in the shadows.” The diversities of these generations are revealed in the accounts of lives in that period like George Chauncey’s (1995) Gay New York, Laura Doan’s (2001) Fashioning Sapphism, or Matt Houlbrook’s (2005) Queer London. Much of this was before my time, and I make sense of it retrospectively.
  2. Coming out of closeted worlds. These are the early Coming Out Generations. Between the late 1950s and1970s, homophile movements were slowly gathering some strength and there were the beginnings of visibility. With intense stigma, homosexuality was inching open the closet door. This was my childhood and youth world, and in one sense this was my generation. But not really—I identify more clearly with the third phase.
  3. Gay Liberation worlds. This is the Gay Liberation Generation of the late 1960s and the 1970s where gay men and lesbians came out publicly and were both proud and political about it. This explicit and public politicalization of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender peoples certainly worked to transform the experience of “downcast gays” into a more positive and much more visible one. It was the start of our visibility. For me it was the organizing bedrock of my adult life.
  4. HIV /AIDS Worlds. The AIDS Generation, which started in 1981 and dominated much of 1980s life. The death and dying of notably young men became a central feature (1980s through 1990s) as homosexuality became oddly re-medicalized and the activists started to become highly professionalized (through AIDS work and academic work). Well established in my gay life by now, AIDS shook my life. It changed the way I moved about in the gay world and generated grief as friends died. I suppose I am also part of the Aids Generation. So by now my life is rolling over three generational moments, not simply one.
  5. Queer Two Worlds. What might now be called “Queer Generation Two” started to arrive in the late 1980s and aimed to deconstruct any stable sense of gender or sexual category. No longer criminal, or sick, or even a clear category, gayness became queered. Some of this was academic (queer theory)—identified with Sedgwick, Butler, Warner and Helperin; and some was activist—identified with organizations like Outrage and ACT UP. By now, I have moved on—I announce (at a European Lesbian and Gay Conference in 1988) that I am “post-gay.” Yet I do not identify with this newly emerging younger movement of “queer.” A new generation that I am clearly not a member of has arrived. I am now in my middle age and moving on.
  6. Cyber queer worlds and the post closet world. The Internet Generation gets going from the mid/ late 1990s onwards: here gay/queer web sites (like gaydar) start to play a major role in gay men’s lives—for meeting, sex, social and other activities; and becomes increasingly prominent in lesbian life too. Lesbian and gay life now starts to get produced and reproduced through Internet activity. At the same time, the new generation finds less and less difficulty in coming out or, indeed, even the need to come out (Seidman, 2002). Now I become far removed from this generation, and indeed my life begins to disconnect from most things organized through essentially youthful gay cultures.
  7. By now (2009) something else new may be happening again. At present it seems too soon to quite identify what it is…..

Here then is a sense of generations and their complicated inter-twining with a life (my life). Here I am really talking about different historical moments. The idea of generations captures the idea that each generation—born at a specific juncture—confronts the world as it moves through it together in different ways. For the older generations, each of the moments becomes cumulative—rolling and growing into each other. For a new generation, there is none of this experiential history to start with—this has to be assembled through the current moment. So we need here to think about when a person’s gay generational group appears—illustrated in diagram1.

[Insert Diagram 1 about here]

Cohort analysis like this dwells on the diachronic: the history and the movements of the generations. But to this I now want to add a concern with how cohorts fashion any present moment. For this we need a synchronic analysis.



How can we chart the ways in which contemporary social order are constituted in and through age orders at any moment in time (and ultimately give them some degree of explanatory power)? There is much less analysis of this. As I have suggested, we are getting quite adept at seeing social life at the intersections of class, race, and gender—but although age is often also mentioned, few ever pay it much attention. Yet in a clear sense any contemporary world is constituted in and through the organization of different generations each with their own sedimented, accumulated histories in the present. This present is never simply the present: it is a compound of hauntings from the past, of lives rolling on and sediments left behind.

So much writing and research speaking of the contemporary world talks as if we all live simultaneously at the same time in the same reality; but we emphatically do not. Lives that are “just born” organize the contemporary reality of the world very differently from those now in their fourth, fifth or even sixth generation of life. So the current moment of any social order is usefully seen as fractured into generational splits. In this sense, every moment of the contemporary social order is haunted—through our own lives and those of our ancestors—by the past. We live in the current moment through the past. To study the present necessarily means confronting these fragments of the past—these everyday and daily hauntings. So obviously part of this haunting are our sexual lives. I am most decidedly not returning to (dare I say it?) the tired Ghosts of Freud in saying this, but trying instead to build a language away from this—built out of a historically aware sense of our autobiographically grounded pasts (see diagram 2).

[Insert Diagram 2 about here]

The following discussion offers readers an opening language to consider as they explore various ethnographic slices or snapshots of a generational- age-embodied analysis of sexuality. Some of these dimensions described are well developed; most are sketched out as haunts and traces. All of them are offered as suggestions of synchronic views of generational sexual orders.

The sexual Habits of Generations

Our sexualities can be seen to reflect the “habits” of a sexual life time—and different generations foster different habits. I use the term sexual habits here as a spin off from its use by William James (the famous “fly wheel of habit”) and I sense a parallel with Bourdieu’s idea of habitus. Habits can of course be changed, and so too can sexual habits. But usually they do not—they just get added to, refined, and developed through life historical moments. The language of our current moment may sometimes use the language of sexual addiction for habits (starting symbolically with the publication of Patrick Carnes’s The Sexual Addiction in 1983)—but I mean the term to indicate a much more pervasive everyday presence of the “addicted life”: we are all in some way “sexual addicts.” We all have habitual lives of sexual routine; it is everywhere and part of every sexual life story. Note too that many of our sexual habits are mundane and not very exciting; much of the habitual life may well lead to habits of asexuality and lack of sexual interest too.

Generational sexualities need to chart the permanence and change, the continuities and discontinuities of our sexual habits and their lives. Looking back over fifty years of life I can see clear continuities and patterns of sexual habit in my life that simply get modified through each historical shift: a core rumbles on. Is this true of others I wonder? What then are the sexual habits of generations and their potentials for change?

The Symbolic Sexual Objects of Generations

These habitual worlds of generational sexualities are always linked to symbolic sexual objects and moments. Here we need to enter the styles of dress, the media events of different times, the celebrities, the music, the films, the advertising—all the elements of popular culture which shape the imagery of our newly emerging “youthful sexualities.” Here we have the leather gear of Avengers, the “Sex” of Madonna (Madonna’s Sex Book was published in 1992 and needs contrasting say with the earlier worlds of Greta Garbo, or Mae West), the wiggle of Elvis on the Johnny Carson show, the development of new fetishistic materials—leather, plastics, computers—as well as a litany of fashions: suspenders, bras, underwear styles, shoes, jeans, smoking. Here is Frank Sinatra to swoon to. Here too are latent worlds of fetish generations and their desires. Generations are not simply linked to chronological age, but to symbolic events and resources. Can we enter these different symbolic worlds of sexual objects that are specific to each generation?

The Sexual Embodiments of Generations

Generations also suggest the radical transformations of bodies. When I look at photographs of students in the 1930s or 1940s, or indeed watch films of the 1940s and the early 1950s, the dominant formality of the body comes shining through. This was the time before Elvis Presley. By the time of the late 1960s the body was starting to reorganize itself—the hippy mode especially announces this; but it can be seen in much greater flamboyancy of dress, the arrival of unisex outfits, the non-wearing of ties, the popularization of jeans, the greater levels of visibility of flesh, and most of all a general loosening up of body movements. We move from the waltz and the fox trot to the jive and the hippy-hippy shake. By 1972, we have Ziggy Stardust (look at the You Tube and match bodies from different times—Cary Grant and David Bowie are instructive!). This might be seen as a process of informalization. Yet it may be a formal informality. Indeed, there is much talk by some sociologists of the regulation of bodies in this period, and in some senses this might be true. But I think it is equally useful to see the modern body as becoming more and more informalised.

And here I am drawing from the work of Norbert Elias and Cas Wouters in suggesting a more recent stage of the civilization process in a cycle which they refer to as “formalization and informalization.” To them, the 1960s and 1970s provided almost innumerable examples of challenged authority in combination with a critique of the “inauthenticity,” “superficiality,” and falsity of “icy old manners” (Wouters 2007:174). One of the things that 1968 students flag is the rise of the informalized society—everywhere the old rules of order start to become manifestly challenged: in forms of address, in body styles, in day to day interactions we start to see the informalization of everyday life. Today we find body modification (tattoos, rings, etc.) taking a new significance in the youthful sexualities, along with dress codes which often signify the raging sexualization of the very young. The generational body keeps on changing.

There is then a life cycle of generational sexual embodiment—how our bodies and sense of them change sexually over the generations can be seen in any present moment. The body changes over history and over the life cycle. So the teenager sexed body of the 1920s is not the same as the teenager sexed body of 2010. But neither does it stay the same for one person as they develop from sex in their teens to sex in their older age (when they could be aged sixty or so). Sexual life cohorts change; bodies change; worlds change. A simple model of this could be caught in the image of the escalator—an age cluster moving along together (and all developing sexually), adding new experiences to old ones as new historical moments are encountered. All the time, new generations get on the rung of the elevator at the bottom and whilst they can see those ahead and those coming behind, they move together as a (highly differentiated) cohort. And yet a slice of any moment of time—say now, 2010—we can see the different generations moving around in the present with different bodies shaped by their pasts. At least five different generations are alive and well with their sexual bodies looking and moving differently in the current moment.

The Sexual Languages of Generations

The same goes with the power of language, its constantly changing lexicons and vocabularies, and how these shift radically across generations. New words appear all the time and old ones die and leave their sediments as traces in the constantly shifting new languages and their meanings. Sexual talk is ubiquitously alive and emergent, and one generation may have difficulty even grasping the reference points belonging to that of another. There are, for example, words now used for sexualities—especially in the fields of cybersex, sexual health, sex studies, and from the constant bombardment on new media characters and programs – that now designate sexualities in ways which simply did not exist even twenty years ago and which older generations often have absolutely no knowledge about. Sexual language is always on the go and generational differences over language are always contested.

For example, Deborah Cameron and Don Kulick in their insightful book on Language and Sexuality (2003) devote a whole chapter to the shifting meanings of gay language over the past century—from “pathology” to “queer,” the languages in which different generations lived their lives. An irony I have found with this is that I have been “queer” twice in my life. In the 1950s, in school, it was a sharply negative and hostile word, a word I came to detest and indeed I spent much of my earlier life attacking it. But then in the late 1980s, another generation reclaimed the word—gave it a new and positive meaning, and turned it into both an intellectual fashion and a political strategy. Here are old words with new meanings. Grasping sexual generations certainly means grasping the languages of each generation and how synchronically they nestle with each other.

The Sexual Memories of Generations: Collective and Popular

Human sexualities accumulate across a life—they leave sexual stains, sexual traces, sexual sediments. Any contemporary moment will always have these traces of the sexual past. Generational sexualities get organized through memory work, and memory work entails a collective project—we remember that which the collective present helps us recall.

Crucial here is the role of the construction of popular memories, which is highly selective. And from the twentieth century onwards, the role of media in this has become more and more important. All of this means, we must take seriously sexual life stories and memory sites where such recollections are constructed. There are already many cultural artifacts that have started this work: I think here of the AIDS Quilt which symbolizes what I am talking about. Existing in a contemporary moment, it becomes the patchwork of life and death of thousands of lives—now from different generations. I think too of the films like If these walls could talk (1996), and Vito Russo’s (1946-1990) wonderful book and DVD The Celluloid Closet which implicitly shows a century’s shifting world of gay imagery in film, and imagines their multiple audiences. Films can provide memory books for different generations.

Generational sexualities are linked to popular memory. In the modern world, this means sexualities are shaped by our memories of music, film, television, popular novels, and celebrity figures. Tara Brabazon’s (2005) lively account of the music world—of Take That, Disco—hits at what this means to a particular generation. But these are all radically different for each generation, even as they live side by side in the contemporary moment. My disco generation of the mid 1970s—of Sylvester in gay bars—was not the same as Tara Brabazon’s. Christopher Pullen’s (2009) book on the “new story telling” is almost a catalogue of memory sites that deeply but differently carved their names on to the lives of different generations. What do the following mean to you? Gore Vidal, the film Victim, k.d.lang, Wayman Hudson, Quentin Crisp, Ellen de Generes, George Michael, Russell Harty, Derek Jarman, Sarah Waters, Night Before Falls, Jihad for Love.

The Sexual Narratives of Generations

Human temporality is a narrative. Although “objective measures of time” (created with clocks and calendars) can be devoid of story, most understandings of time and hence generations are placed firmly in narratives. The stories we tell of our sexual lives, being richly bound with our experiences and habits, always speak of lives lived at particular moments in history at particular points in particular ageing and the life cycle. Stories have very specific timings and generations which should never be overlooked: the stories we tell at any time are also bound up with the historical moment and place and always tales about a time and a space. We might speak of the sexual narratives of generations—those stories of sex which grow up as commonplaces within specific age groups. Here we have the sexual repression tales of the “Depression Year” generations; the “sexual revolution” tales of the baby boomers and the AIDs stories of the AIDS Generation. But here too we now have the new hi tech sex stories of a younger “digital” generation—where sex may be found through mobile phones, social network sites, webcams and through an endless parade of pornified web sites. And in all this lives get framed, sexual selves assembled, and sexualities performed. None of this existed for the earlier generations. This new generation also has to confront the fearful tales of the Chastity Movement and the Child Sexual Abuse/Exploitation Industry who help facilitate stories of the world as a sexually fearful place.

Sexuality and Generational Silences

Which leads to silences. Generations also signify what people do not say, cannot know, unknown and invisible worlds. We can pose questions about sexual absences in generations—what generations do not (often cannot) know but which may be known by others. For example, many older generations of today might know little of contemporary sexual icons, sexual slang, films, sexual chatrooms or of sex through mobile phones; whilst many in younger generations today may have little direct experience of past stigmas linked to premarital sex, sex outside of marriage, the struggle for contraception and abortion, or illegal homosexuality. A generation that has not been through the horrors of the first World War; had not been through the depression of the 1930s; had no firsthand experience of the Holocaust or World War II will dwell in a different world. Generations are as much about absence as presences. The generation of the “sexual revolution” (sex began in 1963, etc) is also a generation that was ignorant of and had to learn how to use computers, did not know of AIDS till they were well into their thirties etc. And above all, this was a generation that came rapidly to believe in the possibility of change—it was, after all, taking place all around them. That they could wish, and dream, and ponder their utopias became part of this generation’s sexual world. Their experiences as a cohort are manifestly not the same as other cohorts; but more than that—they are not even uniform within it. Similarly, those born in my cohort did not know of many events, except as silences that left traces on their generation’s sexual worlds.

The political contingencies of sexual generations

Of great concern in all this analysis must be the so called conflicts between generations and a sense of the politics that arises within this. Conflicts between the young and the old for instance are not simply about age but about generational standpoints, with all the symbolic content that this often implies. For Bourdieu (1993) conflicts often highlight not just class but generation, and the “clashes between systems of aspirations found in different periods” (Pg 95). I am not saying this is all a unified conflict—as we have seen generations themselves have many schisms within. Still, it is possible to sense different sensibilities or structures of feeling around the sexual that are at odds across generations. A younger generation highlights the anticipation of fresh sexualities to come which lie in tension with the remembrance of sexualities past, lost or denied of an older generation. This must quietly infuse much of the synchronic sexual generational order, and often it breaks out into direct hostility—panic, generation attack, scapegoating of all kinds.

June Edmunds and Bryan Turner (2002) have looked at some of the conflicts between generations (including intellectual conflicts between the generations). They draw from Mannheim to suggest different kinds of generations—notably nostalgic generations who are backward looking and utopian generations who are forward looking (they suggest 1968ers were and are utopians). In the same way, it is not difficult to sense sexual generations who may be forward looking—searching for new and better worlds—and those who seek to return to past sexual worlds. Of course what is interesting about this often is the ways in which sexual world views here change diachronically over the life cycle of a generation. The old become less and less happy with the sexuality of the young. Ultimately, all of this raises issues of dialogues and respect across generations.

And more

All of these examples could be extended greatly. For example, generations vary and move across the world. The generations of one culture may move to another culture to get away from their parental worlds. I think of Asian forced marriages, gay culture disaporas around the world, sex migrations and its relations to sex work as well as sex trafficking. In the current world, generations seem much more globally mobile than previous ones, raising many issues for understanding the globalization of sexualities (cf Altman 2000; Binnie 2005; Padilla 2007).

In addition, we should note the added complexities of these generational worlds created by stratification and inequalities.All generations are shaped by resources (economic, social, cultural, self and body), inequalities (nationhood, ethnicity, class, gender, sexualities, age, disability) and processes of social exclusion (marginalization, disempowerment, racialization, etc). But they do it within their generational cohorts, which are themselves not especially clear—these cohorts are not hermetically sealed off from each other, but are themselves porous. Nor are people defined by their generations in a fixed and delimited way. As ever, people fashion their own generational stories within the framed structures of lives.



Generations are themselves multiple and varied and as Karl Mannheim (1967) recognized long ago: “Within any generation there can exist a number of differentiated antagonistic generation-units” (Pg 306-7). As we have seen, generations themselves are never homogenous and need not—indeed often are not—linked to the orthodoxies or dominant cultures. I think one useful idea to develop here is that of subterranean traditions of generations (Plummer 2009). These are cohorts identifiable through their marginalities and resistances to what is seen as the mainstream. Examples would include bohemian cultures, criminal cultures, political cultures of left and right, alternative religions, hippy cultures, women’s cultures, black cultures, migrant cultures and—of course—“queer cultures.” I want to conclude by adding this dimension to our analysis.

If dominant cultures exist (I sometimes wonder if they actually do—I can never locate them as easily as some sociological work does), we must always see this in relation to subterranean cultures and “traditions.” Dominant cultures are usually public and visible. I am here largely talking about what Michael Warner (2002) has called counterpublics—and how these may in turn move into a more visible generation. In all societies there are what we might call the deep traditions of the subterranean to which sociologists often pay little focused attention. Everywhere there are traditions that persistently work to creatively react to and engage with whatever passes as a “dominant culture:” they renegotiate, play with it, or subvert it. They reform, rebel, and revolutionize it. And at extremes, they aim to destroy it.

A good while back, in a much celebrated article of its time, David Matza detected three major subterranean traditions which he applied to youth in the 1960s in America. These were delinquency, radicalism, and Bohemianism. He comments:

The subterranean tradition of delinquency is guided by a Celebration of prowess, manifests a spirit of adventure, disdain of work, and aggression. Radicalism is guided by an apocalyptic vision, populism, and evangelism. The Bohemian tradition is committed to romanticism, expressive authenticity, and monasticism (and can be friviolous or morose). Only a small proportion of youth participates in any of these traditions, many sit on the edge (Matza 1961).

This can be taken much further. As I see it, all of social life is active; across the world people are always resisting, changing, modifying, denying and sometimes rejecting the realities they live in. Subterranean cultures display submerged and less visible patterns of culture which subvert, criticize, mock or distance themselves from the dominant culture. These are likely to have a lot of varieties, will have long histories and are quite likely to be found in most societies. Nobody agrees fully with any perceived status quo and everybody negotiates his or her own space. Some of these will be directly confrontational and critical, many will be subversive, and others will simply retreat from the dominant order. Dominant or hegemonic cultures, then, are never all there is—and ironically, they may not even be that dominant if we want to understand social life. There may even be an imagined dominant world that has to be resisted. There is a lot at work beneath the formal conventions, the orthodoxies. Societies generate subterranean traditions—whole worlds of values, meanings and practices that have little to do with these orthodoxies.

Consider the following. Throughout all of the twentieth, much of the nineteenth and possibly a good part of the eighteenth centuries, we could find a number of subterranean sexual worlds that create pathways into the contemporary moments. With each passing generation, the residues of each world declines but elements still linger. In 2010, the sexual world is shaped mostly by those in their early and mid life phase, but those of elder generations tell their old stories, whilst the very young, “new” generation help us to see what has now become routine for a generation. There are many sexual subterranean traditions, linked to generations, which can be traced way back to past centuries. These are the generational ghosts which haunt us today. Here are the lingering worlds of sex workers, class traditions, of transgender worlds, of the shift from the sexual worlds of de Sade and others to the contemporary worlds of the fetish and sadomasochism. Here we can trace the worlds of the singles from the past, or the earliest struggles of social movements for human emancipation.

Let me suggest just six quick illustrations First, we can see the sexual subterranean in the the world of queer cultures—especially as they have manifested themselves in city life over the past century or so. I have hinted at these earlier in a recent issue of GLQ; a sense of how the different generations of gay historians approach the past from their respective presents is apparent. In a telling interchange between the young Matt Houlbrook author of the much acclaimed Queer London and the older Jeffrey Week—author of path breaking account Coming Out (1976)— Chris Waters recounts how their different positions in the world radically shape their interpretations. Houlbrook was only two when Weeks published his classic work, and now Houlbrook writes from a different stance. Houlbrook describes the homosexual past in “elegiac terms” arguing that in “exploring the history of queer London in the first half of the twentieth century, we should lament possibilities long lost as much as we celebrate opportunities newly acquired”. It is precisely this nostalgia for lost possibilities that does not sit well with Weeks. Pressed on his attitude toward the past at the end of their BBC discussion, Houlbrook says, “I think I’m going to have to admit being very nostalgic for this lost world,” to which Weeks quickly responds, “I think you can only be nostalgic if you didn’t live it…Those of us who had the misfortune to live that life until the 1970s don’t feel nostalgic about it” (Waters 2008). This interchange signifies a much wider social process which goes on with every generation and its reading of history.

Or consider the subterranean women’s sexual cultures and their major resistances to “mainstream sex” through the women’s movement and other activities. Looking back just thirty years—to the generation of women that were involved in the well documented feminist conference on sexual politics at Barnard in April 1982 published as papers in Pleasure and Danger (1984), I sense women looking back to their mother’s sexualities—those repressed and those “who like to fuck.” Now, later, we see a much later emergent range of desire that a new generation has to come to take for granted in all the hype around styles like Sex in the City (1998-2004) and other cable, movie and general social phenomena. How do we move through five generations of subterranean gender life and yet manage to dwell with them all in the contemporary current moment?

Third, consider the more recent subterranean worlds of AIDS cultures. They now have a history which touches at least three generations directly. This is a striking issue because one of these generations—those living in the 1980s—was significantly reduced through death. Others of that time lived through a radically unusual time of AIDS, dying and safer sex. But now we find a new generation often oblivious to this past as we find.a new subterranean generations bare backing freely—a dangerous time of Unlimited Intimacy, as described in a recent book by Tim Dean of that title (2009).

Fourth, there are also subterranean intellectual worlds for thinking and theorizing about sexuality. Indeed in the recent past, all serious thinking about sexuality—from Krafft-Ebing, Hirschfield , Reich and Freud right through to Kinsey—has been placed on the margins of intellectual worlds and often located in scandal. There is a whole history of sexual thought to be written around the notion of intellectual generations. Randall Collins’s (1998) magisterial review of intellectual life in China, Japan, India, ancient Greece, the medieval Islamic and Jewish world, medieval Christendom, and modern Europe gives the fullest context for this debate, but also raises the question about the life of an idea. Collins, for example, has claimed that frequently the intellectual life of a generation can span effectively thirty years but then usually passes on: all ideas have their generational time, most ideas become permanently lost. Indeed we could ask who reads Krafft-Ebing, Reich, or Kinsey these days—and who will read queer theory in fifty years time?

Fifth, consider the transformation of generations of subterranean cultures of sexual violence and sexual abuse—in particular the hidden worlds of abuse and their “false memories.” My views on all this started to form after hearing and reading Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, a powerful symbolic moment for me in Santa Barbara in 1977, when I witnessed her lecturing; and her text remains my base line. All subsequent work has just amplified the discoveries that this book provided for me. I wonder who reads Brownmiller these days? But each generation—going back a long way—brings perceptions of this troubled and violent area. Over the past twenty years or so, we have had a range of discoveries of new abuse in the Catholic Church from decades ago now telling generational stories of clergy abuse today. The past is so present in the current moment. And indeed the scandals over so called “false memory syndrome” which became prominent for a while suggest the very complicated re-workings of generations in all this (Haaken 1998). How might have generations from the past reworked ideas of incest and rape into worlds of sexual violence today? How was child prostitution of the past turned into child sexual exploitation today? And how do these generational shifts and difference merge in a contemporary moment?

Finally, there are subterranean worlds of science fiction and contemporary cybersex. The new generation of around 2010 might well be dubbed a cybersex generation, since—as never before—sex is accessible through the mobile phone and the Internet instantly in ways they can hardly have been imagined even one generation earlier. Except, of course, each generation in modernity has played with its own imagery of a world to come—from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818 to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) through to Jane Fonda’s Barbarella (1968) to J.G.Ballard’s Crash (1973). The latter writes:

What we’re getting is a whole new order of sexual fantasies, involving a different order of experiences, like car crashes, like traveling in jet aircraft, the whole overlay of new technologies, architecture, interior design, communications, transport, merchandising. These things are beginning to reach into our lives and change the interior design of our fantasies (quoted in Springer 1996:51)

I could go on, but I hope the point is made. A few more? Here are the shifting worlds of teen sex: indeed when was the teenager invented? The world of teen sex in the Andy Hardy films (1937 onwards) is not the world of, say, Fame (1980, or 2009!), of Juno (2007)—or even the squeaky clean High School Musical! (2006) Here also is the rise of sexual therapeutic cultures—going to Freud in the early twentieth century is not the same as modern counseling and the sex therapy industry. Here are the worlds of transgender/ transvestite life—as documented for example in Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests (1992)—moving gradually into public cultures. Here are subterranean cultures of sexual difference—teasing back into the worlds of the Marquis de Sade and Sacher Masoch, and forwards into Gay Nazism and the barebacking scene. And then there are subterranean sexual traditions linked to slavery and colonialism. And still others can be found in subterranean sexual “art worlds” from the ancients through to surrealism, and on to David Hockney, Carole Schneeman, Annie Sprinkle and the vast underground of representations of sex as displayed for example in The Museum of Sex and the work of Thomas Waugh and Linda Williams of gay and straight porn. And alongside this, the long clash of generations over porn—the sex wars—the battles taking different forms in each generation.

There are subterranean traditions of sex work, of contraception crusades, of abortion, of masturbation, of non-procreative sex, of erotica, of polyarmory, of sexual diseases and reproductive disorders. And on and on. All have their generational patterns and multiplicities, and all leave their traces. The whole vast field of sexuality and intimacies entails subterranean traditions and generations. Each is a book project. Each one of these can be seen as a kind of contemporary social world in the making—some more strongly than others, some more political than others. Their roots shoot back through the twentieth century, into the nineteenth century, and often into the eighteenth. Sexualities abound in subterranean traditions, subaltern cultures, and sexual tribes. And all have their generational forms.



I have tried to suggest in this article the need to give a firm focus to generations in the study of sexualities. My interest here is not in history itself—crucially important as that is. Rather my focus is on how history lives complexly and pluralistically in the present, how it continually fashions and shapes our everyday lives, with the “Presence of the past” (cf Rosenzweig and Thelen, 2000). How does the sexual past continuously dwell in the sexual present? And how might the contradictions and complexities arising from age differences in this history stop us seeing reality too simply whilst helping aid our understandings of what is going on? Indeed it is unlikely that we can begin to understand social sexual life without bringing into play an understanding of the simultaneous, synchronic workings of generations at the same moments of time. I do not want to see this as any kind of unitary social order—I am against the flattening of social analysis into any kind of one generational lump of presentness. Instead the massively differentiated generational pasts are bubbling everywhere in the here and now.

I have been very general and schematic here: space requirements allowed little else. I have simply advanced a few preliminary ideas that have been gestating over the decades which may suggest empirical research on generational narrative perspectives or standpoints. The task is to muddle up any sense that there is one clear sexual reality out there. There is hence no real end to this paper, only beginnings. So let me end with another poetic extract (Plummer 2009):

Migrants of time, generational divides
Holding on to their places, protecting their spaces,
defending their races. The ones before
they can hardly see. The ones to come will just disagree
Delinquent, declining and gone to the dogs
Each generation unique and then lost
Each generation is lost at its cost
As they bump and they jump and they thump on the new


And these are the times and the tales of our lives
Contested. Contingent. Creatively striving.
Progressing. Regressing. Sometimes surviving.
Incorrigibly plural. Intransigently vast.
These are the tales of how we order our past.



I am deeply indebted to two editors of Symbolic Interaction, Dennis Waskul and Carol Rambo, for inviting and encouraging me in this project. Ultimately they also did a great deal of editorial work on it and were full of ideas on improving it. I am very grateful. .Thanks also to Arlene Stein, Everard Longland and Daniel Nehring for helpful discussions.



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Bauman, Zygmunt. 2000. Liquid Society. Cambridge: Polity

———. 2001. The Individualized Society. Cambridge: Polity

Beck, Ulrich and E.Beck-Gernsheim. 2001. Individualization. London: Sage

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