Ken Plummer

University of Essex (UK)

This paper has been variously published: in the journal Qualitative Sociology and  the book  The Sexual Self edited by Michael Kimmel

The choice is not between throwing away rules previously developed and sticking obstinately by them. The intelligent alternative is to revise, adapt, expand and alter them. The problem is one of continuous vital re-adaptation.

                                                            John  Dewey,  Human Nature and  Conduct

As is now very well known, at the heart of much sociological thinking on sexuality lies the work of what might be called the ‘social constructionist turn’ and responses to it.  In contrast to thinking about sexuality as a biological, ‘natural’ with the prime goal of reproduction, constructionists have aimed  to show the myriad ways in which human sexualities are always organized through economic, religious, political, familial and social conditions. From the 1970’s onwards, ‘constructionists,’ a group with diverse positions, have nonetheless argued that any analysis which does not at least recognize this must be seriously flawed.

Sexuality, for humans, is not simply a free floating ‘desire’ but is always grounded in wider material and cultural forces. There is no essential ‘sexuality’ with a strictly biological base that is cut off from the social. From the social acts of rape to the social processes surrounding reproduction, sexuality for humans has no reality sui generis. Any concern with ‘it ‘ must always harbor wider social issues for human sexualities have to be socially produced (no human can ever just “do it”), socially organized, socially maintained and socially transformed. Overlapping with and omnipresent in all of social life, human sexualities are always conducted at an angle: they are never ‘just sex’. And yet the major traditions of studying sexuality in general- through clinical analysis, socio-biology (and evolutionary psychology), social survey research, cognitive psychology, medical research and ‘sexology’ more generally – generally remain obstinate in seeing the world in this social way.[1] Although constructionism – in its various guises- may have become a dominant ‘way of seeing’ in the social sciences: its impact elsewhere remains slight.

Looking Back to the Sixties and Seventies: One Foot Forward…

My original forays into constructionist thought started in 1967 as part of the background to my Ph.D. thesis. Simultaneously becoming aware of the legal and political debates to change the law surrounding homosexuality, ‘coming out’ as a young gay man, and hanging around London’s gay scene to conduct a somewhat primitive ethnography for my thesis, this was indeed a turning point in my life so far. My initial research goal was to ‘socialize’ a world that had hitherto been almost wholly seen as a clinical aberration. I wanted to understand the social nature of an experience formerly designated as a biological and psychological one and I wanted to analyze this in a period when homosexuality was becoming partly decriminalized in the U.K. (I was also involved at that time in the Albany Trust and the Homosexual Law Reform Society- two leading reformist organizations aimed at changing the law).[2]  My core reading for that period – albeit I did not fully appreciate it at the time – was a series of early constructionist texts: Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, Howie Becker’s Outsiders, David Matza’s Becoming Deviant, Herbert Blumer’s Symbolic Interactionism, Norman Denzin’s The Research Act – as well as Mary McIntosh’s ‘Homosexual Role’ and a series of papers by Gagnon and Simon, notably ‘Psychosexual Development’ (which were later to become the book Sexual Conduct). Slowly I began to develop what I then started to call a ‘symbolic interactionist account of sexuality’ – more general than just the topic of homosexuality with which I started. Bit by bit, this position was written up for a British  Sociological Association Annual Conference in 1974 [3],  which I later revised for the late Mike Brake’s collection of essays on Human Sexual Relations in 1982 [4]. At the same time, the Gay Liberation Front came along and the exhilaration of this suggested to me how sexualities were changing before my very eyes. I was one of about ten who sat in a room at the London School of Economics hearing how GLF had happened in the USA a year earlier and who started  to make plans for it to happen in the U.K. Although I am not by inclination a very activist being, this meeting nevertheless changed my life. It was my epiphany. I could see that there was no need to stay in a closet (although I was already partially ‘out’). I found that the very experiences of being gay changed dramatically once I was fully out and on the streets. ‘Gay life’ as it has been known would never be the same again. Interestingly one of the first things that happened to me was to be thrown out of a gay bar for being too political: the conservative institutions of the gay world of the fifties and sixties saw the new radicalism as a major threat and did not like it. The new radical gays were sensed as their enemies. Whatever ‘homosexuality’ was in the past, it was never to be the same again. And this exciting sense of change fuelled my thinking that sexuality – and gayness – were not simply ‘givens’: they were wide open to social changes and were indeed the very ‘social constructions’ that Becker, Berger and others has been writing about. And so both politically and theoretically, I came to see the world in constructionist terms.

The Ph.D. moved more and more away from being an ethnography and turned to being a series of theoretical statements about the social organisation of sexuality and sexual differences. I suppose it was the first of its kind. It took symbolic interactionism and allied positions and applied them first to sexuality, then to sexual diversity, and finally to cases studies of gay life. Eventually it became the foundation of my first book, Sexual Stigma.  Despite the serious limitations of things we did not know then, I would still support the general line that I argued in this early work. There was the critique of essentialism and the language of perversion; the importance of emergent and contested sexual meanings; a sense of the ‘constructed’ nature of human sexualities; an awareness of the significance of variation and diversity in sexual life; a growing sensitivity to the role of metaphor in thinking about the erotic. But it was written in an era that was pre-AIDS; when the Foucauldian deluge had not yet happened[5]; when the ‘Feminist Sexuality’ debates were still being shaped[6], but not fully formed; and when Thatcherism and Reaganism were just on the horizon. Postmodernism and all its accruements-from globalization to cybersex – were waiting in the wings. My symbolic interactionist account of sexual conduct now borders on being nearly thirty years old!

Nearly three decades on, then, a lot of changes have happened – theoretically, politically and sexually. In retrospect, it is clear that there were problems with my early formulations. What was most conspicuously missing from the early writing (though it is not surprising) was a concern for the nascent feminist theorizing that was also taking place at that time. Indeed, my major encounters with feminist theory did not really take shape until the early 1980’s – with a key text for me at the time being Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981). Extreme as that book may be for many people, I needed a book like that to jolt me into thinking about wider issues than the contextual and the gay (and it was soon to be followed up by the Pleasure and Danger debate (Vance, 1985)[7]).  Yet at the same time much of the constructionist position has now become a commonplace for sociologists and many other social analysts (though sadly not, I hasten to add, for many sexologists or medical people for whom the biological world remains exclusive and prime).

Constructionism itself can mean many things to many people. A number of recent writers – especially in social psychology – often talk as though it is new.[8] For me, the version I have always gravitated towards is indeed the one that flows from the theory of symbolic interactionism, which takes us back a century or so to pragmatism. Yet, retrospectively, there are actually very few theorists of ‘the constructionism of sexualities’ who speak in interactionist terms – most simply do not acknowledge this branch of theory, or they have roots elsewhere (in history, cultural anthropology, feminism, materialist Marxism, activism). It is true that Gagnon and Simon may be seen as its key protagonists, but actually they rarely referred to themselves as symbolic interactionists[9]. Others – Jeffrey Victor, Pepper Schwartz, Barry Dank, Richard Troiden , Martin Weinberg for example – have made brief linkages. Many others have let it inform their work without acknowledging the roots. But all in all, it would seem that the symbolic interactionist version of sexuality is a minority position within constructionism.

And in a sense what does this matter? It matters to me because of the continuing development of the theory itself. For it has not remained shrouded in its foundations but has gone on generating lively debates that may well continue to refashion the way we think about sexualities. A number of happy circumstances – a new journal, a new organisation, new leaders, new students and new ideas!- brought about a certain revitalization of the theory during the 1980’s and 1990’s so that one review of interactionist fortunes, published in 1993 could  talk of the ‘sad demise, mysterious disappearance and glorious triumph of symbolic interactionism’.[10] Several others have recently claimed that interactionism is indeed the understated foundation of all sociology! (Maines, 2002; Atkinson and Housley,  forthcoming).

We need not go this far, but it can be sensed that from interactionism has indeed come a series of lively new concerns. Amongst many other concerns, there has been the development of a sociology of emotions and a sociology of bodies. There has been a turn to cultural studies, with much work now focusing upon narratives, story telling and semiotics, as well as a focus on mediated communication. Some have re-asserted the importance of structures and histories and most agree on the importance of power. An awareness of racism, sexism and heteronormativity has become more prominent. There have been challenging new directions in qualitative research and interpretative research strategies. There has been an interest in the field of inequalities. And there has been a hearty debate about the links between symbolic interactionism and postmodernism[11] as well as major attempts to re-work and re-integrate many of its theoretical concerns. All of these have implications for the continuing study of sexualities. In what follows, I wish to suggest how just a few of these issues can take the study of sexualities forward.

Worrying about Postmodernism: On going (a bit) queer

Nobody writing in the 1990’s could seriously have avoided the issues posed by postmodernism for very long and indeed the theme of postmodernism has been a recurrent issue in interactionist writings over the past fifteen years or so. Some, like Norman Denzin, a long time interactionist and leader in the field[12], have been taking a strong adversarial line that the contemporary social world is indeed postmodern;  that the theories and methods used to study it should be postmodern ; and that interactionist ideas should be ruptured through an engagement  with the works of Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard and others. Postmodernism can take us beyond the limits of interactionist analyses. Others – and I would count myself amongst these- argue against the worst excesses of some postmodern analyses whilst suggesting that there is indeed an elective affinity between much symbolic interactionism (with its foundations in pragmatism) and postmodernism. I tend to agree with David Maines who has argued that whilst symbolic interactionism ‘finds an easy affinity with much of postmodernism’, it ‘has no need for it’ (Maines, 1996: p323)  [13]   In short, because of the strong interpretative center of both theories, there is an affinity.  Both accounts of the world highlight localism, ambiguity, differences, instability, signs and symbols, and a certain playfulness. They tend to withdraw from accounts of the world that over generalize, seek totalism and closure, stress homogeneity, unearth heavy structures. But interactionism – unlike much postmodernism- does not wish to lose its grip on the ‘obdurate empirical world’ and its search for a truth that will at least hold for the time being.

When this debate is applied to sexualities, the interactionist/postmodernist offers up a much more modest account of sexualities than many in the sexological world would have us believe.  It throws into doubt any Grand Narratives of Sexuality – from Freud to Sexology – that have haunted much of the modern world’s analysis of sexuality.  It can see that the modern discourse of ‘autonomous sexuality as a separate sphere of existence’ [14]  is deeply flawed.  Indeed, all the theoretical talk over ‘queer’ over the past fifteen years has in part been talk about a post modernization of sex in signaling a breakdown of clear and stable categories and a loss of faith in any compelling grand narrative of sexuality. Queer theory is really post-structuralism (and postmodernism) applied to sexualities and genders.[15]

The late William Simon’s too neglected study of Postmodern Sexualities has charted some of this critique and change[16] . For him, we are now increasingly living our lives in ways that are ‘different from any that humanity has previously known’ with pluralization, individuation and multiplying choices making social life very different from any previous era. Spaces start to emerge for new kinds of sexualities; ‘Sex’ is no longer the source of the truth; human sexualities become destabilized, decentred  and de- essentialized. The sexual life is no longer seen as harboring an essential unitary core locatable within a clear framework (like the ‘nuclear family’, or even ‘the gay lifestyle’) with an essential truth waiting to be discovered: there are only fragments. It is, as Simon says, “accompanied by the problematic at every stage”. (Ch1 p20).

I am very sympathetic to this view but there have to be cautions too. The postmodern world is really only the world of a few at the present time. For as Steven Seidman, himself both a postmodernist and a ‘queer theorist’ [17], has argued: ‘Modernity is not abruptly coming to an end. In most parts of the globe, modernization remains the chief social goal.. it may be in crisis, but it continues to shape the contours of our lives’. [18] So whilst there is a newer space for the more problematic thinking generated by such developments as ‘queer theory’, there should still be plenty of room for traditional kinds of analyses. When I read some of the wilder textual analyses of the queer theorists or hear of the fragmenting sexual identities championed by the postmodernists, I do sometimes wonder just whose worlds I am entering? They rightly raise very challenging ideas, and I am often excited when I read them. But I also have a gnawing feeling that they are very much removed from the ordinary everyday lived experiences of sexuality that most people encounter across the world in their daily lives. And to see this, we do also need a more conventional interactionist grounded ethnographic work alongside the queer studies.[19]


Worrying about research: on taking new routes.

Behind much interactionist writing has been a pragmatic concern with methodology. Most recently this can be found in the analysis of New Directions in Qualitative Research by Gubrium and Holstein, and of the influential Handbook of Qualitative Research by Denzin and Lincoln (about to enter a third edition). There has been a challenging new turn in methodology which brings a more experimental feel to research along with new ways of gathering and presenting data.  An important issue is to sense ourselves in and around our research, jolting the reader in almost Brechtian ways to rethink what the data is actually about and what is being presented. A much greater self reflexivity is generally being encouraged.

Such exhortations may well benefit the study of sexualities, because it seems that despite a great deal of research and theory remarkably little of it confronts head on (so to speak) the nature of sexualities, sexual meanings and sexual lives.  Apart from a few constructionist ethnographies and studies, the interactionist study of sexualities has not actually been very innovative or empirical. The classic Tea Room Trade (Humphreys, 1970), for all its flaws, is a major exception, and in its wake did come a series of linked studies which showed how gay men had sex in public places — cruising the truckers, sex on the highway, the silent community (Troiden, Delph etc ). Others have told us a great deal about communities, cultures and identities (from Identity and Community in the Gay World to Sex and Sensibility). But in such studies the sexual often disappears: we have identities, interactions patterns, managed selves: but the body and its orgasmic moments is hardly a presence. There are odd flashes of innovation, but in the main, we could speak of a ‘vanishing sexuality’ – a certain absence of the sexual in much contemporary constructionist/ interactionist research on the sexual. Mainstream sexual research has focus on the sexual but give s it no meaning whilst much constructionist thought overwhelms the sexual with meanings and gives little focus to the sexed body and its lust desires.

Thus, it has seemed to me for some time (although I am not brave – or interesting enough – to do it) that we are in need of some research that is auto/ethnographic: the  study of the sexual self of the sexual researcher in the mode of ‘On First Being a John’ – still almost unique and too neglected (Stewart, 1973). How such work can proceed is partly exemplified in the (non –sexual) auto/ethnographies of Carolyn Ellis’ Final Negotiations (1995) and Susan Krieger’s Social Science and the Self: Personal Essays on an Art Form (1991). The work of Carol Rambo Ronai on strip dancing provides a clearer exemplar – where she discusses her multiple feelings as she strips (Ronai, xxx ). Here she engages in self reflection, and provides what she calls a layered account which allows different aspects of the researcher’s self to ‘roam around the text’. [20] The complexity of being sexual is partially brought to the fore.

It seems to me that sociology could learn some lessons here from Queer theory[21]. Queer is seen as partially deconstructing our own discourses and creating a greater openness in the way we think through our categories. Queer theory is, to quote Michael Warner, a stark attack on ‘normal business in the academy’ (Warner, 1992: p25). It adopts a ‘scavenger methodology that uses different methods to collect and produce information on subjects who have been deliberately or accidentally excluded from traditional studies of human behavior’. In its most general form this is a refusal of orthodox method . Again, I repeat, that I am a very cautious queer theorist – worrying that it sometimes goes incomprehensibly too far and removes itself from interactionist concerns with grounded everyday life. But some of queer theorists ethnographic reconstructions around texts prove very telling. D.A. Miller’s odd study Place for Us of the musical and gay life proves annoyingly insightful about a lurking homophobia in the gay love affair with musicals and piano bars; whilst Judith Halberstam’s Female Masculinities jolts the reader into thinking about the diversities of womanly experience.

Halberstam’s study  argues for a  ‘certain disloyalty to conventional disciplinary methods’ as she ‘raids’ literary textual methods, film theory, ethnographic field research, historical survey, archival records and taxonomy to produce her original account of emerging forms of ‘female masculinity. (Halberstam, 1999: 9- 13).[22] This is the mode of ‘deconstruction’ and in this world the very ideas that types of people called homosexuals or gays or lesbians can be called up for interview becomes a key problem in itself.  Instead, the researcher should become more and more open to start sensing new worlds of possibilities. Many of these social worlds are not immediately transparent, whilst others are amorphously nascent and forming. Here, then, is a rag bag of ethnographic descriptions: of Aristocratic European cross-dressing women of the 1920’s,  butch lesbians, dykes, drag kings, tomboys, black -’butch in the hood’ rappers, trans-butches, gender inverts, stone butches, the female to male transsexual (FTM),  raging bull dykes, and the tribade! She is quite happy to also raid films worlds to show through films as diverse as Alien and the Killing of Sister George at least six prototypes of the female masculine:  tomboys, Predators, Fantasy Butches, Transvestites, Barely Butches, and Postmodern Butches ( 1998: Ch 6). All this research brings to the surface social worlds only dimly articulated hitherto- with of course the suggestion that there are more, many more, even more deeply hidden.

Side by side with this new turn to a queer ethnography, there also comes a concern with amongst both queer theorists and interactionists with writing strategies. As the editor of a journal, Sexualities, I have become more and more aware of the conventionality of academic writing and how this often does not do justice to interesting material. Nor do many contributors seem very aware of the very formal conditions which shape textuality. In a major summary of this growing concern, anthropologist James Clifford comments about the writing of one major social science form –ethnography- but I think it can be applied to most presentations of ‘academic sexuality’.

…….  writing is determined in at least six ways: (1) contextually (it draws from and creates meaningful social milieux); (2) rhetorically (it uses and is used by expressive conventions); (3) institutionally (one writes within, and against, specific traditions, disciplines, audiences); (4) generically (an ethnography is usually distinguishable from a novel or a travel account); (5) politically (the authority to present cultural realities is uniquely shared and at times contested); (6) historically (all the above conventions and constraints are changing). These determinations govern the inscription of coherent ethnographic fictions. (Clifford, 1986 p6.

The simplest way of grasping this is to take any finished ‘text’ on sexuality (like a research report or a book ,but even a film or a web site),  hold it in your hands, look at it, and ponder : just how did  this writing come to get there with those ‘sexual’ words in that form. What were the social conditions that enabled this text about sexuality  to be organized in this way? [23]


Worrying about theory: On not being too Grand.

Interactionism insists on being a humble theory, not claiming too much and not dealing with major abstractions and false dualisms. Indeed the real task of an interactionist is to simply look at social life as people ‘do things together’ [24]: its core interests lie in the doing of ethnographies and in an intimate familiarity with ongoing social (sexual) worlds. It is a hands on ‘down-to-earth’ empirical approach – even though there have always been those who have spoken more theoretically about it. (Both the early pragmatists and Herbert Blumer wrote major defensive essays[25] where there was no empirical data at all). In general the tradition is one seeped in the exploration and inspection of data.

Yet the theory has tended to remain lodged in false binaries and dualisms: biology versus the social, determinism versus choice, essence versus construct.  Pedagogically, overstated ‘splits’ and ‘dualisms’ may often be needed to clarify debates: a one sided accentuation of a position can often shift arguments along and can be a useful teaching device. But the lived, empirical world is never that simple. ‘Reality’ has to be more messy than this. And indeed, a symbolic interactionism that wants to make these false splits is unfaithful to its roots. For the founders- Mead, James, Dewey and others- all wanted to avoid these false philosophical dualistic antinomies and show how the dilemmas they posed were worked through practically in everyday circumstances. Not for them biology versus the social, determinism versus choice, essence versus construct. False dualisms were shunned. Hence, the biological and the social interact; chance, choice and determination interact ; childhood learning and adult life interact ; symbols and the material worlds interact. Even words like ‘perversion’ and ‘normality’ interact in everyday worlds. And in this interactive  process, of course,  new forms emerge. For interactionists, the task is to step into the flow of practical life and to break down the spurious and false abstractions of the philosophical world. The problem is not to take a side with one position on these debates; rather the task is to see how supposed antinomies work their way through practically in everyday affairs.

To take an example. One of the dualistic splits that I overstated  in earlier work [26] ( and I fear I may  have done it again at the start of this article!) was that between ‘essences’ or ‘emergents’ along with  the importance of process. I would now worry that the emphasis on process may get taken too far. Of course, symbolic interactionism has always properly highlighted the fluidity, emergence and processual aspects of social life. Their  analytic focus is always on becoming and emergence and change.  But interactionism has never said that there are no stable patterns of routine interactions or that selves do not become routinized, lodged, committed, stabilized.  Indeed process and pattern commingle together and the task of interactionists is to chart this stable process. Thus the precarious everyday flux of life is open to constant stabilizing and essentialising. And this has important implications.

Thus, for instance, sexual radicals – like Kate Borenstein and Suzie Bright (and maybe theorists like Judith Butler, or Kath Weston) – usually claim that our sexualities and our genders are open to wide, wild and wobbly transgressions. They sense identities as malleable and variable; of sexuality as transforming performances, and the like. I have some sympathies with this group. But it has to be said that whilst the sexual/gender fringe may indeed be a little like this (but only may be and only a little), empirically I have found it very rare indeed to come across people who live their lives in such fleeting, fragmentary and unstable ways. Radical theorizing apart, it is quite the contrary: sexualities and genders tend to be organized very deeply indeed. Gender pervades almost every aspect of our lives, and seems to have a very deep structure. It cannot be lightly changed, performed or wished away very quickly. Likewise, patterns of sexual desire also seem subject to deep routinization. This is not of course to say that gender or desire cannot be changed over lives or over  cultures, or that they do not vary over time and space  – all the constructionist writings point to the fact that they can and they do. Those who argue that there are universal women and men, universal homosexuals, or universal transvestites striding around history and across cultures simply miss the importance of precarious and contingent social organisation. But with the exception of some radically sexual transgressors, changes do not happen that easily or quickly. And the unstable, identity less, utterly fractured sexual and gender identity seems to be largely a myth created by social science!

On Worrying about the Body: On facing the Lustily Erotic

Symbolic interactionism may have traveled some way in rethinking the sexual over the past thirty years, but it may also have gone too far. A now commonly recognised weakness with much of the new thinking of sexualities from the 1970’s onwards was its lack of concern with the body. There has been an exaggeration of the symbolic at the expense of the corporeal being. Of course this was much needed in the 1970’s: sexuality is most certainly a hugely symbolic, social affair -a point that flew in the face of much sociological thought then. But it is also (and not contradictorily) a lusty, bodily, fleshy affair.  And it is a stunning omission from many earlier formulations that the living and breathing, sweating and pumping, sensuous and feeling world of the emotional, fleshy body is hardly to be found. And this has posed a problem: there is little humping and pumping, sweatiness or sexiness in much sociological work. Instead, we have discourses, identities, cultures, patriarchies, queer theories, transgender politics: you name it. Anything, but the lustily erotic. Until recently, the body and emotions are largely absent. This is a serious error, as Dowsett says:

We must no longer refuse the sedition of ordinary human bodies-in-sex…Were we to follow this path, we might find a new sexuality exists..we may see sexuality in modes of sociality that confound conventional structural categories. We may begin to take seriously the sex experiences and activities of other peoples, place and times . We may even cease that pastoral project, stop seeking to clean up sexuality in some liberal pluralist project of purification, and instead begin to enjoy a little more of creative potential in its sweat, bump and grind. (Dowsett, 2000:44; Dowsett, 1996).

It is no longer possible to ignore this body, as it has started to play more and more of a central role in social thought. It is true that in the past the body has been ‘an absent presence in sociology’ (Shilling, 1993:  9) with its own ‘secret history’ (Turner, 1991), but since the 1980’s there has been a major development of a ‘sociology of bodies’ which transcends binary thinking and grounds social life, subjectivities, discourses and bodies together.  For some sociologists, the body has indeed become the core feature of social life on which all social processes seem to be founded. ‘The body’ has increasingly moved center stage. [27] Still, it remains something of an irony that the two contemporary sociological literatures on sexualities and bodies somehow rarely manage to connect. It is true that the gendered body has been much discussed. But the sexualized or eroticized body has generally been of less concern to those who study the body.  Indeed, when it is discussed it is usually the sexualized text or representation and not the corporeal body. And at the same time, as we have seen, those sociologists who have studied sexuality have generally focused more on it as a script, a discourse, a power strategy or an identity and only rarely as a body, body project, or  embodiments. But the body, surely, is both a central site of concern for both the symbolism and the practices of sex. We can see the body as both an erotically charged symbol harboring a host of meanings and a series of material practices of embodiments. We can think firstly of just how much sex comes to be represented and how it touches nerves through for instance pornography – the persistent litmus of social conflict around sexualities. But we can think also of commingled skins, of being inside another’s body or having another’s body inside you: to be penetrated, to be invaded, o be engulfed, to be taken. What too of a sociology of embodiments around the erotic activities surrounding the mouth, the vagina, the anus, the breast, the toe? It is apparent that the body needs bringing back into sexuality 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).

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 fertilization (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 sexualizing body (see Melluci, Marshall, 2002; Holmes, 2002). And they also start to suggest an iceberg tip of such transformations.  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.


Symbolic Interactionist Worlds and the Future of Sex Research

Human sexualities have been studied and theorized for over a century, and as with all such studies they have congealed into various ‘social worlds’. (Clarke, 1998; Strauss, 1983). One world,  for instance ‘the medical models of sexuality’, will have their own history, language,  journals, and conferences; and they may indeed have little contact with another, such as ‘queer theory’, which will also replicate its own history, language, journals,  and conferences. 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).  The social worlds of studying sexualities can and often do overlap, but in the main they function more or less autonomously. Whilst there are already some interesting histories of researching and theorizing the sexual [28], an account of their social worlds and the tensions therein must be awaited.

But one of these social worlds has been that of the symbolic interactionist. Itself part of a larger set of theory worlds, throughout the twentieth century symbolic interactionism has been a persistent, if not always manifest, influence on social thought in general.  Its concern with meanings, process, interaction, and a grounded familiarity with everyday life make is a prime tool for approaching all aspects of social life as they emerge and transform. This is no less true for its study of the erotic and the sexual. Although there have been remarkably few self confessed interactionist students of sexualities, I have suggested throughout this article that nevertheless the influence of interactionism has been considerable. It may be a small social world when compared with the medical worlds of sex research, but it has had some impact within sociological circles at least.

Yet like any theory, it is constantly subject to revision in changing times. It has, for instance, had to engage with debates around the body, with new trends in queer theory, with new styles of ethnographic work, and with the fashions of postmodernism. And there are other issues too which I have not had space to deal with here – like the need to connect theories of sexual action to sexual order, and the promise of interactionist analyses of sexuality in looking at power. But my goals in this brief paper have not been exhaustive. I have merely wished to signpost the continuing vitality of one major theoretical approach to the study of sexualities functioning in its own social world. There is plenty more work to be done.


The author wishes to thank Janice Irvine for her suggestion that the article needed writing and for her advice on the content.


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[1] A brief look at two of the leading journals in the field, Archives of Sexual Behaviour and The Journal of Sex Research would soon reinforce this (although more so for the former than the latter) Archives of  Sexual Behaviour is almost exclusively clinical and biological, whereas The  Journal of Sex Research is certainly more eclectic and does contain both theoretical and socially linked articles. Its main focus however is what we might call the ‘psychological survey’ study. This is an approach which draws out correlates of sexual functioning through survey samples. It is very common in most of the ‘sexological journals’. This is in stark contrast with the ‘queer journals’ like GLQ where social theory dominates.

[2] I did my Ph.D. part time at the London School of Economics between 1968 and 1973 initially with David Downes but primarily with Paul Rock as my supervisor. Paul Rock is a leading UK symbolic interactionist and author of The Making of Symbolic Interactionism (1997). My external examiner was John Gagnon, who was visiting Cambridge in the academic year 1972-3. The study Sexual Stigma (1975) was a modified version of the thesis.

[3]   Presented at the University of  Aberdeen , April 1974. Many of its ideas came from my later book Plummer (1975). It was not published in the series edited from these conferences by Diana Leonard and Sheila Allen

[4]   Mike Brake ed. Human Sexual Relations : Towards a Redefitnion of Sexual Politics, Middlesex: Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1981 and published in the USA by Pantheon Books, New York 1982. I had worked with the late Mike Brake on a small study of male prostitution during the early 1970s whilst he was a colleague at Enfield College (now Middlesex University).

[5]   Michael Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 was only published in the US in 1978 (and in the UK in 1979). It is mentioned in the article only briefly. Its significance for sexuality studies only became truly apparent during the 1980s, largely after Foucault’s death.

[6]   Carole S Vance’s edited collection Pleasure and Danger is seen as the locus classicus of this debate, and was published in 1985 by Routledge.

[7] And it was in  Plummer (1984) that this first really became apparent.

[8] Partly in texts like that by Vivienne Burr (xxx). Ken Gergen’s work is also not very familiar with the sociological traditions of constructionism but it is a very wide ranging analysis.

[9] In their later works, it is possible to see Gagnon and gravitating towards Durkheim and Simon towards psychoanalysis. They certainly came for the Chicago tradition and they went to Symbolic Interactionist conferences, but they did not seem to have a passion to label themselves this way. See their comments on their work in Sexualities (xxx). The latest edition of their major work, Sexual Conduct, is just being published at the time of completing this article (Gagnon and Simon, 2003).

[10]  See Gary Alan Fine (1993) ‘The sad demise, mysterious disappearance, and glorious triumph of symbolic interactionism’ Annual Review of Sociology, 19, p61-87. I have also provided a review of the state of modern symbolic interactionist theory which can be found in ‘ Symbolic Interactionism in the Twentieth Century: The Rise of Empirical Social Theory’, in Bryan S Turner ed (1996) The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, Oxford: Blackwell p223-251 Many key references are cited therein, and there is also bibliographic guide to the field.

[11]  A standard source for these complaints was B.N. Meltzer, J.W. Petras & L.T. Reynolds (1975) Symbolic Interactionism London : Routledge, Ch 3, which I have reprinted in my edited collection (1991) Symbolic Interactionism, Vol 2, Aldershot, Hants: Elgar

[12]  He has long been the editor of the annual year book of Studies in Symbolic Interaction, and has written a number of influential texts – not least Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies, 1992, Oxford: Blackwell.

[13]  See David R Maines ‘On postmodernism, pragmatism and plasterers : some thoughts and questions’ Symbolic Interaction, 19 (4) p323-40. In a recent study ……… he also suggests that SI may be the understated basis of all US sociology.

[14]  Quoted from  David M. Halperin’s ‘Is there a history of sexuality?’ in Henry Abelove, Michele Barale & David Halperin’s The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, 1993, London Routledge p418.

[15]  Often a distinction is made between queer theory, queer politics and queer culture. Here we are talking mainly about queer theory (See Stein and Plummer, 1994).

[16]  see William Simon (1996) Postmodern Sexualities, London : Routledge

[17]  Queer theory may be regarded as a  theory of sexuality closely allied to postmodern theory. See Steven Seidman, ed  Queer Theory/Sociology, 1996 , Oxford: Blackwell.

[18]  See Steven Seidman ed The Postmodern Turn, 1994, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p 1.

[19]  I also feel that the use of the word ‘queer’ is a younger person’s game. Knowing the history of the word, and how it was used in my childhood playgrounds, I still cannot easily use it.

[20] Some recent social science anthologies make a virtue of these new modes. Ellis and Flaherty’s (1992) Investigating Subjectivity, for instance, has ethnographic research presented in the forms of drama, personal narrative with multiple voices, and as poetry

[21] I have made some preliminary moves into this analysis in a paper with Mahoney and Kong (2001, where we attempt to ‘queer the interview’.

[22] She borrows from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s ‘nonce taxonomy’ : ‘The making and unmaking and remaking and redissolution of hundreds of old  and new categorical meanings concerning all the kinds it takes to make up a world’ (Sedgwick, 1990: 1990: 23).

[23] I take this much further in my chapter on writing in Plummer 2001.

[24] In a recent interview I conducted with Howard S. Becker (2003), he claims to not recognize much of what passes as interactionism these days and return to his old theme of ‘Doing Things Together’. (1986)

[25] And classically, Blumer’s central major (1969) book of essays is full of abstractions and polarized debates!

[26] Notably, Plummer (1982 ) and reprinted in Stein et al 2002

[27] 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.

[28] 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.