Ken Plummer

Published in Peter Aggleton and Richard Parker The Routledge Handbook of Sexuality, Health and Rights( 20010)


When people define situations as real they become real in their consequences… W I Thomas

A person has as many selves as there are situations….. William James

A separate individual is an abstraction unknown to experience, and so likewise is society when regarded as something apart from individuals. The real thing is human life.  John Dewey

 [We live in]  a universe which is not all closed and settled, which is still in some respects indeterminate and in the making… an open universe in which uncertainty, choice, hypotheses, novelties, and possibilities are naturalized… Man finds himself living in an aleatory world; his existence involves, to put it bluntly, a gamble. The world is a scene of risk : it is uncertain, unstable, uncannily unstable….  John Dewey


This chapter suggests a way of looking at issues of human sexual rights. I adopt the stance of a critical humanist – a long standing position which places lived human life at the centre of its analysis. It focuses on how human beings are symbol manipulating creatures living their lives embodied and embedded in different kinds of historical and social situations. Human life unfolds precariously in a vast heaving universe of contingency and change.

At its heart there is an ontology of the human being as a bundle of potentials and capabilities which need appropriate social conditions in order to flourish. Without the right social conditions, human life becomes flawed and damaged and prone to too much suffering: lives become ‘wasted’. In the important work of the economist Amartya Sen(1999) and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum(1999), we find a major provisional listing of what these human capabilities could be for all human beings – all six and a half billion of us across the world. They include life (being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length); health; bodily integrity (which means being able to move freely from place to place, being able to be secure one’s body against assault and violence, and having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction); senses, imagination, and thought ( an adequate education and with  guarantees of freedom of expression : political, artistic and religious); emotions ( to have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves and to love those who love and care for us); practical reason (critical reflection on the planning of one’s own life – and what indeed is a good life); affiliation and recognition (being able to live for and in relation to others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings); the ability to play; some control over one’s environment; and finally an ability to live with other species – a concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature. Although such a list is open to change, it seems to me to be a very good starting point for thinking about what a human life needs to develop if it is to flourish on this earth.

My critical focus in this humanist task is through one focused route into this position: namely, the century old stance of symbolic interaction (S.I.). I hence start with a few words on the nature of SI, briefly review its well established thinking on human sexualities; and then move to a discussion of human rights more generally.

Symbolic Interactionism, Critical Humanism and Sexual Conduct

The traditions of symbolic interactionism are long, and not without schisms and controversies. Interactionist thoughts seep back to the Stoical philosophical traditions of the ancients.  In recent times, they were born again in the philosophies and pragmatism of William James, John Dewey, Charles  S. Peirce, George Herbert Mead; in the poetics of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman; in the more formal theorising of  Georg Simmel and others;  and in the down to earth field work of  sociologists and reformers like Robert Park, W.I.Thomas and Jane Adams. The term symbolic interactionism (SI) was coined in 1937 by Herbert Blumer and its ideas informed the work of Everett Hughes, Howard S Becker, Anselm Strauss. It has undergone a philosophical renewal in the work of  Richard Rorty and Sidney Hook. And there are many affinities with cultural anthropology, cultural historians, humanistic social psychologies, and (some) postmodern and cultural theorists

At its heart, SI is a very grounded, practical and everyday approach to social life and social understanding. It sees human beings as bundles of potentials living everyday lives in local contexts through doing things together, and struggling to make meaning in their daily lives. The symbolic nature of human life is central to understanding; these meanings are never transcendental, essential or fixed but are ceaselessly ambiguous and contested, always in the process of transforming social situations. Social life is emergent, and meanings are always struggled for and made in daily actions through defining each and every situation we enter. At the heart of social life lies the process of language and communication and the ability to recognise, interpret and understand ‘others’. But it is deeply and always precarious and unfolding. Human beings are always developing and lives are in process through selves.

All human beings dwell in what we might call ‘otherness’. To live, like it or not, we have to become attuned to others – to develop role taking ability, to acquire sympathy and to empathise with fellow humans (and often other animals). If we fail this, social life as we know it simply could not continue. And this is closely linked to the development of language, the development of selves, and the telling of stories. Life is embroiled in metaphor –it can be seen as a journey and a struggle in the acquisition of meaning as we tell the stories of our lives and our times. And so we come to define ourselves, our bodies and others; our pasts, our presents and our futures. It matters hugely how we make these definitions and how we construct our symbols: we must be cautious, for, when people define situations as real they may well become real in their consequences.

Symbolic interactionism is one of a range of accounts of the world that taken together may be called critical humanism. The core of their ontology is a fragile sense of what it is to be a human being – of human potentials in a vast world. We are indeed specks of dust in a boundless universe. We are, as Ernest Becker once argued, profoundly, the ‘little Gods who shit’ (Becker, 1973:58). We are little animals striving to make sense of our lives through elaborate symbols in a universe so vast it defies comprehension. And yet at the same time, we need to grasp our human vulnerability and place it at the heart of our thinking. The grand abstraction and the search for universals is bound to falter and we are usually better working with a theory of the human being that is grounded, practical and charged with doing things (and usually together with others). (I have outlined much of this in Plummer, 2000: see also Denzin. 1992).

Understanding Sexualities

Flowing out of this view of social life is a distinctive view of sexualities – and one that is largely at odds both with popular naturalistic and biological accounts (‘sex is natural’), and with more sophisticated Freudian theories (who tend to ‘read’ sex and desire into everything).  My approach is a much more practical and down to earth approach to sexuality which focuses on  the ways in which sexual symbols and meanings are generated and transformed constantly in everyday life, across lives and across history. Culture, power and ethics play crucial roles in the organisation of such negotiated meanings which connect closely with emotions, bodies and selves.

This way of thinking has a long lineage but started to gain popularity in the 1960s through the work of John Gagnon and William Simon, two sociologists who were working at the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research. They drew from their Chicago-based training in field work, were influenced by the work of the literary theorist Kenneth Burke for whom ‘symbolicity’ was so central; and borrowed ideas from their influential peer – Erving Goffman, and his idea of dramaturgy and social stage craft. The peak point of their writing was the syntheses of papers they created in Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality, first published in 1973 and reprinted, slightly revised in 2005. The book, as Simon said years later, “was actually a series of essays rather than a coherent linear text” (Simon, 1999:130). But it has been hugely influential.

Their most influential idea was the metaphor of sexual scripting. Rather than seeing sexuality as a biological drive or gender as a fixed essence, sexuality should be seen as meanings organised loosely into scripts which suggest who people are sexually and what others they can desire sexually, what they can do sexually, where  and when they can do it, and also explain to them why they do it. Such scripts change from society to society, group to group, person to person and even in the same person. Scripts are not fixed but are wide open to improvisation.  They can be examined at a wide social level (historical, cultural), at an interpersonal level what people do with each other) and psychically (how people come to inhabit their own emotional and symbolic sexual worlds and sexual scripts).

This is not the place for an extended discussion of this account of sexualities, but it has been influential and shaped a great deal of further thinking and research. By way of summary, let me suggest just three questions that it leads you to address in looking at any form of sexuality. First, look for symbols of sexualities: look for the meanings and the histories of self, of conduct, the stories we tell about it, and the wider cultural sense of it. How do we give meaning to our bodies and our feelings , our fantasies and our relationships, our lives and our histories? Second, look for the ways in which sexualities are moulded through interactional webs and networks – human sexuality never takes place on its own but always depends upon collective conduct and the ways in which we do things together. Even masturbation involves some sense of sexual others and of self defining the body. Third, always see sexuality as emergent: that is it never see it as a fixed essence or thing but is always on the move, flowing, developing, changing. The question here is to find ways of capturing –momentarily- this flux and flow: the doings, feelings, and tellings of our meaning making sexualities which we assemble with others. And all this in a world of profound divisions and inequalities (cf. Plummer (2005)).

Nine theses on human rights


With these background contexts in mind, I want to now turn to human rights. Although ‘human rights’ have a long history, I take them to be a thoroughly contested field. Across the world, the issues the idea raises have been challenged and debates both across and within the world’s six and half billion people and two hundred or so nation states. Indeed, if we did all agree about human rights, there would be little to discuss. Those who suggest that rights are straightforward, inalienable, uncontested – and many do — work from a very shallow and culturally limited ideas of rights. One day working at the United Nations, being active in any of the multitudinous social movements working for human rights, or simply being a student reading the massive and polarised literatures on human rights  – in law, in politics, in sociology – would surely  reveal  just how contested  notions of human rights are and of how they are drenched in the endless struggle for meaning and value in human life . Symbolic interactionism and critical humanism provide one major tool into thinking about all this.

Pragmatism and everyday life. 


Human social life is a grounded, practical affair. And this is true of human rights too. Human rights are everyday matters of great practical importance to the daily everyday lives of everyday practical people as they go about their daily rounds of sufferings and joys: they do not dwell in the heavens with the angels, the philosophers and the legal theorists, Hence whilst there are indeed some great philosophical writings and some hugely important abstract ‘Documents of Rights’ – notably the Declaration of Independence, 1776; The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, 1789; and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 – these have all been born of blood and human suffering: the French Revolution, the War of Independence, the World Wars, the Holocaust, the Stalinist/Maoist purges.  Millions have been slaughtered both in the name of rights and in order that such grand statements could be produced. So, grand abstract documents conceal a multitude of battles (cf. Grayling(2007); Hunt (2007)).

Although rights can indeed be analysed abstractly (and usually are), the task for social researchers of all kinds is to become intimately familiar with the crusaders, their claims and the social processes through which rights emerge and are made public. There is an important need to see ‘rights’ as part of the day to day world of lived meaning, and not simply belonging to the theoretical and philosophical or even legal heavens.  Thus, when we hear the term ‘human rights’ we always need to ask: Whose rights? What rights? Why are rights being claimed here? And, where and when? The very idea means many things to many people and it has throughout different cultures and different historical periods. There is nothing fixed or sacred about rights – they are day to day struggles of day to day people; and they differ hugely.

Claims for sexual rights are very recent – they are not to be found in the classical statements as such, but have to be read into them. All ‘rights work’ takes place in morally grounded activities and political practices; and with issues of sexual rights traditional moralities clash furiously with those advocating progressive changes (Hunter, 1990). There is a major conflict over defining what it means to live a good life and to be human. Abstractions may be used in the arguments; but the actual battles are very down to earth and we need to understand how they work (Plummer, 2003).

Meanings, signs and symbols.

Human social life can only be understood with a due attention to its symbolic nature and the full range of ever ambiguous human meaning. And this is true of human rights too. Human rights are powerful symbols, but their meanings are constantly shifting across times, spaces, groups. Meanings are never fixed but always emerging and contested; and this is the story of human rights.  The term has variously meant ‘security’ (Hobbes), ‘life, liberty and property’ (Locke), ‘freedom’ (Kant), ‘life liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ (Paine) and so on. These days it is often linked to ideas of citizenship, and there are many versions of this too: economic, legal, welfare, intimate, cultural, feminist, global and the rest (Isin & Turner, 2002).

Beyond this there are hierarchies of rights drawn up by different groupings. One person’s rights is another person’s evil. The idea of sexual rights, for instance, is a comparatively new one. No wonder many countries and religions have no place for it. Who would have thought in nineteenth century England we could even suggest the rights of gay men and women to marry?  Or that transgender rights would be on the agenda –the language had not even been invented. Or who would have thought we could talk of the ‘the rights of the unborn child’ as anti abortion activists do? And what of the rights of sex workers? Or sadomasochists? Or even paedophiles?

The idea of human rights is always an emergent and contested symbol. SI theory places the symbol at the centre of its thinking – and it stresses the triadic nature of meaning for humans. Thus meaning appears as we approach an object such as human rights, it is then handled and manipulated as we try to put it into action, and then itself is further modified as it emerges through its outcomes. We are looking here at the idea that Human Rights are not – by their very symbolic character — ever capable of standing still. They are always ambiguous and emergent meanings – because this is the nature of all symbols. We may declare Human Rights in various declarations – but we know, surely, that behind these declarations were huge human struggles for meanings, often bloody ones. We know too that when we read these seemingly much approved and agreed upon documents (like the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948: see :, that many people have spent thousands of hours debating and analysing them in order to make sense of their arguments and applications. Finally, the outcomes of any rights framework is never clear – it emerges into new sets of understandings and meanings that then themselves become open to further meanings and reinterpretations. It is important to grasp this flow of meanings, the contestations, the ambiguities of the symbolic (Blumer, 1969).

Cultures as emergent complexities.

Human cultures are mosaics of complex, multli-layered, negotiable and ever emergent symbolic interactions. Human rights are part of these cultures and this means that the idea of human rights that appear within cultures. And cultures are never tight, fixed or agreed upon but are multi-layered  ‘mosaics of social worlds’. As Seyla Benhabib says: “The interpretation of cultures as hermetic, sealed, internally self consistent wholes is untenable and reflects the reductionist sociology of knowledge “. There are innumerable social worlds that are constantly contradictory and tensionsful. Cultures are ‘the scraps, patches and rags of daily life’(Benhabib:2002:p9; p36); they are the multilayered,  daily lived, tool boxes of ideas and materials which are constantly in flow and flux to help us resolve daily problems of living. Ideas of ‘human rights’ have become part of this tool box.  But there is nothing clear, unified or established about this. Thus, when we are looking across cultures, we should never be at all surprised to find their enormous differences: the trouble is that we are sometimes too surprised when we look inside specific cultures that we also find these differences.

Cultures do not speak to consensus and uniformity: by their natures they cannot. Thus to speak of sexual cultures as harmonious, well ordered consensual wholes is sheer nonsense. To talk of ‘Muslim Culture’, ‘Women’s culture’, ‘British culture’ or even ‘Gay Culture’ is in truth  to immediately step into social worlds of massive ambiguities, contradictions, tensions – never worlds of agreed upon consensus. Social life as lived by all peoples at all times grows out of these tensions. It is extremely important to grasp this – because some views of cultures flatten them and turn them into monologic, monolithic and mono-moral overly stable forms. Human rights debates over sexualities can get very lost if they work with this naïve, dead and overly simple view of culture.

Thus whilst it is useful to sense the pervasiveness of multiculturalism, this can also bring the danger  of seeing a different culture as if it is truly fixed, very different and lacking dynamics of persistent change. It is more useful to recognise their ceaseless dynamism, overlaps, continuities and contestations.  Cultures- and human rights – are always lived actions: in bricolage, in mobilities and complexities; and they are always negotiated and deeply contested. All cultures at all times. This is their nature, their essence; an essence of muddle. It is actually what breathes persistent life into culture, what animates it. Without it, culture dies. And hence multi-cultures are not separate essences apart from each other, but are always overlapping and emergent as well as internally contested.

Interaction and others.


Human social life is always made, acted, constructed through the interactions of living people in a society. People do things together and build social life. This is how societies come to work. And this is true of human rights too.  Human rights are constructions of people doing things together. They assemble negotiated orders through interaction and collective behaviour. Rights are not given in nature merely waiting to be found. Rights are inventions created by human agents through symbolic interactions. They involve the collective conduct and social meaning of many, and come into being through the interpretive and activist work of social movements and a diverse range of moral crusaders and entrepreneurs: from kings, prophets and philosophers to governments, social movements, writers, and NGO’. We need to study collective behaviour and social movements as part of this web of ceaseless negotiated interactions.

Self, others and dialogue.

Symbolic interaction always depends upon an idea of imagining others – of dialoguing with, at least linking to, and maybe even empathising, or sympathising, with others. And part of this suggests the development of a morally aware self. The idea of human rights requires a moral discourse of the self for it to make sense.

Human social life could not exist without this awareness of others in the social world. The social human is always contingent on other people. There is no way that ‘individuals’ can function in this world on their own. And in large part this is because human beings have selves – selves are predicated upon communication and dialogues with others. The self – as outlined by William James, George Herbert Mead, Charles Cooley, Erving Goffman and others – lies at the heart of a human being and always implies others. In a very profound sense, ‘we live in the minds of others without knowing it’. (Cooley: 1998 Ch 13; Scheff, 2007:33). Language, communication and self are bound up together and to be social requires that we acquire and develop an idea of self: failure to do so (and it does happen) makes us function outside of the social. And in doing this, it[PA1]  always hovers on the edge of a moral imagination which invites all people to consider how these others – who are inescapably present and bound up with our lives – should actually be handled within our lives?

In this, we are never “monologic” in the sense that we have unitary and single voices: rather we always “dialogic” – in discussion with others – even as we forget this. How are these others to be linked –connected – to our selves?  Social life is dialogical. Sadly, at the heart of much our everyday thinking seems to be a sort of  “monological consciousness” (Charles Taylor’s (1994:p32-3) terms) and much philosophy and academic work is also, sadly,  like this. But in my view we cannot understand humanity – or sexuality or human rights – without taking a dialogical reflective stance.  We can indeed pursue human rights on our own – as our individual (narcissistic?) rights: but there are very serious problems with this. Our rights must be linked to the idea of otherness – we depend on others for the rights we can have. Rights imply mutuality – and usually obligations as well as rights; so rights can only exist in dialogue with others. We have no social claims to our rights if we have no sense of the others who can give us these rights, and if we have this, then we need to be aware of their rights too. We are bound together.

These dialogues are dependent upon what the symbolic interactionists – through James, Mead and Goffman -have called ‘role taking’: but there are many closely connected words that suggest this: empathy, sympathy, recognition, being attuned to another, being aware of someone’s needs.  Thus, ‘being attuned to the other’ requires a communication network – even patches of communal cultures- which enables us to take seriously the presence of others. Some of these others will be near to us and close – our dearest and loved ones, our significant others; but others will be much more distant and far away (from generalised others to abstract others). We feel less for them and we are shaped less by them. And part of the self process is not just awareness of others but also a feeling of self regard- how we come to see ourselves and place ourselves in the social world. Some of this will be positive and self regarding- some of this will be lower, negative even hostile.

People nowadays may claim human rights for themselves; but for such rights –including sexual rights- to make sense we need to know something about the wider contexts in which such claims are made. And one of these most surely derives from an imaginative understanding of what is meant by both the self and the other: the self who has rights and the other who may or may not have rights. How do we come to interpret this and make sense of it? Sexual rights demand a close attention to the sexual worlds of others as well as ourselves.  It connects to what we might call a moral imagination – a capacity to empathise with others and to see the possibilities for ethical actions (McCollough, 1991, p63).

Story telling and narratives.  

Since social life is shaped by the definitions of situations we make, and the stories and narratives we tell – we must be very careful about these tellings as they may come true. Cultures construct narratives with diverse moral meanings for the self which can be connected to human rights.  Part of the search for self and other that I have located above – along with the conception of just what rights a human might have – will arise from the significant and generalised others with whom one is linked: real people in real life. These are the key players in shaping our social worlds and our senses of rights. But there are also wider, broader features of a culture which foster our senses of empathy, role taking and comprehension of other worlds.

An argument that has been slowly developing in the past few decades is one which highlights the significance of story telling and narrative in social life – indeed how these narratives may well be the central source for the construction of the self. I have described this in detail elsewhere (reference needed). Lynn Hunt (2007) in her recent history of human rights, for example, places great store on the rise of the eighteenth century novel as a key factor in shaping a wider sensitivity to others – a sensitivity which increasingly meant an abhorence of violence and torture. Accounts of torture for example helped people imagine the pain of others. Novels gave people new ideas about how the self worked. ‘Imagined empathy’ in a range of areas may well have sensitised more and more people to ideas of the rights of others. Before her, the philosophers Martha Nussbaum (1999) and Richard Rorty (1989) placed great store on the role of reading novels (and art more generally) as a keystone for comprehending the moral (and political) life.

There is always the possibility, then, that when people define situations as real they become real in their consequences. And this is true of human rights too. The stories we construct that tell of sufferings and joys help direct us to a world we wish to become and a world where human rights are recognised. ’Good Stories’ are the harbingers of human rights. They have often arisen from telling us the truly dehumanising things that people do to each other – the genocides, the wars, the torturing, the slavery and bondages, the oppressions and abuses, the rapes and violence, the degradations and discriminations, and indeed the everyday simple nastiness of some folk to other people – and in so doing they help us sense a world to change. But they also can tell of the importance of the equality of human beings, of the value of lives, of what it is to be fully functioning human being – and what it is to have this flourishing curtailed.  We have come to believe more and more in the importance of these rights; and as more and more people come to believe that they have rights (and sometimes obligations) so they organise their lives, their social movements and ultimately their social institutions around them.

Kay Schafer and Sidonie Smith talk of Human Rights and Narrated Lives ( 2004). They look at the traumatic past ion Apartheid South Africa, the underground literature that circulated during this time, and the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They look also at Aboriginal experiences Aborigines in Australia and the struggle for indigenous rights; at the stories of  abduction and forced sexual slavery during world war two by poor Korean women in Japanese ‘comfort stations’; at prison narratives and political prisoners – especially in the .USA. And at the post-Tianeanmen stories of the horrors of a communist past in China. They look at the production, circulation and reception of such stories as they appear in Human Rights Commission Tribunals and Reports, on various web sites, and in much contemporary reporting- documentaries, autobiographies and testimonies. Such stories sensitise their readers to terrible things that have happened and pathways ahead through human rights dialogues. As they say:
This book is a testimony to the efficacy of stories: stories silenced by and emerging from fear, shame, trauma and repression; stories enlivened by hope , connection, commitment and affiliation; stories fed by calls for justice, fuelled by empathy and an ethics of equality and human dignity; stories framed by faith in international covenants calling for dignity, justice and freedom.  These stories, taken together, mount a powerful argument for the efficacy of storytelling in advancing the ongoing and constantly transforming pursuit of social justice, emanating from, but not limited to, the human rights project inaugurated by the United Declaration of Human Rights.  (Scafer and Smith, 2004:233-4)

The same has been happening in the field of sexual rights. Narratives of sexual difference, sexual suffering and sexual survival are required to move ahead with the development of sexual rights: for in them lies a wider understanding of the selves and worlds of others so closely linked to our sexualities and our humanities.

Political Cultures and social movements.

Human social life is embedded in power and moral relations and always has to be negotiated – societies are contested negotiated orders animated by schisms and fracturings. And this is true of human rights too. ‘Rights work’ involves many people in a continuous round of negotiated collective actions which attempt to interpret, rationalize and define both social identities and related rights. Rights work is indeed a core feature of much social movement work.  ‘Rights work’ entails claims makers involved in ‘claims’ and counter-claims’, often animated by quasi-arguments and stories. It is endemically schismatic and political. Human rights claims are never just for individuals but for groups and usually an abstract version of humanity.  Rights are abstract political claims for humanity, that then become part of the ways we construct our selves.

And part of this process depends on social movements to galvanise this action. Social movements can be seen as arising out of subterranean worlds where people are resisting dominant powerful forces. Under conditions of stress and crisis, people engage in collective activity which produces claims and help frame arguments about the nature of their lives and their problems. From this they work to get organised – to mobilise resources. Initially based on specific countries, by the nineteenth century they increasingly had become international. And in a string of important books, the late Charles Tilly has documented the significant growth of social movements over the oast three hundred years internationally. Social movements have become a key factor in ordinary folks participation in the running of their lives, and he links their rise and fall to the ‘expansion and contraction of democratic possibilities’ (Tilly, 2004:3). Three factors mark them out since their development after 1750: the prominence of sustained campaigns beyond any single event; the use of a wide range of tools (from pamphleteering to demonstrations); and social movements ultimate sense of their own worthiness, unity, size and commitment (what Tilley calls WUNC).

Sexual rights have become a key part of this movement work – especially that which has centered around the women’s movement, the homophile/queer movement, and the transgender movement (all of which are discussed elsewhere in this book). As an example, queer cultures have now been shown to have quite a long history- as does the homophile movement. The Gay Movement may culminate in Stonewall in 1969 and London GLF in 1970. But like all social movements it did not arrive overnight; and without such movements no rights claims could be made. Now the actions of sch movements are firmly on the international agenda.

Signifance of emergence and history.

Human social life is processual, emergent and flowing: there is always a history. And this is true of human rights too. Rights work moves through certain phases, histories and stages. At one point, it is invisible and hardly articulated; at another it ‘finds a voice’; and at a later stage it can become habitualised and institutionalized. But it is never fixed and always on the move. Claims for human rights do have long histories.

In her study of the history of human rights, Micheline Ishay (2004) suggests five major waves: early times, the Enlightenment, Socialism and the Industrial Age, the World Wars and International Rights, and the Global Age. For most of recorded history, religions have been the seed beds of rights – they have laid out rule books, codes, commandments, ‘ways of living’ for societies to observe – and although these are not rights per se they often hint at the rights to come. Yet in most of these early codes, same sex relations are strongly condemned. ‘Humanitarian’ as they often are in providing a seedbed of values on how to live a good life, they are also harbingers of hate in marking out the despised sexual other and advocating hatred of such groups.

In recent times, we start to hear a language of rights around sexualities. It is, as international campaigner and academic Rosalind Petchesky comments, ‘the newest kid on the block’ (2000). There are odd hints of such rights in nineteenth century feminism; hints which grow in a few countries during the twentieth. Documents on gay culture can take us back to the eighteenth century, and historians have documented a massive tradition of gay life during the early part of the twentieth century. Likewise, and notably in Germany and to a lesser extent in the USA, (when exactly?)there were significant pushes towards homosexual emancipation. In the UK, the scandals of Oscar Wilde left homosexuality deeply underground if extensive. The cases of Wildeblood and Montagu led to the Wolfenden Report, which in turn  created organisations that lobbied for homosexual law reform, and ultimately legal changes in 1967 in the UK. But such concerns do not become part of the global sexual citizenships debates until the 1990s. We have here then a major recent case of the struggle for rights  – nobody spoke in such terms as the time of the foundation of the great rights documents – such as those of the USA, France and the United Nations. Where were women’s rights or gay rights – or more generally- sexual rights to be found in all this?

The Global and the Cosmopolitan.


Human social life is global: whilst it is grounded in the self it is also intrinsically linked to an awareness of the others in the wider world. George Herbert Mead classically located the ways in which the self moved out from the significance of others ion the immediate world to the existence of a ‘generalised other’, initially the community but later to the international global community. In the twenty first century, social commentators now presume the significance of the global- they see global markets, global media, global governance, and global cultures. They stress that the social processes of glocalisation proceeding alongside those of globalization, and have re-invoked the ancient idea of cosmopolitanism to flag the significance of being citizens in the wider world or cosmos (Pieterse, 2004; Toulmin,1990).

George Herbert Mead too was a dedicated internationalist ((Aboulafia, 2001:18), and over the past few centuries, the modern world has been moving more and more to see its world wide members becoming more and more aware of an international other. Speaking in the 1920s, Mead suggests that:

The organised ‘other’ a community of narrow diameter. We are struggling now to get a certain amount of international-mindedness. We are realising ourselves as members of a larger community. The vivid nationalism of the present should, in the end, call out for an international attitude of the large community………. If we assert our rights, we are calling for a definite response just because they are rights that are universal – a response which everyone should, and perhaps will, give’. (Mead,1934:167, 260)

The struggles over such rights now take place not only in local arenas but also in global ones. They are part of universalising attitudes, emergent global flows and what has now become the search for a global standards of human rights and a global citizenry. We see it embodied in the work of many NGOs and the of course in the work of the United Nations. Kant’s famous principle – the people’s of the earth have entered into a universal community – has now developed to the point where a violation of rights in one part of the world is starting perhaps to be felt everywhere.

The hopeful news now is to be found in writers who have detected the rise of a new cosmopolitan attitude in the world: the arrival of a cosmopolitan self (and with it perhaps a cosmopolitan sexuality?). Cosmopolitanism above all else sees us all as universally part of the same world but as incorrigibly different. People everywhere are different and there is much to be learnt from these differences. But at the same time, ‘humankind’ is one (Appiah 2006; Beck, 2006; Fine, 2007).


In this chaptere I have continued my journey as a critical humanist. Despite all our incorrigible differences, dreams and desires, we are all part of the same small species in a vast universe. We are all busy practical beings with our different enterprises, sufferings and joys and are here for a very short time on planet earth.  I have tried in a short space to show how – by approaching our limited social lives as symbolic and emergent and interactive – we may deepen our understanding of our sexualities, our rights and ultimately our human capabilities.



Aboulafia, M. (2001)   The Cosmopolitan Self: George Herbert Mead and Continental Philosophy, Illinois: University of Illinois Press

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Ken Plummer is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex, editor of the journal Sexualities and co-editor with John Macionis of Sociology: A Global Introduction (4th edition, 2008). He has written many books and over one hundred articles on sexualities, critical humanism and symbolic interactionism. His most recent book is Intimate Citizenship: Private decisions and public dialogues (University of Washington: 2003)


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