Cosmopolitan Sexualities, Amsterdam, May 2014


Ken Plummer

Amsterdam Research Centre for Gender and Sexuality

Friday, May 16, 2014: 15:30-17:00


1.          Prologue: The Inevitability of Disappointment and the Importance of Hope.

2.          Foundational: Ontologies of Plurality and Vulnerability.
3.          Core: Cosmopolitan Sexualities: Definitions, Emerging forms, Troubles.
4.         Dreaming: The Grounded Strategies of Utopian Hope.
5.         Practical Appendix


PROLOGUE: Is That All There Is?

(this can be cheerily sung along with Peggy Lee to the song by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller and inspired by a short story by Thomas Mann: Disillusionment).


When I was fifteen, I discovered homosexuality.

They said it was a crime.
And a sickness, a sin, a shame and a sadness.

And I said to myself: is that all there is?


When I was twenty-five, I discovered liberation.

It was GLF; we were out and proud; we made demands.

We were modern homosexuals out to change the world.

And I said to myself: is that all there is?


When I was thirty, I discovered research.

Transvestites and paedophiles and sado-masochists and more:

The conflicting meanings of the whole damn thing!

And I said to myself: is that all there is?


When I was thirty-five, I discovered AIDS and feminism.
I knew the tragedy of AIDS: twenty five millions dead and still counting

And the tragedy of feminism: its interminable divides.

And I said to myself: is that all there is?


When I was forty-five, I went global and postmodern.

Queer had come around again;

And rights was on the world agenda.

And I said to myself: is that all there is?


When I was sixty, I nearly died: but I didn’t.

Starry starry nights and the incorrigible plurality of snow.
The multiplicities of life, of death, of suffering.

And I said to myself: is that all there is?


So life goes on as I look to seventy.
The inevitability of disappointment
and the importance of hope.

And I say to myself: is that all there is?

So let’s keep dancing.




1. PROLOGUE:  The Inevitability of Disappointment and the Importance of Hope:
Bleak Tales, Hopeful Tales: Negativity and Positive Norms: ‘Real Utopian Hope’?

I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will. Antonio Gramsci  Letter from Prison (19 December 1929)

What we can do is…make life a little less terrible and a little less unjust in every generation. A good deal can be achieved in this way. Karl Popper, 1949

‘Dreaming ahead’  Ernst Bloch, 1938-

Jeffrey Weeks                              The World We Have Won ( 2007)
Ernest Bloch                                   The Principle of Hope (1938-47)
Ruth Levitas                                   Utopia as method (2013)
Eric Olin Wright                            Envisioning Real Utopias  ( 2010)

Two Grounded Strategies of Utopian Hope: 1. Intimate Citizenships. 2 Cosmopolitan Sexualities

2. FOUNDATIONAL: Ontologies of Plurality and Vulnerability
Plural Sexualities, Contingent Sexualities, Ontologies of Difference
Politics rests on the fact of human plurality … Hannah Arendt
What most horrifies me in life is our brutal ignorance of one another…
William  James
Human beings are vulnerable precisely because they are sexual beings… Bryan Turner

Hannah Arendt                              The Human Condition (1958)

William James                               The Writings. Edited by John J McDermott (1977)

Bryan S Turner                              Human Rights and Vulnerability (2006)
Catriona Mackenzie et al              Vulnerability: New Essays in Ethics and Feminist Philosophy (2014)
Martha Nussbaum                          Creating Capabilities (2011)

Iris Marion Young                          Justice and the politics of difference (1990) Princeton


If our world is to be a decent world in the future, we must acknowledge right now that we are citizens of one interdependent world, held together by mutual fellowship as well as the pursuit of mutual advantage, by compassion as well as self interest, by a love of human dignity, in all people, even when there is nothing to gain from cooperating with them. Or rather even when we have to gain the biggest thing of all: participation in a just and morally decent world
. Martha Nussbaum Frontiers of Justice (2006): p324


1) So what is Cosmopolitanism?
Robert Holton’s Cosmopolitanisms (2009) manages to catalogue over 200 hundred meanings of the idea, missing out the very idea of cosmopolitan sexualities entirely despite its wide discussion by sexuality scholars. For the Ghanian-American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, in his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of Strangers (2006)) it is a ‘universal concern and respect for legitimate difference’ (Appiah, 2006:xv). For the Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz (in Ulf Hannerz   Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places (1996)  it is ‘a mode of managing meaning’ ‘ a willingness to engage with the other’. ‘It entails an intellectual and aesthetic openness toward divergent cultural experiences, a search for contrasts rather than uniformity. ……(It is) a state of readiness: an ability to make one’s way into other cultures, through listening, looking, intuiting and reflecting (Hannerz: 1996: p103). For the German sociologist Ulrich Beck (who is at the forefront of sociological writers in this field) we have arrived at the ‘cosmopolitan moment’ as an emergent and distinctive feature of modernity: ‘the human condition has itself become cosmopolitan’. We live with the ideas that ‘local, national, ethnic, religious and cosmopolitan cultures and traditions interpenetrate, interconnect and intermingle – cosmopolitanism without provincialism is empty, provincialism without cosmopolitanism is blind’ (Beck Cosmopolitan Vision 2006:p7). For the British sociologist, Robert Fine, cosmopolitanism is bound up deeply with international law and human rights. Indeed, cosmopolitanism is both ‘a determinate social form’ which ‘reconfigures’ a whole sphere of (potentially contradictory) rights as well as being a ‘form of consciousness that involves an understanding of the concept of cosmopolitanism and a capacity to develop the concept in imaginative and reflexive’. He sees it as both outlook (a way of seeing the world) and a condition (an existing form of the world) (In Cosmopolitanism p 111, 134.)  Finally, for the influential US feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum, it raises the issue of a  ‘decent world culture’ and a world moral community.


2) How can we best characterise Cosmopolitan Sexualities?
Living with the differences of genders and sexualities, usually entailing:

1.     An ontology of a real global humanistic universalism of sexual differences

2.      An agon of perpetual conflicts about these sexual differences, the source of much human suffering

3.      A Recognition of these sexual differences of others as being part of what counts as being human.

4.     An imagination of ‘openness’ and ‘tolerance’ towards sexual differences; often accompanied by a playful sense of irony, paradox, and contradiction

5.     An agonistic politics of sexual differences connecting local political struggles with global ones through dialogue and a search for a grounded common humanity

6.     A social structure of social solidarity of reciprocal inter and intra cultural awareness of sexual differences, becoming enshrined in rights, institutions and everyday practices.

7.     A social psychology of tangled emotional, biographical and vulnerable bodies, cultivating critical self awareness, empathy and dialogue, bringing a capacity to live with these sexual differences through a ‘circle of others’ spreading across the globe

8.      A global ethics fostering a world community sense of flourishing different lives living together well

9.     A legal framework of international laws that provide frameworks for organizing the diverse sexualities in the modern world

10.   A utopian process of people living together harmoniously through their sexual differences

3) How is it manifesting itself? Movements, Media, Academia, Governance, Culture, Agendas
An example: Cosmopolitan Sexualities Evolving in Global Governance


Recent core U.N. moments have included:

2012: General Assembly passed resolution A/C.3/67/l.36 condemning arbitrary and extrajudicial executions –  and this included both ‘gender identity’ and ‘sexual orientation’ within its orbit. (This is part of a long struggle over terminology) Opposed by the usual lobbies (many of whom walked out of the debate), the full resolution passed with 108 votes in favor, 1 against, 65 abstentions, and 19 absent.

2011: South Africa requested  the General Assembly to draft a report detailing the situation of LGBT citizens worldwide ( Vienna Declaration). It was passed (23 to 19) and the report was published in December. It documented violations of the rights of LGBT people, including hate crime, criminalization of homosexuality, and discrimination.

2010:  The Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, expressed his concern in a speech on Human Rights Day when he stated:
As men and women of conscience, we reject discrimination in general, and in particular discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity … Where there is a tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, rights must carry the day. Together, we seek the repeal of laws that criminalize homosexuality, that permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, that encourage violence

2006-7:The Yogyakarta Principles layed out a universal guide international principles relating to human rights and sexual orientation & gender identity – standards with which all States must comply.

2004-5: The Brazil Proposal brought a backlash in 2004 and 2005. Languages and ideas of sexual orientation and even HIV were under attack.

2003-4:Brazilian Resolution: a resolution entitled, Human Rights and Sexual Orientation, and modeled on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is proposed by Brazil, without consulting other potential international supprters! It failed.

2001: Amnesty International: publishes Crimes of Hate. Conspiracy of Silence: Torture and Ill Treatment based on Sexual Identity 2001

1997: WHO issued a joint statement with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) against the practice of FGM.

1996: ILGA Europe Established, which can play a more prominent role in the UN as it is not excluded

1995: The Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women, resulting in global Platform for Action for women’s equality, empowerment and justice 47,000 people attend. A group of 35 women from the Lesbian Caucus unfurled a large banner from a balcony. The banner read: Lesbian Rights are Human Rights. It was also the ‘ Year of the Muslim Woman”

1994: ILGA recognized briefly in UN – but dropped because of presumed links with paedophilia

Cairo:   International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) put sexual rights and sexual health on the table

1994-6  UNAIDS established by the UN for a global and expansive response to HIV/AIDS

1993: The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women affirms that violence against women violates their human rights.

1989:Convention on the Rights of the Child (and which starts to raise the public debate of age of consent

1985:The Third World Conference on Women, Nairobi outlines the ‘Forward-Looking’ strategy

1980:The Second World Conference on Women. Copenhagen

1979:Adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the only international treaty on women’s human rights
1978:ILGA established in Coventry (originally as IGA: lesbians added in 1968). Regionalisation later takes place and ILGA –Europe become the most developed in 1996

1975:The First World Conference on Women, Mexico – with 2,000 delegates from 133 different countries

Richard Parker at al    Sex Politics: Reports from the Front Lines ( 2010)
Sonia Correa, Rosalind Petchesky & Peter Aggleton  Sexuality, Health and Human Rights  (2008)    

Peter Aggleton & Richard Parker  Routledge Handbook of Sexuality, Health and Rights  (2010)
Rosalind Petchesky,     Global Prescriptions : Gendering Health and Human rights  (2003)
Peter Aggleton, Paul Boyce, Henrietta L Moore and Richard Parker Understanding Global Sexualities: New Frontiers (2012)
Marc Epprecht             Sexuality and Social Justice in Africa (2013)

Corrine Lennox & M. Waites Human Rights, Sexual Orientation & Gender identity in the Commonwealth (2013)

Joseph A Massad         Desiring Arabs (2008)
Kong, Travis                Male Homosexualities in China  (2010)

Ratna Kapur                 Erotic Justice (2005)

Sylvia Tamale              African Sexualities: A Reader (2011)


4) What are key Problems and Dilemmas of Cosmopolitanism? Awareness of Complexity
Cosmopolitanism has been very widely discussed; it has a long history and there is an enormous critical literature on it. The problems with it can be raised as a series of puzzles each of which leads to a directive for understanding. Here they are briefly suggested:


1. The dilemmas of universality- specificity: need for a differentiated universalism
Be cautious of any colonising universalisms that are insensitive to difference: work with a differentiated universalism 

2.The dilemmas of absolutism- relativism: need for value pluralism, ‘objectivity’, boundaries, normativity and responsibility.

While recognizing multiplicities of standpoints, always search for the wider picture and the borders of multiplicities.

3.The dilemmas of abstraction –groundedness

Use critical abstract theory for vision; but always bring it down to earth to people’s everyday concerns and practices.

4.The dilemmas of utopian idealism- pragmatic realism
How to keep your dreams going while being practical? Inevitability of disappointment; yet the importance of hope.

5.The dilemmas of tolerance –arrogance

Be aware that ‘tolerance’ always works from a ‘superior’ position: and that this often brings a patronizing arrogant stance. Be cautious. 

6. The dilemmas of limits: justice, religions, violence, fanatics and the rest..

Always remember every way of seeing is way of not seeing’ (Burke); cosmopolitanism is never the whole story, and keep a wider eye on  issues of justice, and the dangers of religious dogma, violence, and fanatics.

Cosmopolitanism raises questions of differences and solidarity: of both human belonging and living with strangers. It asks how we can live with our closest family, community, tribe and nation, simultaneously whilst also recognising and living with other different families, communities and nations. It ponders how we can live together with our common humanity, in spite of ourselves and in spite of our specific local differences?The question for cosmopolitan sexualities is: how can we bridge our specific pluralistic sexual and gendered individualities with human solidarity and common humanity?  How can we connect our differences with collective values, our uniqueness with multiple group coherence? The challenge is to dwell simultaneously as citizens of multiple communities: of our own local and particularistic group, alongside other groups and indeed a common humanity, warts and all, more generally? Cosmopolitanism is a mode of thinking and a utopian imaginary – and an agenda for legal and political change.


In my work I play implicitly with the fine works of Anthony Appiah, Ulrich Beck, Gerard Delanty, Robert Fine, Robert Holton, Stan Van Hooft, Mica Nava, Martha Nussbaum, Adam Smith, Bryan S Turner, Nira Yuval-Davis and many others – to throw light on what a Critical Cosmopolitan Sexualities might look like.

With these in mind, it could be claimed that in the last half-century the growth of cosmopolitan sexualities has been a partial success story: there have been real changes in gender and sexualities that only the most fanciful utopians could ever have dreamed about in the past. With new institutions have come new languages, debates, networks, practices, beliefs, and hopes that have emerged from and diffused through many differentiated cultures. Not all cultures for sure, and with very differing impacts; but there is much more than could perhaps have ever been imagined just a little while back. There are now Muslim women debating their subordination and conservative Christians debating gay marriage rights! That said, the change has also been slow and falteringly uneven, and the future brings many problems. Some are quite philosophically and politically profound; others are more practical and local. The future of cosmopolitanism sexualities cannot be an easy or guaranteed one; my challenge is to examine some of these problems.

Seyla Benhabib                             The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (2002)
Kwame Anthony Appiah                The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (2010)
Nira Yuval-Davis                           The Politics of Belonging (2011)
Pheng Chea (2006)                        Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights
Tim Brennan                                  At Home in the World :Cosmopolitanism Now (1997)
Stephen Hopgood                          The Endtimes of Human Rights (2013)

Ulrich Beck                                                      A God of One’s Own: Religion’s Capacity for Peace and Potential for Violence (2010 )

Starting point: The need to recognise the universal importance of human vulnerability and differences

(a) The Grounded (everyday, practical, pragmatic) Narratives and Practices of “Good Dialogue and Communication”.

(b) The Grounded (everyday, practical, pragmatic) Narratives and Practices of a “Decent Common Humanity” – Living good lives with each other through our differences.


 (a) How to advance with The Grounded (everyday, practical, pragmatic) Narratives and Practices of Good Dialogue and Communication.

Basically it asks how we can all flourish as ‘enemies’ sit round the table continuing the universal conversation,,,,?

Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction
Mikhail Bakhtin

Ethics is something people work out together; and in the end the only authority is that of the conversation” Philip Kitcher. The Ethical Project 2011.


This suggests the need to

  1. Recognise all engaged and the wide range of lives lived and stories to be told on any issue? Can we listen to the range of these lived stories and avoid dehumanizing, degrading, mocking or silencing ‘the other’…? 
  2. Develop an awareness of the inequalities and the differences of power between speakers? How do voices without power get heard- indeed who is not being heard? What is the hierarchy of credibility and how to ensure those with least power are elevated and the most powerful made relatively silent?
  3. Appreciate the social contexts and cultures of arguments? Arguments are always bound up with particular social worlds or habitus, they do not float freely in the air. All ideas are local and grounded-‘cultural’- and hence we need to know about this in discussions. Lives come with different solidarities and ‘belongings’. Where are the arguments situated – the arguments coming from? Part of this is to  Weaken ‘the argument culture’. This is a nice phrase coined by the psychologist Deborah Tannen to suggest that our culture always seems to want to make use take sides on everything. Life is turned into a polarity, a binary, a dichotomy, a split, a struggle between good and evil.  Might not life be more like a continuum of differences- more subtle and complex than brute divides?
  4. Comprehend Linguistic Differences? A sensitivity to issues of translation is required – not just through lexicon but through registers.
  5. Reflect on our own location in all this? Interlocutors do not dangle above it all in some superhuman place. There is the challenge of self-recognition and the need for self analysis and awareness of our own anxieties and defenses.
  6. Grasp personal enmities? Very common interlocutors have personal histories with each other, sometimes of personal hostility. Many dialogues flounder on hidden hostilities – major wars may happen because of this! So even if this “gets personal”, it needs to be brought out.   
  7. Understand the emotional and embodied basis (and history) of much life and talk? For to hear people argue their positions is to sense immediately that something much grander than reason is at stake: it is often as if these people are literally fighting for their lives. Emotion and passion speak through bodies and need to be grasped.
  8. Negotiating conflict transformation, trust and reconciliation? The challenge is to develop the skills of conflicts transformation – moving the conflict into a better situation through power sharing, fostering trust, generating feasible options, and making mutual benefit agreements. New styles of conflict management are needed.
  9. Find common ground? Universals – a sense of universal empathy, care, dignity & rights, flourishing and justice linked to a sense of the uniqueness, variety and difference of each.
  10. Trumping with lightness?(Amos Ox: How to cure a Fanatic).

I discuss these ideas in my Sociology: The Basics p186-7), and more fully Intimate Citizenship (2003)  Chapter 6: Dialogic Citizenship, but they do need further development. See also Gabrielle Rifkind and Giandomenico Picco: The Fog of Peace: The Human Face of Conflict Resolution (2014)


(b) How to build positive norms?  Ongoing search for The Grounded (everyday, practical, pragmatic) Narratives and Practices of a ”Decent Common Humanity” – a ‘Trans-humanist Ethics” across cultures: living good lives with each other through our differences What are the the little utopian processes of everyday life?  And how to bring about social transformations?


Hans Joas                                      The Sacredness of the Person (2013)
Philip Kitcher                                 The Ethical Project (2001)
Stan Van Hooft                              Cosmopolitan: A Philosophy for Global Ethics  (2009)
Daniel Engster                               The Heart of Justice: Care Ethics and Political Theory ((2007)
Fonna Forman-Barzilai                 Adam Smith and the Circles of Sympathy: Cosmopolitanism and Moral Theory
Lawrence M Friedeman                 The Human Rights Culture (2011)
Virginia Held                                 The Ethics of Care (2005)
Jeremy Rifkin                                The Empathic Civilization (2009)
Martha Nussbaum                          Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice  (2013)








Grounded practices
Reconstructing societies
Boundaries and dangers


Global Politics Global Ethics
“Trans-Humanist Ethics”?


Sociology Of Sufferings

Damaged Lives

1: Empathy:

Understand others

Empathic, Dialogic Society
Danger of monologue, authoritarianism


The human self and role taking
Global evolution of empathy?
Politics of Recognition
Dialogic ethics

Interpretive Sociology
Multiculturalism and standpoint Representational Sociology
Relational Sociology
Narrative-Dialogic Sociology

Invisible, Disempowered and Neglected Lives

2: Care: Be Kind
Caring, Secure,Non-violent Society
Danger of cruelty and violence

Politics and Ethics of Care
Human Security

Sociology of Care and Kindness
Brutalised Lives
Abused Lives

3: Rights: Treat people with ‘dignity’, and the rights that follow from this

Human’ Society – with dignity for all people. A Culture of Human Rights

Danger of dehumanisation


Politics and Ethics of Dignity
Politics and Ethics of Rights and Duties

Sociology of Human Rights
Sociology of the Person and Dignity

Undignified Lives
Dehumanised Lives

4: Flourish: Help others to have flourishing lives

Flourishing Society
Danger of Wasted Lives

Politics of Humanity and Capabilities

Virtue Ethics

Sociology of Human capabilities and Human Flourishing
Sociology of Good and Better Lives

Damaged and wasted lives

5: Justice:
Be fair, treat people equally

Just /Fair Society

Dangers of Inequalities


Politics of Redistribution
Justice ethics


Intersectionality and standpoints
Real Inequalities Marx, Feminism, Ant- Race Theory, Bourdieu etc

Unequal Lives

a) Hope: Caution through the inevitability of disappointment but the importance of hope


The Politics of Grounded Real Utopias; and everyday practices

Sociology of Hope
Problems of Pessimism
Humanities inhumanity to inhumanity

b) Be Practical

The Local

Bridging the micro and macro

Individualism -holism


The Search for a Grounded Global Humanity?  A Table to think with perhaps?




5. A PRACTICAL APPENDIX: what is to be done?

Positive Norms

1.     Understand others – appreciate and dialogue with your sexual partners and their worlds

2.     Be Kind -care for the sexual other as well as your self

3.     Foster Human Rights and Dignity – respect others, their dignity and their rights being aware of their fragility and vulnerability

4.     Encourage Lives to Flourish – foster relational flourishing

5.     Seek Justice- create free, fair and equal relations

6.     Be Positive and Work for Better Worlds For All – keep hopeful in sexual relations

7.     Stay Grounded and Be Practical – keep at it; it’s not easy

Negative Norms – The Dark Side of Sexual Life (not to be encouraged!)

·       Sexual Intolerance – how dialogues about sexualities are destroyed and attacked etc

·       Sexual Violence – how sexualities become embroiled in perpetual cruelty, violence, war and hatred.

·       Sexual Inequalities – how sexualities are linked to poverty, competition and stark inequalities on class, gender, race lines – for these lead to damaged and wasted lives

·       Sexual Dehumanization  – how sexualities become dehumanised, how people lose a sense of dignity, are not respected, treated as without sexual rights-  The human world cannot live by simply banishing huge swathes of sexua lives as worth nothing and condemning them to ‘wasted’ lives

·       Sexual Languishing / Hopelessness/ Unfillment  – how sexual lives become ‘wretched’, ‘damaged’ and lacking in any kind of ‘quality’

Building a Cosmopolitan Imagination at a personal level: individuals might try to

1.      Listen, observe, respect cultural complexities: dig deep into other cultures, appreciating their ways of life and problems

2.      Cultivate skill in understanding the deeply emotional embodied world of people’s differences, including an awareness of their vulnerabilities, traumas, their pains, shame, guilt, disgusts, angers, horrors, and humiliations. Alongside their likely need for some kind of dignity, honor and self worth.

3.      Cultivate skills of listening/hearing, of dialogue and of empathetic understanding in the face of vulnerabilities and defenses

4.     Create respectful languages and modes of speaking alongside ways of translating differences across cultures

5.     Learn to see conflict as a peace mission rather than as a fight – as hostility and antagonizing of sides.

6.     Recognise the limits of all this and the need for boundaries in any social order.

I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride. William James: Letters; and also cited in Biography” by Robert D Richardson   2006/7   p384

William James asked his uncle: What is a life for? And he was told: Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind  (cited in Robert Coles: Handing one Another Along (2010) p241).

Ken Plummer: I taught in the Sociology Department at Essex between 1975 and 2005 where I am now Emeritus Professor and edging (rather too slowly) into the delights of full retirement. I can be contacted at and my main web site is More reading and resources can be found there. Many of my earlier books and articles can be accessed there. Cosmopolitan Sexualities is due to be published in 2015 by Polity Press.

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