Generations, Time and Sexualities (2012)



Generations, Time And Sexualities: Resources and notes

Ken Plummer        23rd May 2012

l’Atelier Genre(s) et Sexualité(s) de l’Institut de Sociologie de l’ULB



In this seminar, I will consider the relevance of time and generation to the study of sexualities and introduce a number of concepts to help us develop our ideas & research. I will have a dual focus: the changing (generational) nature of academic research on sexualities and the changing (generational) nature of sexual experience itself. My theoretical position remains that of a queer symbolic interactionist who has become a critical humanist. If you are interested you can look in advance at:  ‘Generational Sexualities, Subterranean Traditions, and the Hauntings of the Sexual World: Some Preliminary Remarks. Symbolic Interaction. Vol 33. N0 2 (2010) p163-191

KEN PLUMMER is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex and the founder editor of the journal Sexualities. He has written widely on gay life, narrative, rights, sexualities and critical humanism. His many works include Sexual Stigma (1975), The Making of the Modern Homosexual (edited in 1981), Telling Sexual Stories (1995), Documents of Life (2001) and Intimate Citizenship (2003). His most recent book is Sociology: The Basics (2010)


Opening images – time, symbolic multiplicities and the generations of humankind; pasts, presents, futures; auto/biographical hauntings. How can we grasp the complexities?


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

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

We find that each generation has a different history, that it is a part of the apparatus of each generation to reconstruct its history. A different Caesar crosses the Rubicon not only with each author but with each generation. That is, as we look back over the past, it is a different past. The experience is something like that of a person climbing a mountain. As he looks back over the terrain he has covered, it presents a continually different picture. So the past is continually changing as we look at it from the point of view of different authors, different generations. It is not simply the future [and present] which is novel, then; the past is also novel ((Mead: Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century 116-117).

We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything’.  Dewey:  The biography of John Dewey by Jane Dewey…..???  P xix McDermott: 1973/81

Generations are in a constant state of interaction
Karl Mannheim Essays in Knowledge (1937:301)

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

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

The present must be known in relation to the alternative temporal and spatial maps provided by a perception of past and future affective worlds’.

Jose Estaban Munoz: Cruising Utopia The Then and There of Queer Futurity p27

Politically, the questions, what time are we in? are all of us in the same time? and specifically, who has arrived in modernity and who has not? are all raised in the midst of very serious political contestations. The questions cannot be answered through recourse to a simple culturalism. Judith Butler: Sexual politics, torture and secular time. British Journal of Sociology 2008 Vol 59 1:

How long is a man’s life finally?

A thousand days or only one?

One week or a few centuries?

How long does a man’s death last?

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

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

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present,
All time is unredeemable…..
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present
T.S.Eliot Burnt Norton (1944/7)

We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep–it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. Michael Cunningham, The Hours: A Novel (1998; film 2002)


2 Problems: The key discussion foci are:



The significance of TIME and GENERATIONS in Sexualities and Sexualities Studies

The meanings of PASTS, PRESENTS and FUTURES

The links into The ACADEMY OF SEXUALITIES (of research) and the SEXUAL LABYRINTH ( of sexual conducts and cultures)




How has the academic environment of study in sexualities changed across generations?
How have sexualities changed sexuality in everyday life changed across generations?

But there are major problems in speaking about generations – and indeed time?
In general: What tools do we need to handle all this?

3. Some Conceptual and Theoretical  Pathways into the Sociological Study of Generations

The central tool for me is to distinguish between synchronic (simultaneous) and diachronic (chronological) generations and time – and then find ways of working with them together.

Diachronic time & generations – cohorts on the move, usually linear (could be regressive, cyclical etc; sometimes flags ‘progress’). Time’s Arrow

Synchronic time & generations – the generational order; simultaneous time: tools for dealing with this?


Diachronic generations – cohorts on the move

Life histories: W.I.Thomas : Wladek and the ‘perfect sociological material’- the stages and themes of a persons’s life (and subjectivities)

The life cycle: Erik Ericksen (1902-1994)

Generations, generational cohorts:  Glenn Elder

Sociology of generations and memories: Auguste Comte, Karl Mannheim, Maurice Halbwachs, Pierre Bourdieu and recently Bryan S Turner.

What is a generation?

Generational standpoints/ generational intersectionalities

Synchronic generations – the generational order; simultaneous time

How to read many times together in the moment?  Pasts, presents, futures ?
maybe through key concepts as below……

(Pasts)Memories and Memoralizing; Pluralising Histories
(Presents) Ghosts. Moments.
(Futures) Progress, regress; utopias/dystopias; hope and pessimisms; futurities?
Time and space: Globalizations – synchronic and diachronic roaming the world
Queer Temporalities/ Queer Spectrality! Ghosts, Futurities and Hope:
“The past is in the present in the form of a haunting’. Carla Freccero : p194

The Generational Sexual Order: how can we evolve a language to speak of the synchronic across differences (in groups, in history , globally?).: ideas, maybe like – generational sexual narratives, generational sexual silences, generational sexual habits, generational sexual embodiments, generational sexual languages, generational sexual memories, generational sexual identities, generational sex politics conflicts. Intersecting sexual generations


4.   SOME REFERENCES: being a partial list of some possible books etc I may refer to amongst others! (see: Umberto Eco: The Infinity of Lists.)

Ahmed, Sara (2010) The Promise of Happiness. Duke
Ashworth, G.J., Brian Graham & J.E.Tunbridge 2007 Pluralizing Pasts: Heritage, Identity and Place in Multicultural Societies. Pluto

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

Brabazon, Tara. 2005. From Revolution to Revelation: Generation X, Popular Memory and Cultural Studies. Hampshire: Ashgate
Brownmiller, Susan  (1975) Against Our Will: Men, Women & Rape. NY:Simon & Schuster

Butler, Judith ‘ Sexual politics, torture and secular time’. British Journal of Sociology 2008 Vol 59 1: p1-23

Calasant, Toni.M & Kathleen F Slevin eds (2006) Age Matters: Realigning Feminist Thinking. Routledge

Cameron, Deborah and Kulick, Don. 2003. Language and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Carr, David  1991 Time, Narrative & History .1991. Indiana

Cohler, Bertram and R.Galatzer-Levy. 2000. The Course of Gay and Lesbian Lives. Chicago: University of Chicago

Bertram J.Cohler   2007  Writing Desire: Sixty Years of Gay Autobiography. Wisconsin UP.

Bloch, Ernst 1938/1986 The Principle of Hope. MIT Press 3 vols.

Collins, Randall. 1998. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press

Davis, Kathy (2008)  Intersectionality as Buzzword: A Sociology of Science Perspective on What Makes a Feminist Theory Successful’ Feminist Theory, 9 (1): p76-85

Dean, Tim. 2009. Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Dworkin, Andrea  (1981) Pornography: Men Possessing Women. NY Perigree.

Edmunds, June, and Bryan S Turner. 2002. Generations, Culture and Society. Open University

Eisenstadt, Shmuel Noah. 1956. From Generation to Generation: Age Groups and Social Structure. New York: Free Press

Elder, Glen.H Jr. 1974. Children of the Great Depression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Eriksen, Erik (1994.Rev ed)  Identity and the Life Cycle. NY: W.W.Norton

Frecero, Carla  “ Queer Spectrality: Haunting the Past” in Haggarty and McGarry (2007) op cit  p194-215.

Freeman, Elizabeth  2010 Time Bands: Queer Temporalities , Queer Histories  Duke.

Gordon, Avery. 1997 [2008 2nd edition]. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks.

Haaken, Janice. 1998. Pillar of Salt: Gender, Memory and the Perils of Looking Back. New Jersey: Rutgers

Halberstam, Judith  2007 ‘Queer Family: Queer Alternatives to Oedipal Relations’ in Haggerty and McGarry: p315-324

Halbwachs, Maurice. 1992. On Collective Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Halperin, David 2002. How to do the history of homosexuality? University of Chicago Press

Hammack, Phillip L. and Bertram J. Cohler. 2009. The Story of Sexual Identity: Narrative Perspectives on the Gay and Lesbian Life Course. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Haggerty, George E. & Molly McGarry eds (2007) A Companion to Lesbian, Gay. Bisexual . Transgender and Queer studies. Blackwell

Harding, Sandra  (1991) Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Open University Press

Hemmings, Claire (2011) Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory. Duke.

Hoy, David Couzens (2009) The Time of Our Lives: A Critical History of Temporality. Cmabridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

Kulpa, Robert & Joanna Mizielinska eds 2011 De-Centering Western sexualities: Central & European Perspectives. Ashgate

Leidholdt, Dorchen & Janice G. Raymond  (1990) The Sexual Liberals and the attack on Feminism. Pergamon

Love, Heather 2009 Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History.Harvard
—- ed  2011 Rethinking Sex GLQ Vol 17 No 1

Mannheim, Karl. 1936. Ideology and Utopia. London: Routledge

———. 1952. “The Problem of Generations” Pgs 276-320 in Collected Works of Karl Mannheim, Vol 5 London: Routledge

Matza, David. 1961. “Subterranean Traditions of Youth.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol 338 (1):102-118

Maffesol Michel. 1996. The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society. London: Sage

McIntosh, Mary ( 1968) The Homosexual Role. Social Problems. 16/2.

McLeod, Juli & Rachel Thompson (2009) Researching Social Change. London:  Sage

Mead, George Herbert. 1959 [1932] The Philosophy of the Present. La Salle, Illinois. Open Court

Mowlabcus, Sharif 2010 Gaydar Culture: Gay Men, Technology & Embodiment in the Digital Age .Ashgate.

Munoz, Jose Estaban 2009 Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity NY. NYUpress

Patten, Brian [2007] Selected Poems. London: Penguin

Pullen, Chris. 2009. Gay Identity, New Storytelling and the Media. Berks: Palgrave

Plummer, Ken 1995. Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds. London: Routledge

———. 2001. Documents of Life-2: An Invitation to Critical Humanism. London: Sage

———. 2003. Intimate Citizenship. Washington: University of Washington

———.2009a. “Subterranean Traditions Rising: The Year That Enid Blyton Died” Pgs 43-56 in Retrospect: History, Theory, Alterity edited by Gurminder K.Bhambra & Ipek Demir. London. Alrgave Macmillan.

———— 2010Generational  Sexualities, Subterranean Traditions And The Hauntings Of The Sexual World: Some Preliminary Remarks” Symbolic Interaction: Vol 33, No 2. P163-190

Rosenzweig, Roy and David Thelen. 2000. Presence of the Past NY. Columbia University Press

Ricoeur, Paul  (1990) Time and  Narrative, 1990. Chicago (3 Voumes)

Richardson, Diane and John Hart (eds). 1981. The Theory and Practice of Homosexuality. London: Routledge

Rubin, Gayle [2011) Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader: Durham: Duke University Press

Sandoval, Chela 2000 Methodology of the Oppressed. University of Minnesota

Seidman, Steven et al .2002. Beyond the Closet: The Transformation of Gay and Lesbian Life. London: Routledge.

Springer, Claudia. 1996. Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age. Austin: University of Texas Pres

Segal, Lynne. 2007. Making Trouble: Life and Politics. London: Serpent’s Tale

Stein, Arlene. 1997. Sex and Sensibility: Stories of a Lesbian Generation. Berkeley: University of California Press

Sturken, Marilyn (1997) Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, The AIDS Epidemic ands the Politics of Remembering.  California

Sugarmand, Lonnie (2001) Life-Span Development. Sussex: Pychology Press

Taylor, Yvette, Sally Hines and Mark E.Casey (2011) Theorizing intersectionalities and sexuality. Palgrave.

Thomas, W.I. and Znaniecki, F. (1918-21) The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. New York: Dover

Tonkin, Elizabeth  Narrating Our Pasts: The Social Construction of Oral History.19092: Cambridge

Vance, Carole S ed (1984) Pleasure and Danger: London: Routledge

Van Dijck, Jose (2007) Mediated Memories in the Digital Age.Stanford: Stanford University Press

Warner, Michael. 2002. Publics and Counterpublics. Massachusetts: M.I.T Press

Waters, Chris. 2008. “Distance and Desire in the New British Social History.” GLQ 14 (1): 139-155

Weeks, Jeffrey (1977) Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteeth Century to the Present. London: Quartet

Weeks, Jeffrey. 2008. The World We Have Won. London: Routledge

Wouters, Cas 2007. Informalization: Manners and Emotions Since 1890. London: Sage

Vance, Carole S. 1984. Pleasure and Danger: Explorations in Female Sexuality. New York. Routledge

Zerubavel  2003 Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past.  Chicago: Univerisity of Chicago Press


Following any cohort will stress different sets of historical experience rolling into the present. For example, to follow cohort A (highlighted) on the moving stages of the life escalator suggests a life that moves through common life events – such as B, C or E- but which cumulatively will carry a very different set of generational standpoints and accompanying experiences. Any concrete research study needs to take these abstract ideas into practice to see generational differences at work. This can then be combined with a synchronic analysis of the current moment.



9/11 E A (75-100)


‘1989’ E A (60-75)


‘1968’ A (40-60)
1946 –


Post war A (25-40)


Eg Depression, World War11
A (15-25)


World War 1 A  (0-15)













Note: The Young Generations signify the two most recently born cohorts, the Middle Generations signify the two previous, and the older signify the two prior to that. A generation needs specifying empirically but is generally around 30 years; few societies in history have had six generations alive at the same time, but more and more do so now. Of course once ‘ancestor’ generations are included, the model becomes vastly expanded. Since I am not ‘a Freudian’ as such, I do not have the Oedipal problems in using the concept of generations that Judith Halberstam has! (Halberstam,  2007)


c) SPATIAL GENERATIONS/ ‘time modalities’



SOURCE: Joanna Mizirlinska & Robert Kulpa ‘Contemporary Peripheries’: Queer Studies, Circulation of Knowledge and East/West Divide” In Kulpa and Mizielinska De-Centering Eastern Sexualities (2011 ) p15

D Classic Linear 20th Century Western – mainly male Anglo/American – homosexual, gay, queer Cohorts

  1. Criminal, sick, closeted worlds—what might also be called “Queer One” Worlds. Several early “Queer Generations One.” This is too general because it details several generations—for a good two thirds of the twentieth century, there were different generations which could be seen as criminalized, closeted, and “sick”—and covered several sub generations between at least 1900 and the early 1960s linked to World War I, the Depression, World War II, and its aftermath. All these generations, as the books put it, lived “in the shadows.” The diversities of these generations are revealed in the accounts of lives in that period like George Chauncey’s (1995) Gay New York, Laura Doan’s (2001) Fashioning Sapphism, or Matt Houlbrook’s (2005) Queer London. Much of this was before my time, and I make sense of it retrospectively.
  2. Coming out of closeted worlds. These are the early Coming Out Generations. Between the late 1950s and1970s, homophile movements were slowly gathering some strength and there were the beginnings of visibility. With intense stigma, homosexuality was inching open the closet door. This was my childhood and youth world, and in one sense this was my generation. But not really—I identify more clearly with the third phase.
  3. Gay Liberation worlds. This is the Gay Liberation Generation of the late 1960s and the 1970s where gay men and lesbians came out publicly and were both proud and political about it. This explicit and public politicalization of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender peoples certainly worked to transform the experience of “downcast gays” into a more positive and much more visible one. It was the start of our visibility. For me it was the organizing bedrock of my adult life.
  4. HIV /AIDS Worlds. The AIDS Generation, which started in 1981 and dominated much of 1980s life. The death and dying of notably young men became a central feature (1980s through 1990s) as homosexuality became oddly re-medicalized and the activists started to become highly professionalized (through AIDS work and academic work). Well established in my gay life by now, AIDS shook my life. It changed the way I moved about in the gay world and generated grief as friends died. I suppose I am also part of the Aids Generation. So by now my life is rolling over three generational moments, not simply one.
  5. Queer Two Worlds. What might now be called “Queer Generation Two” started to arrive in the late 1980s and aimed to deconstruct any stable sense of gender or sexual category. No longer criminal, or sick, or even a clear category, gayness became queered. Some of this was academic (queer theory)—identified with Sedgwick, Butler, Warner and Helperin; and some was activist—identified with organizations like Outrage and ACT UP. By now, I have moved on—I announce (at a European Lesbian and Gay Conference in 1988) that I am “post-gay.” Yet I do not identify with this newly emerging younger movement of “queer.” A new generation that I am clearly not a member of has arrived. I am now in my middle age and moving on.
  6. Cyber queer worlds and the post closet world. The Internet Generation gets going from the mid/ late 1990s onwards: here gay/queer web sites (like gaydar) start to play a major role in gay men’s lives—for meeting, sex, social and other activities; and becomes increasingly prominent in lesbian life too. Lesbian and gay life now starts to get produced and reproduced through Internet activity. At the same time, the new generation finds less and less difficulty in coming out or, indeed, even the need to come out (Seidman, 2002). Now I become far removed from this generation, and indeed my life begins to disconnect from most things organized through essentially youthful gay cultures.”(Plummer 2010:p175) By now (2009) something else new may be happening again.
    But note: this is an ideal type, diachronic linear analysis and it makes sense of some pockets of Western male gay life in the 20th century. It may be useful as a starting point only. It does not travel well and it is not even true of  many groups it refers to in the first instance ( e.g. it is age biased, ethnicity limited etc).  KP 2011


“Per Scientiam ad Justitiam” (“through science to justice”). (Hirschfield)

Krafft-Ebing 1840 1902 1886: Psychopathia Sexualis
Ellis 1859 1939 1896/7: Sexual Inversion
Hirschfield 1868 1935 1919: Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft
Sanger 1866 1966 1916: What every girls should know/Open birth control clinic
Freud 1856 1939 1905: Three Essays on Sexuality
Kinsey 1894 1956 1948/1953 Sexual Behaviour Reports
Masters & Johnson 1915 2001 1966 Human Sexual Response
Schofield 1919   1966 Sexual Behaviour of Young People
Simon 1930 2000 1973 Sexual Conduct
Gagnon 1932   1973 Sexual Conduct
Foucault 1926 1984 1976 History of Sexuality Vol 1

Generations: how to organize, when to start, what to note? There are many pathways and multiplicities of organisation entailed…..

By Birth dates:

1840-1870   would include the first cluster as one generation

1870-1900  would include Kinsey

1900- 1930 could include Masters & Johnson  & Foucault

1930- 1960  would include G& S (but also Weeks etc and the whole baby boomers): not useful?

By Key Publication Dates

1880-1910  would see: Krafft-Ebbing, Ellis and Freud published and known about

1910-1940 would see: Hirschfield and Sanger

1940- 1970 would see  Kinsey & Masters and Johnson & Schofield

1970- 2000 would see Foucault and G&S

2000— to now

But then by world events: the world wars? Or even sexual chronologies……. And then what about recent changes in cohort arrangements?

In fact , we often divide cohorts by  academic celebrities: Pre Freud; Pre/Post Foucault/ Butler.   Drawing up cohorts depends on all sorts of values and biases.

“The appeal of Utopianism arises, I believe, from the failure to realize that we cannot make heaven on earth. What we can do instead is, I believe, to 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 ‘Utopia and Violence’ (1948)

%d bloggers like this: