Telling Sexual Stories Twenty Years On:Fragments Towards A Humanist Politics Of Storytelling

Telling Sexual Stories Twenty Years On:

Fragments Towards A Humanist Politics Of Storytelling

Troubling Narratives: Identity Matters
University of Huddersfield
June 19th-20th 2014

Ken Plummer

You just have to look. People are telling stories everywhere to change the world

(Solinger, Fox & Irani. Telling stories to change the world. 2008: p11)
Abstract: In this lecture I will revisit my study Telling Sexual Stories, published some twenty years ago.  I begin by considering the background – how it came to be written. I then ask what its original contributions might have been – highlighting four: a model of story telling, a typology of story genres, the significance of change and especially postmodernism; and the development of a politics of storytelling. I ask how the world has moved on in many ways since then and ‘upgrade’ some of its arguments and examples. I conclude by suggesting the need for a Politics of Story Telling, and outline directions for this: empirically, analytically and normatively. I focus especially on the need for humanist narratives of grounded utopian hope to help us move towards a better human world for all.


Introductory: Situating Telling Sexual Stories (TSS)
Moving On: Key lessons from TSS:

A model of story telling: Narrative Reality/Narrative Analysis
A typology of story genres: Narrative Genre

The story of a story: Narrative Contingency

Social change, social structure and stories: Narrative Transformations

Impacts of stories: Narrative Consequences
leading to:

The Politics of story telling: Narrative Power
Narrative Power: Developing a Politics of Story Telling

Empirical: Grounded story studies

Analytic: Building a political theory of storytelling
Normative: Envisioning humanist narratives of humanist grounded utopian hope

[There is].. a powerful argument for the efficacy of storytelling in advancing the ongoing and constantly transforming pursuit of social justice….’ Schaffer and Smith, Human Rights and Narrated Lives. Conclusion page 233.

All sorrows can be born if you put them in a story or tell a story about them….xxxxx Hannah Arendt: The Human Condition

Careful the tale we tell, children will listen
: Sondheim – Into the Woods





PART ONE: Telling Sexual Stories Twenty Years On

Narrative Reality: A Model of Story Telling


1 Lives and Events

unknown and ê unknowable


3 Producersè                                ç 2   Stories in Textsè                         ç 4 Consumers

coachers, coaxers,                                                                                     readers, viewers

coercers, storytellers                                                                                   audiences, listeners


5 Interactive Social é Worlds


6 Negotiated Networks é of Collective Activity


Table 1: The Model of Story Telling: Stories as Joint Actions (Plummer, 1995: p23



Now: The Flow Of Stories – Creating, Appreciating, Live Stories

Appreciating narratives: strategies for analysing stories

Creating Narratives: examining ways stories are told

Living stories: ethics & politics of stories


Narrative Reality/Analysis

There is more to stories than texts.

Much of recent work is concerned with texts and now there has been a whole explosion of writing to examine the best way to make sense of ‘texts’. This did not exist when I started out.

Amongst others, we now have


content analysis, argumentation analysis, semiotic analysis, rhetorical analysis, interpretive phenomenological analysis, discourse analysis, critical discourse analysis, situational analysis, conversational analysis, free associational analysis, biographic-narrative analysis, thematic analysis, visual analysis and many others.


“ All may have their role to play; but too much ‘science’, ‘rigour’, ‘formality’ can overwhelm our tales. All can indeed reveal a partial truth; but many additional skills are needed to complement them” Manifesto.
There is a different approach in Arthur Frank’s Letting Stories Breathe.


Narrative Genre

What are the forms of stories?
In TSS, three major archetypal narrative forms or structures were given attention: notably narratives of ‘coming out’, ‘trauma & crisis’ and ‘recovery’ Closely linked was a model of how narratives, identities of gender and sexuality cohere into Simmelian forms- “the generic elements modernist stories” p54I. I only looked at three – others need now to be explored. I also looked at stories for the future: there I outlined – Family stories, Emotional stories, Representational stories, Bodily stories, Erotic stories and identity stories – leading to a new dialogues of stories in an uncertain future. P152- There was also an argument about developing postmodern stories


In some later writings I have explored the seven types of stories (building on the work of Christopher Booker, Smith and Watson, and others). And of interest too are the story structures from other fields: for example the sickness stories of Arthur W Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller (Restitution, Chaos, Quest) published in the same year as TSS. Or the much more recently published political stories of the political scientist, Eric Selbin, a scholar of revolutions, who in Revolution, Rebellion, Resistance: The Power of Story (2010) suggests four different types of “revolutionary story” from revolutionary struggles (from the French Revolution to the present day). He calls these the ‘Civilizing and Democratizing’, ‘The Social Revolution’, ‘Freedom and Liberation’ and ‘The Lost and Forgotten’ Narratives – found across time and space as ‘the crucible of revolutionary action’. A goal of our narrative work is to cumulatively deepen the understanding of narrative genres.


Narrative Contingency

How do narratives come into being? What is the life story of the story- a cycle of birth to death? Why are some stories told rather than others? What are the contingencies that shape story making: the who, what, where, when, why and how of narratives.
Broadly, there are four levels of answer-


  1. Socio-historical: structures, history, technologies & mechanics
  2. Cultural: cultural frames and ‘domain assumptions’; artefacts and props; habitus; memories; inter-textualities and ‘borrowings
  3. Contextual: audiences; situations & encounters; dialogic others, significant others & generalized (imagined) communities; performance; organizational features
  4. Personal: reflexivities, creativities, habits, embodiments, psychic, motivations and intent.


Narrative Transformations: Social Change and Narrative

How have stories changed from post-modern (90’s) to now (neo-patriarchal/neo-liberal)?

I stressed three changes: postmodern narratives, global narratives and digital narratives. Each of these has been transformed.

“Neo-patriarchal neo-liberalism” (Beatrix Campbell: End of Equality (2013)) as a theme.

We still have: fragments, borrowings, indeterminacies, change, a loss of master narratives, escess, revisions, irony ( (see p140-2); and we have noticeably seen

Globalisation of sexual stories – India, Uganda, Nigeria and on…
Digitalisation of sexual stories – on line sex stories, Grindr, Gaydar and the rest


But we have also returned to the

Cultures And Structures Of Social Inequalities In Which Narratives And Stories Are Embedded     Stories and narratives that display….


  1 Class Order Classism and class consciousness
  2 Gender Order (& patriarchy) Sexism and gender identity
  4 Age stratification and generational orders Ageism and generational self
  5 Nations Nationalism and national identity
  6 The sexual order Heterosexism, homophobia & heteronormativity: sexual identity
  7 The disability and health order Sickness and ‘disablement’ ideologies: health/ability identity

Narrative Consequence

What is the impact of stories? How do we live our lives through stories? Linking stories to the personal, cultural, ethical/moral and political life. What is the work that stories do for us? (Narrative Pragmatism).


  1. Personal: unifying & connecting; Narrative Identity; identity shaping; trauma and repair; therapeutic narratives. How do stories animate our lives? How do they shape human empathy?
  2. Cultural: boundary making, educational, issue raising, change, reproduction of conservative values; what are hegemonic narratives and counter narratives?
  3. Political: stories of difference, others and flourishing (and not) (Narrative Politics: social movements of change & narratives of wasted lives, good enough lives, flourishing lives)
  4. Moral: stories of the bad and the good life: narrative ethics and grounded moral tales.


Narrative Power: Creating a Politics of stories
“storytelling in the stream of power” p26

The book developed a little political model of constructing stories – stages that I there call “the generic process of telling sexual stories” p126

  1. Imagining – visualizing – empathizing;
  2. Articulating- vocalizing – announcing;
  3. Inventing identities – becoming story tellers;
  4. Creating social worlds/ communities of support;
  5. Creating a culture of public problems.


It is this move from ‘inner worlds (of telling stories to the self privately) to an increasingly public one where the circle of discourse becomes wider and wider that I think is most important but few have taken it up to my knowledge. As I say: “In the earliest moments, the story can hardly be imagined; it may be told privately as a tale to oneself. Later it gets told to a few people – a lover, a friend, a psychiatrist. Slowly it can move out into a public domain where it comes to take on a life of its own. It becomes part of a public discourse….” P126


The book was based on a Symbolic Interactionist Theory of Power (which I still work with)
Story Telling Flows in the Stream of Power


Stories are not just practical and symbolic actions: they are also part of the political process. Sexual stories ooze through the political stream. Power is not so much an all or nothing phenomenon, which people either have or don’t have, and which resides either here or there. Rather it is best viewed as a flow, a process, a pulsate – oscillating and undulating throughout the social world and working to pattern the degree of control people experience and have over their lives. Power is the process which shifts outcomes and distributes control and regulation. It effects hierarchy, patterns of domination, and the distribution of resources. It connects processes that make a difference to the conduct of life. Power is not a simple attribute or a capacity, but a flow of negotiations and shifting outcomes. As electricity is to the physical world, so power may be to the social world: it is the conduit through which much life gets enacted. But its shapes and forms are immensely varied. Like the air we breathe, or the blood that flows through our veins, it is an omnipresent. It is not a property of people per se, nor is it a zero-sum: we do not either have it or not have it. Instead it flows through all interaction, though in starkly different ways. It is both negative – repressing, oppressing, depressing – and positive – constructive, creative, constitututive. It flows into lives making some abundant in capacity (empowered, actualised) and others diminished (inferiorised, marginalised, weak, victims). It flows into situations making some open, flexible and participatory and others closed, rigid and limiting. It flows through the habitual networks of social activity making some alive with possibilities (democratic, participatory) and others infused with oppression and dominance (hierarchic, authoritarian). And ultimately it flows through the whole negotiated social order – controlling and empowering, closing and opening, making some things possible and others things impossible. Power is a process that weaves its way through embodied, passionate social life and everything in its wake. Sexual stories live in this flow of power. The power to tell a story, or indeed to not tell a story under the conditions of ones own choosing, is part of the political process. (TSS:Page 26)

PART TWO: Fragments Towards A Humanist Politics Of Storytelling

How are we to change the hearts and minds of people through stories?


Torturing bodies is less effective than shaping minds Castells: Networks of Outrage and Hope p5
Listening to the stories of the lives of others whose world may be different from yours is a pre-requisite for democratic functioning, for the working of societies seeking a respect and recognition for human differences. As we hear tales of sorrow and suffering, of outsiders and the excluded, of strangers and the marginal, of the colonized and the wretched of the earth, of the stigmatised, the outsider, and ‘the other’, so stories deepen our sympathies, our imaginations, our critiques of a damaged world. It is why stories are so often used by social movements, by reformers and campaigners, by educators and by humanitarian activists to provide exemplars and case studies to help us all see the need for and possibilities of social change. Stories of political change are thus to be found in ‘political spectacles’ everywhere: in news stories; in commissions, tribunals and government reports; in personal testimony and celebrity stories; in historical and anthropological case studies; in documentary film and photo; in journalistic reportage, interviews, blog activism: all those media which tell us daily of a failing world we need to change. Stories help fashion political identities, political campaigns, imagined communities, discourses of the ‘others’, the literature of human rights: and in all this, political change for the better becomes more feasible. We ask, then, how our moral and political lives are fuelled by stories (Manifesto: p217 in Stanley 2013).


Power can be studied in many ways. Three are apparent though they are often interconnected and cannot always be easily separated out: (A) an empirical approach which examines evidence on power at work in governments, in polling booths, in social movements, in stories; (B) analytic/theoretic which asks definitional, conceptual and clarificatory questions; and (C) normative which asks about better systems of power and often advocates a politics ( green, feminists, conservative, radical, queer).


We can add many others – geographies of power, histories of power, and, most important of all: the pragmatics or practicalities of power. This is not the place to unpack all this. But we need to think what each might have to say to help us in more fully developing a politics of storytelling.
1. Empirical/ Substantive: Case Studies on the Politics of Storytelling
Some examples could Include:
Kay Schafer & Sidonie Smith (2004) Human Rights and Narrated Lives Palgrave

Ken Plummer (2003) Intimate Citizenship (2003) University of Washington

Molly Andrews (2007) Shaping history: Narratives of political change Cambridge
Charles Tilly (2002) Stories, identities and political change Rowman & Littlefield

Michael Jackson (2002) The Politics of storytelling Museum Tusculanum Press

Jeffrey Alexander (2011) Trauma Polity
Francesca Poletta (2006)It was like a fever: storytelling in protest and politics Chicago

Selbin, Eric (2010) Revolution, Rebellion. Resistance: The Power of Story. London: Zed Books
Rickie Sollinger et al (2008) Telling stories to change the world Routledge

Joseph Davis (2002) Stories of Change: Narrative and social movements   SUNY
Nick Couldry (2010) Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics after Neoliberalism Sage


2. Analytic/Theoretical: Developing a new analysis of Power Narratives
The key idea here may be Narrative Power. This speaks to the capacities of both (a) texts and (b) story tellers and listeners to control or regulate the voices and stories of others. We ask how does power – domination, subordination, authority and legitimacy, flourishing and autonomy – work its way through stories? And how do different narratives fit with different kinds of political systems? There is both a

(i)              macro bridge to wider political systems –totalitarian (the closure of all stories?), authoritarian (the regulation of all stories?), monarchic, tribal, democratic (procedural, liberal, social… deliberative , participatory etc…) (the opening of stories within certain limits and boundaries?), and Cosmopolitanism Narratives (the possible free dialogues of multiple stories?). And

(ii)             micro bridges to everyday worlds of embodiment, feelings, selves and identities, memories, subjectivities and the like.

There are the many stories but only a few get heard. We can see power at work in the stories (who gets the voice? who shapes the plot?) and power outside the stories (who lets it be heard? Who silences the story?) as well as power mediated between them…….

This raises complicated questions about the state, the media, the flows of control: of elite tales and mass tales. And their linkage to human beings.

A sprinkling of analytic ideas to be developed here might include:

The life story of stories: the life and death of narratives; Narrative Voice; Narrative silencing; Narrative articulations

Narrative closure; Narrative inequality; Narrative justice; Narrative privilege ;Narrative inclusion; Narrative exclusion ;Narrative trauma; Narrative degradation; Narrative resources ; Narrative capital; Narrative elites; Totalitarian Narratives; Authoritarian Narratives; Democratic Narratives; Cosmopolitan Narratives; Narrative Hegemony; Narrative Discourse; Narrative Ideology; Narrative Agonistics; Mediated Narratives; State Narratives; Narrative Negotiation; Narrative Performance; Narrative Embodiment; Narrative Identity; Narrative Emotions


3. Normative/ Positive/ Ethical: Developing a politics of positive-normative Narratives


The Human Condition: Ontologies of Plurality and Vulnerability
The Vulnerabilities of Bodies, Relationships, Cultures and Environments……


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


What are visions of ‘Better Worlds’: Narrative Hope, Global Narratives and Utopian Narratives?


If there is anything distinctive about pragmatism, it is that it substitutes the notion of a better human future for the notions of ‘reality’, ‘reason’ and ‘nature’. Richard Rorty: Philosophy and Social Hope

The creation of Utopias – and their exhaustive criticism- is the proper and distinctive method of sociology HG Wells Sociological Papers: 1906

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-

Ernest Bloch                   The Principle of Hope (1938-47)
Ruth Levitas                     Utopia as method (2013)
Eric Olin Wright              Envisioning Real Utopias ( 2010)
The link to Ernst Bloch (Utopia as Hope), Eric Ohlin Wright (Real Utopias), and Ruth Levitas (Utopia as method). One aim of research is to be concerned with imagining the bettering of social worlds and with facilitating flourishing lives for all (to use my two favourite clichés!). We look at: Global Stories of Damaged and Flourishing Lives, inspect Mini Projects of Utopian Hope, and Build Narrative Hopein a Troubled World

How to build positive stories – and 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 little utopian processes of everyday life? What are their stories? And how to tell stories to bring about social transformations for a better world?


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)
“Common Ground Narratives ” capture the little utopian processes of everyday life that work for a ‘Better World For All’; and would probably include:


  1. Narratives of Empathy, Sympathy and Dialogue: how we come to understand others and appreciate and dialogue with their worlds
  2. Narratives of Care and Kindness: hearing the stories of people who are kind and look after other people as well as the self
  3. Narratives of Justice: how people work to make the world a freer, fairer world with more equal relations
  4. Narratives of Dignity and Rights: How people show a respect for others, their dignity and their rights while being aware of their fragility and vulnerability
  5. Narratives of Human Flourishing: stories of how lives to Flourish – foster relational flourishing
  6. Narratives of Hope: how people are resilient and work to be positive. Seek ‘Better Worlds For All’ and remain hopeful in relations

Narratives of Daily Doings: tales of how people stay grounded and remain practical – keeping at it, knowing it’s not easy



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
My most recent work includes: Sociology: The Basics ( Routledge, 2010); ‘A Manifesto for Social Stories’ in Liz Stanley Documents of Life for the 21st Century Ashgate, 2013; ‘ A Manifesto for Critical Humanism in Sociology’ in Daniel Nehring: Sociology – a Text and Reader. Pearson, May 2013; ‘My Multiple Sick Bodies: Symbolic Interaction, Auto/ethnography and the Sick Body’ – in Bryan S. Turner ed Blackwell Handbook of the Body (2012). A new book, Cosmopolitan Sexualities, is due to be published in 2015 by Polity Press.










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 Pragmatism
The Local
Bridging the micro and macro

Individualism -holism


Appendix: The Search for Stories of a Grounded Global Humanity?


A Table to think with perhaps?

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