Studying Sexualities for a Better World



Studying Sexualities for a Better World? Ten Years of Sexualities


Ken Plummer



…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


Never doubt that a small committed group of people can change the world.

Margaret Mead



It is ten years since the journal Sexualities started being published. It came about to try to capture some of the very exciting new research into sexuality that was being done in the early 1990’s. Since the late 1960’s and 1970’s, a new filed of ‘critical sexualities studies’ had started to take shape as a critique of some more mainstream traditions, and by the 1990’s it seemed firmly established. Certainly it is now accessible in a wide range of texts, centres and journals. If it had a rallying cry it was to say that ‘human sexualities are complex social, economic, cultural, political experiences that are always contingent and changing. Beware of an over easy reductionism, and an over easy ‘theoretic’; and look at the empirical world of sexual life and work to make the world better place for all’. This issue of the journal is a special one to celebrate ten years of trying to do this.

In this opening essay, I consider some of this journal’s achievements and weaker spots- suggesting some of the work that perhaps needs to be done in the coming years. For the first section a number of members of the editorial board were invited to comment on their ‘visions of the future’ of either sexual life or Sexualities the journal, or both. We have a very distinguished team here and their comments are wide ranging and provoking. For the second section, Roísín Ryan-Flood suggested the idea of looking at two theorists who have deeply shaped current ‘sexualities’ thinking: Michel Foucault and Adrienne Rich. She invited a panel of scholars- older and younger, and ‘inter-section ally’ mixed- to comment on the impact they had made; and they have come up with some absorbing and rich insights.

In a final section, a series of articles are presented which capture current work. The journal has been a huge success in terms of articles waiting to be published. We have a back log of some fifteen articles waiting to be published, and we have six more special issues lined up! So I chose these articles thematically from a much wider pool. And I chose these theme of ‘Gay men at the start of the twenty first century’. I am a little apologetic about this, but only a little. We have had a number of special issues and themes around many topics over the past ten years, but never on this. More importantly, I see ‘gay men’ as a significant contribution because this topic hints or foreground the spirit of globalisation and cosmopolitanism that I see as one key direction for the future. More significantly, they display just how far we have travelled in the past forty years since the new ideas of sexualities started to develop. Male gay experience was a little bit different when I came of age in 1967. The law was just about to change. Homosexuality was still a sickness. Secrecy, silence, shame abounded. The gay world led you to (an admittedly vast) secret world of downstairs basements, upstairs corridors, and outsiders bars. Studying it was a solitary experience.  Everything that the articles in this issue talk about suggests ‘a world we have won’, a world that has changed dramatically since my youth, and one which Jeffrey Weeks has elegantly and strikingly described (Weeks, 2007). We must not be too cheery: but we should sometimes pause to ponder just how far we have travelled the road, talked the talk, done the scene and finally arrived at this point. But, as many articles suggest in this issues, there is still a lot further to go.


The State of Play: circa 2000


At the turn of the millennium, I made a short listing of some of the areas in which I sensed had been developed in the field of sexualities, and as an orientation it may help to start by reproducing it here; I suggested that at the start of 2000, we could see the following trends:


  1. “ The continuing challenges of feminism, anti-racism, the LGBT/Queer movements, post-colonialism, multi-culturalism  and anti-ageism – most of whom continue  to provide full blown critiques of theory, method  and substance in the study of sexualities and which urge inter-sectionality.
  2. The continuing significance of AIDS /HIV and its role in galvanizing research, politics and world wide debates about the meaning of sexualities and the nature of sexual acts. Much of this has been directly linked to the gay movement and more recently much of it has raised issues of globalization and the plight of low income societies.
  3. The ‘problematisation of ‘heterosexuality’. Assumed and taken for granted in much early research, activists within feminism and within the queer movement have started to chart the history of this idea ( it appears after homosexuality) and the ways in which its binary split with homosexuality tends to become an organizing assumption of much western thought.
  4. The importance of the post-modern as a challenge to any unitary theory of the truth. Although post-modernism may now be less ‘fashionable’ than it was in the 1980’s and the 1990’s it has left its legacy both on sexual analysis (where there is no longer and Grand Truth of the Sexual – ‘King Sex has been dethroned’) and indeed on the social organization of sexualities themselves (where they are now more likely to be seen more in their multiplicities, diversities and local embedded contexts).


  1. The much clearer positioning of reproductive politics and reproductive health within the field. The rise of new reproductive technologies in particular has severed the presumed link with biological sex, and has raised new practices of reproduction without ‘genital sexual activities’. This starts to shift around centuries old understandings of the purpose of sexual activities and reproductive methods.
  2. The concern with both the performativity, the doing of gender and the nature of sexualities conceived as ‘doing things together’. In removing a broad essentialism from the study of the sexual, we turn more and more to daily practices of doing sex.
  3. An interesting return to, and problematization of, the body and the corporeal, seeing the need to bring ‘lust’ and the body back into sexuality studies whilst not overstating it. Much of the new constructionism played down the body, or reduced it to a text. New trends suggest this is changing.
  4. The persistent concern with boundaries, borders, differences and who is inside/outside. More than anything, this now seems to be the function of the established skirmishes around ‘queer theory’. Whilst many patterns of same sex relations are becoming normal, others stay on the agenda of taboo and stigma. The case studies of the paedophile and child sexualities will prove instructive here. There are also core issues of social exclusion and difference which highlight ethnicity, class, gender, age, disabilities, nation which are gradually becoming more focused.
  5. The power of the media, representation and what has been called ‘the media-zation of sexualities’. Sexual lives are increasingly lived in worlds of mediated forms – from hip-hop worlds to reality television. Most centrally here has been the rise of cyber-worlds of sexualities – which come with a whole new language and series of issues. Here we have a new language that maybe mirrors new forms of sexualities – cyber-porn, cyber-queer, cyber-dating, cyber-stalking, cyber-rape, cyber-victim, cyber-sex.
  6. The centrality of the process of globalization and its impact upon sexualities, as some groups have more and more, and others less and less. Access to, and exploitation by, sexual markets is highly differentiated by class, ethnicity, gender. And we could also start to talk of the global clash of sexual civilizations, to flag important schisms over gender and sexualities between fundamentalist worlds (Christian, Muslim and others) and non fundamentalist worlds.
  7. Issues of power and sex continue to be important, and along with this come new political debates identified as ‘the sexual citizenship debates’, especially as they move more and more into a global concern with human sexual rights (Plummer, 2004).

In a sense I saw this as being a crude delineation of where the field was at the start of the century. How has the journal slotted into this?


Sexualities over Ten Years: Looking Back


Busy as an editor, there is not much time to reflect back on what’s been published and what’s been achieved. Indeed, when I am asked questions about the journal’s progress, my response has usually been a bit muted: ‘O.K., I suppose’ is my typical response. Articles come in; they usually get reviewed in a reasonable time span; normally the response is to revise and resubmit! Sometime authors do; often they don’t. One day (five times a year as it happens) I get a copy of the new issue. At one level, like all work, it is a bit humdrum. And each issue, from my chair, looks much like each other. It is an important task: getting new ideas and new studies out there, helping careers move along a little, maybe in an oh-too-grandiose moment thinking it is adding a bit to humanity’s lot in some very, very small way.


But this pedestrian approach – one little thing after another, as Jane Austen might have remarked- was toppled a bit when I came to do my analysis of the first ten volumes. I started first by drawing up my themes, boxes, count levels and tally marks to fit into a table –like any good social science researcher should do. And then I jolted: I have spent most of my life revolting against this absurd quantitative and dehumanising view of life which overwhelms the human sciences. And indeed, if there is a hidden message of the journal – and you might like to see if there is any issue where I broke this tacit rule-  not a ‘table’ or ‘number’ will be in sight! It would have been ironic indeed if I had broken my own tacit rule, and produced a quantitative analysis of the journal (If you should want to see one, have a look at ESE.O 2007). So I simply wallowed around the journals for a few days – immersing, pondering, thinking a lot and feeling my way into the articles and asking: just what has been going on here?


A little qualitative ‘content analysis’ / review


So what has the first ten years of the journal been all about?


Well, taken as ten volumes, 43 issues in all, I’d say that certain things stand out. First and foremost, it has provided a space for new ideas and finding to be germinated in many spheres of sexual life – no holds barred. I have tried not to have any bias per se in the contents of what is selected – though I buzz when I sense something is truly new.  (But then the article often does not match the promise). I am still a little sad that some things have not been forthcoming (maybe complex areas like intergenerational sexualities from birth to death, trans-national sexualities, the asexual and the non-sexual in the sexual world, and deep rich ethnographies of what is really going on out there). Nevertheless, to simply say what we have covered is a little mind boggling. Here goes:


During the course of the first ten years we have looked at:


Pornographies and erotica; sex work, sex industry and prostitution; commercial sex and sex entertainment; mediated sex; ; sado-masochism; cyber sexualities, internet and digital sexualities; heterosexuality; male rape, women rape, sexual violence and anti-rape education; female exhibitionism; HIV and sexual health; masturbation, intercourse, anal intercourse, fellatio, orgasm; dogging; bare backing; hints of pederasty and paedophilia; men/women/masculinity/femininity/ transgender/trans-women; inter-sexuality; the sexualities of the young  and the old; married sex and single sex; sex tourism; sex education; strippers- men and women – and ‘exotic dance’; pregnant bodies and sexuality; city sex and rural sex; bisexualities and poly-amory; Viagra; lesbian, gay and queer studies; circumcision; children’s sex books; migration; couples, gay and lesbian marriages; sluts; sexual dysfunction; bodies; cosmetic surgery; interracial intimacy; teenage mothers; contraception; celibacy; corporal punishment, professional wrestling and drag, fantasy, social movements around gender & sexuality; sexual politics, sexual citizenship, sexual meanings, sexuality and nationalism, sex hormones, safe spaces, post-modern sexualities, and sexualities in the primary school.


This is quite a syllabus for sexualities studies! And along the way, we have been welcomed into a wide range of humanly constructed spaces, including:


social movements, bars, prisons, clinics, schools, discos, trade unions, public bathrooms, restrooms, bus stops, streets, couple’s homes, the military, internet chat rooms, the boy scouts, Christopher Park, circuit parties, the 801 drag Cabaret, churches,  West Hollywood, pride, talk shows, streets and  spaces classified as dangerous, safe, violent, erotic  and New York’s Museum of Sex


We have been invited to read and watch a whole series of media events where sexualities are available for our consumption. We have been guided into:


Queer as folk,  Basic Instinct, Body of Evidence, Disclosure, Crash, Ellen, Bad Girls, Wolfmen, Calendar Ladies, Candida Royale, Billy, the Sad sperm with no tail, John Gray’s Mars and Venus books,  Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Derek Jarman’s Edward II, Candida Royals, Black Lace, gay comic books and classic stag films,  G & L Magazine in Taiwan, and various life style magazines. We have had comments on Haworth Press and its discussion of paedophilia (9:4).


In these global times, we should also not be surprised to find the journal roaming around the world. Our sexual tour guides have taken us to:

Africa (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria) Latin America (Mexico, Brazil. Martinque)) xx, China, Hong Kong, Canada, Spain, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Turkey, Sweden, the Innu of Labrador, Japan, Ireland, Taiwan, Pakistan, Israel. And we have been across sites: visiting Latin men in New York, Iranians in Canada, Imams in the Netherlands, Macedonia men meeting Albanian men.

And we have tried not to be too formal or pretentious about the ways in which we have gathered data. The articles have been hospitable to a range of methods:


Focus groups, interviews, discourse analysis, participant/ observation, auto-ethnography, case studies, photographic essays, feminist video, cyber-technologies and internet resources,  ‘writing’ , narrative analysis, literature reviews.


It is interesting to note what is not here: and I am a bit proud of that. The articles are neither heavily quantitative nor too abstractly theoretical. To some extent, the journal may well be marginalized by more mainstream academic journals and even by the professional sexologists. Sadly, I doubt if very many authors of the articles in this journal see these groups as their prime audiences or readership? Though I know a few do.


Sexualities, the journal, has also tried not to be too fussy, protective or isolationist about discipline borders. We live in a world of mobile borders: so we find a nice mix of feminists, queer theorists, LGBT studies, cultural studies, gender studies, sociology, cultural history, literary theory, new geography and space thinkers, cultural anthropology, cyber-studies, oral history, cultural psychology and the like. There really is a new movement afoot within intellectual life to break beyond the stricter boundary disciplines that hardened unwisely in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And I am pleased this journal displays quite a lot of this.


Some pretty striking figures have also strutted its pages: We have met, inter alia: The Marquis de Sade, Harry Benjamin, James Dean, Krafft-Ebing, Kinsey, the Marquis of Valada. Amongst the living we have featured some of the most senior scholars of this field: Mary McIntosh, John Gagnon, Dennis Altman and Igor Kon. And we have met some key cases of modern sexual debate: Monics Lewinsky, Dana Rivers, Brandon Teena. And I am sad, but also proud, that we have published amongst the last writing acts of Bill Simon, Edgar Friedenberg, Hahmmed Shahidian, Tamsin Wilton and Vern Bullogh. They all made huge impacts on their respective fields- indeed were world leaders- and are now greatly missed.


And we have had special issues and special themes on topics including:


Commercial Sex; Sexualities in Southern Africa; Poly-armory; Viagra Culture; New Parenting;  Pleasure and Danger Debates; Representations and Lived Experiences; Sexualities, Identities and Space; Representations and Media sexuality; The Catholic Church and Paedophila; and  The Clinton-Lewinsky Affair


And finally, there has also been one spoof article from Michael Kimmel (in case you did not notice, see Volume 9, No 1- a great teaching essay!)

Sexualities: Imaginations and Politics


This is not a journal to assess by the straight-standard academic conventions of reliability, validity and falsification. We are all I think a little bit more knowing than that. We know about – and often have lived- the ‘crisis of representation’, feminist epistemologies, critical theory, reflexive methodology, story telling and the ‘narrative turn’, queer methodology, the resurgence of humanism, critical pedagogy, and many other positions in the social sciences that challenge, yet remain outside of, the mainstream (Plummer, 2005). Now, I am certainly not saying that reliability, validity etc are bad things: in fact, the quite opposite. I like to think we realise their importance but see the ways  in which much mainstream methodologies are used in clichéd, restrictive, narrowing – and often politically questionable –ways; and that the time has come to search out our understandings of sexualities in different kinds of ways. It is all a bit risky, of course, but as we are constantly being told anyway- these are risky times.


One way to think about the articles in Sexualities, then, is through their contribution to what might be called the sexual imagination (or in a language I like less – the sexual imaginaries). There are many ways in which this can be done, but let me suggest just two. The first I might call the growth of sensitising concepts. The second is the political implications of the work.



Generating sensitising concepts about sexualities


I have always looked for the good phrase that may help us see the world a bit differently. Herbert Blumer. That inspirational sociologist, calls these ‘sensitising concepts’ and says that they ‘sensitise perception and reveal the object in new aspect’ (Blumer, 1930, 1969:164). Others opt for the significance of metaphor. I recall being stunned by Timothy Beneke’s Men on Rape (1982) which revealed the power of rape through the metaphors of male sexual talk. It was a book that was rich with the resonance of language and power. And at about the same time I also read Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography – a classic on the use of language in sex (Dworkin, 1981). The two books left a lasting impact on me; not because of their high flowing theory (which they did not have) but because of their use of language to convey ideas. We have to be very careful about the words we use for they anticipate future social worlds and social actions. Indeed, thinking about my own major book, I can see now that I have always gone for this key idea. It is amusing to me to think (if not a little indulgent!) that my life’s work can be summed up in my book titles: I have been trying to understand Sexual Stigma, especially the case of the Making of the Modern Homosexual and subsequent Modern Homosexualities, through Documents of Life and Telling Sexual Stories in order to reach towards Intimate Citizenship! Little sensitising concepts, it seems, can shape whole books.


So following this idea, I looked back over the first ten years of the journal and found a number of wonderful ideas that can shift the imagination, organise ideas and take us further. How about these to build upon?


First, we are becoming certain kinds of people: we had better be careful who we wish to become. Amongst the candidates are ‘the civilized homosexual’ (Murray: 10:1)[i], ‘the designer whore’ (Andres 6:3-4), ‘the fuzzy matrix of ‘my type’ (Knapp and Simon, 4:2) ‘the butch woman inside James Dean’ (Cartier 6. 3-4), ‘the transsexual teacher’ (Cavnagah 6 3-4), and those with  ’liminal transgender identities (Wilson, 5:4). We are engaging with ‘intersex citizenship’ (Grabham, 10:1), and ‘bisexual promiscuity (Klesse 8:4).


It seems we are also constructing and moving around a number of ‘spaces’. The spaces of sexualities suggest ‘cosmopolitan sexual cultures’ (Farrer, 2:2) ‘the hedonistic student culture framework’ (Hollways and Jefferson, 1(4) ,sex zones (Hubbard 4:1) a post-lesbian world’( Farquahar3:2) and ’a post closet world(Epstein, 3:!). Indeed, ‘postmodernizing closets’ (Reynolds 2:3) is a theme of an important debate (Seidman et al).   In much of this, space becomes a ‘production polemic’ (Canlon 7:4).


We are up to all kinds of sexual doings. Apparently, we are confronting the ‘the routinization of homosexuality’ Adam,(2:1) and ‘compulsory sex/compulsory great sex’ (Potts1:2). We are ‘eroticising the anus’(Ying-Ho and Tsang3:3)’ ‘sexing up the subject’ (Sanders 9:4), and  ‘sexing the belly’(Huntley 3:3). There has also been ’sexualization of corporal punishment (Butt and Hearn, 1:2)


We talk an awful lot about sex. And in the process we find a lot of discourses at work such ‘the science/fiction of sex’ (Potts(1:2),‘the fag discourse (Pascoe 8.3), McSex (Potts (1:2), the of queering sexual scripts (Muchler3:1), the orgasmic imperative (Potts 3:1)and ‘mouth-rules’ (Thorogood 3:2). Feminism is seen as a ‘language of entitlement and liberation’(Sonnet: 2:2). We learn of ’gay and lesbian standpoint films’(Dean, 10:2)‘ethical erotics (Varmony 8:4),‘abstract intimacies’ (Stones,2:2) And ‘polygamic races, poly-hegemonic masculinities, progressive polyarmory’ (Haritaworn, Lin & Klesse 9:5).


All of this is closely linked to the social meanings of sex. And here we have seen the meanings of sex in the countryside, in the city,on ‘fantasy islands’. We know a little about the meanings of risky sex, corporal punishment, leathersex (as religion-Joshi, 6:3). Sexuality is seen as ‘a labour of love ‘(Cacchioni, 10:2); we can talk of ‘ the aesthetics of orgasm’ (Frueh 6. 3-4), and the significance of a kiss’ (Ussher & Mooney-Somers 3:2)’. And just what is ‘my sperm in shining armour’?


Through all this, we go on finding sexuality lodged in deep fears, hetero-normativity and sexual hatred. There are the ‘sexual antimonies of late modernity’ (Jackson and Scott ) and ‘gender panic theories’ (Adam, 1(4).We find that there is a ‘ disgust at the borders of desire (Johnson 7:2) and a ‘haunting heterosexuality (Johnson 7:2). A‘ fellatio epidemic’ ( Curtis and Hunt, 10:1) has been played out in Canada. And ‘resistance strategies  – of’ heteropolarity’(Stewart, 2:3) have been deployed. We live with a ‘spermatic hierarchy’ (Moore 6: 3-4), and with ‘visibility as privilige’ (Steinbugler 8:4)


We are also engaged in a number of social processes: look out for ‘the project of gay identity’ (Murray: 10:1),’coming out as the teenage daughter of a lesbian mother’(Paechter: 3:4),’coming out of the coming out story’(Jolly 4:4) ’life-styling HIV’(Kane, 4:2)’, ‘sex and world-making (Shephard 6:3-4), ‘incorporating the ineffable body’ (Westhover 8:3),’female sexual subjectivity as a generative project (Bryant & Schofield, 10:2),‘the pinking of Viagra culture’ Hartley 9:3),,‘sexualities in movement’ (Lambveski, 8:5), ‘circumcision through the lens of gender theory’ (Harrison, 5:3),’mobile desire (Adkins, 3.2), and the fact? that ‘bisexuality is post-modern’  (Storr, 2:3)


The Politics of Sexualities


One of the cornerstones of the new critical sexualities theories has always been its concern with power. Since it largely grew out of the new social movements around sexual politics in the early 1970’s, this is not surprising. The study of sexuality needs always to be seen as a political practice; the doing of sexualities is always embroiled in power relations; the writing about sexualities will always bring policy, political and public projects.


There are fairly obvious ways in which Sexualities has looked at power and sexualities. The concern over Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton attracted world stage attention in the mid 1990’s and it became a special concern of the journal at that time. Likewise, the scandals over Paedophilia in the Catholic Church attracted world wide attention a little later; and we added a little to the din of talk about it. Likewise, the work of various social movements have also been of interest – the work of the women’s movement, lesbian and gay movements, the Queer movement, the Travesti Brazil, the Transgender Movement and the new Polyarmory movement. The tensions within and across them remain a ceaseless source of conflict and interest to researchers and activists.


Much of the politics raised through the journal has long histories. Topics like pornography, sex education,

contraception, rape and gay and lesbian concerns have seasoned histories, and articles have hopefully provided new and stimulating ways of thinking about about old tensions. The politics of transgression also has a long history going back to de Sade and before, and it continues to provides its own ‘subterranean tradition’ to the whole of sexuality research. Part of this, since the late 1980’s, has been queer theory – a border crossing exercise, challenging normativity in all its aspects. Issues like the ‘Politics of Identity’ and the ‘Pleasure and Danger Debates ‘were being discussed (and praticsed!) a quarter of a century ago, but still provoke attention. (In one special issue, the feminist debates of the 1980’s were re-visited).

Some themes, however, were just developing when the journal started. Ten years on, they are now quite well defined and entering a period of rich development and refinement. These areas include:


  • The politics of intimate citizenship: citizenship is transformed from a rather straightforward bundle of rights and responsibilities over voting, welfare etc but is transformed to a more complex relational, processual etc series of rights and responsibilities- some of which invade the ways in which we live our personal lives (Plummer, 2003, 2006).
  • The politics of representation: older ideas about censorship are modified with a much more sophisticated understanding of the visual and looking. The politics of discourse: the ‘deconstructive turn’ (and linked ‘cultural/post-modern’turn) made all language problematic, and the shapes of our talk and debate became inherently formed through power relations.
  • The politics of space and time: ‘space’ and ‘time’ are no longer givens to be taken for granted and worked within. Instead political processes work to shape space and time.
  • The politics of bodies: again bodies are not givens. Bodies, from the old ‘population controls’ and surveillance through the new ‘body regimes’ and on to ‘the politics of life itself’- all become managed, regulated, structured through power relations.
  • The politics of visibility, space and public culture: closely linked to a number of the above, is an emerging interest in how issues, events, bodies, people can or can not recognised. How does public and private life get shaped? What political processes make the visible invisible and the invisible visible?


Looking Ahead: Visions of Sexualities


Finally, certain gaps in the journal have become noticeable to me, and I would hope that the journal can look increasingly at some of these issues over the next ten years.


First, there is a need to return to the material world. Researchers into sexualities live largely in a world of language, discourse, and meaning. And that is good. After all, the origins of the journal lay in questioning some of the crude, mechanistic, biological accounts of sexuality that exist quite widely. I do not wish to resuscitate the hoary old construction-essentialist debate (now, in my head at least, over forty years old). Always, it seems, the two ideas hang together and have proved very useful in galvanising debate, thinking and research. There is no denying some significant biological and psychic desires at work; there is equally no denying that there are profound historical, social and cultural forces always at work in sexualities. The social always invades the personal. But, and this is my point, the economic and material do too. It is true that there is interest in the commercialization of sex  and the sexual markets that have been developed for this (see: Agustín,10:4).Nevertheless, on balance, one of the most significant gaps in the journal has been any deep concern with the material world. There are major social inequalities across the world – of class, ethnicity, gender, age etc – and the journal has hardly addressed any of this.


Some years back Nancy Fraser (1997) suggested there was a need to bridge the politics of recognition (which was in the early 1990’s, becoming very popular), with the politics of redistribution (which was somewhat fading from view). It was an urgent and important plea. But somehow sexuality scholars have not generally learned much from it; and continue with the politics of difference over the politics of equality. But these strands of thinking and practice have never, in my view, been truly at odds. It is another one of the many false polarities that academics often like to make (myself included!). I would dearly love to see articles that speak about sexualities under the rule of abject poverty and sexualities as lived and imagined on the ‘terrorist’ battle field. I would like to know more about the sexualities of ‘the super-rich’ when contrasted with those of the ‘bottom billion’. How do we fuck – and caress and kiss- when living homeless, on the street, in abject poverty, down and out with the ‘weight of the world’: with ‘wasted lives’? Are there inequalities in sexualities that mirror inequalities in economic life; or are ‘the best things in life free’?! Despite all the talk about ‘inter-sectionality’, we really do not hear much about class these days.


Second, the life cycle calls. Our studies in the main have been of the young and the middle aged. There is only one major article on the sexualities of the elderly in the first ten years of Sexualities! But since ‘the elderly’ is now a significantly growing group world wide, it is odd that we know relatively about the sexualities of older people. It is time for a new critical sexual gerontology! But if there is little about older people, there is less still about the very young. Childhood has always been a taboo area. It is often linked to the sphere of paedophilia, which really is the only main area of sexuality that remains utterly taboo – cut off from funds, publication, research development and just waiting to stigmatise anyone who dares to take a different voice. Stevi Jackson’s pioneering work a quarter a century ago in this field needs taking further (Jackson, 1982)! The journal Sexualities has touched on this topic lightly at a few points; but so far there have been no major contributions. People who write about this area seem to need not just academic and intellectual talent, but also a rather special kind of bravado and bravery. Few seem forthcoming.


Next there are some themes that have certainly been developed in Sexualities, but which we do not quite take far enough. Globalisation is everywhere; it has been a major theme of social science work over the past decade, and there are key texts which study the globalisation of sexualities (eg Altman (2001), Binnie (2004) and  Signs(2002)). But at the same time, much work remains relatively parochial. There is a tendency to study different cultures, but it is not just studies of different cultures that are being called for. Rather the need is to see how different cultures interpenetrate and interconnect with each other. I recall Ulrich Bech’s famous line that ‘from now on, nothing that happens on our planet is only a limited local event’. To some extent, the rich, post-modern, metropolitan male gay world exemplifies this as it swirls around the world through internet, dance parties and hybridic identities. And, much more darkly, so too does the world of international sex trafficking as it peddles in global dehumanisation, violence and expolitation. Overall, everything we touch nowadays needs a wider and deeper analysis, connecting sexualities through a ceaseless stream of different but interpenetrating cultures (See Matthew Waites on this in this issue)


A fourth area that seems to be not quite there yet in our understanding is the ubiquitous contemporary world of cyber-sexualities and, indeed, cyber-research. We had articles on this in our first volume, and we have regularly had such contributions. There are two more brilliant examples of it in this issue. But what I don’t think we have quite come to terms with is that this really now is the age of cybersex. For large sectors of the world now it is simply a backdrop presence and taken for granted in sexual lives. For many, contemporary sexualities is cyber-sexualities. It is no longer just coming or waiting around the corner; it is here, loud, clear and not going away. It is profoundly shaking the ways in which human sexualities are taking place. And it raises many political and public arenas for heated debate. Cyber sex may well and truly be here; understanding lacks behind it quite a bit (see Jeff Hearn in this issue).


And whilst we talk of cybersex, it may be important to raise one specific form of sexuality hardly discussed at all: the pervasive sexuality of masturbation and self stimulation. It is perhaps the most pervasive form of sexualities in all of world history and at the current moment. But we would hardly know it. For both men and women it is a widespread occurrence which is hardly ever analysed. There are useful starts being published (Lacqeuer, 2003), but just how this sits in the new worlds of cyber-sexualities is not really understood. It just seems to me that cyberspace facilitates an awful lot of body stimulations of different kinds, and yet it is not something we know much about? (And, as a quick aside and at a different point in the sexualities spectrum, there is also ‘asexuality’ and the asexual movement’ about which we know very little).


Sixth, I am also aware of the neglect of many important new theoretical developments. The worlds of Foucault and early feminism (Adrienne Rich), or even Gagnon and Simon, are well over thirty years old. Even Butler’s key founding works are nearly twenty years old. In this issue we look at some of their continuing legacies which are clearly rich and important. But I wonder about the significance of some others. Recent years has seen mobility theory, complexity theory, the ‘public sociology’ debate, and so forth. Let me give just one example, amongst many: the work of Martha Nussbaum, who is generally considered to be one of the world’s leading philosophers. There is some passing reference some times to her major book, Sex and Justice. But there seems to be little recognition of her broader theory (though I note in passing that my dear old friend and colleague, Jeffrey Weeks does use her at the end of his most recent work).Many feminists and development theorists work with her ideas but inside the sexualities field of studies she is not mentioned much. Yet her core concerns lie with human flourishing and capabilities in a world of fairness and justice. She grounds her work globally and empirically, and is straight talking.  Her passion to make the world a better and more equal place for all is clear to see. And her relevance to sexualities studies remains unexplored. How do ‘capabilities’ link to the sexual life? Are these ‘capabilities’ preconditions for the good sexual life? Or are they in part shaped by our sexual experience? Each capability seems to directly link up to out sexual life: bodily health, bodily integrity, emotions, play, affiliations, self respect and our senses for example are all there at the heart of sexual life. How, she asks, can such human capabilities flourish and lead to ‘well being; in different ways in different societies?


Much of her work leads directly to a concern with a ‘decent world culture’ (Nussbaum, 2006:1317). A linked idea that could be developed within sexuality studies would be that of ‘cosmopolitanism’. The idea is a complex one with a long history and many forms: in sum it means ‘citizens of the cosmos’. It is neither globalization nor multiculturalism. Nor does it mean to suggest, as it sometimes is made to, a kind of sophistication, even superior life style (usually associated with metropolitan living) – an elitist cosmopolitanism. Nor does it mean the peddling of kind commercial sexuality- as in Cosmopolitan magazine. This is a commercial cosmopolitanism.  I mean none of these. What I do mean is the ability – an attitude – to sense and empathise with a range of different positions in the world, many of which you will profoundly disagree with, and to seek out some common ways of living around them, and moving on. I realise this would be anathema to many: and so be it.


Ulrich Beck has argued that ‘the human condition has itself become cosmopolitan’ (p2) and I am not sure of this. But I do agree with him that cosmopolitanism brings with it a certain kind of empathy. We learn to take the perspectives of others. We know we cannot live in worlds without some kinds of borders – however widely they may be stretched and negotiated. And 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 2006:p7)


And finally all this leads me back to the importance of narratives and stories. To empathise requires listening and looking. Telling stories is our clue to the different lives which people lead. What we need are more stories and more dialogues between them all. In part this journal was set up to help this process a little. I hope in the coming years, it will continue to do this.



An Indulgent Personal Epilogue


Some readers may have heard that I have been ‘seriously ill’ for the three years. I was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in February 2005, and had a liver transplant two years later. I am now ‘almost back to normal’ (what!?), except I now move around with a new liver from an eighteen year old- to whom I am truly thankful. Many people were unbelievably kind to me during this period, and I won’t name names. But I do wish to thank all those at King’s College Hospital London for their skill and loving care; and for the many friends across the world that supported me and loved me through this time. But two people I must name. One is my dear life partner of some thirty years, Everard Longland, who literally stopped his own life and devoted his to mine: he is  truly my ‘guardian angel’ ( a curious, but useful phrase for an agnostic: why should the heavens have all the joy?). The other is the journal administrator and sub editor, Agnes Skamballis, without whom the journal would probably have ceased to be. She has already spent many years being the human face of the journal to all who have contacted it; over the past two years she took over work that was way beyond her job description and casually performed it with great cheer. Unfortunately, just as I was recovering, she herself became very ill and went to hospital for major surgery. There were ‘problems’; she has survived them – though as I write she is still in hospital (four months after she arrived). Agnes is always into the life enhancing business, and she exudes her usual energy, compassion and positive attitude to life from her bed. She may have to return to Sexualities wheel-chair bound; but return she will. And I thank her so much for everything.



Ken Plummer

Wivenhoe, September 2007

Altman, Dennis (2001) Global Sex. Chicago: University of Chicago Press: Chicago

Binnie, Jon (2004) The Globalization of Sexuality. London: Sage

Beneke, Timothy (1982) Men on Rape: What they have to say about sexual violence. NY St Martin’s Press.

Blumer, Hebert (1969) Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Engleowood Cliffs, New Jersey. Prentice-Hall

Dworkin, Andrea (1981) Pornography: Men possessing women New York : Perigree

Fraser, Nancy (1997) Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the ‘Postsocialist’ Condition. London: Routledge

SEO:0 (2007) Peer Review Project: Editor’s Report  New York: Ford Foundation Publication

Jackson, Stevi (1982) Childhood and Sexuality. Oxford: Blackwell

Lacqueuer, Thomas (2003) Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. London, Zone Books

Nussbaum, Martha (1999) Sex and Social Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press

———- (2006) Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership.Harvard Universoity Press: Cambridge, Massachusts.

Nussbaum, Martha (2006) ‘Reply: In Defence of Global Political Liberalism’ Development and Change: Forum 2006 Vol 37, No 6 November p1227-1334

Plummer, Ken (2003) Intimate Citizenship: Private Decisions and Public Dialogues. Seattle: University of Washington Press

——— (2004) ‘‘Social Worlds, Social Change and The New Sexualities Theories’ in Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Loraine Gelsthorpe, Martin Johnson and Andrew Bainham eds. Sexuality Repositioned: Diversity and the Law. Hart

——-  (2005a) ‘Critical Humanism and Queer Theory: Living with the Tensions’’ Handbook of Qualitative Research 3rd edition, edited by Norman K Denzin and Yvonne Lincoln  Sage: London..

———- (2005b)’Intimate Citizenship in an unjust world’ in Mary Romero & Eric Margolis The Blackwell

Companion to Social Inequality, Oxford:Blackwell p75-100


———– (2006)  ‘Rights Work: constructing lesbian, gay and sexual rights in late modern times’ in Rights ed Lydia Morris. Routledge: Ch 8 p152-167).

————- (2007) ‘Queers, Bodies and Post-Modern Sexualities: A Note on Revisiting the “Sexual”    in M. Kimmel  The Sexual Self ( Essays in Honour of John Gagnon). Vanderbilt University Press (reprinted from Symbolic Interactionism’ Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 26 No 4 Winter 2003 p513- -529)

Weeks, Jeffrey (2007) The World we Have Won. London: Routledge

[i]  The references attached to these titles refers to specific authors and editions of the journal Sexualities: Studies in Culture and Society, Volumes 1-10.

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