Cosmopolitan Sexualities: Hope and the Humanist Imagination, by Ken Plummer

A sexology for our age examines a global and multifaceted part of humanity, says Sally R. Munt

June 11, 2015
Cosmopolitan Sexualities: Hope and the Humanist Imagination, by Ken Plummer

All you need is love,” claims eminent sociologist and sexuality studies pioneer Ken Plummer in this passionate manifesto for sexual justice. Taking a broad and deep view of global sexualities across nations and generations, he argues that we must accept – embrace, even – the idea that sexualities are inventive, changing, fluid and eruptive; that they are cosmopolitan. So far, so 21st century. Surely we have read this menu before, in the credos of queer, and many of us have lived that (rather exhausting) thesaurus of sexualities for quite a while. Rather like after eating too much chocolate at Easter, some of us feel a bit sick of it now and need a lie-down.

One of the challenges of queer was its critical imprecision; its radical openness meant that rather deliberately, things were unfixed and liable to wobble. But sometimes it became a bit too vague – if everything is possible, then what is the value of what we already hold? Latterly, queer became a contestation between those who refuse productivity in the name of anti-capitalism (Lee Edelman et al) and utopian thinking in the tradition of Ernst Bloch (the late, great José Esteban Muñoz).

Plummer’s book sits squarely in the latter corner, arguing that as we take our seat at the table to discuss sexuality and celebrate its diversity, we need to bring back in the moral imperative of hope. We need to rein in some of that radical cynicism that is so common of late, and refuse to allow it to be the driving force of policy and analysis. He argues that considering sexualities as cosmopolitan allows us to engage more realistically with the global forces that shape our sexualities in the minutiae of the everyday.

When we think about sexualities via the neoliberal rhetorics of choice, we know that a smorgasbord awaits us: cybersexualities, asexualities, “furries”, gender plurality and more. For those privileged enough to own and nourish a sexual self, “sexualities” are usually perceived as a commodity, located in wealthy liberal pastimes of leisure and self-reflection. But in Plummer’s formulation, sexualities are embedded everywhere. He forcefully unravels the binary assumption that when sexualities are expressed by the poor, they require instruction and containment, whereas those of the rich need liberating. He challenges the sexualities of the rich by requiring us to accept that excluded and minoritised sexualities are neither impoverished in quality nor intrinsically diseased (a common trope of African sexualities). Rather, he shows, we have much to learn about sexual diversity from each other. New categories drive through this narrative: pauperised sexualities, sickness sexualities, homeless sexualities, exiled sexualities, public sexualities (because you have nowhere private to go). It is a deeply altruistic study, which invents terms for a whole range of previously subjugated sexualities. To be visible is to count.

Thus in this endeavour Plummer has given us a new sexology for our age – indeed, at times Cosmopolitan Sexualities reads like a Victorian classificatory guide to sexual diversity, but without the beards or colonialism. In this taxonomic project he is sensitive to the critique of the Western anthropological gaze and remains determinedly committed to examining the shifting plates of worldwide proliferation and change. Warning us not to take our stereotypes for granted, he takes us through sexualities in China, in Africa and in Middle Eastern societies, and organises sexualities into global zones, regional discrepancies and local eruptions.

In reappropriating the concept of cosmopolitanism – an idea that was popular, then was not, and then popular again (do keep up!) – Plummer argues that it can be an enabling idea because it “suggests a form of everyday practical consciousness that recognises human differences and then struggles to build social structures and cultures that help make diversity a workable feature of the humane, good social life”. Such critical humanism searches for positive values, and argues that key social conditions are creating definitions of sexuality that are rapidly accelerating in the modern age, with which cosmopolitan sexualities need to engage.

By examining some of these grounded new sexualities, we can start to use the idea of cosmopolitan sexualities to develop new approaches that are more inclusive. Plummer returns us again and again to humanism’s weakest point – the construction of universal values. This is the nub of the book, really: the view that where sexuality is concerned we need some limits, tentative and qualified though these may be. This is not a libertarian thesis; anything does not “go”. And Plummer eschews such relativism, instead drawing a firm boundary around those sexualities that are exploitative, violent and oppressive. Drawing on Isaiah Berlin’s work, he reminds us that there is a distinction between “value pluralism” and “value relativism”, and the fact that values may not be commensurable does not necessarily make us relativists.

In doing so, Plummer is following in the footsteps of one of the great proclamations of the 20th century, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and acknowledging that while it is a tarnished vessel, it remains much needed for “dreaming forward”. By championing localism, the negotiation between everyday lives and global policy statements can begin. The deep forces of human life process slowly, and we need a moral framework to provide and contain such progress, which can inspire an ethics of care and empathy toward others. As Plummer daringly suggests: “we need norms”. He argues that we need transnational governance and a global civil culture that is built upon local needs. It is this global/local flavour that soothes my suspicion that this is merely another Western imposition. Nevertheless, Plummer turns to international law to provide containment for this cosmopolitan sexualities project, and to go with it, a range of monitoring systems, an old-fashioned technology of governmentality that runs alongside it.

So far, so Foucauldian, I guess. This is the liberal humanist project of human sexual rights, human sexual justice and human sexual flourishing, isn’t it? Can we argue with that? Well, yes, up to a point. But Plummer anticipates our doubts, warning against the argument that such a so-called universal may be just another Western hegemonic feint. That the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has proved impossible to implement is another point worth considering, as is the danger of co-opting “the other” in order to serve white Western fantasies of liberation. Plummer anticipates the criticisms and deals with each one in turn. He argues that this cosmopolitanism must be secular to be successful, and it is the enemy of absolutism; although it is a flawed concept, it might be the best we have.

In order to understand someone’s sexuality, we are invited to “climb into their skin”. This is achieved through the telling of stories, and by careful listening to the stories of others. With this move, Plummer invokes his earlier scholarship on symbolic interactionism and invites the reader to share in narrative empathy and dialogue. In this post-liberal sharing, the private becomes public, in order to open up sexuality to greater public debate. He asks us to consider the lifework of Mikhail Bakhtin, who argued that life, by its nature, is dialogic. Bakhtin, of course, put forward the polyphonic nature of truth, arguing that truth requires a multitude of voices.

Plummer is both a political activist and an astute academic, and this book is part pragmatic guide and part idealist inspiration. He has asked us all to strive to talk to each other; because in the end and in the beginning, “love is all you need”.

Sally R. Munt is director, Sussex Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Sussex.

Cosmopolitan Sexualities: Hope and the Humanist Imagination
By Ken Plummer
Polity, 248pp, £55.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9780745670997 and 71000
Published 5 June 2015

The author

Author Ken PlummerKen Plummer, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Essex, was born in Palmers Green in North London.

“My father was a barber and my mother worked in Woolworth’s. I was far from a studious child,” he recalls. “But I had marvellous teachers both in sixth form and at Enfield College (now Middlesex University) – Stan Cohen and Jock Young, among others – who inspired me to read, write and think. They also made me realise how important good, inspirational teaching can be.” 

Sociology, he comments, “only really began to make deep sense to me when I applied it to my own life; when I used it to make sense of my own coming out in the mid 1960s. I have been ‘out’ as gay since this time – all my academic career – and it has made my own experience of being gay a very positive one. I met my life partner Everard Longland – the calm and love of my life – in the late 1970s and we have lived together very happily in the small community of Wivenhoe for approaching 40 years.”

Plummer would remain at the University of Essex for three decades – the whole of his academic life. “I was never tempted to leave,” he adds, although he also recalls with pleasure the opportunities he had to get “more variety through regularly teaching summer schools and the like at the beautiful University of California, Santa Barbara. I could never have stayed in the US though; I liked coming home too much!” 

His “great joy” as an academic, he says, was teaching. “Every year the new intakes of students would renew my enthusiasm with their energy and excitement. I taught the first-year course for 30 years, and supervised some 40PhDs.”

Over the course of his scholarly career, he says, “I have seen great progress in my major area of study. Who would have thought 50 years ago that same-sex marriages would have become legal in much of the western world, and with increasing legitimacy in much of Latin America and South East Asia? But progress is always slow and faltering – there are major backlashes in Africa, Russia and the Middle East. There is still a lot of very bad news, and a lot of work to be done.”

In 1997 Plummer founded the peer-reviewed journal Sexualities, which he says grew out of that decade’s “explosion of writing” in critical sexualities studies.

"I saw the need for a new journal to be a home for this proliferating research. Hence Sexualities was born; and it has become a key journal in the field. I like the fact that it remains so wide-ranging and serves as a counterpoint to the predominantly medical thinking about sex.”  

A decade ago, Plummer left his professorial post at Essex. “I never thought of retiring until I became seriously ill. But in 2005 I was diagnosed with alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver and gave up drinking completely (as did my partner). I was at death’s door and had to retire. I got through it all with the profound gift of a liver transplant in 2007, the aid of a wonderful National Health Service – and the love of friends and family.”

He continues: “My afterlife has led to new interests, especially music. But I could never want to leave behind my intellectual interests in sociology and humanism, and so I have written quite a lot in my retirement. I hope to continue, but with no pressure to do so. Right now I am revising my little introductory text, Sociology: The Basics. I have eventual plans for books on critical humanism for the social sciences and the multiple meanings of illness. One day, in my dotage, I hope to write a book on the sociology of the musical. I have always loved musicals – it was the career I never had!”

Although his work as a scholar has carried on, does Plummer not miss his professorial post? “I am so glad to be retired. I am a little saddened by the modern British university – it now seems to have become a machine of money, markets, managers and metrics, often exploiting its graduate students, and remaining as elitist as ever! The trouble is that all this is now so deeply entrenched, it is going to be hard to change: we are stuck with it for some time. I am surprised there has been so little resistance to the changes. I guess we will now have to wait for a new generation to rethink and change it. It seems unlikely to happen in my own lifetime.

“Indeed, over the years I have been forced to develop a rather dark view of the world. How can humans have made such a mess of the world over the centuries? The levels of violence, inequality, corruption, environmental catastrophe, greed, religious bigotry, and sheer suffering and dehumanisation of billions are relentless.

“Yet I guess I remain an optimist,” Plummer says. “I get my hope from many things, but especially the kindnesses, fairness, creativity and dignity I see every day in the ordinary lives of people. Many people do indeed lives of quiet kindness fighting injustice, inequality, insensitivity and cruelty whenever they see it. The question is how to make this more pervasive in the world.

He concludes: “This is where a good education for all – one that cultivates a deep understanding of humanity and a living with human variety – becomes prime.”

Karen Shook


Review originally published as: A taxonomy of our diversity (11 June 2015)

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