Gender & sexuality

The concept of gender has become controversial again. Since I began working on gender questions in the 1970s, there have been many changes. Old ideas have been criticized, masses of data have been collected, new concepts have emerged. We have learnt to speak of gender norms, gender regimes, gender equity, hegemonic masculinity, performativity, intersectionality, the coloniality of gender, transgender and gender diversity. But recently a powerful and international right-wing and authoritarian politics, that is hostile both to women's rights and to trans existence, has targeted gender studies too. This whole field of knowledge is now under threat.


The word "gender" in English derives from an ancient word-root meaning "to produce", which gave rise to words in many languages meaning "kind" or "class". It came to refer to classes of nouns, as the Oxford English Dictionary primly noted, "corresponding more or less to distinctions of sex (and absence of sex) in the objects denoted". Since these distinctions are very widespread, when Gender Studies became a field of research, it soon involved reproductive sexuality, families, child development, education, workplaces, law, language, identities, media images, costume and design, divisions of labour, political representation, patterns of violence - and more.


My first research publication on gender, in 1975, was a naive "sex difference" study based on a large survey of Sydney teenagers. Then in the late 1970s my colleagues and I launched a study of social inequalities in Australian education that gave a vivid picture of the gender regimes of schools.  The in-your-face realities of school and family life made us think harder about gender as a social process, and how it was related to class inequalities.

In the 1980s I was one of a group of researchers and activists in Sydney concerned with HIV/AIDS.  Social action was vital for stopping the epidemic, but needed a research base: we designed field studies of sexual practice and its social contexts, in the gay community and beyond. At the same time I was developing a research agenda about masculinities, which is described in another page on this website. Two decades later I was involved in a project on gender equity in the public sector, intended to provide a research base for new policies.  The project ran into political trouble, but did some beautiful fieldwork on how gender embeds in institutions and policy processes.

These studies were all meant to be useful, to give deeper understanding to teachers, activists and policymakers. At the same time they raised conceptual problems. Our AIDS research, for instance, challenged the discursive turn in sexuality studies. In 1990
Gary Dowsett and I brought together a group of Australian social researchers for a theoretical seminar, published in the book Rethinking Sex. From the late 1970s I was criticizing the "sex role" model and came to understand gender as a multi-dimensional, historically changing structure of social relations – relations that were constructed in the active social practices we encountered in fieldwork. I crystallized this approach in a paper “Theorising gender”, published in 1985, and spelt it out in full in the 1987 book Gender and Power.

It seemed to find an audience, since that is my second most cited publication.  When my UK publishers asked for an introductory book about gender, I tried to make a systematic revision of the model. Gender: In World Perspective, was first published in 2002 and the fourth edition in 2021. It has been translated into ten different languages.

By the 1990s I was meeting gender researchers on every continent.  Their work sometimes followed, and sometimes challenged, the European and North American approaches I had learned from.  Like several other theorists, I began to develop a postcolonial or ‘southern theory’ approach to gender questions, in education, in feminist thought, and more. I began publishing this work around 2010.

A main reason I don’t approach gender questions with complete detachment is that I have lived with gender contradictions all my life.  I have not published extensively about transsexuality, but some work seemed worth circulating. This includes a 2012 paper about global-North feminism's relation with trans women; a discussion of a remarkable life-history interview; and a reflection on the practical issues of trans lives in various parts of the global South.


SELECTION OF TEN (click on titles for links)


These ten aren’t necessarily my best known, but they represent the different areas I have worked in, and they are all contributions I’m glad to have written, or co-written.  The rest of my work about gender and sexuality is listed in the main bibliography. 


Connell, Raewyn. 2021. Trans South: Practical bases for trans internationalism. Pp. 209-224 in Ahonaa Roy, ed., Gender, Sexuality, Decolonization: South Asia in the World Perspective. London and New York: Routledge.


Reflections on the situation of trans women and other feminized trans groups in several parts of the global South, based on discussions with local trans support groups.

Connell, Raewyn. 2021.
Gender: in World Perspective (fourth edition).  Cambridge, Polity Press. 

This is an attempt to be both systematic and accessible.  (Is it possible to do both?)  It gives an account of gender that is informed by current research, and reflects the global diversity of practices and ideas.


Connell, Raewyn. 2015. Meeting at the edge of fear: theory on a world scale. Feminist Theory, vol. 16 no. 1, 49-66.

A contribution to seeing feminist thought within the global economy of knowledge, discussing some important theoretical contributions from the global South, and how we can understand multiple frameworks on a world scale.

Connell, Raewyn. 2012.
Transsexual women and feminist thought: toward new understanding and new politics. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 37 no. 4, 857-881. 

Transsexual women have been used in contradictory ways in feminist debates.  I look back over the story, propose a better way of understanding embodiment and transition, and outline a politics of social justice rather than identity. 

Connell, Raewyn. 2010.
Kartini’s children: on the need for thinking gender and education together on a world scale. Gender and Education, vol. 22 no. 6, 603-615.


One of the most important arenas for practice is education.  But we need to keep education informed by current theory, including global perspectives. Kartini was a pioneering Javanese feminist, very famous in Indonesia, who died tragically while very young. 

Connell, Raewyn. 2006.
Glass ceilings or gendered institutions? Mapping the gender regimes of public sector worksites. Public Administration Review, vol. 66 no. 6, 837-849. 

How is gender embedded in institutions, and how does gender reform work inside the present-day state?  This paper reports from a large collaborative research project in public sector agencies in Australia. 

Connell, Raewyn, MD Davis and Gary W. Dowsett. 1993.
A bastard of a life: homosexual desire and practice among men in working-class milieux. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, vol. 29 no. 1, 112-135. 

By the end of the 1990s a ‘safe sex’ strategy against HIV/AIDS had been developed in Australian gay communities - but they were mostly middle-class.  What was happening among men who regularly had sex with men but were not part of a gay community? 

Connell, Raewyn. 1990.
The state, gender and sexual politics: theory and appraisalTheory and Society vol. 19, 507-544.

How feminism should relate to the state has long been an issue for the women’s movement.  How to understand the state has long been an issue for social science.  This long paper applies the theory from Gender and Power to these classic problems. 

Connell, Raewyn, June Crawford, Susan Kippax, Gary W. Dowsett, Don Baxter, Lex Watson and R Berg. 1989. 
Facing the epidemic: changes in the sexual lives of gay and bisexual men in Australia and their implications for AIDS prevention strategies. Social Problems, vol. 36 no. 4, 384-402. 

This paper reports from the first large-scale Australian study of sexual practices and their social contexts.  It fed into the gay community’s own education strategy and helped make Australia a world leader in AIDS prevention practice.  We published both locally and internationally; this is in a leading US journal. 

Connell, Raewyn. 1987.
Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics. Sydney, Allen & Unwin; Cambridge, Polity Press; Stanford, Stanford University Press. 

My attempt to work out a full-scale social analysis of gender, using the best tools of theory and assembling a wide range of research findings, as they stood in the mid-1980s.  It criticizes essentialist and sex role theory, discusses both psychological and social levels, tackles problems of embodiment and politics.


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