Gender & sexuality

Gender and sexuality aren’t issues I approach from an icy distance.  Almost everything I have done in this area is connected to practical or political questions.  Even my first research publication on gender, a naive sex-difference study based on a survey of Sydney teenagers, came from a project intended to help teachers understand kids in school.

In the late 1970s I was involved in research on social inequalities in Australian schools that gave a vivid picture of gender regimes in operation.  The in-your-face realities of school and family life made me think harder about gender as a social process, and how its dynamic related to the dynamic of class.

In the 1980s I was involved with 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, both in the gay community and beyond, using current theory in sociology and psychology.  The results were immediately wanted in peer education and policymaking, so we had to make our work meaningful for action.

Some time later I was involved in a project on gender relations in the public sector, intended to provide a research bas for new gender equity initiatives.  The project ran into political trouble, but did some beautiful fieldwork on how gender embeds in institutions and policy processes.

All these studies raised theoretical problems, which had to be worked out in parallel with the field work. I came to understand gender as a multi-dimensional, historically changing structure of social relations – relations constructed in active social practices.  Such a concept seemed to make most sense of what I was seeing in empirical work, and in gender politics. The approach was crystallized in a paper “Theorising gender”, published in 1985, and spelt out in full in Gender and Power.

It seemed to find an audience, since that is my second most cited publication.  I continued to think about the conceptual model, especially its unsatisfactory treatment of culture.  When my UK publishers asked for an introductory book for students, I tried to make a systematic revision of the model.  The third edition of this book, Gender: In World Perspective, co-authored with Rebecca Pearse, has just been published in 2015.

Meanwhile, the research for AIDS prevention posed conceptual questions about sexuality.  I was not happy with the discursive turn in sexuality studies under the influence of Foucault: institutions, practices, sweaty bodies and children seemed to be neglected.  In 1990 Gary Dowsett and I brought together a group of Australian social researchers for a theoretical seminar, published as Rethinking Sex.

By the 1990s I was travelling a good deal and meeting gender researchers on every continent.  Their work was exciting and sometimes challenged the European and North American approaches I had learned so much from.  I began to search for gender research and theory from the global South.  It took a long time to integrate this experience, but I have now begun to publish work developing a ‘southern theory’ approach to gender questions, in education, in feminist thought, and more.

A main reason I don’t approach gender questions with complete detachment is that I have lived with gender contradictions all my life.  I was reluctant to write about transsexuality – call it shyness – but I’ve managed some: a paper reporting a life-history interview with a transsexual woman; a reflection on sociological uses of transsexual experience; and an extended discussion of the treatment of transsexual women in Northern feminist thought.

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 in this field is listed in the main bibliography. 

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.  The book seems to meet a need: it has been translated into nine languages so far.
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 understandingand 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.  This paper  looks back over the story, proposes a new way of understanding embodiment and transition with the aid of feminist social science, and outlines 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.  This is my attempt to show how.  Kartini was a pioneering Javanese feminist, mega-famous in Indonesia, who died tragically while very young. 

Connell, Raewyn. 2009. The neoliberal parent: mothers and fathers in the new market society. Pp. 26-40 in Paula-Irene Villa and Barbara Thiessen, ed., Mütter - Väter: Diskurse, Medien, Praxen (Mothers/Fathers: Discourses, Media, Practices). Münster, Westfälisches Dampfboot. 

How are gender relations affected by the global triumph of free-market capitalism and neoliberal politics?  There is a lot of relevant research.  This paper brings together studies from around the world on changes in family relations at times of neoliberal transition. 

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.  It is published in the leading US journal on public administration. 

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 these communities were mostly middle-class.  What was happening among men who had sex with men outside them?  This project was an attempt to find out. 

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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