Professor Lisa Downing BA, MA (London) DPhil (Oxon)

Photograph of Professor Lisa Downing

Department of Modern Languages
Professor of French Discourses of Sexuality

Contact details

Ashley Building
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

I am Professor of French Discourses of Sexuality and a specialist in interdisciplinary sexuality and gender studies, critical theory, and the history of diagnostic and cultural concepts. My enduring research interest is in questions of exceptionality, difficulty, and (ab)normality as they are represented and understood in cultural, medical, and political fields. My most recent work has been on cultural figures who embody what I have termed ‘identity category violations’ – including female killers, female extremists, and the ‘selfish women’ of my most recent book title. As an interdisciplinary scholar, I work especially closely with colleagues in psychiatry and the other psy sciences and engage in training, collaboration, and publications with individuals and teams in these fields. I also work with creative practitioners and have recently co-created several exhibitions and a series of events on extremism, gender, and mental health with the international artist Navine G. Khan-Dossos.

In the academic year 2021-22 I held a Leverhulme Fellowship which enabled me to spend 12 months writing my book Against Affect, which I am now preparing for publication. This book examines how the language of emotion is historically gendered and racialized. This is because, since the Enlightenment project of the eighteenth century, women and people of colour have been associated with emotionality and white men with logic and reason. Against Affect questions a number of shibboleths about feeling and reason, and their relationship with progressive values, gender, and freedom in the 21st century. I argue that the popularity of the ‘affective turn’ in the academic humanities has coincided with the broader deployment of a public rhetoric that prioritizes – and exploits – feeling over reason. I argue that prioritizing ‘feeling’ may not benefit those historically excluded from ‘reason’ – in fact quite the reverse.


Originally trained in modern European languages, literatures, and thought at the Universities of London and Oxford, I read for a DPhil from 1996-1999, under the supervision of the late Prof. Malcolm Bowie, on French literature and discourses of necrophilia. (This was published as Desiring the Dead: Necrophilia and Nineteenth-Century French Literature in 2003).  I have since worked at Queen Mary University of London and the University of Exeter, before taking up my Chair at the University of Birmingham in 2012.

In 2009, I was the recipient of a Philip Leverhulme Prize, awarded to “outstanding scholars under the age of 36 who have made a substantial contribution to their field of study and whose future contributions are held to be of correspondingly high promise”. This prize provided me with two years of funded research leave from Exeter from 2010-2012. During the two-year period of research leave, I completed a major monograph about the gendering and othering of the figure of the murderer from 1830 to the present day, The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer, which appeared in March 2013 with the University of Chicago Press, and I worked on a co-authored book with Dr Iain Morland and Dr Nikki Sullivan about the work of the late sexologist John Money. The cheekily titled Fuckology: Critical Essays on John Money’s Diagnostic Concepts was published in 2015, also with Chicago UP. My section of the book explores Money’s contribution to the controversial perversion/ paraphilia diagnosis.

Most recently, I have written a book entitled Selfish Women. This book examines cultural narratives surrounding women who espouse or explore discourses of self-interest, self-regard, and selfishness. The book asks how revisiting the words and works of selfish women of modernity, including Rachilde, Ayn Rand, Margaret Thatcher, and Lionel Shriver, can assist us in understanding our fraught individual and collective identities in contemporary culture. Moreover, it examines whether women with politics that are contrary to the interests of the collective can teach us anything about the value of rethinking the role of the individual. 


Postgraduate supervision

I welcome applications from PhD students in any of my current areas of interest, listed below:

Theoretical and cultural studies approaches to crime and criminality
Historical or contemporary sexuality and gender studies
Interrogations of feminist, queer, Foucauldian, psychoanalytic, and ethical thought
Identity politics and freedom of expression
Women and power, women and the right wing, women and politics
The gendering of ‘extremism’.

Find out more - our PhD French Studies  page has information about doctoral research at the University of Birmingham.


All of my research is underpinned by a guiding interest in exploring cultural and historical understandings of, and reactions to, perceived (ab)normality, extremity, and exceptionality – whether these be found in the so-called sexual perversions/ paraphilias with which much of my earlier work was concerned; in those subjects who transgress the gendered expectations placed upon them, such as female murderers; or in the ‘selfish’, right-wing women who are the subject of my most recent book. This is also why the ideas of philosopher of ‘normative power’, Michel Foucault, has featured prominently as a theoretical constant in my work, in combination with an individualist feminist ethic which strives to see female subjects always as flawed, full human beings, beyond the straitjackets of gendered norms.

My current research projects include:

(1) ‘Against Affect’: This project explores the ways in which the so-called ‘affective turn’ within the academic humanities has coincided with a cultural shift in public discourse concerning reason, feeling, freedom of expression, and identity. I argue for a feelings-free, pro-rational feminist response to the ills of populism, identity politics-based factionalism, and anti-intellectualism. This project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust in 2021-22, has led to the production of a short, polemical manifesto that will appear with University of Nebraska Press in their ‘Provocations’ series in 2025/26.

(2) ‘Beyond Monsters, Moral Panics, and MAPs: Reasoning the Sex Offender’: This nascent project will bring together an interdisciplinary team to trace a critical genealogy of the medico-legal figure of ‘the sex offender’ in the UK and in comparative European contexts. It will lead to several outputs and impact activities, including a co-authored book. The book will argue that we should reject the cultural tendency to other paedophilic persons and offenders as monsters, and should instead pursue a rational understanding of those with paraphilic desires or a deep-seated grudge against women, such as the largely online community of men known as ‘Incels’, as the most expedient way to avoid offending behaviour. It will also examine how misogynistic and non-child-centric cultures, such as 1970s celebrity culture in Britain, can facilitate and normalize the behaviour of those who go on to offend, exemplified by Jimmy Savile. Cases such as these show that those who offend are not wholly divorced from the attitudes of the culture they live in, but extreme logical extensions of it – a fact it behoves us to acknowledge. A facet of this project, examining data found on incel online fora, has been funded by the University’s Institute for Global Innovation (PI: Dr Sophie King-Hill; CI: me) in 2023-24.

My inaugural lecture at the University of Birmingham took as its subject matter some aspects of my research project on ‘selfish women’ that culminated in my 2019 monograph of that title

Other activities

  • Research affiliations
    Affiliate of the Centre for the History of European Discourses (CHED) at the University of Queensland, Australia.
    Research Associate of the Centre for Somatechnics, which originated at Macquarie University, Australia, and is now hosted at the University of Arizona, USA.
    Affiliate of Amsterdam Research Centre for Gender and Sexuality (ARC-GS) at University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
  • Critical Sexology
    Co-organizer for 10 years (with Dr Meg-John Barker, Open University and Dr Robert Gillett, QMUL) of this interdisciplinary seminar series for psychologists, psychoanalysts, medical doctors, literary and cultural studies scholars, philosophers, artists, lawyers and historians with a critical interest in the construction and management of gender and sexuality in the medical, discursive and cultural spheres.
  • Society of Dix-Neuviémistes
    Founding member of the Executive Committee of the Society of Dix-Neuviémistes (SDN), a UK-based organization for international researchers in nineteenth-century French Studies. (Conference Officer from 2001-2006.)
  • AHRC Peer Review College
    Former member of the AHRC's Peer Review College for the following subjects: Gender and Sexuality; Film History, Theory, Criticism; Media and Communication; French Studies.
  • Editorial/ advisory board service


Recent publications


Downing, L 2023, Against Affect. University of Nebraska Press.

Downing, L 2019, Selfish Women. 1st edn, Routledge, London and New York.

Downing, L (ed.) 2018, After Foucault: Culture, Theory and Criticism in the 21st Century. After Series, Cambridge University Press. <>


Downing, L 2023, 'Author Functions and Freedom: “Michel Foucault” and “Ayn Rand” in the Anglophone “Culture Wars”', Paragraph , vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 301–316.

Downing, L 2023, 'Im/Mobility', Differences, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 150-155.

Downing, L 2023, 'Introduction', Paragraph , vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 279-289.

Downing, L & Nelson, M 2023, 'On Freedom: The Dialogue', Paragraph , vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 372-386.

Downing, L 2020, '‘(S)extremism’: imagining violent women in the twenty-first century with Navine G. Khan-Dossos and Julia Kristeva', Paragraph , vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 212-229.

Downing, L 2018, 'The body politic: gender, the right wing and 'identity category violations'', French Cultural Studies, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 367-377.

Chapter (peer-reviewed)

Downing, L 2017, Perversion and the Problem of Fluidity and Fixity. in N Giffney & E Watson (eds), Clinical Encounters: Psychoanalytic Practice and Queer Theory. Punctum Books. <>


Downing, L 2020, Selfish Cinema: Sex, Heroism and Control in Adaptations of Ayn Rand for the Screen. in Questioning Ayn Rand: Subjectivity, Political Economy and the Arts. pp. 109.

Downing, L 2018, Foucault and true crime. in L Downing (ed.), After Foucault : Culture, Theory and Criticism in the 21st Century. After Series, Cambridge University Press, pp. 185-200.

Review article

Downing, L 2018, 'Antisocial feminism? Shulamith firestone, monique wittig and proto-queer theory', Paragraph, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 364-379.

Downing, L 2018, 'Introduction', Paragraph, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 261-267.

Special issue

Downing, L (ed.), Cox, L, Nelson, M, Waltham-Smith, N & Nicholas, L 2023, 'Critical Freedoms', Paragraph , vol. 46, no. 3.

View all publications in research portal


Feminism and women’s rights; women and power; women and the right wing; women and extremism; female murderers; sexualities rights.


  • Women and extremism, women and the right wing, the treatment of violent women.
  • The Prevent strategy with regard to mental health and freedom of expression. 
  • Freedom of expression with regard to sexuality and gender issues.
  • The medicalization of non-normative sexuality - history and present contexts.