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.


I convene and teach on the MRes in Sexuality and Gender Studies.

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 will lead to the production of a short, polemical manifesto.

(2) 'Critical Freedoms':  This project critically examines the concept of freedom broadly – and of freedom of expression in particular – through the lens of concepts and insights from modern critical theory and the continental philosophical tradition. It addresses the ways in which, and reasons why, ‘freedom' is often assumed to be a value of the Right wing and asks what those of other political affiliations risk losing when they allow and endorse this. Relatedly, it addresses how the rhetoric of ‘choice', linked with neoliberal models of governmentality, instrumentalizes ideals of individual freedom for particular ideological and economic ends. An initial publication from this project will be an edited Special Issue of the journal Paragraph that will appear in 2023.

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


Authored books 

  • Downing, Lisa, Selfish Women (London and New York: Routledge, 2019).
  • Downing, Lisa, Iain Morland and Nikki Sullivan (co-authored), Fuckology: Critical Essays on John Money’s Diagnostic Concepts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
  • Downing, Lisa, The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
  • Downing, Lisa and Libby Saxton (co-authored), Film and Ethics: Foreclosed Encounters (London and New York: Routledge, 2009).
  • Downing, Lisa, The Cambridge Introduction to Michel Foucault (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)(Persian translation published in 2019.)
  • Downing, Lisa, Patrice Leconte, French Film Directors Series (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004).
  • Downing, Lisa, Desiring the Dead: Necrophilia and Nineteenth- Century French Literature Legenda (Oxford: EHRC, 2003). 

Edited books

  • Downing, Lisa (ed), Critical Freedoms (Special Issue of Paragraph published as stand-alone book by Edinburgh University Press, 2023) (in press)
  • Downing, Lisa and Lara Cox (eds), Queering The Second Wave (Special Issue of Paragraph published as a stand-alone book by Edinburgh University Press, 2018).
  • Downing, Lisa (ed.), After Foucault: Culture, Theory, and Criticism in the 21st Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
  • Translation into Croatian of Downing, Lisa and Robert Gillett (eds), Queer in Europe (2011): Queer u Europi (Zagreb: Zagreb Pride, 2013).
  • Downing, Lisa and Robert Gillett (eds), Queer in Europe: Contemporary Case Studies (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011).
  • Downing, Lisa and Sue Harris (eds), From Perversion to Purity: The Stardom of Catherine Deneuve (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007; reissued in paperback: 2011).
  • Nobus, Dany and Lisa Downing (eds), Perversion: Psychoanalytic Perspectives/ Perspectives on Psychoanalysis (London and New York: Karnac Books, 2006). 

Edited conference proceedings

  • Harkness, Nigel, Lisa Downing, Sonya Stephens and Tim Unwin (eds), Birth and Death in Nineteenth-Century French Culiture (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007).
  • Capatanio, Sarah, Lisa Downing, Paul Rowe and Nicholas White (eds), Currencies: Fiscal Fortunes and Cultural Capital in Nineteenth-Century France (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005). 

Guest-edited special issues of journals

  • Downing, Lisa (ed), Special Issue of Paragraph: Journal of Modern Critical Theory on ‘Critical Freedoms’, 46:3, 2023 (in press).
  • Downing, Lisa and Lara Cox (eds.), Special Issue of Paragraph: Journal of Modern Critical Theory on ‘Queering the Second Wave’, 41:3, 2018.
  • Downing, Lisa (ed.), Special Issue of Psychology and Sexuality on 'Sex Blogging', 3:1, 2012.
  • Downing, Lisa and Robert Gillett (eds), Special Issue of Sexualities, on 'European Culture/ European Queer', 15:1, 2012.
  • Cryle, Peter and Lisa Downing (eds), Special Issue of Psychology and Sexualityon 'Nature and Normality in the History of Sexuality', 1:3, 2010.
  • Cryle, Peter and Lisa Downing (eds), Special Issue of Journal of the History of Sexuality, on 'Feminine Sexual Pathologies', 18:1, 2009.

Articles in refereed journals

  • Downing, Lisa ‘Im/mobility’, differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Special Issue on ‘Syntax of Thought: Reading Leo Bersani', ed. Jacques Khalip and Paul Ricco, 34.1, 2023 (in press)
  • Downing, Lisa, ‘Author Functions and Freedom: “Michel Foucault” and “Ayn Rand” in the Anglophone “Culture Wars”’, Paragraph: Journal of Modern Critical Theory, Special Issue on ‘Critical Freedoms’, ed. Lisa Downing, 46: 3, 2023 (in press)
  • Downing, Lisa and Maggie Nelson, ‘On Freedom: The Dialogue. Lisa Downing in Conversation with Maggie Nelson’, Paragraph: Journal of Modern Critical Theory, Special Issue on ‘Critical Freedoms’, ed. Lisa Downing, 46: 3, 2023 (in press)
  • Downing, Lisa, ‘"(S)extremism”: Imagining Female Violence in the Twenty-first-Century with Navine G. Khan-Dossos and Julia Kristeva”, Paragraph: Journal of Modern Critical Theory, "43:2, 2020, 212-229.
  • Downing, Lisa,‘The Body Politic: Gender, The Right Wing, and “Identity Category Violations”’, French Cultural Studies, 29:4, 2018, 367-377.
  • Downing, Lisa, ‘Antisocial Feminism? Monique Wittig, Shulamith Firestone, and Proto-Antisocial Queer’, Paragraph: Journal of Modern Critical Theory, Special Issue on ‘Queering the Second Wave’, ed. Lisa Downing and Lara Cox, 41:3, 2018, 364-379.
  • Downing, Lisa, ‘Dying for Sex: Cultural and Forensic Narratives of Autoerotic Death’, New Formations, Special Double Issue on ‘Death and the Contemporary’, ed. Georgina Colby, 89-90, 2017, 137-152.
  • Downing, Lisa, ‘Heteronormativity and Repronormativity in Sexological “Perversion Theory” and the DSM-5's “Paraphilic Disorder” Diagnoses’, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44:4, 2015, 1139-1145.
  • Downing, Lisa 'Safewording!: Kinkphobia and Gender Normativity in Fifty Shades of Grey', Psychology and Sexuality, 2013, 4:1, 2013, 92-102.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Gendered Constructions of the Nightmare in French Nineteenth-Century Medical Writing and Fantastic Fiction', French Studies, 66:3, 2012, 331-346.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Interdisciplinarity, Cultural Studies, Queer: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Contentions in France', Paragraph, Special Issue on 'Queer Theory's Return to France', ed. Oliver Davis and Hector Kolias, 35: 2, 2012, 215-232.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Notes on a Proto-Queer Rachilde: Decadence, Deviance and (Reverse) Discourse in La Marquise de Sade', Sexualities, Special Issue on 'European Culture/ European Queer', ed. Lisa Downing and Robert Gillett, 15:1, 2012,16-27.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Reading Bitchy Jones's Diary: Sex-Blogging, Community-Building and Feminism(s)', Psychology and Sexuality, Introduction to a Special Section of a Special Issue on 'Sex Blogging', 3:1, 2012, 5-11.
  • Downing, Lisa and Robert Gillett, 'Georges Bataille at the Avant-garde of Queer Theory?: Trangression, Perversion and Death Drive', Nottingham French Studies, Special Issue on 'The French Avant-garde', ed. Stephen Forcer and Emma Wagstaff, 50:3, 2011, 86-100.
  • Downing, Lisa, ‘On the Fantasy of Childlessness as Death in Psychoanalysis and in Roeg’s Don’t Look Nowand von Trier’s Antichrist’, Lambda Nordica, 2:3, 2011, 49-68.
  • Downing, Lisa and Robert Gillett, 'Viewing Critical Psychology through the Lens of Queer', Psychology and Sexuality, Special Issue on 'Queer(y)ing Psychology', ed. Peter Hegarty, 2:1, 2011, 4-15.
  • Gillett, Robert and Lisa Downing, 'The Translation of Deployment/ The Deployment of Translation: The dispositifin Foucault, his Exegetes and his Translators', In Other Words: The Journal for Literary Translators,Special Issue on 'Translating Queers/ Queering Translation', ed. B. J. Epstein, No. 36, 2010, 40-53.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'John Money's "Normophilia": Diagnosing Sexual Normality in Late-Twentieth-Century Anglo-American Sexology', Psychology and Sexuality, Special Issue on 'The Natural and The Normal in the HIstory of Sexuality' ed. Peter Cryle and Lisa Downing, 1:3, 2010, 275-87.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Murder in the Feminine: Madame Lafarge and the Sexualization of the Nineteenth-Century Criminal Woman' Journal of the History of Sexuality, Special Issue on 'Feminine Sexual Pathologies' ed. Peter Cryle and Lisa Downing, 18:1, 2009, 121-37.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Reviewing the Sexual Relation: Levinas and Fim', Film-Philosophy,Special Issue on 'The Occluded Relation: Levinas and Cinema’, ed. Sarah Cooper, 11:2, 2007, 49-65.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Baise-moior the Ethics of the Desiring Gaze', Nottingham French Studies, special issue on 'Focalizing the Body: Recent Women's Writing and Filmmaking in France' ed. Gill Rye and Carrie Tarr, 45:3, 2006, 52-65.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'The Birth of the Beast: Death-Driven Masculinity in Monneret, Zola and Freud', Dix-Neuf, fully refereed online journal of the Society of Dix-Neuviémistes, no. 5, 2005, 28-46.
  • Downing, Lisa and Dany Nobus (co-authored ), 'The Iconography of Asphyxiophilia: From Fantasmatic Fetish to Forensic Fact', Paragraph: A Journal of Modern Critical Theory, 27:3, 2004, 1-15.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'French Cinema's New Sexual Revolution: Postmodern Porn and Troubled Genre', French Cultural Studies, Special Issue on 'New Directions in French Cinema' ed. Sue Harris, 15:3, 2004, 265-80.
  • Downing, Lisa,'The Measure of Sexual Dysfunction: A Plea for Theoretical Limitlessness', Transformations: Region, Culture, Society, special issue on 'Regions of Sexuality', ed. Iain Morland and Wendy O'Brien no. 8, 2004.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Aesthetic Violence and Motiveless Murder in French Decadent Fiction', French Studies, 58:2, 2004, 189-204.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'On the Limits of Sexual Ethics: The Phenomenology of Autassassinophilia', Sexuality and Culture, 8:1, 2004, 3-17.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Death and the Maidens: A Century of Necrophilia in Female-Authored Textual Production', French Cultural Studies, 14:2, 2003, 157-168.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Between Men and Women; Beyond Heterosexuality: Limits and Possibilities of the Erotic in Lynne Stopkewich's Kissed and Patrice Leconte'sLa Fille sur le pont',Romance Studies, University of Swansea, 20:1, 2002, 29-40.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Feminist Fictions of the Flesh (?): Alina Reyes's Le Boucherand Rachilde's La Marquise de Sade', Journal of Romance Studies, 2:1, 2002, 51-64.

Book chapters

  • Downing, Lisa,  'Selfish Cinema: Sex, Heroism, and Control in Adaptations of Ayn Rand for the Screen’ in Questioning Ayn Rand: Subjectivity, Political Economy, and the Arts, ed. Neil Cocks (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2020), 109-129.
  • Downing, Lisa, ‘Foucault and True Crime’ in After Foucault: Culture, Theory, and Criticism in the 21st Century, ed. Lisa Downing (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 185-200.
  • Downing, Lisa, ‘“Straight” Necrophilia as a “Queer” Perversion' in Lynne Stopkewich's Kissed', in Tainted Love; Screening Sexual Perversities, ed. Darren Kerr and Donna Perbedy (London: IB Tauris, 2017), 3-13.
  • Downing, Lisa, ‘Perversion and the Problem of Fluidity and Fixity’ in Clinical Encounters: Psychoanalytic Practice and Queer Theory, ed. Noreen Giffney and Eve Watson (New York: Punctum, 2017), 105-126.
  • Downing, Lisa, ‘Where's Girlhood? The Female Child Killer and Tony Hickson's Where's Mary? (2005)’ in International Cinema and the Girl: Local Issues, Transnational Contexts, ed. Fiona Handyside & Kate Taylor (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 153-163. 
  • Downing, Lisa, ‘Snuff and Nonsense: The Discursive Life of an Imaginary Archive’, in Porn Archives, ed. Tim Dean, Steven Ruszczycky & David Squires (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014), 249-261.
  • Downing Lisa, ‘On “Compulsory Sexuality”, Sexualization, and History’, Commissioned Afterword for The Routledge History of Sex and the Body in the West, 1500 to the Present, ed. Sarah Toulalan and Kate Fisher (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), 527-533.
  • Downing, Lisa, ‘Sexual Perversion as Textual Resistance in the Writing of Rachilde and Monique Wittig’ in Modernist Eroticisms: European Literature after Sexology, ed. Anna Katharina Schaffner and Shane Weller (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), 195-212.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Eros and Thanatos in European and American Sexology' in Bodies, Sex and Desire from the Renaissance to the Present,ed. Kate Fisher and Sarah Toulalan (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), 201-220.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Sexual Variations' in Sexuality in the Age of Empire (1820-1920), ed. Chiara Beccalossi and Ivan Crozier, vol. 5 of A Cultural History of Sexuality,general ed. Julie Peakman (Oxford: Berg, 2011), 63-81.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Michel Foucault' in The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory, ed. Robert Eaglestone (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Criminality, Sexuality, Abnormality: Nineteenth-Century Scientific Constructions' in New Approaches to Crime in French Literature, Culture and Film, ed. Louise Hardwick, (Bern: Peter Lang, 2009), 19-33.
  • Downing, Lisa,‘Beyond Safety: Erotic Asphyxiation and the Limits of S/M Discourse' in Safe, Sane and Consensual: Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism ed. Darren Langridge and Meg Barker (Palgrave, 2007), 119-32.
  • Downing, Lisa,'Polanski's Deneuve: Frigidity and Feminism' in From Perversion to Purity: The Stardom of Catherine Deneuve, edited Lisa Downing and Sue Harris (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 14-28.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Perversion, Historicity, Ethics ' inPerversion: Psychoanalytic Perspectives/ Perspectives on Psychoanalysis, edited Dany Nobus and Lisa Downing (London and New York: Karnac Books, 2006), 149-163.
  • Downing, Lisa,'Thanatos' , 'Necrophilia', 'Erotic Asphyxiation', 'Charles Baudelaire', 'Pétrus Borel', in Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature, ed. Gaëtan Brulotte and John Phillips (London and New York: Taylor and Francis, 2006).
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Sexuality' in Companion to Modern French Thought, ed. Christopher John Murray (London and New York: Taylor and Francis, 2004), 582-7.
  • Downing, Lisa, ''Ecstasies and Agonies: The 'Oceanic Feeling', God and Sexuality in Baudelaire and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam' in (Un)Faithful Texts: Religion in French and Francophone Literature from the 1780s to the 1980s, ed. Paul Cooke and Jane Lee (New Orleans: University Press of the South, 2000) 53-66.

Review articles (over 1500 words)

  • Downing, Lisa, Review of Mandy Merck and Stella Sandford (eds), Further Adventures ofThe Dialectic of Sex: Critical Essays on Shulamith Firestone(New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010) in Studies in the Maternal, 4:1, 2012.
  • Downing, Lisa, 'Object-Become-Subject: When Femmes Look Back', Review of Del LaGrace Volcano and Ulrika Dahl, Femmes of Power: Exploding Queer Femininities(London: Serpent's Tale, 2008) in SQS - Journal of Queer Studies in Finland, 5:1, 2011, 63-65.
  • Downing, Lisa, Review of Rothenberg, Foster and Zizek (eds), Perversion and the Social Relation (Duke University Press, 2003) in Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 36:1, 2007,127-28.
  • Downing, Lisa, Review of Tim Dean, Beyond Sexuality(Chicago University Press, 2000) in Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 34: 2, 2005, 255-57.

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.