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Dr Leigh Downes

Profile summary

Professional biography

I joined the Open University as a Lecturer in Criminology and Social Policy in May 2015. Prior to this I gained my PhD from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies at the University of Leeds. During and after my PhD I worked at Independent Domestic Abuse Services in York and North Yorkshire before moving into the field of gender-based violence research as a Research Associate employed on various research projects including Project Mirabal, an ESRC and Northern Rock funded project on the impact of UK community-based domestic violence programmes on women and children's safety and freedom. 

Research interests

The overarching aim of my work is to document and honour the lived complexities, struggles of, and impacts on, survivors of violence who are marginalised by the criminal legal system and systemic oppression including: anti-authoritarian social movements, LGBTQI+ communities, racially minoritized groups, and sex workers. This constitutes a critical exploration of criminal justice, specialist sector and transformative justice responses to gender-based violence with particular attention to intersections of race, class, disability, gender, age and sexuality.

My current research areas:

  • Feminist Anti-violence Imaginations: Rethinking British anti-violence movement histories. Ongoing archive-based research to examine definitions, debates and tactics that circulated in British feminist, women's, anti-racist and abolitionist movements against gender-based violence in 1970s and 1980s.
  • Trans prisoner experience and gender incongruence in prison regimes in England and Wales: I am writing up research conducted at one men's prison with Dr. Abi Rowe based on interviews with 7 trans and non-binary prisoners, 3 cisgender prisoners and 7 cisgender prison staff members to explore how social processes, responses and reactions shape the lived experiences of trans prisoners.
  • Trauma-informed and social justice approaches in teaching, learning and research: I was the PI of the FASSTEST scholarship project 'Towards Emotional Resilience: Supporting student learning of emotive and sensitive content' (our final report is available here on Scholarship Exchange). I continued this work as Co-I of Positive Digital Practices (Office for Students, Mental Health competition, 2021-23) and as the Emotional Resilience work-package lead (you can access our digital toolkit here). I have a particular interest in collaborating with others to imagine possibilities for trauma-informed and social justice approaches in violence and abuse studies.

Teaching interests

My teaching interests span feminisms, critical race theory, queer studies, critical trans studies, abolitionist feminisms and transformative justice. Prior to the OU I have taught undergraduate and postgraduate courses at various institutions including the University of York, Durham University, Birmingham University and the University of Leeds.

I have worked on modules such as DD305 Personal Lives and Social Policy, DD105 Introduction to Criminology and DD315 Researching Current Issues in Criminology. In the current year (23/24) I am working on two module teams in presentation: DD311: Crime, Harm and the State and DD105: Introduction to Criminology and one module in a production capacity DD315 Researching Current Issues in Criminology.

I am a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy with a specific interest in trauma-informed learning.

PhD Supervision

I welcome PhD applications in the following areas:

  •  violence, abuse and harm
  •  grassroots activisms
  •  informal and community responses to harm
  •  survivor resistance, healing and recovery
  •  trauma-informed praxis

Current and past postgraduate research students

  • Loveness Mshipe-Williams. Assisting the unwanted: Intersections and impacts of the United Kingdom’s “hostile environment” in social work with migrant women and children experiencing domestic abuse. 2021-present.
  • Shannon Martin. Decolonising the University: A Case Study of the Open University. 2020-present. APP-funded.
  • Janice Knox-Goba. Sexual Violence Against Women: Law Reform and Perceptions of Practitioners in Sierra Leone. 2019-present.
  • Kiran Nihalani. Reframing and Re-enacting Welfare: An empirical exploration of small-scale horizontal forms of 'help'. 2015-2020, Faculty funded.

Externally funded projects

Salvage: Gendered Harms in Activist Communities
RoleStart dateEnd dateFunding source
Lead01 Feb 201631 Jan 2017Feminist Review Trust

The Salvage research project aims to create knowledge about the lived experiences of harm, violence and abuse in radical activist communities in the United Kingdom. The project used participatory action research approaches and qualitative methods to critically explore sexual violence and abuse experienced by women, gender-queer and transgender individuals within radical activist communities, organisations and groups. The goal here was to co-construct knowledge and develop a network of survivors to work towards creating effective challenges to heterosexism within social justice movements and activist communities. The current project follows on from the Salvage research project as a distinct phase to put research findings into practice and enhance the social impact of research. This involves the development and delivery of 5 workshops with activists based across the UK provisionally titled ‘How to Best Respond to Sexual Violence within your Organisation/Group’. Specifically these workshops aim to help activists identify and challenge sexism and abuse within their groups. More broadly the workshops aim to transform social justice movements into safer, inclusive and more effective movements in which women, non-binary and transgender individuals can transform their lives and provoke social change. The tools developed, case studies and feedback will also be made available online for use by activist groups, organisations and communities in other locations. The workshop phase of this project has been funded by the Feminist Review Trust.


Guest editorial: Queer theory and criminology (2020)
Lamble, Sarah; Serisier, Tanya; Dymock, Alex; Carr, Nicola; Downes, Julia and Boukli, Avi
Criminology & Criminal Justice, 20(5) (pp. 504-509)

“It’s a work in progress”: Men’s Accounts of Gender and Change in their Use of Coercive Control (2019-10)
Downes, Julia; Kelly, Liz and Westmarland, Nicole
Journal of Gender Based Violence, 3(3) (pp. 267-282)

“It’s Not the Abuse That Kills You, It’s the Silence”: The silencing of sexual violence activism in social justice movements in the UK Left (2017-12-31)
Downes, Julia
Justice, Power and Resistance, 1(2) (pp. 35-58)

Ethics in violence and abuse research - a positive empowerment approach (2014-02-28)
Downes, Julia; Kelly, Liz and Westmarland, Nicole
Sociological Research Online, 19, Article 2(1)

Researching DIY cultures: towards a situated ethical practice for activist-academia (2013-09)
Downes, Julia; Breeze, Maddie and Griffin, Naomi
Graduate Journal of Social Science, 10(3) (pp. 100-124)

The expansion of punk rock: riot grrrl challenges to gender power relations in British indie music subcultures (2012-01-11)
Downes, Julia
Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 41(2) (pp. 204-237)

Situating Criminological Knowledge Production (2023)
Downes, Leigh and McCulloch, Daniel
In: Dimou, Eleni; Downes, Leigh; McCulloch, Daniel and Speed, Carly eds. Researching Current Issues in Criminology (pp. 19-54)
Publisher : The Open University | Published : Milton Keynes

Re-imagining an End to Gendered Violence: Prefiguring the worlds we want (2019-11-20)
Downes, Julia
In: Hart, Emily; Greener, Joe and Moth, Rich eds. Resist the Punitive State: Grassroots Struggles Across welfare, housing, education and prisons
ISBN : 9780745339511 | Publisher : Pluto Press | Published : London

Section 4 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976 (2018-12-27)
McGlynn, Clare and Downes, Julia
In: Rackley, Erika and Auchmuty, Rosemary eds. Women's Legal Landmarks: Celebrating the history of women and law in the UK and Ireland (pp. 327-332)
ISBN : 9781782259770 | Publisher : Hart Publishing

Seeking justice for survivors of sexual violence: Recognition, voice and consequences (2017-02-09)
McGlynn, Clare; Downes, Julia and Westmarland, Nicole
In: Zinsstag, Estelle and Keenan, Marie eds. Restorative Responses to Sexual Violence: Legal, Social and Therapeutic Dimensions. Routledge Frontiers of Criminal Justice (pp. 179-191)
ISBN : 9781315630595 | Publisher : Routledge

‘We are turning cursive letters into knives’: the synthesis of the written word, sound and action in riot grrrl cultural resistance (2014-12)
Downes, Julia
In: Carroll, Rachel and Hansen, Adam eds. Litpop: Writing and Popular Music. Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series (pp. 89-105)
ISBN : 978-1-4724-1097-9 | Publisher : Ashgate | Published : Farnham

‘Let Me Hear You Depoliticise My Rhyme’: Queer Feminist Cultural Activisms and Disruptions of Conventional Protest (2008)
Downes, Julia
In: Davy, Zowie; Downes, Julia; Eckert, Lena; Gerodetti, Natalia; Llinares, Dario and Santos, Ana Cristina eds. Bound and Unbound: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Genders and Sexualities (pp. 181-200)
ISBN : 978-1-8471-8539-6 | Publisher : Cambridge Scholars Publishing | Published : Newcastle

Riot Grrrl: The legacy and contemporary landscape of DIY feminist cultural activism (2007)
Downes, Julia
In: Monem, Nadine ed. Riot Grrrl: Revolution Girl Style Now!
ISBN : 1906155011 | Publisher : Black Dog Publishing | Published : London

Researching Current Issues in Criminology (2023)
Dimou, Eleni; Downes, Leigh; McCulloch, Daniel and Speed, Carly eds.
Publisher : The Open University | Published : Milton Keynes

Women Make Noise: Girl bands from Motown to modern (2012-09)
Downes, Julia ed.
ISBN : 978-0-9566329-1-3 | Publisher : Supernova Books | Published : London

Teaching Emotionally Challenging Topics: An educator’s guide to supporting emotional resilience skills in higher education (2022-12)
Downes, Leigh and Wall, Ruth
The Open University

Eradicating Sexual Violence in Tertiary Education: A report from UCU’s sexual violence task group (2021-12-20)
Addington, Carola; Sundari, Anitha; Baars, Vicki; Day, Katy; Domoney-Lyttle, Zanne; Downes, Julia; Gillies, Jane; Mabrouk, Meriam; Marlow, Emily; McGookin, Naomi; McMillan, Lesley; Reece, Nina; Sundaram, Vanita and Grady, Jo
UCU, London.

Salvage: Gendered Violence in Activist Communities (2016-09-21)
Downes, Julia; Hanson, Karis and Hudson, Rebecca
Footprinters Workers Co-op, Leeds.

Salvage: Gendered Harms in Activist Communities
Downes, Julia; Hanson, Karis and Seglow Hudson, Rebecca