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Dr Leigh Downes

Profile summary

Professional biography

I joined the Open University in May 2015. Prior to this I worked at Independent Domestic Abuse Services in York and North Yorkshire, was employed on various research projects as a Research Associate at Durham University (including Project Mirabal) and lectured at University of Leeds, University of Birmingham and University of York. I have a PhD and MA in Gender Studies from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies at the University of Leeds. I have also worked as a helpline volunteer for Sheffield Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre and as a volunteer for Rape Crisis Tyneside and Northumberland.

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, third or specialist sector and community responses to gender-based violence with particular attention to intersections of race, class, disability, gender, age and sexuality.

My research areas:

  • Trauma-informed and social justice approaches in teaching, learning and research: I have led and collaborated on various projects to better understand and support students to engage with sensitive and emotive topics in criminology and co-create resources to support mental wellbeing for distance, commuter and part-time students. I have a particular interest in collaborating with others to imagine possibilities for trauma-informed and social justice approaches in violence and abuse studies.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Teaching interests

I work on a number of modules in social policy and criminology. This has included DD305 Personal Lives and Social Policy, DD105 Introduction to Criminology, DD311: Crime, Harm and the State, and DD315 Researching Current Issues in Criminology.

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

PhD Supervision

I enjoy postgraduate supervision and welcome inquiries from students working in the following areas:

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

Past and current PhD students

  • Kiran Nihalani (2015-2020) Reframing and Re-enacting Welfare: An empirical exploration of small-scale, horizontal forms of ‘help’. 
  • Shannon Martin (2020-present) Decolonising the University: A Case Study of the Open University
  • Ellie Hutchinson (2024-present) A Critical Examination of Community Responses to Young People's Use of Harmful Behaviours in their Intimate Relationships.

Impact and engagement

I have presented my research both nationally and internationally. I have been an invited speaker at Lesbian Lives, The Afterlives of Protest and The Reykjavik Dialogue: Renewing activism to end violence against women. I have shared and discussed research findings with communities in a variety of accessible formats including zines, reports, toolkits, workshops and blogs. I have also published articles in The Conversation, Open Democracy, Transforming Society, Times Higher Education Campus, and the Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative blog.

External collaborations

I have collaborated with various third sector and grassroots groups including Southall Black Sisters, Sisters Uncut, Women Against Rape, Black Women's Rape Action Project and the Salvage collective.

I am currently developing research as part of the Open Societal Challenge Queer Survivor-centred Collective Futures to explore the ways in which LGBTQI+ survivors heal from harm inflicted by the institutions, cultures and services that survivors are reliant on for care, safety and justice.This research aims to build on traditional social research methods, trauma-informed and arts-based storytelling approaches to (i) examine needs (ii) critique institutions, and (iii) imagine more caring, just and healing futures. I am more than happy to receive inquiries from individuals and groups who are interested in collaborating in this project.

I am an editorial board member of the Journal of Gender Studies and peer reviewer for Journal of Gender-based Violence, Mortality, British Journal of Social Work, Theoretical Criminology, The Sociological Review, Sexualities, Feminist Review, Feminist Theory, Feral Feminisms, Women and Music, and Gender & Society.

I am a member of the Feminist Gender Equality Network, British Society of Criminology, Socio-legal Studies Association, European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control, Feminist Studies Association and British Sociological Association.

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.


Positive Digital Practices: supporting positive learner identities and student mental wellbeing in technology-enhanced higher education (2024-02)
Lister, Kate; Riva, Elena; Hartley, Alison; Waterhouse, Philippa; Moller, Naomi; Downes, Leigh; Coughlan, Tim; Kukulska-Hulme, Agnes; McPherson, Elaine; Macdonald, Ian; Jones-Tinsley, Sophie; Brown, Cath and Tudor, Ruth
Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2024, Article 5(1)

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

Healing and Recovery (2023)
Downes, Leigh
In: Dimou, Eleni; Downes, Leigh; McCulloch, Daniel and Speed, Carly eds. Researching Current Issues in Criminology (pp. 275-316)
Publisher : The Open University | Published : Milton Keynes, UK

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