Sex and death are two intricate parts of life – but it’s when they join forces that interests a leading Birmingham academic.

As part of the University of Birmingham’s week-long Arts & Science Festival , Professor Lisa Downing will be giving a 45-minute lecture called Dying for Sex.

The public talk, on Wednesday will explore how auto-erotic death has been represented in narratives including literary fiction and internet humour.

Prof Downing will also feature a section on celebrity auto-erotic deaths, including rock star Michael Hutchence, and the way such deaths have been reported in the press.

Prof Downing was 31 when she was appointed to her first professorship at the University of Exeter.

Since 2012, she has been the University of Birmingham’s Professor of French discourses of sexuality, but admits next week’s talk will be particularly challenging.

“Normally I give lectures to my peers and not to members of the public,” she says.

“I’ve previously given a version of this talk to pathologists and this will be a different audience.

“If you research this kind of area you get inured to seeing explicit images.

“There will be a warning at the beginning that three of the slides will feature dead bodies in post-mortem pictures involving auto-erotic death.

“These have been previously published and they are from the 1970s – I’m not sure what happens before they appear in text books.”

Prof Downing says one of the areas which most interests her is the blurring of the lines between fiction and reality.

“In fiction we see explicit stuff that’s simulated, so that real images can seem to be tamer.

“You have to realise that this is real.”

Then there is the way that images are used.

“The British Library has textbooks with images in them that, if they appeared on a website for titillation you could be prosecuted under the Extreme Images Act,” she says.

“The uses of some materials could (either) be legitimate or criminalised.”

Although her studies have included the history of perversion in Europe and America, Prof Downing says she never investigates paedophilia.

“I don’t have children, but there are some areas I don’t want to watch and I want to leave children out of it.

“But with necrophilia, death is something I’ve always been interested in going back to French literature and how we deal with it in culture.

“My job is media representation not the people themselves.

“What does contemporary culture make out of extreme things and what you can and can’t speak about.

“Death is often hidden, but it seems we can talk about anything with celebrities and we talk about them in a way we wouldn’t want to talk about ourselves.”

In that respect, Prof Downing says she has no desire to be famous herself – and even thought twice about giving this interview when she could have been concentrating on her job to “direct research and postgraduate study in interdisciplinary sexuality and gender studies across the University of Birmingham”.

“Once you allow people into your lives you lose control,” she says.

“I am quite reclusive and don’t want anybody else knowing my business.”

Another subject which fascinates her is scapegoating.

Her latest book, The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer (Chicago University Press, 2013) critiques the West’s construction of the figure of the murderer.

It asks: “why (do) we refuse to see this violent character as a product and reflection of our culture and instead cast him or her as an exceptional monster, wholly apart from the rest of us?”.

Prof Downing, who was awarded the Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2009 for being an outstanding scholar, says: “It’s all about how the average human being feels superior.

“How evil ‘lies over there’.

“We don’t have to feel about our own potential for violence.

“So we scapegoat certain figures like Brady and Sutcliffe in order to remain morally aloof.

“Myra Hindley was much more vilified than Ian Brady despite arguably being the less active participant (in the Moors Murders).

“They were two people doing horrendous things to try to escape the guise of their banal, working class lives.”

Another question of interest is why the sentences for taking a life can be so different on a case by case basis.

“(US female serial killer) Aileen Wuornos received multiple sentences for her crimes, so much more severe than Ted Bundy whose crimes were arguably as serious,” says Prof Downing.

“There are certain sort of criminals we just can’t accept, but what does sentencing reflect about the every day acts of violence?”

Equally fascinating is the question of why we don’t want criminals in our neighbourhoods – but we are perfectly happy to invite them into our living rooms on TV programmes and films about robbers, thieves and killers in all manner of police-related stories.

“It’s as if it’s ‘out there’ and in another space, so somehow you are making yourself more safe from it,” Prof Downing reasons.

“There’s something very strange about the degree that people will watch very extreme things on television.

“What is the pay off? What are people getting out of it?

“I do wonder to what degree we are becoming desensitised, especially by the internet.

“Today’s pre-teens are being exposed to a whole range of things.

“At least you had to take your children to the cinema before.”

But then, she admits, there’s the other view...

“That children are becoming more savvy and image literate and are not being corrupted in the way the government thinks they are.”

* The University of Birmingham’s Arts and Science Festival runs from from March 16-23 For full festival listings, visit: www.birmingham.ac.uk/artsandsciencefestival or telephone 0121 414 3344 for details.