Mar 19 2019

Dr Alex Dymock, School of Law, has recently been working on a project with Dr Leah Moyle and Dr Ben Mechen called, 'Pharmacosexuality: the past, present and future of sex on drugs'. We recently caught up with Alex to discover more about this project, and to hear about her appearance on Radio 4's 'Women's hour'.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role within the School of Law?

I am a Lecturer in Criminology and Law, and have worked at Royal Holloway since 2015. My research is primarily centred around sexuality and gender studies, with a particular interest in constructions of sexual ‘deviance’, pornography and the law, processes of criminalisation, and feminist and queer theory. I teach a mixture of Criminology and Law, and run a specialist third year option drawing on my research in Gender, Sexuality and Crime. I’m also Director of Research Impact for the department.

2. We understand that you are currently working on a project with Dr Leah Moyle and Dr Ben Mechen called, ‘Pharmacosexuality: the past, present and future of sex on drugs’. Could you tell us a bit more about this project?

The project was originally conceived to expand and challenge common assumptions and discourses surrounding ‘chemsex’, generally conceptualised as sexualised drug taking within communities of men who have sex with men (MSM). Our project aims to challenge two assumptions about the intersection of sex and drugs: firstly, we wanted to challenge the idea that the use of drugs in sexual contexts is new; and secondly, we wanted to challenge the idea that it is solely the preserve of MSM. For example, there is virtually no other research to date that investigates how women combine drug taking and sex. It’s a 1 year project, and over this period we’ve undertaken two research scoping exercises. The first is archival, which allows to learn more about the intersection between the history of sexuality and the history of drugs. In particular, we were interested in how so-called ‘risky’ populations and risky sexual practices have been regulated through policing of drug-taking, and vice versa, and how the construction of sex on drugs is always historically contingent and politically contested. The second pilot is empirical, combining 30 semi-structured interviews with people with a range of sexual identities and orientations who mix sex and drugs, and virtual ethnography on drug forums and message boards. This aspect of the project helps us learn more about the meanings people attach to drug taking in sexual contexts and, in tandem with the historical pilot, how people’s narratives, the drugs they use, and the sexual practices they engage in, have shifted over time. I feel extremely privileged to work with Ben, who’s a very talented historian of sexuality and contemporary Britain, and Leah, who’s an incredibly knowledgeable and skilled qualitative drugs researcher. Our interdisciplinary expertise has really shaped the project, and I think enriched it. 

3. We also understand that you have recently appeared on ‘Women’s hour’ to discuss the historical aspects of the Pharmacosexuality project. Could you tell us a bit more about this show and your discussion on it?

Woman’s Hour is on BBC Radio 4 every weekday from 10 – 11am, and has a sort of magazine format. It consists of a whole range of debates, interviews, fiction, and contemporary research around issues that primarily concern women. While our project is not exclusively concerned with women’s drug taking in sexual contexts, it became clear quite rapidly that this aspect of the research was going to be particularly important. I was put in touch with a Woman’s Hour producer by Emily in the Media and Comms team, who rang me up a couple of days before the scheduled interview to discuss the project and some of the questions that might be asked about the research. While they were particularly interested in one aspect of the project – how now-illicit drugs have historically been used in psychiatry to treat women’s ‘frigidity’ – the interview turned out to be more wide-ranging than this, a bit of a whistle stop tour through ‘chemsex’, Freud, cocaine, LSD therapy in the 60s, and women’s ‘frigidity’. The interviewer, Jane Garvey, threw in a couple of curve balls about intoxication and sexual consent, suggesting sex under the influence of illegal drugs for women is always risky and usually coerced. It gave me a good opportunity to talk about how limited and limiting discourses around women’s drug taking in sexual contexts are, and the false dichotomy between ‘safe’ legal drugs and ‘risky’ illegal ones. It was a really great opportunity, and fun to check out Broadcasting House! 

4. This research is funded by a Wellcome Trust Seed Award. Could you tell us what this award is, and who the Wellcome Trust are?

The project is funded by a Wellcome Trust Seed Award in the Humanities and Social Science. Leah and I had been discussing for some time working together on a project examining sex and drugs, and when a targeted call came up for projects on Sexuality and Health we knew we had to give it a go! Wellcome Seed awards are a really great initiative. They provide you the time and resources to experiment, test out and pilot brand news research ideas, often in areas you’ve never previously directly researched, with the aim of building towards a much larger grant bid and project. Wellcome Trust is a charitable foundation, focused on supporting ideas and research that work towards improving societal health. While they do provide a lot of funding for biomedical science, their humanities and social science funding streams are also generous.

5. Aside from the Pharmacosexuality project, are you currently working on/have any other projects planned?

Related to the project, I’m working with my colleague in the School of Law, Rob Jago, on a couple of publications on the criminalisation and sentencing of ‘chemsex’ related offences. Unrelated, I am currently racing to complete my first monograph, under contract with Routledge, which is based on my PhD research examining the interaction between the history of discourses of perversion and criminal law in England & Wales. I’m also working with a group of scholars from the University of Nottingham, Birkbeck and Open University to co-edit a Special Issue of the journal, Criminology & Criminal Justice on Queer Theory and Criminology, which will appear in 2020. This will be the first major publication in the UK that brings together these two fields.

6. What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

I’m a very unlikely hot yoga addict. If you’d asked me a few years ago what I thought of yoga, I’d probably have laughed you out of the door. How times have changed! I also love to swim, and occasionally even enjoy hiking in the great outdoors. I also love to travel and read a lot of contemporary fiction and non-fiction (especially by women). On a slightly less wholesome note, I recently rediscovered my love for techno and still go to clubs and raves.

7. What do you enjoy most about working at Royal Holloway and within the School of Law?

The School of Law at Royal Holloway is a really unique department, given that it covers so many different disciplines under its auspices. It means there’s a wide array of areas of expertise within the School, and there are few other places that would allow me to teach both Law and Criminology. I have lovely colleagues both within department and the broader college, and fantastic students – it’s the people that make an institution what it is.