The Rise of Fake Sexperts

Mainstream media may love sensational sex stories a bit too much.

Posted Mar 02, 2019

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

At first glance, Damian J. Sendler looked compelling, informative, and professional. His website touted his skills and training, an MD and Ph.D. in psychiatry, apparently from Harvard. A sexologist who described that working with underprivileged, ignored sexuality populations had become his passion. Academic publications on a range of startling and cutting-edge topics, from erotic asphyxiation to zoophilia and necrophilia. He’d written pieces on successful business development, and even one article on the psychology of doctors who practiced while under the influence of alcohol. And he had an incredible resume of references in the mainstream media, including Forbes, Vice, Playboy and Women’s Health. Unfortunately, it all turned out to be a web of deceit.

Several weeks ago, Jennings Brown, Senior Editor of the news site Gizmodo, contacted me by email. I’ve been a sometime source and expert for Gizmodo journalists, so I assume that’s how he found me. “I’m investigating someone who seems to be misrepresenting their credentials,” Jennings wrote. “I mostly want to run some of this stuff by you and get your expert take.” Jennings started sending me materials and links and websites he’d gathered. And he shared with me that at this point, he could find no evidence that Sendler held the degrees he claimed, and did not appear to be licensed in the state of New York, where he was allegedly practicing and running a research clinic of some kind.

As I started reviewing the materials, my amazement grew. Every stone that we turned, revealed more claims that seemed dubious, but had been accepted without the slightest question, by a media that salivates over sensational sexual headlines. Jennings’ article published on March 1, and garnered a storm of attention

By Jennings’ account, and his remarkable investigative journalism, Sendler appears to have simply created a very slick website, dubbed himself an expert, granted himself various titles of a fictional organization, and started sending out articles to both the academic and mainstream publishing world. Sadly, it appears that for a time, he was also advertising that he was providing clinical services via email and teleconferencing, though it is unclear at this point how many services he actually provided and to whom.

How did this guy slip through? How did the media simply accept his self-declared credentials? How did he manage to get as many as eight articles published in the academic literature, where he identified himself as affiliated with an organization that didn’t exist? Simply put – he was bold and aggressive in his claims, and no one questioned them. Even though they should have.

As Jennings and I continued our correspondence, with me occasionally offering him suggestions and tips about how to parse through Sendler’s claims, and how to identify what reality would look like, in contrast to what Jennings’ calls Sendler “fabulist” presentation, our conversation turned towards how to prevent this in the future.

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Our media, in a time of clickbait journalism, is desperately hungry for sensational, controversial soundbites. Sendler weaponized this, telling Jennings: “I ask myself usually: Is this the weirdest thing I have done in terms of scientific inquiry?” Then he smirked. “And if this is so weird and it’s going to put me probably in trouble somewhere around the world, or someone is going to call me to do a conference talk and I’m going to get millions of questions about what is this, I think, oh, that’s a cool driver.”

Sadly, it appears that our academic press, with peer-reviewed journals and editorial boards, fared no better. Though Sendler exaggerated some of his academic credentials, claiming accepted publications in journals which denied that they had accepted his papers, he was successful at getting papers published by The Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, The European Journal of Psychiatry, The Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, Deviant Behavior, Journal of Emergency and Critical Care Medicine, and The Journal of Forensic Sciences, and a dozen others. At least, so claims his Google Scholar page. At the Pubmed site, run by the US NIH, several of these articles and citations also come up. Review of these publications indicates that Sendler claimed he received Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval for these studies, though having myself dealt with IRB’s concerns about sexuality research in the past, I am dubious. But, it doesn’t appear that any of the journals or editors who did (actually) accept and publish his research, verified that he held the degrees, experience and affiliations he claimed. These articles, their research, their references, and their IRB approvals, all need to be carefully reexamined, lest they be used in court or clinical settings without being further vetted.  

Toward the end of this fascinating endeavor, Jennings asked me an important question: How should media and journals be verifying the credentials of people they treat as experts? And, by the way, why is that important?

We have professional licensure laws in our country (and in most others around the world) to protect the public. Just because you call yourself a dentist, or a plumber, or a psychiatrist, doesn’t mean you have the skills to perform these sophisticated jobs safely, and effectively. Sendler had an apparent focus on working with sexual minorities such as persons with rare paraphilic disorders, with transgender people, with victims of sexual assault (he allegedly visited hospitals to offer clinical support to rape victims), to traumatized veterans, and to persons struggling with self-harm and suicidal ideation. These are marginalized individuals and represent incredibly vulnerable populations. The best clinicians and researchers in the world are constantly debating about the most effective ways to treat these issues. But Sendler appeared to have all the answers. Or, at least he said he did. Which led me to the recommendations I made, on how we can screen out quacks like Sendler in the future. None of these are foolproof. Sendler did manage to present at IASR in 2017. But these are at least a start:

  • Absolute Answers. The world of science, sexuality, psychology, and healthcare is a world of constantly evolving nuance. Though journalists love bold answers, absolute, broad sweeping claims, with no equivocation, reflect a level of confidence that is rarely supported in these fields.
  • Clinical Licensure. Sendler held no state licenses to practice healthcare in New York. This was a simple check that took less than 90 seconds. Though many researchers do not hold clinical licenses, anyone who is recommending clinical interventions or giving any therapeutic advice should have a verifiable clinical license. The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and therapists requires all certified sex therapists to hold a clinical license.
  • Have presented papers or presentations at reputable, national professional bodies and associations. While some slip through, in recent years I’ve seen several self-declared experts disinvited from such conferences when their lack of qualifications became known to the organizations.
  • They are offering opinions in their area of expertise. Many people are convinced that since they’ve had sex, or have strong opinions about sex, their convictions are the equivalent of academic degrees, training, and license in sexual health. A neurosurgeon, for instance, might be great in the operating room, but if they offer opinions about sexual brain science, without having ever been trained in sexual medicine and research, we have a clinician practicing outside their scope.
  • Colleague references. While outsiders and outside ideas are great and help science move forward, an alleged expert needs to have co-authors, references, co-presenters who are also accepted experts, who can be verified.
  • Quack beliefs and pseudoscience: Sendler apparently loved to write and talk about salacious, sensational topics. Some of his publications read more like soft-core erotica than clinical literature. He also touted the idea that video games and pornography are addictive. While these ideas are in debate in the field, Sendler showed no recognition of this.
  • Finally, there needs to be a lot more on a sexpert, than just their website. If, as in the case of Sendler, all links online seem to lead back to the experts’ own website, we have a problem.

Sendler now faces a host of legal challenges and scrutiny. Like the recent perpetrators of the “Grievance Studies Hoax,” Sendler shows us holes in our system. Sadly, different from the Grievance Studies authors, Sendler’s motives appear to have been to exploit these holes, rather than draw attention to them. It’s now our job to ensure these loopholes are filled in, to ensure public safety and accurate information about sexual health in the mainstream media. 

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