(Getty/Portra)

How a fake sex doctor conned the media

Quoted as a Harvard-educated sexologist, Damian Sendler's credentials and research went unquestioned for years


Nicole Karlis
March 4, 2019 9:08PM (UTC)

It all started with a peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine. The title — "Similar mechanisms of traumatic rectal injuries in patients who had anal sex with animals to those who were butt-fisted by human sexual partner" — grabbed the attention of media websites, including IFLScience, who rightfully called it “the most not-safe-for-work (NSFW) scientific study of all time” in 2017.

The response to this viral sex research study catapulted the career of author and sexologist Damian Jacob Markiewicz Sendler; soon, he became a prominent talking head for multiple media outlets, offering up his expert insights on topics ranging from necrophilia to barre class.  You may have heard him dispense his “expertise” in articles published in Playboy or Vice, or listened to his interview with Dan Savage in May 2018 on the Savage Lovecast podcast. Last month, Forbes published an article, “Why Do Women Fall in Love With Serial Killers,” which included quotes from Sendler. “Many women, and some men, idealize criminals and murderers as the type of person who can give them support. It’s like a fetish,” Sendler told Forbes.

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But according an investigation by Jennings Brown published by Gizmodo on Friday, all of these publications were duped. Brown spent weeks interviewing dozens of sources at universities and hospitals to suss out what about Sendler is fact and what is fiction. The jury is still out, but most of the evidence points to Sendler being a world-class grifter.

Here's what we know: Sendler, who is 28, positioned himself as a Harvard-trained “sexologist” and a doctor. He claimed to be a top researcher at a renowned foundation. But Sendler does not have a degree from Harvard, nor does the foundation he claimed to work for exist. Regarding his research, specifically on necrophiliacs, Brown writes, “it’s difficult to know if these tales are real or pulled from Sendler’s own imagination.” Brown confirmed with two employees of the Harvard Medical School registrar that Sendler never enrolled or received a MD from the medical school, nor did he receive a PhD or any degree from Harvard University. But in an interview with Gizmodo, Sendler said: “I got into Harvard Medical School for MD, PhD, and Masters degree combined.” He later backpedalled and told Brown got his MD at Warsaw Medical University — a claim neither Gizmodo nor Salon could verify.

Since Gizmodo’s piece, many publications have either removed their stories that cited Sendler, or added an editor’s note referring to the Gizmodo investigation. Savage told Gizmodo that he had Sendler as a guest on his show after Sendler reached out to Savage Love to share one of his "studies." (Sendler denied this in a statement.)

“This was Savage Love-bait,” Savage told Gizmodo. “Clearly we’re going to have to add a layer of vetting that we haven’t had in the past [...] I’m sitting here looking back over the last 10 years of podcasts, thinking—who else was on the show who had a published paper, an incredible-looking website, and asserted things about their credentials, and we were like, ‘Sounds good!’”

"I’m really annoyed by this—having been duped and exploited like this in this con,” Savage added. “This is so disappointing."

David J. Ley, Ph.D, who is quoted in the piece as a third-party psychology expert, published more information on his involvement with the investigation in Psychology Today.

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“As I started reviewing the materials, my amazement grew,” Ley writes. “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.”

So how did Sendler get away with this for so long, without facing any questions about his background? “Simply put – he was bold and aggressive in his claims, and no one questioned them," Ley theorizes. "Even though they should have.”

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“Our media, in a time of clickbait journalism, is desperately hungry for sensational, controversial soundbites,” he added.

Surely there is some truth to this, as there is some truth to the old adage that sex sells. Ley recommends journalists do their due diligence and verify clinical licensure. The journals who published his studies are at fault, too, as their failure reveals holes in the system, too. Sendler's recent dupe recalls other recent academic hoaxes.

Sendler has released a statement about the article, which appears to cast blame on media and journalists. “I hoped that working with reporters would demystify seemingly controversial topics,” he said. “Apparently very few reporters take the time to read research papers thoroughly before interviewing scientists.”

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As for the stethoscope that appears in Stendler's headshot, he said: “There are hundreds of thousands of pictures of medical students, nurses, and technicians posing with medical devices online.”


Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a news writer at Salon. She covers health, science, tech and gender politics. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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