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Sexpert credential checking

April 29th, 2007

Dr Petra

In recent months a number of newspapers have begun critiquing media ‘experts’ who may not be as qualified as they claim.

This has been a welcome change to the way we view experts, but unfortunately most of the media has tended to focus more on the health/nutrition angle and haven’t focused on number of quacks operating in the area of sex advice. In fact many media outlets are continuing to quote or employ ‘sexperts’ with little or no formal qualifications.

From my discussions with journalists and editors it seems the problem continues since sex as a topic isn’t taken as seriously as other issues, and there seems to be no fear of reprisals from professional bodies that magazines might expect if they give out misleading health information.

On paper the public are being presented with ‘sexperts’ who sound pretty impressive. They’ve written books, have a website, have been seen on TV and some even have academic qualifications. It’s easy to be persuaded they’re the right person for the job.

Worryingly magazines and newspapers, as well as ‘sexperts’ themselves tend to assign job titles that further imply someone is more qualified than they actually are. Current examples include titles like ‘the sex doctor’ or ‘dating doctor’ (used by people with no medical or PhD qualifications). Or you see people running their ‘sex surgery’ (again with no health qualifications).

So here’s a guide to the most commonly misused job titles within sex advice so you can spot a fake and ensure you get the right advice from a qualified person.

The psychiatrist, psychologist or counsellor

Just to clarify a psychiatrist is someone with a medical degree who has gone on to train in psychiatry, a psychologist is someone with a first degree in psychology or a related topic who has undergone further professional training in clinical, counselling or academic psychology. Often people get confused between the job titles and a useful guide to the difference can be found here. A counsellor is someone who has undergone training, professional management and assessment who may or may not have a first degree. Not all counsellors are psychologists and not all psychologists are counsellors. You can describe yourself as a ‘psychologist’ if you have a recognised degree in the discipline but those who are practicing within this area usually have additional professional or academic qualifications.

All are jobs that fulfil different roles and none are ‘better’ than the other.

Unfortunately there’s a collection of ‘experts’ appearing on television and in print media who describe themselves (or allow themselves to be described) as psychologists, counsellors or similar. Whilst professional bodies are currently working towards regulation over membership and who can use these terms in the interim there is little or no control over people misrepresenting their skills and qualifications.

To find out whether someone is qualified check with their employer or professional organisation. Whilst not everyone who is qualified maintains a membership of a professional body most can easily prove their qualifications. Those who do not have a recognised qualification in psychology (above a first degree), psychiatry or counselling should not describe themselves as such. Where someone has a first degree in psychology care should be taken not to imply they are a practising counselling or academic psychologist (more on this in a bit).

The ‘doctor’

All too often in the media we see people described as the dating doctor, the food doctor, the lurve doctor or even the DIY doctor. The media doesn’t have any problem giving people medical or PhD titles to make a good headline but this can become worrying when the public either can’t differentiate between a qualified and unqualified person offering advice, or they begin to mistrust those who are trained to offer care and support.

There have been numerous scandals of media experts claiming they have PhDs that turn out to be qualifications purchased from dodgy institutions, or who do not make it clear they are PhDs rather than medical doctors – and give medical advice without any training. In other cases people who have retired have continued to refer to themselves as ‘doctor’ or have misled the public around their professional skills and employment status.

Someone who is a doctor will be registered as such by their employer or professional organisation and will be willing to prove their skills when asked.

That’s not to say that all people with professional skills and qualifications aren’t prone to making errors, giving bad advice or acting unprofessionally. However those who are qualified can be taken to task if they step out of line. We have more problems with those who self-appoint themselves as a doc, mislead the public over health or other issues but then cannot be disciplined professionally because they’re not qualified in the first place.

Journalists should avoid giving people doctor titles just for the sake of a headline or stacking up a feature and when someone says they’re a doc they should be asked to a. prove it and b. explain their skills remit and limitations.

The ‘academic background in….’

This one has to be my favourite. It’s mostly used within my discipline of psychology so we’re often told of an expert who has ‘an academic background in psychology’. I’ve taught countless students who completed a short weekend course in psychology or who dropped out at the end of their first term of undergraduate study that could technically claim they have such a background – but it doesn’t really mean they have any major qualification. Similar claims have been made for people in nutrition, fitness and alternative healthcare.

Just because you’ve an interest in something doesn’t mean you’ve an ‘academic background’ in it. By that reasoning I’d be a forensics expert since I watch so much Law and Order and CSI. Even studied something five, ten, or twenty years ago doesn’t really qualify you since all it means is you had some academic training in a subject which is now out of date.

If someone’s claiming an academic background it should be current. That means they’ve not only got a recognised academic qualification, but that they are still currently working or receiving training in academia.

The ‘bestselling author’

Journalists frequently say to me the best way to prove you’re an expert is having sold lots of books. Which is understandable since that’s a commonly used currency within media – it’s a language journalists understand. It’s also a language the public understand since ‘bestselling author’ does have a ring of credibility to it. Unfortunately it doesn’t mean the books you’ve written are actually any good, or that anyone within your profession happens to think you’ve written anything of value they’d recommend. To be honest anyone can write a book – it’s not that difficult. Our bookstores are full of bestsellers written by people with faked or dodgy qualifications or whom colleagues within their area of expertise see as frauds.

In many disciplines (particularly many branches of academia) writing a book isn’t valued at all. What’s valued is publishing papers in high ranking academic journals. I’m not saying this is right or makes academics superior, but it does mean that anyone playing the academic game won’t figure so influentially in the media or public eye because they’ve not written a book. People can make significant contributions to policy, practice, care and communities through research, teaching, activism and practice. They probably don’t have time to write a book, but it doesn’t make them less qualified than someone who has.

As seen on TV

All too often fake ‘experts’ use their TV credentials to convince us of their skills. The ‘as seen on screen’ label is again very popular with journalists and the public but doesn’t guarantee someone is qualified. On many television programmes the ‘experts’ used are those without qualifications or ethics (or both) that’ll appear on a show whilst the viewer doesn’t realise countless other professionals turned down the programme. Really the benchmark isn’t how much TV you go on – because like writing a book it really isn’t that difficult to get on TV. The real test of someone’s skills is how often they’re asked to go on TV and how many opportunities they turn down.

The student from the university of life

If all else fails you often find ‘experts’ admitting they don’t have any formal qualifications but they have been to the ‘university of life’ that gives them the right to offer advice. This is an interesting one since there are people who have worked in the sex industry or had relationship experience that is worth sharing. The problem comes when they move beyond sharing their own experiences to telling others how to run their lives, or overstepping their boundaries and giving outdated or misleading advice.

The one who goes on lots of courses

Journalists frequently tell me that they’ve spoken to experts who are experts because they ‘go on a lot of courses’. Obviously professional development is very important and we do want to encourage people to keep on updating their skills. However a bad case of certificateitis doesn’t really help if the courses a person attends aren’t run by anyone that well qualified, or are based on outdated or incorrect information. Rather than accepting someone has been on a course, one should try and find out what courses they’re going on – and what they’re learning. And if in doubt use people who run reputable courses (rather than those who just go on lots of them) as your main source of advice.

Hopefully this gives you a better idea about qualifications – and how they’re misused. If in doubt always ask questions, and if you’ve heard of any other dodgy job titles let me know and I’ll add them to the list.

If we don’t sort out the dodgy sex/relationships experts we’ll continue to be left with this kind of thing*…..

*Courtesy of YouTube, impressionist John Culshaw takes off Jeremy Kyle.

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