Every Wednesday The CSPH highlights a Sexuality Professional you should keep your eye on. Their backgrounds are very diverse in order to bring attention to the wide variety of amazing people working in the field. This week we bring you Martin Downs!
1. What do you do in the field of sexuality?
I write a sex advice column for Penthouse magazine. I’m a public health worker on the side. For fun, I do stuff like promote immunization and study health care.
2. Where are you based out of?
A small New Hampshire town. I’m the new Salinger.
3. What is your focus? What do you do?
Within the field of sexuality, I am a generalist. The topics I address in my column are all over the place. For example, I just finished writing a column in which I answered two questions about pain related to sexual activity, and another one about the sexuality of Icelandic women. Last month, I wrote about the “sexual imprinting” hypothesis, how to respond to a sext from a coworker, and the role of sex hormones in multiple sclerosis. Yesterday I got a letter from a guy who’s concerned about his “man boobs.”
Before I started writing for Penthouse, I had worked as a journalist for nearly a decade. Writing my column is not too different from taking assignments as a reporter, in that I never know what’s going to land on my desk next. Oftentimes I get questions to which I don’t know the answer. I’m comfortable with that because I’m good at finding things out.
I research my column assiduously, even when I think I know the answer. That’s partly because the old journalistic dictum, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” is so ingrained in me. I want to be confident that I’m not parroting received wisdom or perpetuating myths. More than once I’ve had to change my opinion to fit the facts. But I also really enjoy the process of hunting for primary source documents, querying databases, poring over tables, and all that.
The other part of what I do is write. My information has to be accurate, and it has to be communicated in accessible language. That would do for a fact sheet or a pamphlet. But I write for a popular magazine, and one that features photos of naked women rather prominently. So my column has to be fun to read.
What’s more, not every question lends itself to an evidence-based answer. I dish out a lot of straight-up advice and opinion. Sometimes I just have to say, “Here’s what I’d do.” But whenever I opine or conjecture, I make a point to clearly differentiate my hot air from any stated facts. Sometimes I can write from personal experience. Other times I have to empathize, and work through the problem with a mind to ethics, responsibility, and practicality. Basically I try to be helpful.
4. What are your particular goals and passions in the field?
I get riled up over all sorts of things. One of the things I harp on all the time is how little high-quality empirical data we have about human sexuality. In my column, I try to call out “facts” about sexuality that are really sketchy inferences and culture-bound assumptions.
The medicalization of sexuality is another issue that gets me going. On numerous occasions I’ve written critically about pharmaceutical companies’ (so far failed) attempts to bring a “female Viagra” to market. I think that diagnoses like hypoactive sexual desire disorder, as well as sex addiction, can be used as a weapon against people whose sexuality makes someone else uncomfortable.
As a public health guy, I’m really excited about how successful HPV vaccination policy has been so far. I’m also pleased that since the World Health Organization developed a definition of sexual health that includes sexual pleasure and freedom, the field of public health isn’t solely concerned with sexually transmitted infections. There was a great paper published last year in the American Journal of Public Health calling for more attention to sexual satisfaction in public health research.
I’m a big history buff in general, so I enjoy delving into the history of sexuality. I think it’s really helpful to understand how sexual norms and attitudes change over time and across cultures.
5. Why did you choose to work in this field?
When I was younger, I just thought it would be really punk rock to be a sex writer. At age 15, I published a pornographic zine and sold it on consignment in a local fetish boutique. I also got suspended for selling it in school. At age 19, I made an earnest effort to write pornography and sell it to magazines. I sent a lot of unsolicited submissions to Penthouse, in fact. The enterprise netted a lot of rejection notices, and I gave it up. But indirectly, it led to my first published piece of writing. A few years later, I took one of those stories and fed it to a language translation software program. I translated the text into various languages and back to English. The result was hilarious, and I got it published in a very respectable literary magazine.
I was fascinated with sexuality, and I thought it would be cool to do something with it, but I didn’t have a clear direction. A turning point came in 2001, when I was working as an editor at a Web site called CBS HealthWatch. This was a joint venture between CBS News and Medscape.com. Sexual health was one of my content areas. It occurred to me one day that whenever anal sex was mentioned in a story, it was always in the context of HIV transmission. I thought there must be lots of people looking for more information about anal sex on the Internet — people like me, for instance. So I went ahead and wrote the article I wanted to read. My bosses liked it well enough to feature it as the top story on the site’s home page.
We on the editorial side of things weren’t very aware of what the business side was up to. We didn’t know, for instance, that the company had made a content syndication deal with General Motors Corp., whereby each day’s top story on CBSHealthWatch.com would also appear on the computer screens of GM employees worldwide.
All that morning, we were flooded with calls from GM executives demanding to know why all their workers were reading about anal sex.
I was delighted. Not only did I think it would make a good story to tell someday, but I also felt a real sense of pride in knowing that I had probably helped to enlighten a fair number among the thousands that were merely titillated or scandalized. And I realized then that my enthusiasm for writing about sex wasn’t all impishness, and that I really cared about this stuff.
6. Where did you go for school/training?
I got my Master of Public Health degree at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. (When I was there, it was called the Center for the Evaluative Clinical Sciences.) It’s part of what used to be called Dartmouth Medical School, recently renamed the Audrey and Theodor Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.
Before that, I got a BA in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I wound up there when I decided I wanted to be a writer after my first year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I’m still not sure if dropping out of art school was a tragic mistake, or the best decision I’ve ever made.
7. Do you have any literature out (websites, articles)?
Yes. When I first started writing for Penthouse, the column was called “Double Exposure.” The concept was to provide expert advice from “his and hers” points of view. Dr. Victoria Zdrok and I would each answer the same questions, and our advice would be printed side by side. You can read some of those online. My current column, “Carnal Knowledge” is only me, and only in the magazine.
There’s more on my personal Web site, mfdowns.com.
8. What would you recommend to future professionals attempting to get into the field?
Please consider doing representative population-based studies on sexual attitudes and behavior. The world needs a lot more of those.
9. What is the most challenging aspect for you working in this career?
I’d say it’s challenging to be a professional “whatsit.” When people ask me what I do, I don’t know where to begin. I write my column. I work at a nonprofit where I do public health work in the community. I’m working on an independent sexuality research project. I’m offering myself for hire as a consultant. And I still pick up an occasional feature writing assignment.
A lot of the work I’m doing right now is solitary, but I like to network and collaborate, and I actually enjoy teamwork. That’s kind of weird for a writer; and maybe it’s why I’m not content to only be a writer. I hope that as some of my new projects get rolling, I’ll be able to find cool people to work on them with me.
The other thing that’s challenging is that I have two young children. I’d like to attend more sexuality conferences, but I can’t just take off for days at a time whenever I feel like it.
10. One must-read: What would you recommend? Why?
The Social Organization of Sexuality, a 750-page book containing the complete results of the National Health and Social Life Survey, which was the first comprehensive, representative survey of adult sexual behavior in the United States. The data are 20 years old now, but the contextual discussion of the questions and results is still highly relevant.
That’s one. One!