Sexuality and social work: how is the social worker doing? By Anke van den Dries

For more than 10 years now I have been working as a social worker assisting sex workers. Humanitas PMW in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, is a NGO that offers specialized support to anyone who makes or made money with sex, irrespective of for example the type of sex work, their gender, age, ethnicity or residence status. PMW follows the pro-sex feminist discourse by emphasizing sex work as a form of labour. PMW does not strive for actively getting people out of the job. At PMW, our mission is to contribute to the empowerment of sex workers on micro, meso and macro level and to the improvement of their labour position. Unfortunately we also meet clients who did not choose sex work voluntarily or were exploited as victims of trafficking: we also offer them specialized assistance.

The work at PMW is inherently connected to sexuality. Curiously, the way this job influences the sexuality and intimacy of the social worker seems to be a non-topic. I therefore made it into a research topic for my Master of Social Work. In this blog post I want to share some preliminary thoughts and reflections. I look forward to hear your ideas and experiences.

It is evident that social work can influence the health and wellbeing of the professional. Positive or negative moods from work can lead to positive or negative moods in the private life and vice versa. Literature on occupational influences like compassion satisfaction, compassion fatigue, secondary or vicarious traumatization and burnout are abundant[i]. Yet, talks on how occupational influences could enter the bedroom of the social worker, touching his or her sexuality and affecting the private intimate relationships, remain taboo.

Could this be explained from the myth portraying the social worker as the superman/-woman who is always strong and ready to help? Vulnerability could then be conceived as weakness, incompetence or shameful.[ii] Somehow ‘blaming the victim’ might apply to ourselves: although we advocate for compassionate treatment of our clients, when addressing occupational influences of colleagues, there seems to be a focus on individual coping strategies (or perceived lack of making adequate use of self-care or supervision), instead of classifying the influences as a manifestation connected to the specific profession.[iii] This could impede professionals from speaking up and addressing occupational influences. Considering the sensitivity of the topic, the barrier might be even higher considering in particular occupational influences on sexuality.

However, as we all know, social work assistance is greatly determined by the quality of relationship between worker and client and the ways in which the social worker uses his or her own self as a tool in the process.[iv] Caring well for this ‘tool’ is, therefore, of paramount importance.

In our team, we’ve now started to open up the topic, for example through a brainstorm board on which colleagues were invited to write down their ideas and experiences over a period of a few weeks. This form allowed for an asynchronous yet cumulative group discussion, respectful for anonymity and possible inhibitions.[v] Several occupational influences on the private wellbeing and particularly sexuality and intimate relationships of the social worker were found and visualised in a mindmap.[vi] Social workers described occupational influences on emotional and physical aspects of intimate partner relationships, and influences on their relational skills. They reported changed images of for example gender and porn. Also, it was mentioned that the experienced taboo or shame around the topic limits possibilities of consultation or support among colleagues. Further investigation of this topic will follow.

I am curious what your thoughts are on this. Are you aware whether your social work influences your sexuality? How do you use positive influences? How do you cope with negative influences (self-care / organizational care)? Could a persisting taboo on sexuality, the norm of keeping private life and work separated or the norm of being the strong professional contribute to underexposure of the topic? Until what extent is reflection on this by social workers non-committal or indispensable? Do workers actively need to be stimulated and encouraged within educational programs and their work place? What is the responsibility of the employer in caring for the employee in this?

Feel free to contact me at

Anke van den Dries

[i] E.g. Bride, B.E. (2007). Prevalence of Secondary Traumatic Stress among Social Workers. Social Work, 52(1), pp. 63-70 / Lloyd, C., King, R. & Chenoweth, L. (2002). Social work, stress and burnout: a review. Journal of Mental Health 11(3), 255-265 / Newel, J.M. & MacNeil, G.A. (2010) Professional Burnout, Vicarious Trauma, Secondary Traumatic Stress, and Compassion Fatigue: A Review of Theoretical Terms, Risk Factors, and Preventive Methods for Clinicians and Researchers. Best Practices in Mental Health 6(2), 57-68.

[ii] Maes, J. (2007). De hulpverlener: tussen afstand en nabijheid. Retrieved at 25 October 2015, from %20NA.pdf

[iii] Bober, T., & Regehr, C. (2006). Strategies for reducing secondary or vicarious trauma: Do they work? Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, 6(1), 1-9.

[iv] E.g. Vries, S., de (2014). Wat werkt? De kern en kracht van het maatschappelijk werk. Amsterdam: SWP / Payne, M. (2014). Modern Social Work Theory, Hampshire/New York: Palgrave Macmillan / Wampold, B.E. (2015). How important are the common factors in psychotherapy? An update. World Psychiatry, 14(3), pp. 270-277.

[v] Swanborn, P.G. (2006). Basisboek sociaal onderzoek. Amsterdam: Boom onderwijs.

[vi] For mindmap see

Conservative Christian Beliefs and Sexual Orientation in Social Work: Tackling the tough questions

by Adrienne Dessel, PhD

The work involved in “Conservative Christian Beliefs and Sexual Orientation in Social Work: Privilege, Oppression and the Pursuit of Human Rights” seems to have only widened in terms of where we are in the U.S. with regard to oppression, privilege, and human rights. While we now have a recent Supreme Court ruling that made marriage equality legal nationwide, the backlash of anti-LGBT legislation ranges from Title X rulings granting waivers to ban LGBT students to the state of Tennessee ruling that therapists with “sincerely held principles” can legally refuse to see LGBT clients. There seems to be a widening of the gap in religious circles too in terms of how social workers are dealing with these issues. This book takes a look at the many facets of Christianity with regard to LGB issues, a biblical, methodological, and ethical analysis, and ways to transform the conflict through intergroup dialogue and other methods. Issues such as referring out and how to mediate some of the tensions are key, as well as ways to be both Christian and affirming.

About the author:

Adrienne Dessel, PhD, LMSW is Co-Associate Director of The Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) and Lecturer in the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan. Her community consultations include social justice education for public school teachers, and evaluation of LGBT education services. She teaches courses on intergroup dialogue facilitation, the social psychology of prejudice and intergroup relations, and global conflict and coexistence. Her research focuses on intergroup dialogue processes and outcomes, on topics of Arab/Jewish conflict, religion and sexual orientation, gender, and dialogue facilitator learning. Her recent co-edited book is Conservative Christian Beliefs and Sexual Orientation In Social Work: Privilege, Oppression, and the Pursuit of Human Rights.

You can reach her at

Relationships: What Keeps People Happy?

by Dr Priscilla Dunk-West, Senior lecturer in social work, Flinders University, South  Australia


In Britain, the ESRC funded research project Enduring Love asked the question: what are people’s experiences of long-term relationships? Amongst other academic outputs, Gabb and Fink (2015) have written a book on the findings of the study in which they set out the day-to-day meanings and practices of people in long-term heterosexual and same sex relationships. Unlike other studies which focus on relationship breakdown or divorce, the findings of the Enduring Love study can help to demonstrate how relationship ‘practices’ – for example, doing good things for one another—help to increase relationship quality. More recently, the Enduring Love survey was completed by Australian and American couples in long-term relationships, which, combined with UK data, meant that over 8000 people have told researchers about their relationships.

One of the questions in the survey sought to better understand how people in relationships make sense of the way the other person makes them feel. The question asked respondents to name what makes them feel appreciated. Making someone a daily cup of tea or other small gestures were found to be incredibly important to people in helping them feel appreciated and loved. This finding is counter to the more traditional or stereotypical grand symbols of romance which feature heavily in mainstream movies and fiction. Rather, it’s the little things that matter.

The findings of the study have a range of practice implications, such as helping to better understand how a strengths-based approach can be used to assess relationship quality. For couples, sometimes those little things are forgotten so asking oneself: ‘what does my partner do that makes me feel appreciated?’ can help to serve as a reminder of all those little, everyday gestures which make people happy in their relationship. More about how to ‘make relationships last’ can be found in this new book.

In relation to the research, my role was to roll out the Australian survey (using the UK instrument) and analyse the data. I have been researching in sexuality since my undergraduate days in sociology (over 25 years ago) and have been in practice as a sexual health counsellor/ sex therapist where I saw individuals and couples for a range of intimacy and sexual issues. My PhD research sought to focus on ‘everyday sexuality’ in order to use data to understand the day-to-day issues that individuals face around intimacy. My research is concerned with sexuality, intimacy, relationships and identity.


‘Rights and pleasure go hand in hand.’ By Dr Lel Meleyal

A UK social work student, Ann*, was on placement in an Adult Services Team.  In a case discussion Ann proposed that perhaps the recent unusual and more frequent challenging behavior of a young man with Learning Difficulties could be related to sexual needs. Her suggestion was dismissed out of hand and no further discussion was invited. Ann reflected on the ethical and practice related difficulties in enabling and facilitating the developing sexual identity of a young person with additional needs but was also concerned that ignoring sexual needs was oppressive and perpetuated the discriminatory notion of disabled people as non-sexual beings.

In social work we have a significant and positive history of providing for the functional and support needs of people with disabilities.  Research however, demonstrates that there continues to be an underpinning assumption that people with disabilities are asexual. As a consequence support and advice about sex and rights in relation to sexual activity are infrequently discussed (Stonewall: 2015). This is further compounded by the notion of disability as homogenous which leads to the failure of service providers to consider the interrelationship between social divisions which in turn leads to individuals feeling more vulnerable to discrimination (Molloy et al: 2003) Valuing People outlined that “Good services will help people with learning disabilities develop opportunities to form relationships, including ones of a physical and sexual nature” (DH 2001:23). However, a subsequent national survey in England in 2004 showed that 92% of the near 3000 adults with learning difficulties surveyed were single and had always been single (Emerson et al 2005: 3). A number of studies have shown that people with learning difficulties may have little understanding of contraception (McCarthy: 2009); and may take their sex education from the media and this information is likely to be inadequate in relation to the emotional and psychological aspects of intimate relationships (Lockhart et al: 2010, 118).

Social work students were asked to consider an article in the Guardian (Ryan: 2013) which featured a photograph of the late Helen O’Tool, disabled activist protesting against proposals to criminalise clients of sex workers.  In the photograph she is wearing a poster saying ‘disabled and horny’. In a discussion students did not feel they would be comfortable discussing sexuality and sexual needs with a service user.  They suggested a lack of awareness of physical needs and abilities “Even if it was part of my role I don’t think I could ask someone about whether they were able to masturbate”; lack of awareness of legal boundaries “Is it legally OK to give advice about where to find a sex surrogate?”; lack of awareness of where sexuality and sexual needs might fit in a holistic assessment and lack of awareness of support services to refer to.  Interestingly, subsequent discussion with a group of experienced practitioners suggested that many felt they were equally as unprepared to discuss sexuality with service users.

It has been argued that our theories and actions as social workers contribute towards a social construction of sexuality (Hicks: 2008). Awareness of the ways in which we uphold the rights of individuals to experience good sexual health allows us to challenge oppressive stereotypes and practice in an empowering and inclusive way. In the context of issues such as the successful referendum heralding changes to the Irish constitution on same sex marriage (May 2015) many of us have become self-congratulatory about our liberal acceptance.  However, as Ann’s experience indicates, sexuality continues to be both a challenging aspect of social work and central to our work if we are to truly recognize and support diversity and make services fully accessible.

*Ann is a pseudonym

Emerson, E., Malam, S., Davies, I. and Spencer, K. (2005) Adults with Learning Difficulties in England 2003/4, London, National Statistics / NHS Health and Social Care Information Centre.

Hicks, S. (2008) Thinking through Sexuality. Journal of Social Work Vol 8:1 pp65-82

Lockhart, K. & Guerin, S. & Shanahan, S. & Coyle, K. (2010) ‘Expanding the Test of Counterfeit Deviance. Are sexual knowledge, experience and needs a factor in the sexualized challenging behavior of adults with intellectual disability?’, Research in Developmental Disabilities, Vol. 31, pp. 117-130.

McCarthy, M. (2009)’I have the jab so I can’t be blamed for getting pregnant’: Contraception and women with learning disabilities. Women’s Studies International Forum.  32: 3.  Pp198-208.

Molloy, D., Knight, T., Woodfield, K. (2003) Diversity in disability: Exploring the interactions between disability, ethnicity, age, gender and sexuality.  Research Report 188.  DWP: London. (accessed 28/5/15)

Ryan, F. (2013) I want a world where disabled people are valid sexual partners. The Guardian 12 February 2013.

Stonewall (2015) LGBT Disabled People. (accessed 28/5/15)

About the author:

Dr Lel Meleyal is a Lecturer in Social Work and Social Care at the University of Sussex where she delivers sexualit/ies teaching sessions to BA and MA social work students.  Her research interests relate to conduct, boundaries, boundary transgression, personal and professional identity and the epistemology of regulatory failure.  Her personal and professional interest in sexuality issues have origins in her history of lesbian feminist activism.


Hello world!

Welcome to the official blog of the Sexuality in Social Work Interest Group! The purpose of this blog is to provide a platform for members to share reflections on research, teaching, policy developments, practice issues and any other current social and political issues relevant to social work, human rights and sexuality. We also welcome original contributions about trans* issues and social work.

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