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@hva.nl.

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 http://www.johanmaes.co/upload/De%20hulpverlener%20tussen%20A%20en %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 http://web.fhnw.ch/plattformen/sexualityandsocialworkconferences/conference-program/presentations/session13/presentation_anke_van%20den%20dries_marios_kotsonis_SSW16.pdf