Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Ethics and Sex, Part 1

Focusing in on ethics for the short-term.  One common topic on both the ASWB Clinical exam and the BBS Law & Ethics exam is sex.

The very first thing discussed in the Code of Ethics is that we as social workers have a “primary responsibility to promote the well-being of clients” (standard 1.01). 

Engaging in a sexual relationship with a client is unethical because it gets in the way of promoting that very well-being.  For a pretty thorough description of the ways clients can be harmed via sexual contact with their therapist, check out Kenneth S. Pope’s article, “Sex Between Therapists and Clients.”

Image Credit Kate McHugh Akbar

The Code of Ethics spells it out pretty clearly.  Paraphrased below:

Don’t have a sexual relationship with current client, either consensual or nonconsensual (standard 1.09[a]).

Don’t have a sexual relationship with clients’ relatives or friends when there is a risk of exploitation/potential harm to the client.  This type of relationship could be harmful to the client and difficult for the social worker to maintain appropriate professional boundaries (standard 1.09[b]).

Don’t have a sexual relationship with a former client.  Again, even though the therapeutic relationship has been terminated, there is remaining potential for a sexual relationship to be emotionally harmful to the client (standard 1.09[c]).

You also shouldn’t treat people with whom you used to have a sexual relationship.   Even though the therapy is in the past, same reasons: It can be harmful to them and hard to maintain appropriate professional boundaries (standard 1.09[d]). 

Also, don’t terminate with a client in order to pursue a sexual relationship (standard 1.16[d]).

Related—don’t sexually harass clients (standard 1.11). 

Be careful about physical contact—don’t do it when there’s potential for harm, and it’s the social worker’s responsibility to discuss appropriate boundaries (standard 1.10).

Part 2 of this topic will cover a few more standards relating to sexual contact between colleagues, and also discuss how to answer questions about sexual relationships on the exam.

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