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.