Social services staff typically have demanding and intensive jobs — we work directly with people who have come to us for support. We work with a wide array of clientele, from people with developmental disabilities, to children and youth in care, to people with mental health challenges, to name just a few. As the field of social services continues to expand and improve, we have seen a shift from heavily institutionalized and general client services to a much more holistic, person-centered approach. More now than ever before, staff are being asked to learn about and consider topics which have traditionally been ignored or even suppressed. To take a truly holistic approach to serving your clientele requires acknowledging and supporting every aspect of your client — including their sexuality.
As a social services professional, you are in a unique position to provide support and opportunities for learning and growth to your clients. Many skilled and experienced staff find themselves struggling to figure out how to approach the topic of sexuality with their clients. Fortunately, these important skills can be learned, just as you have learned to establish therapeutic relationships, prepare logs and reports, and respond effectively to a client in crisis.
*Note: this article is intended to assist social services staff in general. For more specific information about sexuality in people with developmental disabilities, see the article entitled “Sexuality and Developmental Disabilities – under development”
So, what do you need to know?
1. Sexuality is a natural, inherent and healthy part of EVERYBODY — regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, culture, race, relationship status, ethnicity, ability, employment, socioeconomic status, mental health status, etc etc. Assuming that “they” don’t have sexual feelings / don’t need to learn about sexuality / can’t learn about sexuality / are asexual (and so on) only perpetuates an oppressive “us / them” paradigm — separating our clients from the information and support that they need and deserve as much as everyone else.
2. You need to become comfortable with the information, before you try to support or educate someone else. Your clients are likely to have questions, and you’ll feel much more confident and comfortable if you have at least some of the answers. You can find a great deal of information about sex and sexuality in the articles posted on this website, as well as the resources page.
3. You have a great deal of power, and you must be careful with it. Your clients are likely to take important cues from you — especially if they trust you. Your comfort level in talking about sex, how you respond to their questions and behaviours, and even the tone of voice you use send very strong messages. You must remember: your values have nothing to do with your clients’ sexuality.
4. Don’t get swept up in the drama … You need to be able to determine what the real issues are. It is not uncommon for social services staff to overly concern themselves with their clients private lives — including their sexual behaviour. You may find yourself feeling that you need to exert some sort of control or influence over this area of your client’s life.
STOP and ask yourself — what are the real issues? Depending on the age of your client, amongst other factors, consider: Is the behaviour illegal? Is it causing harm to my client or anyone else? And Is the activity consensual? … If you answered “NO”, “NO” and “YES”, then it’s probably not something you need to worry about and is quite likely none of your business. How would you feel if someone decided that they should be controlling what YOU can and cannot do in your own bedroom, even after you have consented to the activity?
5. Healthy sexuality is much more than the “mechanics” of sex. You need to empower your clients in more ways than teaching them how to use a condom. Many clients struggle with the interpersonal aspects of sexuality … social skills, relationships, affection, etc. Your clients are relying on you to teach them.
6. Take cues from your client. Don’t assume that you are in the best position to decide what and when your client should learn about sexuality. If your client is asking questions, they are ready for the answers. Even if they are not asking questions but you’ve noticed your client seems interested in sex / sexuality, take that as a hint and bring up the topic.
7. Training is essential for you! Many social services staff receive little or no training in the area of sexuality — training which can greatly improve your ability to effectively respond to issues around sex and sexuality with your clients. To learn more about sexuality training for professionals, click here.