Sexuality is central to human identity and holistic health and well-being (Bancroft 2009). It is therefore reasonable to conclude that social work, a practice-based profession focused on social justice and supporting people access to create healthy lives, would not only understand and value this client strength but also be trained to competently navigate this field of practice.
This study presents findings from a broader mixed methods study which mapped sexual health and well-being services in Sydney, Australia. We present social workers’ reflections of working in sexual health to answer the research question: How were social workers prepared for working in sexual well-being and what skills and knowledge do they identify as essential to practice in this field of practice.
The mixed methods study involved a scoping review of sexual health services. Approximately 50 agencies were identified as providing sexual health services. From this convenience sample agency workers were invited to complete a survey (41 responded). From these respondents, six social workers participated in two focus groups by ZOOM which were recorded, transcribed and thematically analysed
The qualitative analysis process resulted in five themes. Five overarching themes emerged: (1) training path, (2) disease, disaster, and dysfunction, (3) placement, (4) being ‘askable’, (5) barriers. Each of these themes along with corresponding codes were described with excerpts from participants’ narratives that serve to illuminate the theme.
Theme 1: Training Path resulted in two sub-themes: 1. University Training: sexually silent which was often absent, in contrast with Street Training: screaming with in- the-trenches learning that was vibrant, contemporary and all around them.
Theme 2: Disease, disaster, and dysfunction highlighted that sexuality training was often framed in a deficit lens in their social work programs. Participants noted the irony that social workers often embraced a medical model in their approach to client sexuality whereby, sexual health is viewed as something to be feared, controlled, and fixed.
Theme 3: Placement highlighted the importance of social work field education placement opportunities in sexual health settings to develop their practice knowledge and skills and to build an identity as sexual justice practitioners.
Theme 4: Being ‘Askable’ was a key theme that emerged and was seen as a core social work skill of communication that is applicable across all fields of practice.
Theme 5: Barriers resulting in five sub-themes: 1. Curriculum, 2. Medicalization of sexuality, 3. Social work baggage, 4. Positioning sexuality social work
A cornerstone of social work education is to help prepare students to enter the workforce as practitioners. Sexual health is a viable and legitimate field of practice. This study uniquely adds to the current body of social work research by illuminating the gaps in social work education around sexual well-being. This paper is particularly important because it expands the social work discourse around sexuality training not only for those practitioners preparing to practice sexual health, but also posits the need for all social workers to be able to practice from a sexuality informed practice lens.