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Thesis Highlights: Social Work with Sexuality

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Helmi Vihro

Social work with sexuality – Social worker’s perceptions of working with sexuality-related themes

Sex-positivity is a term that probably has become familiar to many in recent years through social media, television and newspapers. Unlike one might easily think, sex-positivity does not mean that “all of us should simply have more sex”. Instead it is a term that treats sexuality as a part of universal human rights. Sex-positivity reminds us that every individual has the right to appropriate information about sexuality and sexual health, and to live out their own sexuality consensually and without shame, judgement or the threat of violence.

It was the concept and phenomenon of sex-positivity that got me interested in sexuality in social work context and gave the spark for the choice of subject for my master’s thesis. Because sexuality is essential to human well-being and human rights, it is also essential to social work. However, social work has traditionally remained either silent about or uninterested in sexuality-related themes, unless they have been connected with something negative, like problems or oppression. The deeper I kept diving into the literature around the subject, the more I realized how important it would be to shed light over the themes of sexuality from other perspectives than those of risks, violence, or certain minority groups. I wanted to know how sexuality would be seen and defined in social work when it was observed as something that is equally important to everyone’s well-being, regardless of status or identity.

I interviewed six social workers for my study. I asked them what kind of experiences they have had with working with sexuality, what kind of work methods they apply with it, and how they perceive the meaning of sexuality to social work. The interviews unraveled the same observation that has been made in many similar international studies: my participants thought that sexuality is absolutely vital to social work, but the education and the structures of work life do not offer enough competence and opportunities to work with sexuality, nor they sufficiently recognize the importance of the theme. Sexuality had been present in the participants’ work in many ways, but often it just lingered in the background or had remained completely invisible. The participants’ work methods with sexuality were mainly based on the basic methodology of social work, like bringing up the topic, or life-trajectory and network based perspectives. This could mean that encounters with sexuality in social work could be improved quite easily, by applying the already existing tools of the profession.

All in all, one of the most central results in my study was that applying sex-positive perspectives could improve social work’s abilities to meet the needs of its clients, to defend their equal sexual and human rights, and to also acknowledge such experiences where someone’s sexuality has been assaulted. Sexuality and sexual health should be seen as keen areas of well-being in the social services, and not just as something that belongs to health care. Like one of my participants proclaimed: “And I’m thinking like, hello, this isn’t just a health issue, this is very much a social issue as well”.

You can access the thesis in English here.

Helmi Vihro graduated as a social worker from University of Turku in December 2020. During her studies, she has been working in family social work and social emergency services, and currently she is continuing her other degree studies in Psychology at Åbo Akademi. Helmi values equality and genuine encounters, and it is her dream that some day everyone could have the opportunity to equal sexual rights. She would like to give thanks to the social workers who participated in the study, and to her instructor Anniina Kaittila for her indispensable support.


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