sexual relationships ethics and the social work examIf you've found your way to this post in search of something saucy regarding the social work exam, we hate to disappoint. We're merely continuing our question-per-section tour of the NASW Code of Ethics. Next up is 1.09, Sexual Relationships.

Different states have different regulations about the when and what of sexual relationships before, during, and after treatment, so it's wise to pay attention here. An ASWB exam question will say, "According to the NASW Code of Ethics…" not "According to the guidelines in your state…"

1.09 breaks down like this:

  • No sexual relationships with clients ever.
  • And not with clients' family or friends
  • And not with former clients
  • And don't provide clinical services to exes.

The why is simple: All of the above have the potential to be harmful to the client. Simple as that.

Note that regarding rxs with former clients, the code states, "If social workers engage in conduct contrary to this prohibition or claim that an exception to this prohibition is warranted because of extraordinary circumstances…" Which means that it's not all the way ruled out. But, " is social workers--not their clients--who assume the full burden of demonstrating that the former client has not been exploited, coerced, or manipulated, intentionally or unintentionally."

Given the clarity of the code, it's not easy to write a challenging question about this section. Here's a try. But it will only get those who've skipped everything above:

A social worker has been dating a man for a month when both realize that years ago, the man once sat in on a CBT group the social worker ran at a local clinic--he is a former client. According to the NASW Code of Ethics, what should the social worker do?

A) Since the relationship is not yet sexual, continue the relationship.

B) Since the social worker and man don't remember the prior contact, continue the relationship.

C) Since sexual relationships with former clients are prohibited, end the relationship.

D) End the relationship, but continue being friends.

This appears to be an instance when the social worker will be able to establish that "the former client has not been exploited, coerced, or manipulated, intentionally or unintentionally." She didn't remember that he'd once sat in the group. He didn't remember that she'd been the facilitator. Why it took them a month to figure it out is between them. Our answer is B.

Questions on the ASWB exam are not likely to do quite such a close reading of the fine print in the Code of Ethics. But if they do on this section, you'll be ready! Most sexual relationship question answers are easy: don't.

Here's a related Eye on Ethics column:

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November 17, 2015