Men at work

Male social workers undoubtedly face
particular issues in sexual abuse work. But with the correct
training and supervision can any social worker, irrespective of
gender provide empathy and therapeutic support? Natalie Valios

The perpetrators of 97 per cent of cases of
child sexual abuse that reach the criminal courts are men. Of the 3
per cent involving women, about half have a male co-defendant.
ChildLine figures for 1999-2000 show that of a total of around
10,000 calls about child sexual abuse, more than 6,800 callers who
identified the gender of the alleged abuser said it was a man.

Early work around the issue of child sexual
abuse came from a feminist perspective, with the assumption that
all sexual abuse was committed by men, and if a woman was involved
it was at the instigation of a dominant male partner.

Although the occurrence of child sexual abuse
by women is now accepted, the fact remains that most child sexual
abuse is carried out by men. Given this, should men work in child
protection? And if so, what should their role be?

Alastair Christie is a lecturer in social work
at University College Cork and a former social worker with
experience in child protection. He views the male role in child
protection as contradictory and complex. Men are polarised into the
position of being seen as either dangerous or as an idealised role
model, he says.1

He believes men should be able to work in
child protection as long as employers exercise caution. “We have to
learn from the lessons of the past as there is a history of men as
social workers or care workers being violent to children.

“There needs to be recognition that some men
are violent towards women and children so there should be a system
set up to monitor all social workers, particularly men,” he

Male social workers need to understand that
their gender may be something that provokes fear or distrust, says
Sue Richardson, independent psychotherapist and trainer. She argues
that they run the risk of reproducing the dynamics of power that
led to the abuse in the first place, or they may just be
insensitive to the power issue.

There is a power hierarchy in society that is
closely linked to gender, she says. “Men have power conferred on
them because they are male, which women don’t necessarily have.
Every male in social work should look at that.”

A common safeguard in child protection to
protect both staff and children is to have a procedure that rules
out working alone with a child, although this is not always so
stringently applied if the social worker is female.

Richardson feels that in some work settings,
these protocols are rather over elaborate: “What is that saying –
that they [a male social worker] can’t be trusted, or the children
can’t?” she asks.

As a result, she argues, male professionals
can wrestle with feelings of guilt by association. To deal with
these various issues, they need to have looked at their own
capacity to be oppressive and their relationship with their own
masculinity. Richardson adds: “They should take a step back and
deconstruct what it is to be a man in society and look at their own
relationship to violence. You might have men who would never be
violent but are quite happy to buy into the macho work culture and
become managers by exercising power.”

This could be explored in therapy, suggests
Richardson, adding that as this is a requirement for becoming a
therapist or counsellor, maybe it should also become a requirement
during child protection training.

“In principle there is no ban on men working
in this field because what is needed is the capacity for empathic
understanding of the child. That can be irrespective of gender but
in practice it’s more frequently the case that women have developed
this, and men by virtue of their socialisation, haven’t. But there
are men who have.”

Melanie Pace, NSPCC national training and
development officer, agrees that in training and practice the
quality of the therapeutic relationship is of greater importance
than the gender of the social worker.

All relationships need boundaries and this is
particularly important in the relationship between social worker
and client, argues Pace. A safe environment needs to be set from
the outset, with a clear agreement between the child and
professional around issues such as touching, and about their
expectations from the relationship.

“All direct work needs to be about care and
control in that setting,” says Pace. But before direct work can
begin, child protection workers need to have explored all issues
that are important to the child, she adds, including whether they
feel comfortable working with a male social worker, to ensure they
establish a relationship of trust and understanding.

“If you have a child saying they don’t want a
male worker, you need to explore why and what they may fear.
Although lots of sexual abuse is perpetrated by men, you shouldn’t
make assumptions about what a child feels about men in general.
They might have strong feelings about women because they believe
they have let them down or abandoned them in the past, so they
might fear that a female social worker would do the same.”

An experienced, well trained social worker
will understand issues of transference, where a child might
transfer their feelings about abusers on to the social worker.
Young people who have been sexually abused can misread body
language or behave in a sexual way with people from either gender.
If the social worker is aware of that, gender becomes irrelevant,
says Pace. “But it’s important for workers to be aware that the
child might misconstrue the relationship,” she adds.

For a sexually abused child, being sexual is a
way of surviving in a relationship with a man. So, good training
will ensure that a social worker will be able to deal
constructively with the situation if a young person becomes sexual
towards them. This means helping them recognise that it is not
appropriate behaviour, without making them feel bad or guilty.

When Simon Slater became a social worker his
supervisor told him that one of the things he could offer clients
was a different male model, one that wasn’t abusive, bullying or

Now head of child protection at Surrey
Council’s social services department, Slater says:”In a field work
setting where a social worker visits children in their home every
two to three weeks, there’s probably a limit on the impact that
will make. But if a child is in a residential home with male care
staff there will be a much more immediate and day-to-day
opportunity to help them form positive relationships with adults of
both sexes.”

He says that self-awareness is the most
important quality for a male social worker in this field to

“You need self-awareness about the impact you
make personally on people you meet, including users and colleagues.
Do you come across as an assertive, dominating person or as a
listening, caring, gentle person?”

Without such self-awareness, a social worker
cannot make an informed decision about whether they should adjust
their behaviour or whether they are even the right person for the
work they have to carry out, he says.

“In social work, what social workers are using
is themselves. It’s me and the way I behave, the way I speak and
the way I make people feel, which is at the heart of the
relationship between user and social worker.”

Gender is only part of the equation.

1 Alastair Christie (ed),
Men and Social Work: Theories and Practices, Palgrave,

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