One of the findings from the recent National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL 3) was that younger participants (aged 16-44 years) who had experienced ‘sex against their will’ were more likely than older participants (aged 45-74 years) to have told someone or reported it to the police. Women in the age group 55-64 were the least likely to have told anyone.
This finding resonated with me. Many years ago I interviewed women for a project at the University of Sheffield that explored women’s sexual well-being. As part of that project I talked to a woman who was in her 60s at the time of interview and had recently experienced a violent sexual assault. The perpetrator was known to her, the attack was unexpected, and she had not reported it to the police.
Sexual violence towards older women is not as uncommon as we might think. However, it is surrounded by silence and invisibility. A project led by colleagues in Australia, Norma’s Project - named after one of the researchers’ mothers who, at age 83, was sexually assaulted by a male carer while in respite care - explored the sexual assault of women aged 65 and older. They argued that silence around the issue was partly based on age stereotypes, in particular the assumption that older women were asexual, which meant they were seen as unlikely targets of sexual assault. The authors found that barriers to reporting the assault included disbelief, a lack of hard evidence and an absence of witnesses: all of which were complicated when the woman had a diagnosis of dementia.
In 2011 Linda Grant raised the issue in The Independent:
‘We may imagine that the rape of elderly women is a rare, horrible and peculiarly unnatural crime, but it is not. Looking at newspaper cuttings covering the past two or three years, it becomes clear that the rape of older women is not only commonplace but that the number of reported incidents are increasing.’She listed a number of sexual assaults; it makes a harrowing read. But these are the assaults that have been reported. Other reasons why older women may not report a sexual assault include shame and trauma, particularly if the attacker is a family member, and being unsure whether or not an assault has taken place – after all, older women of today have lived through a time when rape within marriage was not considered a crime.
So what can we do? Ways to move forward include: providing education and training to health professionals so that they can recognise the signs of abuse; increase the visibility of the sexual assault of older women to improve professional and public awareness (it may also help to remove the stigma attached to sexual assault and give women confidence to come forward); and conduct research to identify the best ways to support women and their families after the attack. Finding ways to prevent the assault in the first place is critical. It’s time to break the taboo.
Sharron Hinchliff is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Sheffield. She has carried out research into gender and health for over 15 years. Her particular interests are in the following overlapping areas: ageing, sexuality, sexual and reproductive health, sexual well-being and the psychology of health behaviours. She is Deputy Director of the Centre for Gender Research at the University, and is co-editing a book on the Sexual Rights of Older People with Dr Catherine Barrett. See her website for more information.