Sexual assaults do not just happen to young women. Despite the pervasive stereotypes of what constitutes a “real rape” – a young woman being attacked by a stranger – my new research has uncovered how many people over 60 in the UK are victims of sexual violence.
In the UK, data on sexual violence victimisation comes from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) and official police recorded data. The CSEW is thought to be more accurate, due to the high level of under-reporting of sexual offences to the police. The CSEW estimates that 404,000 women and 72,000 men experience sexual violence each year in England and Wales.
Yet a major limitation of this data is that the CSEW has an upper age limit of 59 on the “intimate violence” module which collects data on domestic and sexual violence victimisation. As a result, we have no national data on the prevalence of sexual violence among those aged 60 and over.
There have been three studies in the last decade which have explored sexual violence against older people, but none have examined national data.
My new research, published in the British Journal of Criminology, aims to address that gap. Using freedom of information requests, I collected data from 45 out of the 46 UK police forces on the number of recorded rapes and sexual assault by penetration offences between January 1 2009 and December 31 2013 involving a victim aged 60 or over at the time of the offence.
Of the 87,230 recorded offences during this period, 655 involved a victim aged 60 or over, representing 0.75% of the total. Of these, 474 were rape offences and 181 were sexual assault by penetration.
Who are the perpetrators
The study also examined the characteristics of victims, perpetrators and offences. The majority – 93% – of victims were female, while 85% of the perpetrators were male. In general, 80% of the victims were aged between 60 and 79, whereas 66% of perpetrators were under the age of 60.
Perpetrators were generally known to the victim: 26% were an acquaintance and 20% a partner. 20% of cases, however, involved a stranger. The vast majority of victims and perpetrators identified as “white”. Just over half of the assaults happened in the victim’s home, but 21% happened in a care home or hospital.
These findings share similarities and differences with the national data on rapes of younger victims. For example, the CSEW reports that victims are also usually female and perpetrators male, and typically the victim knows the perpetrator either as an acquaintance or partner.
Yet while perpetrators in the national data are typically older than victims, the present study found that the majority of perpetrators were younger than victims. A higher number of stranger rapes were also observed in my study: 20% of people over 60 were raped by a stranger, compared to 15% nationally.
While 56% of younger victims are raped by a partner or ex-partner in either a public place or the victim’s home, my research suggests that victims over the age of 60 are more likely to be raped by an acquaintance either in their own home or a care home. These differences pose a number of implications for practitioners, particularly those working in care or nursing homes.
Challenging the ‘real rape’ stereotype
A stereotype dominates media and public perceptions about what constitutes “real rape”. According to this model, rape typically involves a young, attractive female who is attacked by a male stranger in a public place, late at night. This links rape to sexual desirability.
Despite the efforts by feminists to debunk this stereotype and research consistently demonstrating rape is typically perpetrated by a partner in a private space, this stereotype persists.
Older victims of sexual violence do not fit this “real rape” stereotype. Ageing is generally viewed negatively as a process of decline, decay and deterioration and there is a tendency to re-frame sexual violence against older people as “elder abuse”, a term which may be more comfortable for society to accept.
Where rape of older people is included in media reporting, it tends to be limited to sensationalised cases which involve extreme violence against an older woman by a young stranger, who is targeted because of her apparent or assumed “vulnerability”.
While the overall number of reported offences involving an older victim is small compared to younger victims, my findings challenge the stereotype that it is only younger victims who are attacked, based on their attractiveness and sexual desirability. It is time to recognise and include rape against older people, not as elder abuse, but as a form of violence against women.