Old age is not a protective factor against sexual assault and new conversations on sexual assault of older women, and on the good work being done to prevent it, are needed, a leading researcher in the area has said.
Dr Catherine Barrett from La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society said that aged care organisations had a special role to play in identifying and responding to the sexual assault of older women, particularly those living at home.
There was much good prevention work being done in the area, said Dr Barrett, who has recently been awarded a grant to document service providers’ stories of preventing sexual assault.
In a wide-ranging address at the Let’s Talk About Sex Conference this week, Dr Barrett shared the stories of older women who had experienced sexual assault, as captured in her research project. As Australian Ageing Agenda has reported, her three-year study was the first and most in-depth account of the issue to date.
On Wednesday Dr Barrett spoke of one woman who was being repeatedly raped by her husband and had tried to tell her three sons, who made light of the situation and joked about their father’s sexual prowess. The assaults continued until the woman eventually told a community care worker, who provided an emphatic response and intervened in the situation.
“It highlights the power that service providers have to make a difference. All the worker did was listen and put strategies in place to help her,” Dr Barrett told the Melbourne audience.
She cited national figures showing that one woman a week was killed in Australia by a current or former partner, while one in five experienced sexual assault by current or former partner. “It would be crazy to think that assaults on women stop at age 65,” she said.
For older women, historic cultural norms compounded the issue, as they had grown up at a time when women were expected to provide sexually for their husbands; rape within marriage only became a criminal offence in 1976.
“Disclosure historically fell on deaf ears; women told their GP or a priest, and often were told to put up with it and do their family duties,” she said. Often the lack of appropriate responses occurred, and continued to occur, because “we don’t think of older people as sexual,” she said.
Discussing sexual boundaries in home care, Dr Barrett spoke of the need for care workers to be resourced and supported to respond appropriately when boundaries were crossed.
She shared an instance in which a community care worker was showering a 75-year-old man, who began to squeeze her breasts. “The scenario unfolded; his wife, who had been in the kitchen, was saying he would never do that, and the staff member was incredibly upset about it, felt it was her fault and she had done something wrong.”
It was essential that there were appropriate strategies and organisational guidelines in place as staff had the right to work in safe environments, she said.
Sexual infections on the rise
Elsewhere, Dr Barrett said that there had been a 58 per cent increase in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among older Australians, and very little was known about their understanding of STIs.
The current study into seniors’ sexual health, habits and knowledge had been completed by over 500 seniors in just one month, she said, “which says something of their willingness to talk about sex.”
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