Posted: Monday 3rd February 2020
As a part of the #BeHeard campaign, we spoke to Somerset & Avon Rape & Sexual Abuse Support (SARSAS) service to find out more about the chilling silence around sexual violence against older women and how we can break it.
At SARSAS (Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support) we believe it is never too late for the voices of victims of sexual violence to be heard. In 2020, we want to break the chilling silence and invisibility around sexual violence against older women (aged 55 and over) in Avon and Somerset. For some women, this sexual violence will be recent and ongoing; for others it can go back decades to childhood, leaving them with a potential life-sentence of trauma. Many will have experienced sexual violence multiple times.
Reasons for this chilling silence and invisibility are not difficult to identify and below we list how we can break this silence by working together across Avon and Somerset.
Older women may not see themselves as victims of sexual violence due to social and cultural challenges and ageist beliefs and attitudes. We live in a society that views older women as ‘asexual’ and assumes advancing age will protect them from sexual violence when in fact the opposite appears to be the case. Next time you see a poster or website on sexual violence, look for images of older women or words that challenge ageism and rape myths and enable older women to self-identify or empower them to act. The images and words probably won’t be there. Older women are still, as a rule, invisible in sexual violence awareness campaigns, training and literature. This is something we can change.
Emotional challenges are magnified for some older survivors because there was a lack of open discussion around sexual violence in the past and a huge culture of shame and stigma for the victim or survivor. This makes it even harder for older women to talk about or disclose what has happened to them. There is also concern that some older women are unaware of their legal rights including the laws around rape within marriage. Therefore, they may not perceive their experiences of sexual violence as abuse and feel less inclined to report for fear of not being believed. To compound these emotional challenges, the nature and severity of sexual violence against older women is not fully understood by professionals in the health services, adult safe-guarding teams, care and nursing homes. This is something we can change.
The framing of sexual violence affecting older people as ‘elder abuse’ is another reason older women who have experienced recent rape or sexual violence do not receive the same support as younger women in the UK. The term compounds the all-pervasive ageist perception that older people are asexual and sexually undesirable and hides the reality and prevalence of these crimes within our homes, institutions, communities and especially in our care system and nursing homes. It suggests the nature of sexual violence is different dependent on age. The term ‘elder abuse’ should not be used to describe sexual violence by aged care and statutory organisations working in the Avon and Somerset. The correct terminology we all should use is sexual violence, rape, sexual assault or sexual abuse. This is something we can change.
At SARSAS, we will - with the support of funders such as the OPCC and partners - campaign during 2020 to ensure every individual woman in Avon and Somerset who has experienced sexual violence, at any stage in their life, is recognised as a victim or survivor and has access to appropriate and meaningful support. All of us have a role to play and simple changes can make a difference. At SARSAS, we believe, listen and support victims of sexual violence. We know, like the OPCC does, that it is never too late for the voices of sexual violence victims and survivors to be heard.
Find out more about the #BeHeard campaign and SARSAS.