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Research

Ending the silence on older victims of rape

(24 August 2017)

Many people over 60 in the UK are victims of sexual violence, according to Durham University research.

Despite the pervasive stereotypes of what constitutes a “real rape” – a young woman being attacked by a stranger – the research has uncovered that older people are victims too. 

The study shows that people over 60 are more likely to be raped by an acquaintance either in their own home or a care home.

Influenced by the research, the Office for National Statistics is now trialling the collection of data on sexual violence for the over 60s in its Crime Survey for England and Wales. Previously, the survey only collected data on sexual and domestic violence for those up to the age of 59.

Invisible crime

The issue of rape and sexual assault of people over 60 was largely unrecognised before Dr Hannah Bows began to search for statistics on sexual violence against older people in the UK as part of her PhD in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham.

In recognition of her work, Dr Bows was a finalist for Outstanding Early Career Impact in the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize 2017.

She said: “I discovered that the Crime Survey for England and Wales didn't ask those aged 60 or over questions about sexual violence they may have experienced, and no-one had any convincing explanations why older people weren’t asked.

“The crime was almost invisible. People didn't appear to acknowledge that rape is something that could impact older people. There seems to be an idea that age will make you safe.

“My findings challenge the 'real rape' stereotype of a young white woman attacked by a stranger in a dark alley who is motivated by sexual desire.”

Victims’ homes

The study shows that most rapes happened in the victim's own home but the second most common location was care homes. Only one fifth of older people were raped by a stranger and two-thirds of the perpetrators were younger than their victim.

The perpetrators were generally known to the victim, either as an acquaintance (26 per cent) or as a partner (20 per cent) but in 20 per cent of reported cases it involved a stranger.

Through Freedom of Information requests Dr Bows gathered data from 45 police forces, finding around 150 rape and serious assaults involving an adult aged 60 or over reported annually to the police across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Her findings revealing the number of assaults have surprised many.

In reality, Dr Bows believes the true figure is actually much higher, as rape is one of the most under-reported crimes.

“It's not just young people who suffer sexual violence - older people get raped too,” says Dr Bows. “Recent plans by the Office for National Statistics to gather data from the over 60s is an important step in reframing the issue.”

Increased awareness

Information handouts developed by Dr Bows, which raise awareness of sexual violence against older people and provide guidance for practitioners, have been distributed to all rape crisis and age-related organisations in the UK.

Her survivor information guide has been sent to those organisations as well as all social services, Safeguarding Adults Boards and care homes in the UK.

Dr Bows, who is a member of the Centre for Research Into Violence and Abuse at Durham and a Senior Lecturer at Teesside University, has also devised and delivered practitioner training workshops for Rape Crisis England and Wales, and Age UK.

Follow @Hannah_Bows on Twitter

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