There isn’t enough understanding: the sexual assault of older women

Dr Helen Jones, Principal Lecturer in Criminology, Leeds Beckett University

The world is ageing. In the UK, the number of people aged over 85 doubled from 690,000 in 1985 to 1.4m in 2010 and is set to reach 3.6m by 2035. Since the mid-80s many forms of gendered violence have received increasing attention from academics, professionals and the media, including the sexual abuse of children and domestic violence.  Research across this broad spectrum tells us that sexual victimization and intimate partner violence disproportionately affect women. Intimate partners continue to be found responsible for much violence against women and rape is among the most underreported of crimes in many countries: yet when compared to other forms of violence across the life-course, sexual abuse of older women remains relatively hidden.

Arai (2006) in Japan argues that developing a general definition is problematic because of a lack of public awareness of elder victimisation. We may imagine that the rape of elderly women is a rare crime, but it is not.  While crime statistics make it appear practically non-existent, rape of the elderly does occur and when it does, it can turn deadly.  In June 2014 Mohammed Yassin Yusuf was convicted of murdering his mother-in-law by sexually assaulting her so violently she bled to death[1].


In the UK the term ‘old age’ has been broadly applied by government departments to those aged 50 and over although societal assumptions and many researchers would tend towards retirement (another contested term) as a marker for the onset of ‘old age’. The 2004 analysis of sexual violence reported to the British Crime Survey had a limited age range and excluded anyone over the age of 59. A more recent UK report suggests that older women are generally sexually assaulted by someone they know, often within the context of domestic violence and family situations contribute significantly to elder abuse. One worker in the UK said this:


“There isn’t enough understanding about dementia to see whether they are suffering violence. There is no training to take them seriously. I have supported a woman where the man who has dementia is raping his wife regularly. It is treated as a medical condition but if you looked at it, it was something he was doing before, no-one took any action against him and no-one offered her any support. Because she was an older woman, and his carer, her experience of rape by her husband was just ignored.”[2]


However, we should not imagine that the sexual violence experienced by elderly women is only an extension of domestic violence meted out by same-age partners or other family members. In 2011 the UK faced the news of two stark reminders of the reality of elder sexual abuse. One was the case of Delroy Grant, who was convicted of 18 separate incidents at homes around London over a 17 year period. The second was the case of 17 year old Maxwell Laycock who, on Christmas Day 2010, raped an 86-year-old resident of the care home where he worked as a kitchen assistant. If analysis of sexual abuse as a mechanism of power and control are correct, older people, who may have diminishing autonomy and power, must be seen as vulnerable to sexual violence.


Many abused elderly people will need medical care but in a recent study, published by the British Geriatrics Society, it was found that half of all medical students are not receiving training in spotting elder abuse (Community Care, 2010[3]). Only 47% of medical schools included the topic on the curriculum. The Care Act 2014 comes into force in April 2015. The Act contains mandatory requirements around adult safeguarding and explains how commissioners and providers of health and social care services should work together, collaborating with the public, voluntary and private sectors to consult service users, their carers and representative groups.


As countries in many parts of the world face increasingly aging populations, and justice systems begin to develop appropriate policies for dealing with allegations of abuse, there is much that we can learn from each other in creating elder abuse prevention strategies. If we are to break the taboo of sexual violence of the elderly, we must start to get serious about listening, understanding and responding.


Arai, M. (2006).  Elder abuse in Japan.  Educational Gerontology, 32 (1), 13–23.



[2] Commissioning services for women and children who are victims of violence or abuse – guide for health commissioners (2011:12)


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