‘We Are Invisible’: Why Older Women Need to Be Included in Conversations About Consent

‘We Are Invisible’: Why Older Women Need to Be Included in Conversations About Consent

Content warning: this article discusses topics of consent, sexual assault and sexual violence amongst older people. Please reach out to 1800RESPECT if you ever need any help.

When we discuss consent and sexual assault, our conversations are usually targeted towards younger people. And while it’s important to educate young people about consent, why aren’t older people involved in these conversations as well?

It’s a topic that’s tackled head-on in the new documentary series Asking For It, where investigative journalist Jess Hill sets out to explore the topic of consent in Australia and the critical need for greater consent education.

The series features three episodes where Hill talks to advocates and the experts who are leading the charge in implementing comprehensive consent education across Australia. Asking For It also sees Hill meet with prominent victim-survivors who have spearheaded this consent revolution. 

One element that’s particularly striking in Asking For It is its inclusion of older people talking about sexual assault and how consent works in aged care facilities as well as for people with dementia. I say striking because it wasn’t until I watched the series that I realised how often we leave older people behind.

To chat about the series and the importance of including older people in conversations around consent and sexual assault, Lifehacker Australia had the privilege of talking to Yumi Lee, CEO of the Older Women’s Network of NSW.

We need to include older women in consent conversations

Image: iStock

“Of all the posters on sexual assault, have you seen one with an 84 year old woman on the poster?” Lee asked me.

The answer is no, I haven’t. I haven’t seen one poster relating to sexual assault prevention that has included older women.

“So that speaks to you very, very clearly, that we are invisible in the whole discourse of the prevention of sexual assault,” Lee said.

“I think communication is really important [but] it has to be age neutral, in the sense that it has to be age inclusive in that narrative of prevention. And older women have to be made visible in all of that.”

That’s why a series like Asking For It, which includes these voices, stories and perspectives is incredibly powerful.

“We are extremely grateful to Jess Hill and Tosca Looby for including this very important issue, that older people are frequently left out of the conversation on consent and safety,” Lee said.

“So what we hope this documentary series will do is to raise awareness, to get people talking … [that it will] help motivate us to take action, either through advocacy or volunteering or even making a donation to an organisation or a service working on this issue.

“[Asking For It] does a very important thing of changing perspectives, changing preconceived notions and beliefs about a particular issue.”

Lee noted that conversations about older people and consent are difficult to have, mostly due to a lot of people holding onto the stigmas around sex that they grew up with.

“Many older people today may find it difficult to talk about [consent] because they grew up at a time when attitudes towards sex and consent are really different to what it is today. They couldn’t even have discussions about sex, let alone consent,” Lee explained.

“If you’re talking about older people from culturally diverse backgrounds this could be even more pronounced and there’s a lot of shame and taboo associated with sex.”

Gender roles and the expectations around being a wife also play heavily into the difficulties of discussing consent with older women in particular.

“Women were expected to be submissive to their husbands. They cook, clean and care for the children and have sex when their husbands wanted. You have to remember that the whole idea of marital rape was not recognised until 1981; the concept that man could even rape his wife was completely not on the radar at all,” Lee said.

Although these conversations are incredibly difficult to have, their importance is without question.

“It’s never too late to educate the younger and older population about consent. We know from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health that more than half of women aged 70 to 75, reported having sex in the past year,” Lee explained.

“Consent should not be seen just as a younger person’s conversation, even though it’s very much depicted that way in the media. It should be an older person’s conversation, too.”

Ageism is a dangerous barrier for sexual assault survivors

Image: iStock

There’s no denying that reporting sexual assault in Australia is an arduous process, with survivors facing multiple barriers. For Lee, ageism is one of the most deeply-entrenched barriers that prevent older women, in particular, from seeking help.

“Entrenched ageism plays a big part in how older people are treated. These barriers to access justice, because of ageism, because of limited financial resources, because of health reasons, mobility reasons, makes it harder for older women to pursue legal action against their perpetrators,” Lee said.

We already have a weak infrastructure of support for sexual assault survivors in Australia, and Lee stressed that there’s almost nothing available to support older people and help them feel comfortable in reporting their abuse.

Lee noted that, as a society, we still haven’t quite gotten to the stage where older people are seen as victims of sexual assault too.

“When sexual assaults of older people are reported, they may not be investigated thoroughly or effectively because of inherent bias against older people,” Lee said.

When it comes to prosecuting sexual assault perpetrated against people in aged care, Lee said that unless the person is actually caught in the act itself, either by another worker or another staff member or visitor, it’s incredibly difficult to get the case to court.

However, it’s important to note that sexual assault and the associated barriers are not confined to only aged care centres.

“We have older women who are living at home with husbands who have dementia, and they have been a model [husband] up to the point they have dementia, and then suddenly, they become ‘sex maniacs’ and [the wife] doesn’t know what to do about this. These issues need to be discussed so that she feels that she’s able to find to seek help,’ Lee said.

There are several problems in this space, and each brings its own unique set of complexities. There is no one blanket fix that will apply to every situation.

How to break the ageism barrier

older women sexual assault support
Image: iStock

Now we know that ageism presents itself as an incredibly dangerous barrier for older people receiving support, but how do we address this?

For Lee, like many other sexual assault activists and workers, she believes that further community education is the way forward.

“There has to be community education about the fact that older people, like younger people, are equally vulnerable to sexual assault.”

“The government commissioned KPMG to do research and abuse in aged care, and as part of that research KPMG found that providers told them that in 58 per cent of cases, the victims of sexual assault cases the victims are not impacted. That is just mind boggling,” Lee explained.

“Even if you are cognitively impaired, it doesn’t mean that you can be raped and it doesn’t have an impact on you. The body remembers, and you may not be able to articulate it, but the behaviour comes out in a different way. They are [then] misdiagnosed and put on unnecessary medication to control them. It is such an injustice that takes place in aged care, so there’s a lot of training that needs to happen, also with the police and the judiciary.”

Then there’s the problem of systemic ageism that prevents older people from reporting sexual crimes committed against them. A potential way to help break this barrier down would be, for Lee, having specialised responders in police stations.

“Just as every police station should ideally have people who are specialised in dealing with domestic violence, there should be police officers specially trained to deal with sexual assaults across the lifespan…” Lee said.

“I think training should be compulsory and I think it should be not just amongst aged care providers, but among social workers, amongst police, amongst the judiciary.”

“Taxpayer dollars should be [used] so that the services can support the people who need help. Currently, we know that some hotlines are underfunded so when you want to call in to report something, you’re put on hold or you’re told to leave a message and they will get back to you. It is just not good enough.”

Work to address these barriers is already underway, as seen with the Ready To Listen project run by the Older Women’s Network NSW, the Older Persons Advocacy Network and Celebrate Ageing.

“We tried to build the understanding amongst providers and staff of sexual assault in aged care. While we are building awareness and raising awareness about that in aged care, what we’re encouraging providers to do is to build relationships with sexual assault services. But if sexual assault services are saying, ‘We can’t help or we don’t know how to help,’ then it’s not as effective,” Lee explained.

“So, that’s the next job on our list of things to do; to encourage sexual assault services to include the support for older women in the same way that they support younger women.”

Asking For It is a three-part series that premiered Thursday, April 20 at 8:30 pm on SBS and SBS On Demand.

If this article has raised any concerns for you or someone you know, please call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit the 1800RESPECT website. You can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14. In case of emergencies, call 000.

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