Preventing sexual assault in older women

The sexual assault of older women has long been a hidden crime. Not anymore. Researchers from La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, the University of Melbourne and the National Ageing Research Institute are lifting the lid on an issue that demands greater understanding within our community. They want to talk to older women about their experiences of sexual assault. 

Catherine Barrett‘We hear a lot about the sexual assault of young women, which is important, however, we rarely hear of the trauma experienced by older women,’ said Dr Catherine Barrett, the chief researcher for the project, based at La Trobe University. 

 ‘We know older women experience sexual assaults from family members and service providers, as well as from strangers, yet there is little community awareness of this issue and a lack of knowledge about prevention strategies,’ she said.  

Government statistics indicate that, across Australia, 344 reports of ‘alleged or suspected unlawful sexual contact’ were made in residential aged care alone during 2011-2012. However, the lack of information about the context of these assaults means that prevention is a challenge. The lack of information and awareness can also mean that some older women are not believed when they report sexual assault.  

‘We have been told stories about older women who have reported sexual assault but not been believed, their statement attributed to dementia or an experience from their youth,’ says Dr Barrett.

‘We also know that some older women don’t report sexual assault because they are frightened or feel ashamed.’

Two years ago Norma, then an 84 year old woman living with early dementia, was sexually assaulted by a staff member while in respite care.

‘We were shocked and horrified when she told us,’ said Philomena, a relative. ‘It was extremely distressing for her, and the impact on her life was profound.’  

Norma's experience was the catalyst for the development of Norma’s Project, the first of its kind in Australia. Researchers are gathering women’s stories and collecting other evidence about the factors that make older women vulnerable to sexual assault.

The researchers would like to hear from older women (women over 65 years old) who have been sexually assaulted.

Dr Barrett adds, ‘We would also like to talk with trusted family members because some women, like Norma, are no longer able to, or prefer not to, talk about their experience directly.

'We would also value input from health and community workers as well as service providers who care for older women living at home or in residential care.’ 

A website has been established to share information about Norma's Project:

‘Anyone who would like more information about the project or would like to participate in a confidential interview or anonymous online survey can go to the project website or contact me directly,’ said Dr Barrett.

‘We hope that by raising the awareness of this issue, older women will feel more confident to report sexual assault’. Importantly the research will lead to the development of prevention strategies and improve the response of community and aged care services.  

Norma’s Project is being conducted by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University in collaboration with the National Ageing Research Institute, the University of Melbourne, Alzheimer’s Australia and the Council on the Ageing Victoria.

It is funded by the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.   


Media contact:

Dr Catherine Barrett
Project Coordinator, Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University
T + 61 3 9479 3702

Dian Lipiarski
Media and Communications Officer
T + 61 3 9479 5517