Why do young men rape elderly women? And why does nobody care?: A special report by Linda Grant on a shocking crime which it seems we all prefer to ignore

LATE last November, an 84-year-old widow was asleep in an armchair in her house in Camden, north London, when a man broke in. He threatened her with a carving knife, then beat and raped her. He left her trapped in a wardrobe which he turned door-side down on to the floor, piling furniture on top of it; she was only freed when a neighbour became suspicious about a smashed window and called the police. A 17-year-old has been charged and will be tried in the summer.

Exactly a week later, a 71-year-old woman in Daventry, Northamptonshire, was woken up and raped at knifepoint by an intruder. Two weeks after that, on Christmas Eve, a man visiting his 83-year-old spinster aunt on a council estate in Southwark, south London, became concerned when there was no reply to his knock on the door. He called the police who broke in and found the woman also trapped in a wardrobe, having been sexually assaulted.

There are no figures for the numbers of sexual attacks on the elderly because the Home Office does not categorise its rape statistics by age. We may imagine that the rape of elderly women is a rare, horrible and peculiarly unnatural crime, but it is not. Looking at newspaper cuttings covering the past two or three years, it becomes clear that the rape of older women is not only commonplace but that the number of reported incidents are increasing.

On Christmas Day 1991 a severely disabled 70-year-old woman was raped in Sussex. In January 1992 a man was jailed for nine years for raping the 66-year-old housekeeper of a Catholic priest. The following month a Worcester man was jailed for life after sexually assaulting an 88-year-old, punching her in the eye and mouth and slitting her clothes from the chest down. He had already served an eight-year sentence for raping a 50-year-old woman. In April 1992, Manchester Police investigated what the police authority's chairman Stephen Murphy called 'the worst case of its kind I have ever heard of'. An 88-year-old widow was left with a fractured skull, two broken ribs and other injuries after a four-hour attack in which she was kicked, battered and bitten by two men who raped her three times, forcing her to carry out what newspapers called 'a series of perverted sex acts'. In June of that year, a 16-year-old was convicted at Norwich Crown Court of the rape of a woman aged 100.

What are we to make of it? Here are women not young, not sexually desirable by society's norms, beyond the menopause, still being considered fair game by rapists. What do the experts say - the psychologists, the specialists in the treatment of sex offenders, rape counsellors, Victim Support, national charities that promote the interests of older people?

Nothing. The Prison Service could find no psychiatrists in their own sexual offender treatment programmes who could offer any opinion on the subject. Victim Support and Age Concern can offer no insight into the crime. There is no research, there are no studies of the after-effects of rape among elderly women. Despite the large amount of literature on date rape, there is almost nothing on the rape of older women. As one American study on the treatment of rape victims, published in 1991, admits: 'The sexual assault of older women has received little attention in the rape literature. As a result there is paucity of information on the incidence and characteristics of sexual victimisation of the elderly and of the resulting psychological effects.'

ON the face of it, the rape of the elderly should have merited more attention because it is a particularly violent crime. Between 60 and 70 per cent of all reported rapes are acquaintance rape, where the attacker is known to the victim. But the rapes of elderly women usually follow a scenario where a young man forcibly enters the woman's home, threatens or carries out physical violence, steals money or jewellery and leaves her where she may not be found for hours, or even days if she lives alone. For the victim, the physical assault can be especially devastating. Many women now in their seventies and eighties are likely to have had only one sexual partner throughout their lives, and those who are widowed may not have had any sexual contact for many years. (For women past the menopause, penetrative sex, even when desired, is often painful.) All in all, rape for an elderly woman should be particularly traumatic and therefore worthy of specialised attention.

So why isn't it? Several years ago, Ginny Jenkins, director of Action on Elder Abuse (an independent organisation set up to monitor abuse of the elderly), worked in a day hospital where five elderly women reported having been raped over the course of one winter in their homes. She believes that the lack of interest in this crime reflects society's attitudes to old people and sex. 'We can't cope with old people having sex, so we can't cope with abusive sex,' she says. 'But the woman's own embarrassment also makes it greatly under-reported. If you can't tell your daughter that you're sleeping with your husband, how can you say that you've been raped?'

The police point out that when rape is reported, elderly women make bad witnesses. 'It's very difficult to converse with an 88-year-old woman who has been raped three times,' says Chief Inspector John Dunn, who investigated the Manchester case. Poor eyesight may make identification difficult and there is a tendency for anyone under the age of 40 to be described as 'young'.

Crimes need human faces to touch the public imagination. In the mid-Eighties, Maggie Foggarty, then a researcher for Getting On, Central Television's series for older viewers, tried to make a programme on the subject. While a number of viewers wrote in with their experiences of rape, none was willing to be interviewed. 'What came over was the sense of shame. One woman had lost her husband during the First World War and that was the only man she had ever known. This area was such a taboo, even within the team. We decided it was too sensitive a subject for television.'

ONLY one older victim of rape has recently agreed to be interviewed by the press. Just over a year ago, on Christmas Eve, Muriel Harvey, a 68-year-old church warden and former magistrate in Ludlow, Shropshire, was walking home after midnight mass when a man grabbed her from behind and forced her into some nearby grounds where he raped her. Mrs Harvey spoke out about her experience at the time, and her memories are still vivid.

'He was probably 40, fortunately reasonably clean, in a leather jacket. He said, 'Shut up you bitch or I'll kill you.' I don't think he realised at first that I was a much older woman but it didn't seem to deter him. I tried saying, 'I'm going to have a heart attack' and all those things but it didn't do any good. He didn't have a weapon but a very strong grip, a good clinch round my neck. I didn't try to fight. I thought, I'm not going to be able to run fast enough so that's it: let's hope for the best.

'The worst thing was wondering whether I was going to survive. Very quickly I went into a state of high adrenalin and I thought, I've got to think and escape even if it means going through the actual sexual act. I didn't have time to think about whether he might have HIV until afterwards when I had to go through the checks in hospital. And then I thought, well, I'm alive and I'll meet that one when it happens.

'My reactions afterwards were, thank God it wasn't a younger woman who would be much more vulnerable. I've had so many knocks in life. I've had break-ins in my family business last year, and I felt far more violated by that. I've been widowed twice, my first husband died when he was 52 and I was 48, leaving me with three children, the youngest seven. I remarried and then my second husband died. So within three years I had two body-blows and I don't think anything can affect me after that. Thank God it wasn't a very much more fragile old lady.'

Muriel Harvey's philosophical approach to her own rape may be partly explained by her intelligence and strength of character; she studied sociology at London University and still runs her own business. The lack of any research, the silence and invisibility of other elderly victims and their sense of shame, makes it possible only to speculate about the nature and extent of their trauma. One woman's aunt was raped several years ago and died shortly afterwards: the incident is still not discussed in the family. But one former policewoman who has interviewed many rape victims recognises Mrs Harvey's response: she observes that the older women she has talked to have often cited, as Mrs Harvey does, previous traumatic events - such as living through world wars or losing spouses - as worse experiences.

It is also possible that some older women may be better equipped than younger ones to cope with the guilt that follows rape. Two years ago Dr Gill Mezey, consultant forensic psychiatrist at St George's Hospital, Tooting, tried to research the long-term effects, but no money was available for the study. Dr Mezey has talked to a large number of older women who have been raped and, although she makes no scientific claims for what is only anecdotal evidence, she believes that the stage of life at which a woman is raped will effect her recovery.

'While not minimising the trauma of the rape itself, what is also important is the secondary victimisation, the way a woman is treated by her partner, family, police and the criminal justice system which may be critical and blaming' she argues. 'Young, fit women are expected to put up some kind of fight.' It is difficult to convict someone of rape unless there has been physical resistance. But people do not expect women in their seventies to put up a fight. Nor will older women be accused of being complicit in their assault, of 'asking for it', by being sexually provocative or wearing sexy clothes.

'The older a woman is the more stable is her personal development, her position in the family and life. A rape may be less likely to throw her into disarray,' Dr Mezey says. Such speculations may or may not prove helpful: without research, we do not know.

WHAT of the rapists themselves? Little if any work has been done on men who rape elderly women. Dr Mezey says her interviews indicate that they are very hostile to women and feel belittled by them. Since Susan Brownmiller's landmark study of the mid-Seventies, Against Our Will, it has been understood that rape is not about sex but power. One theory put forward in an American study holds that older women symbolise an authority figure over whom the offender wants control or an actual woman against whom he wants to avenge himself. The desire, in such rapes, is not for sex but for the degradation, hurt and humiliation of the victim. 'How did he get an erection?', we guiltily wonder. The arousal may come from rage, nervous excitement or fear, as is suggested by the evidence of rapes in wartime. Others argue that these rapists are simply woman haters, and older women may just be easier to attack because of their vulnerability.

The extent of sexual violence against older women may be far greater than press reports suggest. Earlier this year a report appeared in an American social work journal on sexual abuse of the elderly in Britain. Its author, Malcolm Holt, a Northumberland social worker, wrote to all the medical and social work journals in this country for cases of sexual abuse of the elderly by carers. By the time he wrote the report a year ago, he had 90 cases of sexual abuse by family members. The numbers have now grown to the hundreds. The most frequently reported abusers, 55 per cent, were sons. 'Frail, dependent elderly people, who suffer mental impairment, are very attractive as potential abuse victims' Holt wrote. Who will believe what they say? he asks.

When Holt began his research, there was scepticism about the need for such a study. One GP questioned what harm could be done to a victim who had been raped by her son, since she was old and confused. It was colleagues who remembered the early days of uncovering the extent of child sexual abuse who encouraged Holt to continue with his research.

Why does it happen? 'The issues are the same, whether it's abuse in the home or rape by a stranger,' Holt argues. 'It's about wielding power, leaving the victim totally shocked and humiliated and not willing to give evidence because they are confused and the evidence is unreliable. An American study says that sex offenders can move from children to old people. If their source of victim is denied, they find another.'

The real shame is not the kind that elderly women feel who have been raped, but our ignorance of the subject. A study of sexual assaults on elderly women would throw light on the nature of rape itself, perhaps finally removing any lingering doubt that rape is about power rather than sex. Child sexual abuse, sexual abuse of frail, elderly women, is there so much difference? At the beginning and at the end of life, the weakest, the least likely to be believed, are the rapist's most vulnerable victims.

(Photograph omitted)

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