I helped organize a recent Take Back the Night March and Rally. It had the usual combination of march, speakers, and vigil. We also threw in some free food and music and had a good night of anger, reflection, laughs, and sorrow.
More than once that evening, a well-known fact was cited by speakers at the microphone: women are more likely to be raped by someone they know than a stranger.
Women are more likely to be raped by someone they know than a stranger.
This is not true.
A few months ago, I started contacting local and regional programs and services that serve victims of rape and other forms of sexual and domestic violence. I was trying to find out information about old/er women who are raped. On all the websites I had previously checked, statistics were given only on young/er women–such as “44% of victims are under 18 and 80% are under 30” (RAINN) or “Women aged 12-34 are at the highest risk for being sexually assaulted” (National Crime Victim Survey cited here). Only in one place did I find statistics up to age 44, and today, as I write this post I am unable to track it down.
Each of the three programs and services that I contacted could not provide me any–any–information on the rape statistics of old/er women. We are all simply swept up together under the 20% of rape victims over 30 years of age.
So I plodded around the Internet looking for information. I found scattered references in news pieces here and there that indicated elderly women are more likely to be raped by strangers than by people with whom they have a relationship, and that they are also more likely to be murdered during that rape than younger women. None of these news pieces cited its source. Then I found this, a piece from Volcano Press, that provided some of the information I was looking for. I quote in part:
While crime statistics make it appear practically non-existent, rape of the elderly can and does occur. When it does, it frequently turns deadly. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report “Sex Offense and Offenders,” 1 in 7 sexual assault murder victims were 60 or older…Only one age group of rape victims—ages 13 through 17—had a higher murder rate, at 3.3%.
The article then describes the profile of the typical rapist-murderer of elderly women. He is most likely to be someone who lives within six blocks of the victim, but not necessarily someone the victim knows. Therefore, the truth of the often quoted “fact” is that a young woman is more likely to be raped by someone she knows, and an elderly woman is most likely to be raped by someone she does not know but who knows of her (vulnerability/isolation/daily patterns).
Interestingly, even though this article uncovers some of the missing information about elderly women, women in their 40s through 60s appear to be invisible in the writings about women and rape. What happens to us? Are we equally unsafe in our personal relationships and around strangers? Or are we in some strange safe hiatus zone between the vulnerability of youth and the vulnerability of elderly? Are we uninteresting in the research because we are not likely to be murdered and our overall risk of being raped is lower than the risk for young/er women?
The Volcano article also explores the motive of the rapist-murderer of an elderly woman. The primary motive of this crime is sexual assault, with burglary a frequent afterthought. Many people think of the rape of older women as one of opportunity–that is, the burglar stumbled upon the woman and spontaneously raped her. The truth is the opposite.
The article then asks, “So, why does rape of elderly women not show up in statistics? The answer, “…the NCVS [National Crime Victim Survey] does not account for victims who do not survive, which is where elderly women are most likely to show up.” That is, many raped elderly women are invisible in rape statistics because they have been murdered and its the murder that is statistically recorded, not the rape.
There are further provocative questions that need to be researched. For example, why are elderly women not as vulnerable to being raped by people they know? Is it because women tend to live longer than men, and therefore women in abusive heterosexual relationships outlive the abusers? Is it because older women have divorced or otherwise escaped abusive relationships? Is it because elderly women live isolated, secluded, and vulnerable lives because they are unwanted cast-asides in a youth-oriented society–that is, no one knows them? Also provocative, and quite disturbing, is why are rapists more likely to murder elderly women? And how does the rape-murder of an elderly woman reflect the greater cultural/societal beliefs and practices by others, by institutions, and by communities? What do we all share in this hatred towards older women?
It’s important that all victim advocates, feminists, and our allies stop rendering older women invisible in our resistance to and dismantling of rape culture. We must not erase older women by presenting such ageist “facts” as “a woman is more likely to be raped by someone she knows.”
At next year’s Take Back the Night Rally, I know what I will be discussing when I have the microphone.