In 2017, TIME Magazine named Tarana Burke and other “Silence Breakers” as Person of the Year for bringing attention to the sexual harassment and abuse women have suffered for decades. Although the “Me Too” movement was founded in 2006, it gained prominence in 2017 when Hollywood actresses began speaking out about how they had been victimized by producers and others in the industry. Using the “me too” hashtag (a word or phrase used to categorize or describe certain text used in social media), women around the world used social media outlets to openly tell their personal stories about experiencing sexual harassment or violence. In just one year, the hashtag was used more than 19 million times on Twitter.
Unfortunately, millions of women have experienced sexual harassment and/or sexual violence. Sexual harassment is defined as workplace behavior that involves “unwelcomed sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” according to the Equal Employment Opportunity commission. Sexual assault is characterized by sexual contact of any kind without the consent of the victim, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). While the vast majority of sexual assault victims are under age 30, women over 65 represent about 3 percent of victims.
With respect to workplace sexual harassment, data shows that women of different generations experienced harassment at similar rates but younger women are more likely to speak up about it today. Instead of speaking up when they were in their 20s, many women now in their 50s and older say they just dismissed it when they experienced sexual harassment. One reason, suggested a woman in a focus group, may be that women of the older generation were trailblazers in their fields. They were often the only woman in the office or department where they worked and felt isolated. Now, many professions that were male-dominated 30 or more years ago are more diverse today and have more women in senior positions. Today, women may have more female colleagues to talk to and can see more women in positions of power in the workplace. This may lead them to feel more confident that their complaints will be taken seriously.
Interestingly, while there may be greater overall awareness of sexual harassment and violence against women, there has been very little discourse about the victimization of older women. One study of legal literature on violence against women and elder abuse found that older women victims are largely excluded from the literature. Another analysis of elder abuse research found that only 16 of 52 studies specifically addressed sexual violence. One theory for this lack of recognition is the idea that an older woman does not fit the mythical image of an ideal victim. After a certain age, society often depicts women as asexual, one author noted. And, although sexual assault and rape are crimes of violence, there persists in society the erroneous belief that they are acts motivated by physical desire. So, if an older woman cannot be considered an object of desire, one may not believe that she could be a victim of sexual violence.
Adults over age 65 make up the fastest growing age group in the United States since 2010. Growing more than 30 percent between 2010 and 2019, this age group has increased at a rate higher than the total population and more than any other age group. Over 65, there are more women than men, especially at the extremes of age. For those between 65 to 74, there are 89 men for every 100 women. Over 85, there are only 53 men for every 100 women. Thus, some 80% of elderly people who live alone are women.
While many women remain in good health longer than in previous generations, women of a certain age are still viewed as a vulnerable population. They are more likely to live alone, may be less capable of resisting a physical attack and more likely to suffer severe injuries if attacked. Also, these women are even less likely to report a sexual assault than younger victims.
“Sexual abuse of older women remains unnamed, unrecognized, under-reported, and, as such, at the margins of legal research,” according to the article, “Me Too? The Invisible Older Victims of Sexual Violence.” In it, the author describes that the majority of assaults occurred in the victims’ home or a family members’ home. Furthermore, about 55 percent of sexual abuse was perpetrated by spouses. She concludes, “There is a need for a holistic approach to sexual violence of older women, which perceives it as a unique phenomenon, considers the interplay between age and gender, and provides older women with infrastructures and legal and social mechanisms that fit their needs and experiences both as women and older people.”