By Keryn Curtis

A new national research collaboration is seeking input from older women, their families and care providers to help develop a better picture of the nature and extent of sexual assault among older women.

The three year study being led by Dr Catherine Barrett from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) at La Trobe University has the broad aim of preventing sexual assault of women aged over 65 in all contexts including in their homes, in the community and in residential care settings.

Speaking at the 45th Australian Association of Gerontology National Conference in Brisbane yesterday, Dr Barrett said there were 315 reports of sexual assault on older women in residential care facilities alone last year but that this figure did not accurately reflect the extent of the problem.

“We know that only twenty per cent of all sexual assault is reported nationally. So that 315 is just the tip of the iceberg and that is only residential care.  Sexual assault occurs everywhere – in women’s own homes and in public spaces and residential settings,” said Dr Barrett.

Dr Barrett said finding ways to prevent sexual assault was dependent upon understanding the context in which the assault occurs.  She said the lack of prevention strategies specifically addressing sexual assault in women in the older age group was due in part to a lack of evidence about the context of it.

“One of the biggest challenges in preventing sexual assault is that there is not a lot of data. So this first stage is about gathering stories about sexual assault.  If we can understand what it is that makes women vulnerable to sexual assault then we can look at changing those.”

The researchers are asking people to participate in an open survey, in print or online, or in confidential interviews to share their knowledge or experience of sexual abuse in this age group.  Interested organisations, including aged service providers, can also join a support group for the project.

“What we want is a really clear picture of the context of sexual assault.  All these stories that tell us how it is happening will enable us to say to service providers, here is how people are vulnerable and this is what you can do about it.  

“It affects service providers because they are providing services to women who have had these experiences and they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to respond or how to prevent it.  

“We can obtain the data and develop resources but we can’t change all the culture and practices nationally without support on the ground.  So the idea is that we empower the organisations that can influence a reduction in those practices or cultures that lead to the vulnerability of older women,” said Dr Barrett.

Fast facts:

This project is a collaboration involving The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University; the National Ageing Research Institute at University of Melbourne; the McCaughey Centre; Alzheimer’s Australia; and Council on the Ageing (COTA) Victoria. 

Sexual assault is defined in this study as any kind of unwanted sexual behaviour or activity that makes a woman feel uncomfortable, frightened or threatened.  

The research team will be conducting confidential interviews and an open survey of Australians to develop the evidence base.  Researcher would like to hear from:

  • Older women who have been sexually assaulted (after the age of 65+)
  • The families/friends of older women who have been sexually assaulted 
  • Service providers who work with older women/or other related services.

Anyone wishing to participate in the project should contact the chief researcher, Dr Catherine Barrett (see below).   Surveys are available both in print or online. The online version can be completed by clicking on this link: 

Dr Catherine Barrett (lead researcher)
The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society 
La Trobe University
215 Franklin Street, Melbourne 3000

Tel: 03 – 9285 5297

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