Hope for new life

by Theresa
The older women is a windswept tree. All the leaves are gone and the branches are silhouetted against the sky. So much has been lost. The bare skeleton is left, still providing a home for life. The tree has amazing roots. There is hope. It is not a dead tree. The older woman has lost her capacity and has been made vulnerable. She has no protection. But there is hope for new life. Her new life. A life where she is valued and finds her own strength.
The language of sexual rights wasn’t around when I was younger. I went to an all-girls school and we had an old fashioned headmistress who used to say… “if a lady remains a lady, then a gentleman remains a gentleman!”

There were different messages in the swinging sixties. If a woman was in a ‘compromised’ situation she could get herself out of it by behaving in an indignant way and walking off into the sunset. She should have the presence of mind to be dignified; she could ‘pull up her gloves’ and stalk off in full control. It wasn’t like that.

There was a presumption that rape was about someone pouncing on us in the street and dragging us into the bushes. But even then, questions would be asked about what was she doing in the street and was her skirt long enough? We were seen to be complicit.

We are conditioned to be social, and it’s in our DNA. We were surrounded by these sexual liberation messages, and it was all supposed to be great fun. It wasn’t without its fun, but it did mean that one went along with the tide. It was hard not to. You belong in a place, and you are conditioned to fit in. You must have a sense of humour, or you would be called a wowzer.

I was in my forties or fifties before I could reflect that there was mass grooming of young women and girls by the whole society in London. Convicted paedophile Jimmy Saville surprised us not at all, he was in plain sight with no one doing anything to stop him.

You were encouraged at some level to be available. Flirtatious behaviour and double entendre were everywhere and considered acceptable. You were on the brink all the time, because of the double standards and the pressure to play the game. There was still that equation of being a nice girl, good girl, look innocent, be a virgin when you were married. It was so improbable. It was on the brink. You were visible as a young sex object and anticipated sex partner. You were very conscious that you were viewed in that way. But there was no room for outrage because it was normalised – but it isn’t normal. Such a difficult situation to be in.

An illustration of a branch
It was a recipe for disaster. A teenager then was not empowered. You wanted to be accepted. It was mini skirts and tall boots, a provocative time. It was supposed to be all good fun, and probably it was good for some. But there was a morality thing going on for me and others. There was shame and regret. It ate at me. It was part of my choice to emigrate to Australia. The dismay that I had that I kept not resisting bad choices.

When things are happening to you that you don’t want, you don’t say anything; you are not empowered. You feel you have bought it on yourself. That’s the worst thing. That you blame yourself and think that is not what you wanted to happen. And then you feel unworthy and it’s hard to shake that one.

I think this has played into women’s sense of self. Once you accept one bad thing, you accept others as your ‘punishment’, and it disempowers us more. They say to women now, you can be anything you want. What a crock of shit! Still, people found their own balance with it.

An illustration of a branch

We were taught not to give consent under any circumstances, our headmistress taught us. We didn’t have lessons on consent. I would have liked my parents to give me some guidelines, but they did not. They failed me in that regard. I think they were trying to be modern parents. When I went out and came back late my mother told me not to bring home any ‘unwanted consequences’. It was a rejection of any child I would have. They didn’t say anything else. I think that was remiss of them.

There was a spectrum of strictness among parents. Some would let their daughters out. But there was still a sense of wrongness about sex. It was still considered a wrong thing to be doing. There was lots of sexual content on the telly even in family shows. There was also a radio show called Around the Horn with Kenneth Horn. It was full of screaming Queens; I don’t know what the ABC was thinking, because homosexuality was a criminal offence. Benny Hill was also completely smutty and full of innuendo, and it was considered family fare. It was all very jolly. It undermines any sense that sex is wrong, and yet we were being told it was wrong.

Men thought all their Christmases had come at once. I am sure the world also has thoughtful and considerate men – unfortunately, I missed them. The ones I met didn’t have a thought in their head other than getting a leg over. They were a product of their time.

What definition of rape are we using? Some people think it has to be a stranger and forced. But if the woman is silent, we don’t think of it as rape. We like it clearly cut – victims and perpetrators. In marriages, there would be a lot of unwanted sex and a lot of people stayed in the relationship. It’s harder to get out of as you age. There are a lot of disadvantages – social and economic. Older women who leave are more vulnerable to homelessness.

How are older women perceived in Australia? Older women are not perceived by others at all! We are figures of grandmotherhood and there is a fondness for grandmothers like there is for nurses. Kindly. Other than that, they would hardly even think to put in a sheltered bus stop for older people. There is an unfortunate trend towards segregation based on age. We are complicit in our own demise, moving into a retirement village or new developments that are not built for all ages. We need seating and shade and places where we bump into each other. All generations.

Older people get overlooked in shops. As soon as you have grey hair or hooded eyes you are ignored. People don’t expect much of you, that’s for sure.

Older men have a longer shelf life. They are regarded as having wisdom and status, particularly if they had a job that gives them status. That wears off, depending on your health and the way you carry yourself. When you are frail, you are looked down upon.
Women who have had a successful career are often able to maintain a presence that people respond to. What we put out matters. For other older women, no one is clicking their heels and saluting you. You are not worthy of other peoples’ time really. Low status older women are not perceived as of interest or advantage for others, and so – ‘why are you taking up space exactly?’ You don’t have rights just because you are alive.

Sexual assault of older women is clearer, in a way that the nuance drops away. There is no justification in the case of someone who is clearly not in a position to consent. At least everyone can stand on their high horse and say unequivocally that is unjustified and could not/should not happen.

Public outrage matters, but maybe people are switching off because of the horror of it. What is the next step? What are we going to do about it? I can fully believe some service providers think there is no harm to older women who are sexually assaulted. They are protecting their psyche from the difficulty of knowing that they did not stop it from happening. The sometimes-stated belief that an older victim of assault is not affected if she has dementia is cruel and ridiculous. We know that when people living with dementia experience trauma their behaviour is impacted. They don’t go on happily in a content way. They get agitated. That should be extremely well known, so I don’t know how anyone can say there is no impact on older women who are sexually assaulted.

Vulnerability happens on so many levels. Older women are vulnerable physically. Low status makes older women vulnerable. The stereotype of some stranger crashing through the window and leaping onto a bed with an older woman is not real. It is more likely to be the window cleaner or a service provider or a family member. The chances of anyone believing the older woman are Buckleys and none. There would be so much shame for the older woman. Older women usually won’t report sexual assault because of the shame. It gets reported to the police if the door gets bashed in, but not if it is someone they have a trusted relationship with. There is so much shame.

We need sustained campaigning to prevent sexual assault of older women. Sticking a few posters around is not going to do it. There is good work in general on sexual assault and domestic violence, it might not need to be a separate campaign, but they need to target older women to help them report. We need to start with schools and then do a whole of society campaign. First, we need to see women as equal. That’s a big call in itself!

We need anti-ageism campaigns where older people can be seen and valued. We are light years behind sexual assault of younger women; ageism is so deeply entrenched. I don’t know how we undo decades of ageist imbalance. It becomes difficult sometimes to imagine that is even possible because we are not separate from it. We need examples of respect we can emulate. Perhaps Australia’s multiculturalism could be our saviour… First Nations and many other cultures hold older people in high regard. Perhaps we could learn from that honouring, if we can hear other stories and share new ways of seeing elders.

An illustration of a branch

You might also be interested in:

Are you #ReadyToListen?

The #ReadyToListen project has developed a suite of resources for aged care providers as well as aged care workers.


Our fortnightly newsletter dOWNtime will keep you informed of the issues and events concerning older women.
Join the OWN community!

Thank you! You have successfully subscribed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This