Not the Venus

by Dom
The so-called Venus of Willendorf statues have been explained as fertility symbols, stone-age pornography, female goddesses. Several archaeologists have measured their bodily dimensions and claim these statues represent post-menopausal women. Women who are post-menopausal and no longer child bearing tend to not be valued in western society. But it can be argued that grandmothers who help in the care of the children sustain and strengthen societies, from traditional hunter-gatherers to our own. Perhaps the ‘Venus’ of Willendorf celebrates the strength of societies nurtured by older women who are respected.
I refuse to think of my ageing into dementia because it’s such a difficult thing for our society to deal with. Family and partners feel they ‘lose’ the person they once knew. Aged care services are insufficient to give generous, patient care and support. People with dementia seem to be the most vulnerable in our nursing homes.

I also cannot begin to understand why men would sexually assault someone living with dementia. Aged care workers are not valued or paid much, and the disregard our society has for them may flow into disregard for their patients. Maybe they justify sexual assault of older women by saying the older woman’s families don’t care. For the person living with dementia in residential aged care, everything that gives them protection is stripped away. For the worker it as well. Neither are valued.

When I was younger what we knew about sex wasn’t framed in terms of rights or equality. I was almost sexually assaulted a number of times, but because I was a virgin I was protected. I was able to tell the young men I was a virgin and they stopped. I was sufficiently protective of my virginity that I was willing to become socially unacceptable by screaming to stop the assault at the party I was at, rather than losing my virginity.

When a guy I was with tried to have sex with me, eventually I screamed. Another man at the party came in and I told him I wanted the man trying to have sex with me to stop because I was a virgin. So, his friend took me down the back of the garden, checked me and because he saw that I was a virgin, he let me go. Otherwise, I believe he would have attempted to have sex with me.

Later, I just gave in because it was easier than trying to stop the sex. I had a boyfriend in first year university and lost my virginity to him. After that, I let men have sex because it was easier. The only time I resisted assault was many years later, in my late thirties or early forties, when I was assaulted while on a jog. Because the man assaulting me wanted to experience the sex as consensual, my resistance did not provoke him into hitting me. Eventually, I was able to pull away from behind the vegetation screening us from the road and he gave up.
An illustration of the Venus of Willendorf
The situation since then has changed a lot. A woman in my time would never dream of bringing a rape case to trial like Brittany Higgins has, or achieving the widespread positive attention Grace Tame has for her battle against her abuser. Back before feminism in the 1970s, these young women wouldn’t be believed, first by the police, and, if it got past that, in the court case. A husband couldn’t rape a woman, because there was no such thing as rape in marriage.

But society has also stayed the same. Police, judges, juries still believe men’s stories more so than women’s, in sexual assault and family violence cases. However, more research on these injustices, more education and activism around them, and more people talking about sexual assault in society today helps to make more people aware that it does happen, even to older women.

Back in the early 1970s, I didn’t have a sense of inequality. I didn’t have that language. Also, I had sexual urges, and I wanted to be seen by young men as sexually attractive. All these contradictory emotions made it impossible for me to discern what I really wanted from sexual encounters, let alone articulate it. Also, I had only one orgasm before I got married, at the end of my four year university studies, so the idea of enjoying sex wasn’t part of the equation.

An illustration of the Venus of Willendorf
Older women are vulnerable in a number of ways, for example, lower lifetime earnings translate into lower superannuation which can mean stretched economic circumstances.

Older women also write of being socially invisible. But that has rarely happened to me. For example, most of the time young people serving me are courteous; perhaps they have a fair idea of who will give them a tip! I haven’t experienced the discrimination Germaine Greer writes about.

When you are no longer contributing productively and no longer independent, when you couple ageing with dependence, that’s the challenge. Our individualist society celebrates people looking after themselves and being self-sufficient. As you lose that, and you rely on others, you can lose belief in yourself, and lose who you were.

My mother initially found it very difficult to ask us for what she wanted, to become increasingly dependent on the caprices of her two daughters (her son never figured as having an obligation of care). That dependence was not what she wanted in life. We did work this out, but both my mother and her daughters had to discuss the changed situation and how it would work best for us, with the daughters having more say in what their ‘best’ was than our mother had in her ‘best’.

We know that people with dementia are incredibly vulnerable in aged care. From what we know, older women are even more vulnerable. The stats concerning sexual assault and other abuse don’t really surprise me.

Until this interview, I hadn’t considered the issue of wives of men with dementia being sexually assaulted by their husbands. I imagine it would be very difficult for women to talk about it. Perhaps they would talk to someone who could give them a strategy. I think loyalty is a complicating factor in the situation.

I would say, though, that for many older women dealing with a partner with dementia, it is not so much loyalty, which is about emotional connection, as wifely duty, what you are trained to do as a wife, that motivates their care. Older women will look after a husband who is sexually assaulting her because that is her wifely duty, that is what she was brought up to be and do.

Older women with dementia can’t give consent to sex. In care we cannot know if they are being sexually assaulted unless it is filmed or observed by someone else. Given these difficulties, and the relationship of fiduciary duty, no service provider should have sex with older women in their care.

An illustration of the Venus of Willendorf

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