Sexuality and sexual assault: They both exist in later life

I am often asked what later life means – for some that is 50 and up, others say 60 and older, and for others who don’t want to think about getting older, later life is just older than their current age.

Aging is a process, not a disease. Within our aging communities there are unique needs that must be identified and responded to, particularly in light of ‘us’ older adult baby boomers. Aging must include dignity, respect of a rich history and current life while also acknowledging sexuality – and safety – within later life.

Recently I witnessed an energetic discussion regarding sexuality in older adults (yes, sexuality in older adults does exist) and the question of when does sexual intimacy intersect with sexual assault/sexual exploitation? was raised.

For older adults, if their mental capacity changes, it may be difficult to determine intimacy versus assault/exploitation.

Sexuality is self-determined and self-identified, and is an ongoing and shifting life-long experience. The risk of sexual victimization is also ongoing through life. Thinking of intimacy versus victimization is even further complicated when we think about dementia, or other diagnoses that may impact a person’s ability to decide for themselves if they choose to be sexually intimate.

Sexuality may look different at various ages, it is an inherent part of who we are, and a basic right. Human interaction contributes to our social connection and engagement in life. And yet, we may start to question behaviors when a diagnosis related to cognitive decline may call into question the ability to consent.

Sadly, I don’t hear as often as I would like the understanding that while an individual can give consent, we must clarify what the consent is for, and equally accept that an individual can withdraw consent at any time.

I have heard people say “They had a consensual relationship for x number of years,” and I wonder How do you know that? and Does a lifetime of ‘yes’ mean a forever yes? 

Can’t intimacy be the holding of a hand, sitting quietly together, listening to music? We can have human connection in many ways, and yes, that does include consensual sexual activity. The need for intimacy does not disappear with age.

What concerns me is when the individual who supposedly wants sex behaves in a manner that suggests the opposite. I routinely hear, “She/he/they made it up; they must be confused about what happened. This is a prior memory coming to the forefront or this person is just not a credible witness.”

Sorting this out isn’t easy. However, what is clear to me is that victimization in later life does occur. It is not unusual for victimization to be perpetrated against our most vulnerable (it also is perpetrated against children and individuals with disabilities to name a few). Sexual violence holds victims to a higher level of responsibility/accountability than any other crime.

I recognize that older adults with cognitive issues may have mental capacity in some aspects of life, and not in others. Loneliness and confusion can add to the vulnerability of any individual and make it easier for the abuser to get away with the behavior. After all, who will believe an older person that can’t remember what day it is?

Victims may not have the vocabulary or verbal ability to tell us what happened. They also may not recognize what happened as a personal violation.

How do we know if a loved one is being sexually exploited? Many survivors, regardless of age, may ‘tell’ us through emotional/ behavioral changes, stress related reactions, changes in health status and possibly coded disclosures – those disclosures that ‘say’ one thing and indicate the possibility of something else.

Those are only some examples of what to be aware of – we must consider sexual violence and not leave that possibility off the list when trying to sort out what may, or may not, be going on for an older adult. Too often that possibility is dismissed because older adults aren’t supposed to be sexually desirable in our society. And yet again, we must realize that sexual violence is a crime of power and control – and often committed against less “believable” victims.

We must recognize the right to consent does not disappear as we age. As older adults, we get to make decisions that others may question, disagree with, or just want to ignore. Collectively, we can respect an older adult’s right to consent. We can also work together to prevent, and respond to, sexual assault of older adults. We just have to recognize the realities that older adults face, and respect that older adults are still sexual beings and capable of experiencing sexual violence.

Sue Hall Dreher was the executive director of Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine from 1995-2015. She is currently an independent organizational consultant who focuses on sexual violence and or abuse in older adults.

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