September 20, 2012 / Safety

Yes, Older Women Are Victimized: Dispelling Common Rape Myths


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

(Possible Trigger Warning)

Last week a woman was raped in the Strawberry Fields section of Central Park. Nine days before it happened, she had been birdwatching in the same area. She saw the perpetrator openly masturbating and took a picture. He demanded she give him the camera, she refused, and she reported the incident to a park ranger. The day of the attack, he asked if she remembered him, dragged her into the bushes, and then beat and raped her. She was found by another birdwatcher who noticed her feet sticking out of the bushes, where she was face down on the ground, was lucid. The attacker was caught by police with the victim’s backpack and camera, and she was able to identify him out of a lineup.

The perpetrator‘s history of violence against elderly women goes back to 1990, when he was acquitted of raping and murdering an 87-year-old woman, even after giving a very detailed confession. A few months later he raped a woman in her 70s during a home invasion. He served time for kidnapping after having done a stint in prison for felony robbery, and he left a string of sexual assaults and probation violations in his wake before the recent attack.

There are several rape myths that make this case shocking to so many people.

We desperately want to believe bad things don’t happen to society’s most vulnerable. Unfortunately, sexual abuse and rape of the elderly does happen. The lifetime prevalence of sexual mistreatment of non-institutionalized elders is 7%, while slightly more than half of 1% were victimized within the last year. More than half of them were abused by  family members (40% of them spouses), and only 3% by strangers. A third of victims didn’t report violent crimes against them because they didn’t think the police would do anything for them.

In the article at The Daily Beast, Benje Douglas of the NSVRC points out that there is a cultural stereotype that says sex is strictly for pleasure, and that women over a certain age are no longer sexually attractive. Dr. Holly Ramsey-Klawsnik is a mental health clinician and sociologist who researches sexual violence. She explained that, “people unaccustomed to thinking of older women as sexual beings might think: why would someone want to rape them?” Douglas says, “Society still implicitly believes that rape is about sex.” It’s a false assumption that leads to people believing women are raped because of how they look or behave.

In 1979 Dr. Nicholas Groth and H. Jean Birnbaum interviewed over 500 convicted rapists to find out why they did it, and the researchers concluded there are 4 types of rape (power reassurance, power assertive, anger, and sadistic/ritualistic), none of which have to do with sudden sexual urges.

Another rape myth is that daytime rape is rare, if not non-existent. The fact is, rapes occur with as much frequency during the daytime as they do during the night. Rapists don’t clock in and out with the rising and setting of the sun. According to RAINN, 43% of rapes occur between 6pm and midnight, 24% between midnight and 6am, and 33% happen between 6am and 6pm.

Naturally, the court of public opinion has convened, and comments like the following are popping up: she shouldn’t have gone backshe should have been minding her own businessI sure as hell wouldn’t have taken his picturewhy was she filming him in the first place, etc. RAINN’s statistics show that more than half of reported rapes take place less than a mile from the victim’s home, and 4 in 10 actually happen in her home.

She had every right to go back to the park. In a society where rape victims are told to get over it, put it behind them quickly, and get back to normal, why is it so hard to imagine she’d want to continue her normal activities? Surely she wasn’t the only woman in the park that day, and it’s a fair bet he would have picked someone else to victimize.

As for the camera, she’s a professional photographer. Just as writers are compelled to write about current events, photographers instinctively click the shutter when something is happening. The woman in Central Park took action, choosing not to ignore something she saw that she knew was not only inappropriate public behavior, but is illegal in New York. She thought it had been handled. She continued with her normal routine. Saying she shouldn’t have been there, that she shouldn’t have said or done anything when she saw the perpetrator masturbating in a public park is to suggest we all stay home and let people like her attacker overrun public places.

In an ideal world the rapist’s presence in Strawberry Fields is would be questioned, not hers.