It's never too late. Older women and sexual violence: The search for therapeutic solutions

Westerman, Joyce (2014). It's never too late. Older women and sexual violence: The search for therapeutic solutions PhD Thesis, School of Social Work and Human Services, The University of Queensland. doi:10.14264/uql.2015.105

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Author Westerman, Joyce
Thesis Title It's never too late. Older women and sexual violence: The search for therapeutic solutions
School, Centre or Institute School of Social Work and Human Services
Institution The University of Queensland
DOI 10.14264/uql.2015.105
Publication date 2014-11-30
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Open Access Status Other
Supervisor Jill Wilson
Karen Healy
Total pages 273
Subjects 1607 Social Work
160701 Clinical Social Work Practice
Formatted abstract
This research aims to explore older women’s perspectives on the factors contributing to their survival and recovery from sexual assault experiences in earlier life. A sample of older female survivors was recruited from counselling agencies where they had named sexual violence as an issue in their counselling. Drawing on the analysis of the women’s perceptions of their experience, the study aims to identify appropriate counselling approaches for supporting survival and recovery for older women who are survivors of sexual assault. It is acknowledged that such approaches would address both the long-term histories and the complexity and severity of related issues that would lead to resolution of outstanding sexual violence issues by old age. The importance of this study lies in the intersection of several areas of experience that rarely appear to have been examined for their interrelationships but are relevant to understanding both the experiences of older survivors and in turn service provision for this group.

Much has been written about older female victims of violence across the lifetime. Most of this body of research concerns domestic violence, intimate partner violence, elder abuse, or sexual abuse occurring in late life. Very little is known empirically about experiences of sexual violence across the entire lifetime or ways that ongoing unresolved issues continue to impact on survivors as they grow older. Their experiences are likely to differ in a variety of ways from those of women of other ages for a number of reasons.

The most significant reason for women reaching old age with lingering issues appears to be related to the passing of long time periods since their unresolved sexual violence experiences occurred. Accumulating impacts across many years of life tend to culminate in trauma effects which may be challenged by fresh issues related to ageing. Recovery trajectories for these women are complicated by the statistically high rate of revictimization and the accumulated impacts of sexual violence in a number of areas, as well as increasing trauma effects that may result from suppression of memories for many years as a coping mechanism, as they weathered the aftermath of multiple instances of sexual violence. Recovery may have been delayed or old issues retriggered by revictimization and the physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, economic, spiritual and interrelational impacts remaining unresolved in the absence of counselling to appropriately address this issue.

In the era of currently older women’s youth when they first experienced victimization, the social norms and attitudes regarding sexual matters made it unacceptable to discuss this topic or the related, shame-filled experiences of childhood abuse or adult sexual assault. Their violation frequently remained a secret within the family. Lack of knowledge about this phenomenon meant that women often blamed themselves and did not connect subsequent psychological or emotional issues with childhood experiences or those occurring in their youth. They were effectively silenced about their victimization.

Many older survivors have availed themselves of the services of psychiatrists or counsellors many times across life for various issues that these professionals mostly did not recognise as related to earlier sexual violence. Not until the 1980s, when these women were already adults, did specialist sexual assault counselling commence in Australia. Despite this, apparently little knowledge about these services was available from mainstream medical practitioners and counsellors. Lack of knowledge and appropriate referrals may have led to women attending many series of counselling without obtaining therapy that assisted their recovery.

Complex lifelong victimization histories consist of negative and positive experiences of survival and attempted recovery. To usefully analyse elements of long histories, the exacerbating and ameliorating elements of experience impacting on their lives are considered. Vulnerability and resilience theory provides a useful tool for uncovering factors contributing to their recovery status. Trauma theory assists with explanations of long-term effects due to multiple impacts of sexual violence. The balance of positive and negative factors helps determine whether these women could negotiate old age knowing that long-term issues had been laid to rest. Social constructionist aspects of feminist theory are used to analyse elements of oppressive experience pertaining to their roles as women in a male-dominated society.

This is a timely issue to consider as a healthier older population ages and a larger number of counselling, health and welfare services are required to service this growing population. The study finds that older survivors may use a variety of services to find therapeutic solutions resulting in resolution of long-standing issues such as sexual violence prior to facing the added challenges of reaching old age. It also finds that the provision of comprehensive and appropriate therapeutic services would ameliorate the potentially serious issues of this group of victimized women in late life and enable a peaceful end of life.
Keyword Sexual violence
Resilience and vulnerability

Document type: Thesis
Collections: UQ Theses (RHD) - Official
UQ Theses (RHD) - Open Access
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Created: Tue, 25 Nov 2014, 23:24:06 EST by Joyce Westerman on behalf of University of Queensland Graduate School