By Arianna Sessoms
For many people across the globe, sexual violence is a taboo topic, not openly discussed or even taken seriously. When it is talked about, it is often perceived as a form of violence that only affects young women and girls. In fact, anyone can be victimized by sexual violence, regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation or age. A population that is vulnerable to sexual violence but often left out of the narrative are older adults. Elder abuse or abuse later in life often refers to abuse committed against someone over the age of 60. Some other adults also fall into the category of vulnerable adults. In Maryland, a vulnerable adult is defined as an individual aged 18 years or older who lacks the physical or mental capacity to provide for their daily needs (Adult Protective Services). When discussing sexual violence prevention, awareness, and response, it is crucial to acknowledge the intersections of age and disability along with the intersections of ageism and ableism that can lead to an older adult experiencing sexual violence and not receiving appropriate care, resources, or justice afterward.
Much like sexual violence against other age populations, older adults are more likely to experience sexual violence by someone they know. Their abuser may be their partner or spouse, a family member or friend, an in-home caregiver, a worker in a care facility or another individual in the care facility. Reports suggest that the most common perpetrators of sexual assault against older adults are spouses and partners or staff and other residents in care facilities (Across the Lifespan). Individuals who commit sexual abuse are often those who have more power and authority over the victim, and who use that privilege to manipulate, control, and abuse the victim, as well as others around the victim.
Di Macleod and Kerrin Bradfield (2018) created an Elder Sexual Abuse Power and Control Wheel to shed light on the unique forms of sexual violence that older adults may experience. Examples of sexual abuse against older adults include:
Sexual abuse is an underreported crime, but older survivors of sexual abuse are less likely to report than younger survivors (Burgess, n.d.). If you believe a vulnerable adult is being sexually abused, you can file a report with Adult Protective Services. If an older adult discloses to you that they are being sexually abused, listen to them, believe them, and support them in getting the help they want. You can find more information about the Rape Crisis and Recovery Center in your community here.
Beginning in January 2021, the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault partnered with the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence and the Charles E. Smith Life Communities’ ElderSAFE Center to host a three-part series of webinars on intimate partner violence against older adults. These training sessions featured speakers from across Maryland and national experts, including the Family Justice Center, Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project, the DC Rape Crisis Center, Adventist Health Care, Revitalizing Inner Self Essence, and the Confidentiality Institute. In conjunction with this series, MCASA created a toolkit on Older Adult Sexual Violence, which can be found here.
It is important to support older adults who are experiencing sexual abuse, as well as older adults who have a history of sexual trauma. The recent #MeToo Movement, where survivors of sexual harassment and abuse publicly shared their experience by saying “me too,” saw an increase in older adults disclosing and reporting the sexual abuse they had experienced in their life (Alaggia & Wang, 2020). In addition to social media empowering adults who delayed reporting to disclose experiences of abuse, it is also common for male survivors of sexual abuse to wait 20 years after the abuse to share what happened to them (Easton, 2013). It is never too late to receive support and healing for trauma from past or present abuse. It is on all of us to support survivors of abuse, intervene and report when we see something, advocate for changes in policies and procedures of care facilities, and participate in prevention efforts in our communities.
Across the Lifespan. (n.d.). NSRVC. Retrieved June, 2021, from
Adult Protective Services. (n.d.). Maryland Department of Human Services. Retrieved June, 2021, from https://dhs.maryland.gov/office-of-adult-services/adult-protective-services/
Alaggia, R. & Wang, S. (2020). “I never told anyone until the #metoo movement”: What can we learn from sexual abuse and sexual assault disclosures made through social media? Child Abuse & Neglect, 103. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2019.104312.
Burgess, A. (n.d.). Elder Sexual Assault Technical Assistance Manual. Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. Retrieved June, 2021, from https://pcar.org/resource/elder-sexual-assault-technical-assistance-manual
Easton, S. D. (2013). Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse Among Adult Male Survivors. Clinical Social Work Journal, 41(4), 344–355. DOI:10.1007/s10615-012-0420-3. Retrieved June, 2021, from
Macleod, D. & Bradfield, K. (2018). ELSA Power & Control Wheel. Gold Coast Centre against sexual violence. Retrieved June, 2021, from http://www.stopsexualviolence.com/resources