Causes – “Real Rape”

White, young (female) victim who is attacked at night by a stranger who is motivated by sexual gratification

Discussion Points

The myth of the “real rape” situation. Rape is not about passion. Rape is about power and control and not an intense uncontrollable sexual desire. When an older adult reports a rape, they are often met with disbelief that anyone (especially a younger person) would be sexually interested in an older person. Sexual assault is not about sexual attraction. One of the possible explanations for the lack of attention into sexual violence against older women is the widespread acceptance of rape myths and stereotypes. The term ‘real-rape’ was introduced by Estrich (1987) to describe the dominant stereotype around what constitutes rape. Estrich argues this stereotype involves a white, young victim who is attacked at night by a stranger who is motivated by sexual gratification. Since the 1980s a plethora of research has emerged, which has challenged the accuracy of this stereotype. For example, in the United Kingdom, national data suggest that only 15 per cent of rapes involve a stranger (Office of National Statistics [ONS], 2015) and research has observed that women are most likely to be assaulted by a partner or acquaintance, often in social situations that involve alcohol (Kelly et al., 2005).  Despite this, the ‘real-rape’ stereotype persists in society and is perpetuated by the media who tend to report cases of rape that are in keeping with this stereotype (Korn and Efrat, 2004; Franiuk et al., 2008; Marhia, 2008).  

Many police campaigns continue to reflect (and possibly reinforce) the real-rape stereotype involving young women, strangers and acquaintances, alcohol and sexual desirability. The damaging effects of this dominant belief have been well documented: victims are aware they have to convince the police of the legitimacy of their experience (McMillan and Thomas, 2009) and cases that conform to the ‘real-rape’ stereotype are more likely to result in prosecution (Brown et al., 2007; Ellison and Munro, 2009).  Moreover, it has also been suggested that perceptions of and beliefs about rape may also reflect, in part, the way researchers have depicted rape (Hockett et al., 2015) for example through vignettes used in studies. However, arguably, the extensive focus on certain populations in research studies and samples and the exclusion of other groups (e.g. older groups) also reinforces the notion that rape is a young persons’ crime.  

Furthermore, victims who experience rape that does not fit into the real-rape mould are often disbelieved or discredited and may be reluctant to report the rape to the police or other agencies. Women’s voluntary sector anti-rape campaigns and activism generally do not perpetuate the realrape stereotype, but they do typically focus on young women. 

Older rape victims do not fit the ‘real-rape’ stereotype of a young attractive woman who is attacked because of her sexual desirability.  Society tends to view older people as asexual, largely based on ageist attitudes, which view old age as a process of decay, decline and deterioration (Jones and Powell, 2006).  Sexuality in old age continues to be a taboo subject in society, and the existing academic literature has predominantly focused on sexual health and physiological issues in older age (Kleinplatz, 2008), giving the impression that sex in later life is either non-existent or associated with negative issues. As several researchers have noted, older people are routinely viewed as asexual and undesirable (Calasanti and Slevin, 2001; Gott and Hinchliff, 2003) despite research demonstrating that sexual activity continues into later life (Lindau et al., 2007; Beckman et al., 2008). 

Furthermore, the real-rape stereotype posits that rape occurs late at night in public, a time when older people are less likely to be in public spaces.  Thus, the lack of research and the common myths and stereotypes surrounding rape, and societal assumptions about age and ageist attitudes, may lead to disbelief or discrediting of the older person’s complaint. Generally, society does not identify older people as being at risk from sexual assault and thus family, friends and professionals may miss the signs (Lea et al., 2011, p.2304). Despite effort to challenge these dominant myths, there has been very little research challenging the myth round victim age.