Research by a Teesside University academic is helping to challenge attitudes surrounding older victims of sexual violence.

Dr Hannah Bows’ research aims to tackle perceptions that rape only happens to young victims.

Dr Bows, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, said: “While researching my PhD I discovered that older victims of sexual offences seemed to be disregarded in the way crimes are recorded and reported.”

She discovered a limitation in the way crime data in relation to sexual violence is recorded which highlights a distorted view of the level of assaults suffered by older victims, marginalising a particular age group.

Dr Bows said: “Crime data only records ‘intimate violence’ up to the age of 59, resulting in a lack of information on the prevalence of sexual violence against victims aged 60 and over. It is ageist. Woman over 60 are being discriminated against and disregarded because of their age.”

Her research into sexual violence against older people has now gained prestigious recognition as a shortlisted entry for the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Celebrating Impact Prize.

The ESRC prize aims to recognise the work of researchers which has made an outstanding economic or societal impact. The research by Dr Bows has been shortlisted in the category of Outstanding Early Career Impact.

The winners of the ESRC Outstanding Impact Prize will be announced in London on Wednesday 21 June.

Dr Bows said: “I’m surprised and proud to receive this recognition. One of the things which I wanted to do when I started this research was to challenge perceptions and highlight this issue. There is a need to challenge the stereotype that all victims of sexual violence are young.

“The prevailing ideology which views rape as something which happens to attractive young women may make it difficult for older women to conceptualise their experience as rape, or seek support.

“While there has been some acceptance that older people can experience sexual violence, it has been redefined as a form of ‘elder abuse’. Rape of older people should not be seen in this way, but as a form of violence against women. We need to see them as legitimate victims.”

As part of her research, Dr Bows gathered crime data and interviewed survivors and practitioners. Her findings showed that women over 60 were more likely to be raped by someone younger than them, with a significant number of perpetrators known to the victim.

Dr Bows said: “We rely on information taken from data to determine who might be at risk, but because of the way data is collected, some assaults are ignored or seen differently. But it is a crime, not only a safeguarding issue.”

If successful in the ESRC awards, Dr Bows said the prize funds would be used to develop the International Network for Research into Violence against Older Women (INRVAOW) which she recently established.

The network will share knowledge, identify opportunities for collaboration, feed into policy and practice and work with practitioners working at the frontline in social care and police. Future plans also include the development of training materials for practitioners working with older people in care homes, social services, adult protection and healthcare.