Sex Ed: Not Just for Teens

Pamela Merritt

STD rates are up among older adults. And our reaction -- surprise, confusion -- suggests that we need to examine our attitudes towards sexuality at any age.

A recent study conducted by researchers at England’s West Midlands Health Protection Agency found that STD rates are up among all age groups, but the news that the rate had increased among older adults (over 45) soon hit headlines.  Journalists and readers seemed shocked to learn that older adults are sexually active at all. Speculation over the "cause" of the increase runs rampant, from blaming Viagra to the options afforded older adults after divorce through online dating.  The surprise, and confusion, greeting the news about STD rate increases for older adults points to our inability to comprehend news about the aged unrelated to their decline or dysfunction. And it stands as a reminder that we need to examine our attitude towards sexuality at any age. 

"The headline really should have been that older people are having sex," says Ann Whidden, MPH, Communications and Internet Director at theNational Sexuality Resource Center (NSPRC). "We think of sex education as being for teens and a one time thing instead of providing the tools that will lead to lifelong sexual literacy."  NSRC’s mission is to promote sexual health, wellness and pleasure across the entire lifespan, and has been working with the American Association of Retired People since 2007 on the inclusion of sexual literacy and LGBT people within their work. NSRC will also be launching a Sexuality and Seniors Advisory Networklater this year. Whidden points out that most sexuality education has been youth centered and prevention focused, the result being that the needs and desires of adults in mid and later life are often ignored.  

NSRC incorporates the goal of sexual literacy into all of their work, including their dialogue with AARP and older adults.  Face to face meetings with the CEO, California State AARP and the Washington DC based AARP Office of Diversity and Inclusion took place in 2007 and 2008. NSRC staff member Joy O’Donnell was appointed as an AARP CA Advisor on Disability Rights for sexuality, public education and training campaigns.  In October of 2007, California AARP attended the NSRC Champions of Sexual Literacy Awards Celebration and acted as a primary organizational sponsor for the dinner.  

NSRC’s Sexuality and Seniors Advisory Network will be madeup of experts on the subject from community based organizations, professional associations, medical hospitals and academic institutions throughout the United States. NSRC will serve as a national clearinghouse and central training center for all of their work, which will create an unprecedented and comprehensive resource for families of seniors, professionals who serve seniors and seniors themselves. NSRC will simultaneously be launching sexuality and gender, race, health and faith based advisory networks which will further inform, intersect and enrich the body of information they provide around seniors and sexuality. 

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Our lack of sexual literacy has an impact whether we are teens or midlife to older adults.  NSRC isworking to establish dialogues that will break down shame, open up communication and change how people view sexuality and aging.  Through efforts like those of NSRC, people will have the tools to establish positive communication about their sexuality and the resources to empower healthy sexuality throughout their lives.

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