Analysis Sexual Health

Sex and Seniors: As Infections in Older Adults Rise, We Need More Gray Hairs and Wrinkles in Sex-Ed Materials

Fred Wyand

It is easy to overlook seniors when we see the dire numbers around STIs and teens, yet we remain at risk for sexually transmitted infections as we age. 

This article is published in partnership with the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD) as part of our joint series on STD Awareness

The notion that older people have sex lives isn’t as quaint or as easily dismissed as in years past, I believe. The age of Viagra® allows countless men to stand at attention and report for duty even as they qualify for the senior menu at most any chain restaurant. Then there’s the phenomenon of “cougars” – older women hooking up with younger guys – that has enough cultural cache to spawn everything from television shows to niche online dating sites. The idea that “40 is the new 30” has been stretched to the point that even those in their sixth and seventh decades look, feel, and act “younger” than in generations past.

It is easy to overlook seniors when we see the dire numbers around STIs and teens, yet we remain at risk for sexually transmitted infections as we age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that in 2010 more than 16,000 cases of chlamydia were reported among those between the ages of 45-54 (up from approximately 9,200 cases in 2004). Additionally, a study by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis projects that by 2015 over half of those living with HIV in the U.S. will be age 50 or older.

As I recall from my own sex-ed classes in the Carter era, we talked at length about pregnancy prevention but very little time was spent on sexually transmitted infections (STIs). For fellows in my generation, the sexual horror scenario involved knocking a girl up, not that we might get the clap while doing so. I suspect the girls felt much the same way. Those of us conditioned to think of condoms primarily as birth control, then, might find it easy to ditch what we called our “rubber insurance policy” as anxieties over unwanted pregnancy fade.

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And what about aging sexual minorities? LGBT and a senior? Talk about being overlooked! When developing program materials it’s important to keep in mind sexy seniors are a diverse group. (My aforementioned sex-ed classes didn’t once mention gay or transgender individuals, by the way.)

The sexual health of seniors – particularly around STIs – deserves attention. We need more gray hair and wrinkles on STI education brochures and websites. Speaking of which, ASHA’s website has info specifically for men and women in older age groups.

Now, I’ll ask you to indulge me as I reminisce once more about my school days. Knowing we weren’t likely to bring up serious items for discussion in front of our peers, the basketball coach (he was just as fidgety as the kids) teaching our junior high sex-ed class had us submit questions in writing. The queries were forwarded to a local physician who bravely volunteered to come to class the following week to talk about sex with a bunch of adolescent wise guys. I’ll never forget the old coach yelling at us to “Settle down and knock it off” as we howled when the bespectacled doctor said “Ok, let’s get started, our first one here says, uh, let’s see, ‘Is it dangerous to jack off?’”

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