There has been a recent and alarming rise in reports of sexually transmitted infections in the over 50’s (not to mention the epidemic raging through our nation’s under 30’s). Recently published figures for Australia reveal that the number of Chlamydia cases in people over the age of 50 doubled between 2004 and 2010, with similar trends appearing around the world. There are a number of theories as to why this recent phenomenon is fast becoming a burden on our health care system.
Researchers at the University of New England claim that “‘sexual ageism’ is preventing health authorities from making the necessary investment in education and prevention strategies.” Lead researcher Professor Victor Minichiello says that doctors need to ask their older patients about their sexual activity because people in this age group will be less inclined to raise the topic themselves due to embarrassment. (It has also been suggested that doctors themselves might find this a difficult and embarrassing conversation to have with patients old enough to be their parents or even grandparents).Sexual education was not a regular part of the teen years of many older Australians and their lack of awareness about STIs is contributing to this new wave of infections. Research has also revealed low levels of condom use among older people in Australia, unfortunately coinciding with a time when an increasing number of older people are entering into ‘casual’ or new sexual relationships, perhaps after a divorce or separation.
Dr Deborah Bateson, medical director for Family Planning NSW indicates that there is cause for alarm and action, with a recent survey in conjunction with dating site RSVP finding that Australia’s over 50’s (also called the baby boomer generation) had very often missed the safe sex message. “What was concerning is that older women were more likely to have unprotected sex with a new partner”, and were also less likely to refuse to have sex without a condom. For this reason a new health campaign (put together by FPNSW) is targeting people outside the ‘condom generation’. This condom education initiative, called the Little Black Dress Campaign is aimed, to start with, at women, but plans to survey men in the near future. The campaign promotes the message that sexual health is a negotiation, and a conversation which should be had (and is easier to have) before sexual activity begins – or ‘with your clothes on’!
Professor Terence Hull at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health said that “a wider, positive message about condoms needed to be communicated to both older women and men”; while at the same time he praised the Little Black Dress Campaign as a step in the right direction by placing safe sex on the agenda for our aging community.
In San Francisco Katherine Forsythe, a sex educator and sex coach wants to educate about safe sex for older adults. She drills into participants in her forums for over 50s the same message which we teach teenagers in sex ed classes: “If you’re going to play grown-up games, you have to play by grown up rules.” Today this means that sexually active partners need to use a condom 100% of the time until each can present a medical certificate stating total sexual health (no STIs) and until the partners have been monogamous for a minimum of three months.
There are several theories about the rise of sexually transmitted infections in older people. One hypothesis concerns the increasing use of male sexual performance drugs such as Viagra, meaning that a larger number of older men are taking part in sexual relationships. Another supposition is that a rising divorce rate means there are more newly single ‘baby boomers’ looking to re-partner or dip their toes (and everything else) back into the dating pool. Dr Bateson says the internet has also opened up ways for older single people to form new relationships.
Another important point to consider as an explanation for lack of safe sex practices among older women is the continuing (mis)belief that menopause removes the threat of an unplanned pregnancy and therefore the necessity for any form of protection. Combine this with a reluctance to negotiate condom use and perhaps a lack of knowledge about how to use condoms and we can see how a whole generation of people (who perhaps have not really had to worry about sexual health since their earliest dating days and fears of unplanned pregnancy) have ‘slipped through the cracks’.
Sexual health 101
A health check is advised if you:
- Are starting a new sexual relationship – make sure your partner gets one too.
- Have had unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex.
- Think you may have an STI.
- Have other sexual partners. The same goes for your partner.
Not all STIs have symptoms. The majority of people with chlamydia exhibit no symptoms at all.
STIs have nothing to do with your character. They are increasingly common.
Symptoms to watch for: Genital blisters, lumps and sores, itchiness, pain during sex, pain passing urine and unusual discharge.