Hand-wringing over sexually transmitted infections has long been reserved for awkward sex-ed classes and the teens forced to sit through them. But new Canadian research suggests middle-aged singles might be more in need of "the talk" than their kids.
Released Wednesday, the wide-ranging study of the sexual health, attitudes and behaviours of 2,400 Canadians between the ages of 40 and 59 found that the single among them rarely use condoms, even as many are now having sex with multiple partners. Condom use, the researchers discovered, declines with age – even if sex doesn't. And that means the middle-aged are at surprisingly high risk for contracting and transmitting STIs.
The study by researchers from the University of Guelph and the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN), which advises educators and health professionals, found that not only were middle-aged Canadians familiar with terms such as "hookups," "friends with benefits" and "booty calls," they're doing it all. But unlike younger Canadians, they aren't bothering to wrap it up.
The data, collected by polling firm Leger and funded by the condom company Trojan, showed troubling numbers: A whopping 66 per cent of middle-aged women and 49 per cent of middle-aged men who'd had three or more sexual partners in the past year didn't bother to use protection the last time they had sex.
Nor were they were particularly concerned about STIs, though they ought to be. Reported rates of chlamydia shot up 153 per cent for this cohort between 2003 and 2012, and among all HIV cases in Canada, the proportion among people 50 years and up rose from 15 per cent in 2009 to 22 per cent in 2014, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Gonorrhea cases nearly doubled from 865 in 2002 to 1,582 some nine years later.
"We have an issue here," said Alex McKay, executive director at SIECCAN. "There are low levels of awareness and concern amongst midlife Canadians around STIs. They clearly need a wake-up call."
Whether that wake-up call comes from a family doctor or PSAs posted to online dating websites, experts are pushing for a public-awareness campaign for this aging and sexually active cohort. A whole host of issues – from lack of solid sex ed to societal stigma around older people's sexuality to poor communication in bed – has left many recently divorced boomers without the skills to negotiate protection. For them, it needs to go beyond "the talk": They'll need a full-on re-education.
"They think that because they're older, it can't happen to them," says Laurie Betito, author of The Sex Bible for People Over 50: The Complete Guide to Sexual Love for Mature Couples.
Betito, who hosts a sex-ed radio show out of Montreal called Passion, popular with newly single boomers, compares them to heady teens: "The excitement of new situations and new-found freedom and sexuality, it's very much like teenagers. Unfortunately, they are throwing caution to the wind too quickly."
So why aren't more middle-aged Canadians taking care with their sexual health? For starters, more of them are single at midlife than in generations past. Many aren't worried about getting pregnant and so they don't bother with any protection at all. Most did not grow up during the AIDS crisis, or benefit from sex-ed lectures that drum the importance of protection in elementary and high school health class. Many also simply have no idea they're carrying STIs.
More pressingly, many of these people were raised in an era when talking about sex with your spouse was a no-fly zone.
"They haven't had to negotiate condom use ever. When they go out there, newly single, they don't know to take responsibility," Betito says. "They don't have the words or the tools or the practise to negotiate their boundaries. They may not have even thought about their own limits."
For older women especially, demanding condom use can be tricky: "They might have been raised in an era where men took control of sex," Betito says.
Joan Price says the mere mention of condoms makes faces go slack in the audiences at her sex-ed seminars for the aging set.
"They don't know how to talk about it," says Price, author of Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex. "They think that a future partner will not want to have sex with them if that's a requirement. They're worried – because of our upbringing – that a future partner will think, 'She's a slut. She carries condoms.'"
Stigma has long persisted around older sexuality, and the shame stings particularly for women. Take, for instance, the "Condoms!" scene from The Golden Girls. While loading up on "King George prophylactics" at a drug store ahead of their Bahamas getaway with "Jeff and Rich and Randy," the older women are publicly humiliated: "Lambskin!" an indiscreet sales clerk hollers over the intercom, looking for a price check.
But marketers – including those for Trojan, certainly – would be wise to sit up and take notice of this sizable cohort of sexually active boomers and seniors. On the new Netflix comedy-drama Grace and Frankie – an updated Golden Girls starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin – the two peddle organic, "farm-to-vagina yam lube" for older, liberated women. "You are missing out on a huge market," Fonda, a retired cosmetics mogul, berates her daughter, who is heir to the company.
Beyond cultural stigma around older sexuality, another barrier may be some men's perception of condoms. Many will beg off using them, saying they impair erection, not realizing that condom technology has advanced since they turned 18. For older women facing such reluctance, Price recommends female condoms or sex acts that don't involve intercourse. If a male partner continues to refuse, Price offers this ultimatum: "'Which is better? Sex with a condom or no sex?' That makes it easy."
After her husband died in 2008, Price, now 72, began dating and encountered this resistance herself.
"One man told me that there was no need to use condoms because he hadn't had sex with anyone since his monogamous marriage ended. I told him, 'I believe you, but I have.' It turned out to be reassuring to him … once I turned it around to the idea that I was protecting him."
Price says that rather than weakly negotiating, women should insist on protection as an "essential prelude" to sex: "What we should be saying is, 'My policy is that I use barrier protection. Your condoms or mine?'" Price says. "Practise with a smile in front of the mirror: 'I take responsibility for my sexual health, and yours.'"
It's especially important for women to advocate for protection because as they age, their vaginal tissues become thinner and are more susceptible to tearing, further increasing the risk of contracting blood-borne viruses during sex. "As women, we need to be prepared with our own condoms," Price says. "Don't leave it to the guy."
Still, getting the condom message across to middle-aged friends with benefits won't be particularly easy: This is not a captive audience suffering through mandatory health class in grade school. And with decades of sex behind them, they won't take kindly to being patronized about the birds and the bees.
McKay, who is managing editor of The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, says that while older Canadians "enjoy sex a lot," they desperately need to be brought up to speed on sexual health.
"They in fact find sex more pleasurable than university students did. They have more experience and they know what they want. That's all terrific but when it comes to things like sexually transmitted infections, we have work to do."
McKay is agitating for educators to reach single midlife Canadians where they are now – on online dating sites, for instance. He also urges doctors to do the same kind of STI testing and sexual-health counselling with their single, middle-aged patients as they do with their younger patients.
"This issue needs to be a public-health priority."
By the numbers
Although they're remarkably frisky, boomers are naive about the risks of STI. Even university students have safer sex than middle-aged Canadians, according to a study released Wednesday by SIECCAN. Here, the report's most notable findings.
55 per cent of single, middle-aged men and 32 per cent of single, middle-aged women reported having two or more sexual partners in the previous year
28 per cent of middle-aged men and 24 per cent of middle-aged women described their last sexual encounter as a "friend with benefits"
65 per cent of men and 72 per cent of women said they didn't bother using a condom during their last sexual encounter
56 per cent of men and 61 per cent of women reported not being concerned about contracting an STI. The less concerned respondents were, the less they used condoms.
By contrast, 61 per cent of young men age 18 to 26 and 51 per cent of young women had used a condom the last time they'd had sex, according to another joint SIECCAN-Trojan study of 1,500 students, age 18 to 26, published in 2013
When it came to casual sex, just 38 per cent of middle-aged men reported using protection, compared to 66 per cent of university-age men. And only 39 per cent of older women who were "not dating" insisted on condom use, far lower than university-age women, who used condoms 68 per cent of the time.