HIV Self Care

Old habits die hard: safe sex for the over 50s

Having sparked the sexual revolution in the 1960s, the baby boomers were hardly going to fade politely into the background and accept that they were past it, were they?

Continuing to lead sexual liberation, these people (the youngest of these are now in their 50s) are helping to smash down the ridiculous taboo surrounding sex in later life!

A third of people aged over 70 ‘have sex at least twice a month’, according to a study published earlier this year by researchers from the University of Manchester, University of Leeds and NatCen Social Research.

Saga put it closer to once a week for 46% of older people, in a less formal survey of its online community in 2012.

But, as we know, sex is not always within the comfortable confines of a life-long or even long-term relationship.

The growing divorce rate (and development of Viagra!) has left a host of mature singletons looking for love – or sex – and dating websites and apps are happy to oblige.

Since being openly gay or bisexual has never been so accepted, older people may be exploring same-sex relationships for the first time.

So far, so liberating. But incidence of STIs in older people is rising, often at a steeper rate than in the young; between 2010 and 2014, there was a 206% rise in diagnoses of gonorrhoea in people aged 65 and over in England and a 63% rise in cases of herpes (97% for women over 65). 

One in five heterosexual people diagnosed with HIV was aged 50 or over in 2013, versus one in 14 in 2004. 

Lack of condom use prevails as the main culprit, fuelled by the absence of targeted sexual health awareness campaigns and education and a reactive health service. Despite FPA’s ‘Remember wearing this?’ campaign in 2010, the naïve belief remains that STIs are for youngsters.

Reasons for avoiding condom use may differ in older people, relating to erectile dysfunction in older men or the discomfort of vaginal dryness for older women. The baby boomers, who grew up with the introduction of the contraceptive pill, and before the spectre of HIV, may have used condoms rarely. Women may have a false sense of security after menopause and not having to consider the possibility of getting pregnant, but age-related thinning of vaginal tissues actually raises older women’s risk of HIV infection.

Late to the game, health services and charities are attempting to raise awareness of safe sex for older people and to kick-start a dialogue, but the real change must come from us: an acknowledgement that sex in later life is normal and healthy, enabling open communication and eliminating the taboo.

For more information about sexual health and HIV read our other blogs.. 

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