When dance instructor Joan Price of Sebastopol, Calif., met the love of her life in her line dancing class at the age of 57, she was already wise to the steps and spins of modern dating, especially when it came to sex. She had been dating for years following her divorce, mostly short-term relationships, and was always careful to use condoms in bed.
Price, author of Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk about Sex After Sixty, says that when she and her now husband were ready to get intimate, she asked him point blank: "Shall I get the condoms or will you?"
Talking openly about safe sex and a partner's past may be unfamiliar territory for the over-50 crowd. Many are finding themselves single after years of marriage. The last time they had to deal with meeting a partner they were more concerned with getting pregnant than catching a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Still, the sex life of the 50-plus set is alive and well. "Society's view of aging women as sexless is wrong, wrong, wrong," Price writes. "Many of us are having the best sex of our lives. We're the Love Generation. We practically invented sex."
No Time to Play Coy
At monthly gatherings called "Sex on the Porch," sex educator and coach Katherine Forsythe hosts an open forum for women 50 and older to discuss sexuality. She urges these women to ask their partners to prove they've been tested for STIs.
"Many of them say, 'I can't ask that,'" Forsythe says. "I ask them how they'll feel telling every sexual partner for the rest of your life you have HIV. These women have to realize it's a matter of protecting their most precious possession -- their bodies."
Forsythe wants to educate the generation who was taught good girls don't have to ask. "Good girls really will finish last," she says. "This is no time for coyness, pleasing, and unbartered trust."
She says she gives them the same message she’s taught teenagers in sex ed classes: "If you're going to play grown-up games, you have to play by grown-up rules. Today, that means a condom until you see the paperwork and have been monogamous for three months. No papers, no naked penis."
The Numbers Don't Lie
Even though safe sex for older adults doesn't garner much media attention, the risks are real An estimated 16% of new U.S. HIV/AIDS cases are among those age 50 and older, and 25% of people living with HIV/AIDS are over 50, according to the CDC.
Younger adults are seen as the highest risk group for HIV and STIs, so most messages in public health campaigns skew younger. But a number of sex education programs are now targeting older adults.
In Florida's Broward County, the Senior HIV Intervention Project recruits older peer educators to explain HIV risks to seniors. The University of Michigan Health System runs a Sex Matters clinic specifically for individuals and couples 60 and older.
"Regardless of age, prevention efforts must continue to focus on changing risk behaviors that lead to infection and helping those living with HIV learn their status," Scott Bryan, spokesman for the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, says.
Bowling Green State gerontology professor Nancy Orel works with senior centers in northwest Ohio to promote HIV/AIDS prevention education. She encourages everyone to get HIV testing, which is now covered by Medicare.
"We try to remove the stigma by saying, 'Be a living example,'" Orel says. "You may think this doesn't apply to you. Do it for yourself, for your children, and grandchildren."
Yes, Let's Talk About Sex
Talking about sex and protection before you get to the bedroom is important, University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research Terri Orbuch says. "Is that something that creates a lot of anxiety? Absolutely."
Orbuch, a relationship expert at SeniorPeopleMeet.com says, "It's the timing that's important and how you talk about it. If you share something about your current situation or your past, then your partner feels more comfortable with doing that with you."
Always own it first, Forsythe says. "You can say, 'I've had tests for STIs and I'm clean. What tests have you had? Let's share information.'"
Knowing the rules of the game today should make women feel empowered, Forsythe says. "Women who are 50-plus are coming into a secure time in their lives full of wisdom and strength. It should also apply to their sexuality."