After his divorce, my friend Tom was delighted when he started seeing someone new on a regular basis. But when he was eventually invited back to hers for more than just a hot drink, it didn’t go quite as he had planned.
“She was shocked that I hadn’t thought about using a condom,” he told me later. “But worse than that, once she realized I hadn’t had a full sexual health check, even oral sex was non-negotiable.
“She made it clear that if I wanted the relationship to progress I’d have to get the all-clear. When did it get so complicated?”
Tom’s mistake – and perhaps his salvation – was to fall in lust with a woman 20-odd years his junior. When he was enjoying his first flush of sexual freedom in the Eighties, safe sex meant not getting girlfriends pregnant. But during the decades when Tom was married and off the market, however, the goalposts moved significantly – and for good reason.
The stats on chlamydia and herpes
Rates for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis have doubled for over 50s. As the FPA has been pointing out for some time, the number of middle-aged and older people who have contracted sexually transmitted diseases has risen meteorically since the millennium.
A leading doctor, Dr. Charlotte Jones, chairwoman of the British Medical Association’s GP Committee, says the success of Fifty Shades of Grey has added to the increase: “There’s the Fifty Shades of Grey effect where older people are being more explorative, but not necessarily remembering to use a condom.”
In 2000, there were 885 cases of syphilis in 45-64 year olds. In 2012, that figure rose to 2,500. A UK study found that more men over 45 had developed genital herpes than their 16- to 19-year-old counterparts.
Another study at Indiana university found that over 45s had the lowest rate of condom use.
Chlamydia diagnosis in women over 50 shot up by 95 percent. Gonorrhoea, syphilis, warts – whichever STI you think of, everything was on the up.
Since then, the situation has only got worse. Over the pond, Public Health England figures show that in 2011, among people aged 45 to 64, there were 19,896 cases in 2011 and 20,445 in 2012, an increase of nearly three percent.
And worse: new strains of STIs are becoming resistant to antibiotics.
A condom or a visit to the sexual health clinic?
For newly single people who have been cosseted in a long-term relationship or marriage, sex with relative strangers can be a challenging terrain to negotiate.
Educational campaigns have been aimed almost exclusively at the young and as a result 20- and 30-somethings know the rules: condoms for casual sex, and full sexual health checks when they move on to exclusive relationships.
However, many over-50s feel uneasy about visiting sexual health clinics, despite the fact that they forget about using condoms, because contraception is no longer an issue.
Another single friend confirms this. “None of the women in their fifties who I have slept with were bothered about using condoms,” he says. “They saw them in terms of family planning, which they no longer need, rather than safe sex.”
As Tom says, our generation is lucky enough to know what spontaneous sex is like without a condom. His relationship with his new girlfriend sadly did not last long enough to benefit from his sexual-health all-clear.
“All the same, I did feel like a virgin after I’d got the results,” he says. “It made me hesitate before throwing away my new-found purity on casual sex.”
So, how do we spread the word if we want to enjoy a syphilis-free sleepover? A few years back, the FPA launched a humorous poster initiative aimed at the over-50s, but completely ruined the effect by naming it Middle Aged Spread. Puh-lease. I would ignore the campaign on taste issues alone.
They do have a point, though. They just need to work on their technique.
About twice a year, a letter drops on to the mat for my 26-year-old son from the local health clinic, offering him a free chlamydia test. Given the statistics, don’t you think they are targeting the wrong person in our household? I’m 55 and single. Go figure.