We should know by now that women don't suddenly stop having sex when they turn 50. But unfortunately, age doesn't necessarily make them more comfortable talking about safe sex with their doctors — or their partners. And according to a new study, this could put older women at risk.
The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs (and reported in the Atlantic) included focus groups in which a number of women over 50 discussed their sexual knowledge and practices. The women were aware of the risk of STDs, but were uncomfortable talking to their doctors about how to protect themselves — maybe because they're worried that at their age, they're supposed to know everything already. They did know that they should use condoms, but also had a hard time insisting on them with partners, apparently fearing "conflict or rejection."
Sadly, these are problems that crop up with younger women too — an embarrassment at talking about sex, even with doctors, and the perception that asking a guy to use a condom is uncool or demanding. It would be easy to assume that women grow out of these things as they get older, but that's obviously not true. And it's not really surprising — women over 50 may have grown up before sex ed was common and when talking about sex was more stigmatized. They also may be sleeping with men who were sexually active before the AIDS crisis and never got the memo about condoms. And despite much evidence to the contrary, some people — men and women — may still think that STDs are for the Youngs. Add to that the way we stigmatize older women's sexuality in this country — the idea of a woman over fifty asking for safe-sex advice would be played for laughs on many TV shows — and it's no wonder some women have a hard time taking charge of their sexual health.
It's a serious problem, though — STDs are on the rise among older people, and if they didn't get sex ed as teenagers, they may well need it now. Clinicians may need to be more proactive in talking to older patients about sex — and assuring them it's okay to have questions. And we as a society need to get more comfortable with the idea of people over 50 — especially women — getting laid. Ideally, the later years should be a time when women get more secure about protecting themselves and having safe and happy sex — not less.
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