Sit down, Girlfriend. We need to talk.
Remember those uncomfortable discussions you had with your kids back in the day? You know, the birds-and-bees and how-not-to-get-pregnant talks?
Well, now it’s your turn to listen. This is your middle-age sex talk.
At some point in life, you’ll probably be alone, demographics and life expectancies being what they are. Maybe you already are. Maybe you’re newly divorced. Or widowed.
And maybe, after being married for many years you’re not ready to write off a relationship—or sex—for the rest of your life.
But the singles scene is now a completely different ball game from those long-ago days when you were a player. “When I was younger we only worried about getting pregnant or getting crabs. Now that I’m divorced, I realize it’s a whole new world!” said a woman on one health website.
“In my practice I see a lot of older single women who don’t know the rules of dating,” says Mary Jo Rapini, psychotherapist and MiddlesexMD advisor. “They’re looking for someone to desire them again, and they’re much too easy with letting sex happen. They aren’t comfortable with demanding that the guy wear a condom.”
You may not need protection against pregnancy any more, but you sure need protection against a cornucopia of STDs that has flourished since your first date.
STDs affect every age group, but rates of infection are growing fastest among older people. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 15 percent of new HIV infections are in those over 50—and death rates are rising, too. In 2008, the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections noted that infection rates among those over 45 had doubled in less than 10 years. Research at Indiana University in 2010 indicated that condom use was lowest in that age group. Maybe there’s some connection there?
Besides general lack of awareness, a few physiological factors make it easier for older women to become infected. The thin, dry vaginal walls that accompany loss of estrogen create small tears and microscopic vaginal bleeding during sex, thus offering a warm welcome to invading nasties. Further, our pH balance tends to be less acidic after menopause, creating a friendly environment for bacterial infection.
So what’s a newly single older gal to do?
Empower yourself, says Rapini. Take a page from your kids’ playbook and insist on safe sex. This isn’t about being difficult or demanding, it’s about your health, and you have every right to safeguard it. Here are the safe sex rules:
- Wait to have sex. Isn’t this the advice you give your kids? What’s the rush? Date for a while and get to know the person. A lusty first date could fizzle on the second or third. And then you might be stuck with an unpleasant reminder of a fleeting passion.
- Get tested. And insist that your partner does as well. How can I ask that? you’re thinking. Girlfriend, this is how you empower yourself. You don’t take chances. “If the guy has nothing to hide, he shouldn’t resist.” says Rapini.
- Share the results of your screening. This gently opens the door to honest talk about sex. If you’ve never talked openly about sex before, it’s time to change. “If you stay passive you’re less likely to have good sex.” says Rapini.
- Continue to use condoms for at least six months after a screening. Some infections, such as HIV, don’t show up immediately. Always keep latex condoms with you, just in case. If a condom is used correctly, it provides 90 percent protection. It’s less effective against the genital herpes virus or the HPV virus because those viruses are more widespread on the genital area.
- Take care of your vagina. We’ve talked (and talked) about good vaginal hygiene. In addition to the infection-fighting properties of a healthy vagina, the sex will be better and more comfortable, too.
- Keep communicating. This may be uncomfortable at first because our generation didn’t talk about sex, but this is the time of life for discovery. Learn what you like, and learn to ask for it.
Empowerment, remember? Respect yourself enough to insist on safe sex.
Let us know how it goes.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.