Swinger Shock: Older Age No Defense Against STDs

Randi is a "swinger."

Randi, who did not want to use her real name, said she is no stranger to swinger parties -- gatherings where people engage in social sex with others.

Risky sex is nothing new, of course. But Randi is 52 -- and she said that at the parties she attends, safe sex is usually not the order of the day. Specifically, she said older men are not likely to use condoms.

"He doesn't use one with his wife, and he assumes the woman he's with is clean, because, 'Hey, she's at a middle class party,'" Randi said.

And as couples get to know each other, they tend to trust that everyone is "clean," she added.

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Randi recalled being at a party once and she asked one of the men she met if he had condoms. At another dinner party later on, she mentioned this encounter to another couple.

"They were speechless, because no one had ever challenged this unspoken norm before."

A new study suggests that older swingers, as a group, should be considered high risk for sexually transmitted infections.

Researchers from The Netherlands found that older swingers made up 12 percent of clients who visited an outpatient sexual health clinic.

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Swingers older than 45 had higher rates of infection than men who have sex with men, heterosexuals and prostitutes -- groups traditionally considered high risk. Infections were most prevalent among older female swingers.

Based on their findings, the researchers concluded that, "[s]wingers, like other groups with risk behaviors, need to be identified and treated as a risk group in STI prevention and care." Right now, they are not classified as high risk.

'Swinging' and STDs Not Just for the Young

In the study, swingers were defined as heterosexual couples who swapped partners, engaged in group sex or visited sex clubs for couples. They registered as swingers when they visited the clinic.

But experts say their behavior is just plain risky.

"Swingers tend to be careless. All it takes is one person to infect a number of others," said Dorree Lynn, a Washington, D.C., and Florida-based psychologist and author of Sex for Grownups.

The study findings are also consistent with statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show that people between the ages of 55 and 64 account for about 10 percent of all gonorrhea cases and 9 percent of all chlamydia cases nationwide.

"I call it the 'Valentino Effect' -- the over-50 population still associates condoms with pregnancy prevention," Lynn said. "The older population tends to not use condoms because if they are new on the dating scene, there are new rules they haven't thought about."

Indeed, past research suggests that age is no barrier to a spicy sex life, something to which Dale Koppel can attest. Koppel was no "swinger." But ask the Boston-area resident about her sex life before her current marriage, and she is the first to admit that she engaged in some risky behaviors.

"I never practiced safe sex. I wasn't going to make a big deal about it," she said.

But Koppel, now 67, said her wild times started relatively late, when she dated more than 100 men she met online after she split from her husband of nearly 25 years.

"I wanted to date, I wanted to be popular, I wanted to have fun and I wanted to have sex with these men," she said.

Koppe, who is also author of The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Online Dating, is now happily married. But while she was dating -- and though she said she only had sex with a few of the men she dated -- she said she discovered that most of the men she met were not interested in practicing safe sex.

Seniors and Risky Sex: Exposing the Reasons

Despite her habitual risky behavior, she never contracted a sexually transmitted infection.

"I feel very lucky that I didn't catch anything," she said. "If a woman said she wouldn't have sex unless the man wore a condom, he would turn around and say, 'I'll go somewhere else.'"

Koppel said she believes that Viagra is partially to blame for the promiscuity she encountered.

"I think Viagra liberated all the men," Koppel said.

But sex and relationship experts disagree.

"In many cases, Viagra has made many people able to sustain an erection, but I don't think that has a lot to do with it," said Lynn.

"Viagra has given men and women a confidence -- not a freedom to be wild, but a confidence that they can be sexual no matter what the age," said Terri Orbuch, a professor at The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research who also works with the web site SeniorPeopleMeet.com.

She said another reason older adults are at higher risk for sexually transmitted infections is because of issues with communication.

"They don't always have the vocabulary and the comfort and the words to communicate about safe sex."

That's something she strongly encourages.

"When people talk about sex beforehand, they're much more likely to protect themselves," Orbuch said.

Another barrier is embarrassment, especially among older adults who are newly single.

"We have a huge increase in divorce in the over-50 population, said Lynn. "These are singles who haven't been educated in the new rules of dating and they're embarrassed. They don't even know they're supposed to use condoms and don't know how to discuss it."

As for older swingers, the researchers hope that by identifying them as a risk group and getting them tested, they can reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections.

"Potentially, they may act as an STI transmission bridge to the entire population," the authors wrote.