Are you back out on the singles scene after a long marriage or relationship and wondering how to navigate the alien landscape of dating and sex?
If so, you’re definitely in good company. With the U.S. divorce rate hovering around 50 percent and expected to climb as the economy improves, a new term has been coined to describe single women over 50: SWOFTIES.
So, SWOFTIES, there’s good and bad news for you when it comes to entering your 21st century sexual revolution.
The good news: You probably don’t have to worry about getting pregnant. The bad news: all those sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) you tried to avoid in your 20s? They’re still out there, along with a few others.
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
The most common of the sexually transmitted diseases, HPV infects 3 out of every 4 women who have sex, and it often presents no symptoms. Many cases of HPV clear up on their own but those that don’t can lead to genital warts and cervical and other cancers.
Spread through genital-to-genital and oral-to-genital contact, HPV can cause health problems years after infection. You may remember Hollywood actor Michael Douglas acknowledging that he developed throat cancer after contracting HPV through oral sex.
How can you tell if you have HPV? Doctors will test you during a cervical cancer screening (Pap smear) but there’s no test just for the virus. Plus, the HPV vaccine you may have heard about isn’t approved for women older than 26.
Avoiding HPV and Other STDs
The best way to protect yourself is by insisting your partner wears a condom, though HPV can show up on the scrotum or in the mouth, anus and other areas that condoms don’t cover.
Another way to avoid HPV? Start a conversation.
“Ask about your partner’s sexual history when it looks like things might get serious,” says Virtua OB/GYN Wendy Martinez, MD. “Questions such as…what kinds of practices was he into? Did he use condoms and has he ever had STDs in the past?”
Also: “You have to look at your partner’s penis,” she emphasizes. Before any encounter with a new male partner, Dr. Martinez strongly advises women to examine the man’s penis and scrotum for blisters, lesions or bumps and beware of small lesions that have a cauliflower appearance (which is likely genital warts).
Dr. Martinez considers herpes the second most threatening STD for most of her sexually active patients. The herpes virus attacks your blood stream and settles in for good. While there are now medicines that can reduce the duration and intensity of outbreaks, there’s still no cure or vaccine.
During an outbreak, herpes typically appears in or around the genitals, anus or mouth as a blister – either open or topped with a translucent, bubble. Something as seemingly benign as a fever blister on the lips is, in fact, herpes. It can be transmitted back and forth from the lips and genitals during kissing and oral sex.
“When you have that outbreak you have to refrain from sex and ALWAYS, ALWAYS wear condoms –preferably the latex kind,” says Dr. Martinez.
HIV and AIDS are, of course, still a major medical concern, as are gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia–chlamydia being the most frequently reported STD in the U.S.
Chlamydia often presents no symptoms, though leaving it or gonorrhea untreated can cause infertility in younger women. Syphilis, if left untreated, can lead to death, and HIV/AIDS almost inevitably does the same.
Once again, Dr. Martinez warns women to stay safe by insisting that their partners wear latex condoms and by questioning their prospective partners. Sex can be a difficult topic to bring up but, she reassures, “Men don’t mind women asking. But they’re going to ask you the same questions so be prepared to answer.”