You’ve sifted through thousands of online profiles, gone on dozens of first dates, drank barrels of house chardonnay and made hours of small talk. Your reward for persevering? Meeting a guy – finally! – worth putting on the fancy lingerie for … with high expectations that he’ll be peeling it off later in the evening.
But before you slide between his (hopefully clean) sheets, ask yourself: Are you safe?And we don’t mean in the Will he turn out to be a closet psycho? sense. Are you being safe about, you know … sex? Do you even remember safe sex?
If you were married for a couple of decades, no doubt it’s been awhile since you had to enforce the No Glove, No Love rule, since you probably think babies not herpes when you think about protection. And if you persuaded your husband to get snipped once your family was complete, chances are it’s been ages since you even thought about that.
But once you’re divorced, dating and mating is a whole different ballgame. For starters, if you were relying on vasectomy, you may need to rethink your birth control method. Though the likelihood of pregnancy drops dramatically once you hit your early forties, it’s not zero. Fortysomething women actually have one of the higher rates of unintended pregnancies, after teens and women in their twenties, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute.
Beyond fear of the Whoops! baby, you also need to think about protecting yourself from sexually transmitted diseases. And that means carrying condoms. Which women of a certain age aren’t so great about using. New data from the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction in Bloomington, Indiana, show that when it comes to casual sex, fortysomething women use condoms far less frequently than gals in their twenties, thirties and even teenagers. Fewer than 20 percent of fortysomething women in the Kinsey Institute study insisted on condoms during their last casual encounter.
“Women think I’m on the Pill, I’m good to go. But you’re not,” says Los Angeles psychologist and HIV/STD researcher Ramani Durvasula, PhD. “That’s the least of your worries.”
Here’s why: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that there are about 19 million new STD infections each year. Today, one in six people between the ages of 14 and 49 have genital herpes; one in nine if we’re just counting guys. Plus, there are other STDs circulating that may not have even been on your radar the last time you were single: Things like human papillomavirus (HPV), now linked to cervical and throat cancers, and syphilis, which has been making a steady comeback – women’s rates jumped 88 percent between 2004 and 2008, then dipped a bit last year. Complicating matters, those who have an STD don’t always tell – even when asked. That’s mostly out of fear or embarrassment, notes Durvasula. But – giving folks the benefit of the doubt here – it’s also possible that people don’t realize they’re carrying a virus. Many STDs, like Chlamydia, HPV, even herpes, are often asymptomatic, particularly in men, who then unwittingly, pass it on.
“A man is much more likely to pass an STD to a woman than the other way round because women are the receptive partner,” explains Durvasula. “Most sexually transmitted diseases are passed through abrasion, and it’s the vaginal walls getting rubbed during intercourse. Men don’t get abraded; women do, which is why they’re far more vulnerable to STDs across the board.”
It’s a sexually sketchy world out there. But since celibacy is hardly an appealing option either, keep these things in mind … and some condoms in your nightstand.
Remember, anyone can have an STD.
The viruses and bacteria that cause STDs don’t discriminate based on how many graduate degrees a man has, the salary he earns, the car he drives or the country club he belongs to. “There’s this huge myth that STDs are on the fringes of society,” says Austin family physician Jill Grimes, MD, author of Seductive Delusions: How Everyday People Catch STDs. “Women think that CEOs, accountants, doctors or lawyers aren’t the kind of people who get STDs.”
They do. And so do folks in your own social circle. After her divorce, Jane Fowler dated someone she’d known for decades. He gave her HIV. “You can never know the sexual history of anyone but yourself,” warns Fowler, who founded HIV Wisdom For Older Woman and the National Association on HIV Over Fifty after her diagnosis. “I thought I knew the man who infected me so well. Obviously I didn’t.”
Don’t believe everything he tells you.
Guys have been known to fudge a bit on their height, employment history, marital status. Take his sexual history with a boatload of salt, too. “Too many women have gotten sexually transmitted diseases because they believed the guy who said I haven’t been with anyone for two years, and I’ve been tested,” says Jennifer Freed, PhD, a marriage and family therapist in Santa Barbara, California. “Don’t assume the guy you’ve just met is telling the truth. Why take the risk?”
Indeed, when Emory University researchers surveyed 14,000 adults recently, they found that more than 10 percent of those testing positive for STDs denied being sexually active in the last year; half swore they’d never had a sexual encounter.
Given the all-too-common urge to stay mum, you might Google a potential lover and see what you dig up. “Three different friends of mine recently Googled guys they’d started dating and found past girlfriends who’d posted Do not sleep with So-And-So, he gave me herpes warnings on the Internet,” says Dr. Grimes.
Condoms are not 100 percent protective.
We put a lot of faith in condoms and with good reason. When it comes to STDs, they’re “the best protection we have,” notes Durvasula. And when they’re used correctly, condoms do a “really good job” at preventing STDs transmitted by semen and vaginal secretions, like gonorrhea, Chlamydia, trichomoniasis and HIV, says Dr. Grimes. But STDs like HPV and herpes are transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. Since it’s possible to have herpes on the base of the penis or even on the thighs, sometimes a condom just isn’t enough. “Unless guys wear a condom that covers their entire boxer shorts region, you can’t prevent 100 percent transmission,” says Dr. Grimes. “Condoms decrease HPV and herpes transmission, but they don’t eliminate it.”
You can get herpes without an outbreak.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about herpes is that unprotected sex is safe as long as your partner doesn’t have an outbreak. Let’s just call that out as pure fiction right now. With herpes, the virus is always present and “sheds” even when there are no lesions. Now, what makes this STD particularly tricky, says Durvasula, is that many people who have herpes never experience an outbreak and won’t know they’re infected unless they get a blood test. “But they can still transmit the virus.”
“The likelihood of transmission is highest when you have an active outbreak, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible when you don’t,” confirms Ashlyn Savage, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. “People shed the virus when they’re not having an active outbreak.”
And if getting an ever-lasting STD isn’t reason enough to be careful, know that having herpes ups the risk for HIV as well.
Oral sex carries some risk too.
We’d like to think that oral sex is somehow safer than intercourse … or that, thanks to some slippery Clintonian syntax, it’s not even really sex. But regardless of where you stand on the Is/Isn’t debate, oral sex can expose you to gonorrhea, genital herpes and HPV just as sex down under does. In fact, studies now show that the same strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer also cause certain types of throat cancers. Cancer researchers are blaming the steep increase – some are calling it an epidemic – in tonsil cancer over the last decade on oral HPV infections. In a study done at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, people with HPV were 32 times as likely to develop tonsil cancer as those without. That study also found that having one to five oral sex partners in your sexual history nearly quadrupled the cancer risk while six or more partners boosted risk more than eight times.
It’s awkward to ask someone about his STD status. But if you’re not absolutely certain you’re the only partner on your guy’s dance card, you really don’t want to wait till you’re tangled together in bed to pop the Don’t we need a condom? question. “When you’re aroused, the adrenaline is flowing, the endorphins are going, and your rational thinking falls apart a bit,” says Miami therapist Lisa Paz, PhD. “You may not make the best health decisions.”
Save yourself the post-coital anxiety by making gloving up non-negotiable – at least until both your STD tests come back clean. “The only way you’re ever 100 percent sure that you and your partner are out of the woods is if you’re both monogamous with each other for six months and you’re tested on the front end and tested on the back end,” says Durvasula.