While in university, I took what ended up being a pretty lame course about the anthropological study of the human life cycle. It had potential, but unfortunately the professor’s high-school approach to the whole thing drove me bananas. She welcomed personal stories about students’ family members (boooring!) and actually made us watch an MTV show about spoiled brats celebrating their 16th birthdays and compare it to a well-respected ethnography by Margaret Mead. Ugh! (As a side note, despite the fact that my assignment was steeped in sarcasm and fairly open hostility towards the whole endeavour, I totally aced the thing which further lowered my respect for the prof…and on it went like that for the whole term.) Anyway, I digress…
The teacher’s assistant for the course was a graduate student who had chosen to focus her studies on the “autumn years” of one’s life. And not just focusing on seniors and what they are up to, but specifically looking at their sex lives. I have to admit the whole thing makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable, which I think is exactly why she chose this field of study. She was partially trying to examine North American’s inability to see people over a certain age as sexual beings. One of her examples that continues to stick out in my mind is about seniors in “old folk’s” homes fighting for the right to bring prostitutes into what, according to the managers of the homes, is a personal space to be treated as one would treat their house. A debate ensued; was it the lack of understanding and the pure “ewww” factor of senior citizens paying for, and enjoying, sex that was the issue, or was it purely the legal ramifications that were driving the managers’ ban? Needless to say, not one participant during this debate chose to start their argument with “well when MY grandpa is feeling lonely…”
The reason I started thinking about this is due to an article published today over on Salon.com discussing the sexual practices of older adults, and more specifically, the rise of STDs within this demographic. A report published by the Family Planning Association reveals that over the past 10 years the number of men and women in the over-45 age group with STDs has doubled. Chlamydia in women in the same age group has increased by a whopping 95% within the past nine years. The article adds that the Center for Disease Control reports a 17% rise in cases of AIDS among senior citizens! This is perhaps most surprising when examined within the current barrage of public campaigns about practicing safe sex.
And that is precisely where the majority of the explanation lies, according to Mary Elizabeth Kelly, the author of the article. Most people who are now over the age of 45 did NOT grow up under the same barrage of “safe sex” campaigns than those even a few years younger than them. I have also recently heard a similar explanation for why drinking and driving has decreased dramatically within the youngest drivers, but has remained relatively unchanged within the older age groups despite the somewhat recent “war” on this social evil.
Most importantly, as pointed out by Kelly, we cannot look at such sets of data and search for one simple explanation. A piece of this is no doubt cultural, but a piece of it is individual and is impossible to accurately gather and analyze into a comprehensive argument. It does make me think though about what the younger generations are learning now that will work to their advantage over “old folks” like me. It also makes me think about what my, as well as other generations, have been taught that will only work to the detriment of a healthy and happy life.