Sex Ed: Not Just for Teens

A recent study conducted by researchers at England’s West Midlands Health Protection Agency found that STD rates are up among all age groups, but the news that the rate had increased among older adults (over 45) soon hit headlines.  Journalists and readers seemed shocked to learn that older adults are sexually active at all. Speculation over the "cause" of the increase runs rampant, from blaming Viagra to the options afforded older adults after divorce through online dating.  The surprise, and confusion, greeting the news about STD rate increases for older adults points to our inability to comprehend news about the aged unrelated to their decline or dysfunction. And it stands as a reminder that we need to examine our attitude towards sexuality at any age. 

"The headline really should have been that older people are having sex," says Ann Whidden, MPH, Communications and Internet Director at theNational Sexuality Resource Center (NSPRC). "We think of sex education as being for teens and a one time thing instead of providing the tools that will lead to lifelong sexual literacy."  NSRC’s mission is to promote sexual health, wellness and pleasure across the entire lifespan, and has been working with the American Association of Retired People since 2007 on the inclusion of sexual literacy and LGBT people within their work. NSRC will also be launching a Sexuality and Seniors Advisory Networklater this year. Whidden points out that most sexuality education has been youth centered and prevention focused, the result being that the needs and desires of adults in mid and later life are often ignored.  

NSRC incorporates the goal of sexual literacy into all of their work, including their dialogue with AARP and older adults.  Face to face meetings with the CEO, California State AARP and the Washington DC based AARP Office of Diversity and Inclusion took place in 2007 and 2008. NSRC staff member Joy O’Donnell was appointed as an AARP CA Advisor on Disability Rights for sexuality, public education and training campaigns.  In October of 2007, California AARP attended the NSRC Champions of Sexual Literacy Awards Celebration and acted as a primary organizational sponsor for the dinner.  

NSRC’s Sexuality and Seniors Advisory Network will be madeup of experts on the subject from community based organizations, professional associations, medical hospitals and academic institutions throughout the United States. NSRC will serve as a national clearinghouse and central training center for all of their work, which will create an unprecedented and comprehensive resource for families of seniors, professionals who serve seniors and seniors themselves. NSRC will simultaneously be launching sexuality and gender, race, health and faith based advisory networks which will further inform, intersect and enrich the body of information they provide around seniors and sexuality. 

Our lack of sexual literacy has an impact whether we are teens or midlife to older adults.  NSRC isworking to establish dialogues that will break down shame, open up communication and change how people view sexuality and aging.  Through efforts like those of NSRC, people will have the tools to establish positive communication about their sexuality and the resources to empower healthy sexuality throughout their lives.

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  • invalid-0

    Thanks so much for this important article.

    For World Aids Day, in December, I wrote about the increase of HIV infections in older people. “According to the National Association on HIV Over Fifty (NAHOF), up to 15% of AIDS cases involve over-50s and there’s evidence that the infections rose twice as fast among older than younger people.”

    Part of the problem is resources and of course part of the problem, as you pointed out, is ignorance of the active sexuality of older people.

    To read the whole piece, go to

    Thanks again,
    Sue Katz
    Consenting Adult

  • invalid-0

    Thank you for this very important point, Pamela! I agree 100%.

    I do much of my sex education work with parents – supporting them doing sexuality education at home. When I started, I was focusing more on the process of how parents can do sex education and then on the emotional/relationship side of how to navigate relationships.

    I quickly found that parents also needed the basics about the STDs, safe sex (oral and penetrative), and human anatomy and reproduction. In many cases, parents really never learned this information themselves! In others, parents have forgotten or the information has changed since they were young.

    Sexuality education is a life-long learning process, because as our situations change what information we need changes too.

  • heather-corinna

    This is one of the issues I also often mention when discussing teen and young adult sex education.


    In other words, that education we provide now isn’t just FOR now: it’s for all of life, provided at a time when learners tend to be very receptive to that information.


    And getting teens talking now (rather than just lecturing about risks) about sex and sexuality holistically, learning to research now, feeling okay about all of sexuality now helps start habits of doing so throughout all of life, as Karen brought up.


    OT: I wish I’d had known the AARP was at that dinner.  I’d have said hello!

  • marysia

    Pamela, thank you for this article, and thank you to the sex educators who are taking on a neglected demographic.

    I edit Nonviolent Choice,, a directory of abortion-reducing resources, including many on comprehensive sex ed.  One big problem I have encountered in gathering resources is that so many of them are oriented to teens.

    And more power to these resources and their intended audiences….but what about the rest of us, the older and the younger?