Friends from upstate and Tampa Bay sneered when Brian Lafferty revealed where he bought a new house.
Her 30-year-old daughter in Boston called to express her concern.
Even his ex-wife asked him the question.
“Without exception, everyone I’ve told I bought a home in The Villages has asked the same thing,” Lafferty said. “‘Isn’t this the STD capital of the United States?'”
The Villages, a gigantic retirement community that was the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country two years ago, is no stranger to folklore. Central Florida seniors’ shelter sparked rumors on swingers and public sex for decades.
But perhaps no myth is more pervasive — or more enduring — than the idea of rampant rates of sexually transmitted diseases.
“I feel like I have to justify to everyone I know that I didn’t buy this place to chase women,” said Lafferty, who is 69 and single. “I bought it because I want to play golf.”
Sexually transmitted infections are on the rise nationwide as a result of the pandemic. But is it the largest retirement community in the world – about 80 miles northeast of Tampa – really a hotbed for these diseases?
Where did this pervasive legend begin? And will it ever go away?
“More worried about alligators than crabs”
Residents hear the joke too often. A Tampa Bay Times investigation of the 38,000-member Facebook group “The Villages Word of Mouth” was revealing.
“My doctor in Ohio, even when he asked where we were spending time in Florida, said ‘Oh, The Villages – highest STD rate in the country,'” Jan Schweitzer wrote on the post. .
“We are more worried about alligators than crabs here,” wrote Sean Donnelly.
Roy Rowlett wrote: “Never mind the truth. Some people like to gossip about old people and sex.
A moderator disabled comments on the post within days. He had received over 300 responses.
Rumors abound on how the STD the rumor started.
Some say a disgruntled nurse threw it out as an insult. Others think it started as a joke on a radio station. But most trace it back to a 2006 TV report titled “Retired Physician Community Sees Rise in STDs.”
“Although the statistics do not yet reflect the trend, a doctor from the Women’s Center of The Villages said that even in her years working in Miami, she had never seen so many cases,” the article reported. from WFTV since deleted.
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The Village Women’s Center is no longer open. And the doctor was never named.
The myth snowballed from there. It has appeared over the years everywhere from the New York Post to the Daily Mail. Often the stories captured signs that villagers were engaging in casual sex or dating, holding these up as evidence of strong transmission within the retirement community.
Sometimes they cited data on rising rates of sexually transmitted infections among older adults as evidence that the same was true in The Villages.
In 2009, The New York Post called The Villages “ground zero for geriatricians who get serious about it.”
“As a result, the place that likes to bill itself as ‘America’s Friendliest Hometown’ has seen a huge rise in sexually transmitted diseases,” according to a 2013 Slate article referencing the tabloid’s cover. He cited two links that are no longer active, including the 2006 story.
“He had legs,” said Andrew Blechman, author of “Leisureville: Adventures in a World Without Children,” a 2009 book about life in The Villages that’s referenced in nearly every cover of this issue. “It’s irresistible – no one wants to think about their parents having sex, but they love news articles about older people having sex. ‘STD. Older people. Highest rates. That’s a headline easy. It will never go away.
Is it true?
Residents of The Villages are, of course, sexually active, said Dr. Marivic Villa, an internist who runs a health clinic in the retirement community.
Many of his patients come for testosterone therapy to improve their sex life. All are tested for sexually transmitted diseases.
“I don’t actually see a lot of STDs,” said Villa, who worked at The Villages for nearly two decades. “Compared to other practitioners, I should. People just want to paint the picture that old people here are like young people in New Orleans.
“I’m not saying they don’t think about having sex,” she added. “They do – a lot – but not to the point that there are STDs left and right and everywhere.”
Florida tracks sexually transmitted diseases by county of residence. A state Department of Health official declined to analyze data from the agency at a more granular level, such as a census-designated place like The Villages, citing privacy concerns.
Covering an area larger than Manhattan, The Villages spans three Florida counties – Sumter, Marion and Lake.
Rates of bacterial sexually transmitted diseases – gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia – among people 55 and older have risen slightly in these counties since 2006, the year the village myth allegedly began.
But so are the rates of sexually transmitted diseases everywhere.
Since the 2000s, lawmakers have reallocated money to sexual health, a move experts often attribute to a national spike. When barriers to health care are high, so are rates of sexually transmitted diseases, studies show.
However, compared to Florida as a whole, the three counties containing The Villages tended to have significantly lower rates.
Sumter County had one of the lowest rates of sexually transmitted diseases among seniors in 2019, at about one in 10,000. That compares to six in 10,000 seniors statewide. Marion and Lake had similar tendencies. The same patterns have emerged for diagnoses of human immunodeficiency virus, also known as HIV, among Florida seniors.
On a county-by-county basis, The Villages also fared better than most.
The spread of sexually transmitted diseases among older adults in Florida tended to be higher in counties with large cities and large black and Latino populations, state data suggests, such as Hillsborough, Miami counties -Dade and Broward. People of color, LGBTQ people, and women experience disproportionately high rates of sexually transmitted diseases due to social determinants of health that are more likely to impact marginalized groups.
In The Villages, 86% of seniors are white, according to US Census data. And the percentage of older adults living in poverty is slightly lower than the national rate, suggesting its pensioners may have better access to health care than the country as a whole.
While sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis are increasing nationwide, much of that nascent spread is among adults in their teens and 20s, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Half of all infections occur in people between the ages of 15 and 24.
But rumors travel quickly in communities sharing common values and histories. In the United States, sexually transmitted diseases carry a salacious weight — despite being remarkably common and highly treatable — due to ongoing stigma, said Elizabeth Finley, spokeswoman for the National Coalition of STD Directors.
“One of the pervasive characteristics of sexually transmitted infections is that people turn them into a punchline,” Finley said. “Because there’s so much shame associated with them.”
Blechman, the author of Leisureville, suspects ageism plays a role.
“It really has nothing to do with concerns about high rates of STDs – it has to do with older people having sex,” he said. “Old people are just old people. And they should be treated with respect, not as a caricature.
Many villagers agreed, noting that they had never heard of the myth from someone living in the community.
“I think there’s a bit of jealousy from the outside,” said 50-year-old resident Christine Wynne. “’Oh, you don’t want to move there, there are STDs.’ It’s utopia here. It’s safe and everyone is happy. I think that fueled some of those rumours.
Some residents have questioned why Mark Morse, the developer-owner of The Villages, hasn’t spoken up to correct the record.
Notoriously averse to media interviews, the community relations team at Morse and The Villages did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
But Lafferty has a theory.
“It goes back to the old saying in the advertising world,” he said. “‘All publicity is good publicity.'”
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