Friends across North and Tampa Bay snicker when Brian Rafferty reveals where he bought it a new home.
His 30-year-old daughter in Boston called to express concern.
Even his ex-wife asked him about it.
“Without exception, I tell everyone I’ve bought at The Villages that they’ve asked the same question,” Rafferty said. “‘Isn’t that the STD capital of America?'”
The Villages, a sprawling retirement community that was the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country two years ago, is no stranger to folklore.Rumors have been swirling in Central Florida’s premium haven Decades about swingers and public sex.
But perhaps there is no more prevalent or persistent myth than the idea of rampant rates of sexually transmitted diseases.
“I felt like I had to prove to everyone I knew that I didn’t buy this place to chase women,” said Rafferty, a 69-year-old single. “I bought it because I wanted to play golf.”
Sexually transmitted infections are on the rise across the country in the wake of the pandemic. But the largest retirement community in the world — about 80 miles northeast of Tampa — Is it really a breeding ground for these diseases?
Where did this ubiquitous legend begin? Will it go away?
“Worry about crocodiles than crabs”
Residents often hear the joke. This was revealed by a Tampa Bay Times investigation of the 38,000-member Facebook group “The Villages Word of Mouth.”
“Even my doctor in Ohio, when he asked us where we were spending our time in Florida, he said ‘Oh, The Villages – the highest rate of STDs in the country,'” Jan Schweitzer wrote in the post .
“We’re more worried about crocodiles than crabs here,” typed Sean Donnelly.
Roy Rowlett wrote: “It doesn’t matter what the truth is. Some people like to gossip about old people and sex.”
Moderators disabled comments on the post within a few days. It has received over 300 responses.
Rumors abound How about STDs The rumors started.
Some say a disgruntled nurse took it as an insult. Others think it started with a joke on the radio. But most trace it back to a 2006 TV news report that “doctors in retirement communities see increase in STDs.”
“While the statistics do not yet reflect this trend, a doctor at the Village Women’s Center says she has never seen so many cases even in her years working in Miami,” the WFTV article, which has since been deleted, reported.
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The Village Women’s Center is no longer open. The doctor was never named.
Mythology snowballs from there. It’s been everywhere from The New York Post to the Daily Mail over the years. Often, these stories capture signs of villagers engaging in casual sex or dating as evidence of serious transmission within retirement communities.
At times, they cite data on rising rates of STIs among older adults in the state as evidence that the same is true at The Villages.
In 2009, The New York Post called The Villages “ground zero for taking its geriatrics seriously.”
“As a result, a place that likes to bill itself as ‘America’s friendliest hometown’ has seen a huge increase in STDs,” the tabloid was quoted in a 2013 Slate article. It cites two links that are no longer active, including a 2006 story.
“It has legs,” said Andrew Blechman, author of “Leisureville: Adventures in a World without Children,” a 2009 book on village life that has been cited in nearly every report on the subject. . “It’s irresistible – no one thinks about their parents having sex, but they love news stories about older people having sex. ‘STD. Elderly. Top rates. It’s a simple headline. It’s forever not going away.”
is this real?
Of course, residents of The Villages are sexually active, said Dr Marivic Villa, a physician who runs a health clinic in the retirement community.
Many of her patients come to seek testosterone therapy to improve their sex lives. They were all tested for sexually transmitted diseases.
“Actually, I don’t see much STDs,” says Vera, who has worked at The Villages for nearly 20 years. “More than other practitioners, I should. People just want to portray the old people here as the 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 where there are STDs left and right and everywhere.”
Florida tracks STDs by county of residence. A state Department of Health official declined to parse the agency’s data at a more granular level, such as census-designated locations like The Villages, citing privacy concerns.
The Villages is larger than Manhattan and spans three Florida counties – Sumter, Marion and Lake.
Incidence of bacterial STDs (gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia) among people 55 and older in these counties has risen slightly since 2006, the year believed to be the year the myth about the village began.
But so are STD rates everywhere.
Since the 2000s, lawmakers have reallocated funding for sexual health, a move that experts generally credit to a nationwide spike. Research shows that when barriers to health care are high, STD rates are also high.
However, the three counties that include The Villages tend to have significantly lower rates compared to Florida as a whole.
Sumter County had one of the lowest rates of STDs among older adults in 2019, at about 1 in 10,000. That compares with 6 out of 10,000 seniors statewide. Marion and Lake have a similar trend. The same pattern emerged in the diagnosis of human immunodeficiency virus, also known as HIV, among older adults in Florida.
At the county level, “village” also performed better than most.
State data show rates of STD transmission tend to be higher among older Florida adults, major cities and counties with larger black and Latino populations, such as Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Because social determinants of health are more likely to affect marginalized groups, people of color, LGBTQ, and women have disproportionately high rates of STDs.
At The Villages, 86 percent of seniors are white, according to U.S. Census data. The proportion of older adults living in poverty is slightly lower than the national level, suggesting that its retirees may have better access to health care than the entire country.
While sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis are surging across the country, most of this nascent transmission occurs among teens and adults in their 20s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Half of the infections occurred in people between the ages of 15 and 24.
But rumors spread quickly among communities with shared values and histories. In the United States, sexually transmitted diseases, despite being very common and highly treatable, carry a shameful weight because of continued stigma, said Elizabeth Finley, a spokeswoman for the National Coalition of Sexually Transmitted Disease Directors.
“A common feature of STIs is that people turn them into a punchline,” Finley said. “Because there is so much stigma associated with them.”
Leisureville author Blechman suspects that ageism plays a role.
“It’s really not about concerns about high STD rates — it’s about older people having sex,” he said. “Older people are just older people. They should be respected, not caricatured.”
Many villagers agreed, noting that they had never heard of the myth from community residents.
“I think the outside world is a little jealous,” said resident Christine Wynne, 50. “‘Oh, you don’t want to move there, there’s STDs.’ It’s utopia. It’s safe and everyone is happy. I think that fuels some of the rumors.”
Some residents have wondered why Mark Morse, the developer who owns The Villages, has not publicly corrected the record.
Morse and The Villages community relations team are known to be reluctant to respond to media interviews, but did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
But Rafferty has a theory.
“It goes back to the old ad world saying,” he said. “‘Any publicity is good publicity.'”