By Anne Freiwald, MPH | March 18, 2014
I recently found myself at the 40th birthday party of a male friend. At the end of the evening, I was the only woman at the table, listening to male friends discuss online dating, sexual activities and preferences. They were comparing notes on how to meet new partners, including the use of some cool new dating apps. Most of these men were newly divorced or separated, and it was what some might call a racy conversation—each wanting to outdo the other.
The conversation was rich with the sorts of questions, assumptions and perceptions researchers like me get lost in. I was listening for themes and thinking about areas where I needed to gather additional information.
My inner researcher sat up and started asking myself questions. “What do STD rates look like among men in this age cohort?” “How likely is condom use in this population?” “How would they know if had a STD?” “Where would they get checked? Would they get checked?”
I listened intently, and then decided, as a friend, to ask the burning question. “So, you’re all using condoms, right?”
It was not the ideal delivery or setting, and my timing was clearly off. My friends’ body language, their averted eyes and the sudden pause in conversation provided the answer.
“You’re a total killjoy, Freiwald,” said the birthday boy.
“Maybe,” I answered, “but herpes is an even bigger one.”
We moved into some playful banter among friends and the conversation continued. This time, the men spoke about when, with whom and for how long they would use condoms, if they did. “OK,” I thought, “that was a shift in the right direction. At least now they’re talking about condoms.”
With a mix of genuine concern and the need to be better prepared next time, I went to task and found the following information. It’s a start to answering some of my questions.
Condom use: Over a 12-month period, 58% of unmarried 40-to 44-year-old men reported never having used a condom, compared with 11% of 15-19 year olds. Of the group using condoms, 5% used condoms for disease prevention only.
STD rates: STD rates are increasing in the male population. Of the three STDs reported to the CDC—chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea—rates for men in 2012 were up 3.2%, 4% and 8.3% respectively.
Access to health care: Men are more likely than women to have no health care coverage. Men account for only half as many visits to a doctor for preventive care. Men ages 40-44 are less likely to see a doctor for preventive care than younger men and women of all ages.
I have worked in public health for over 25 years, most of this time in sexual health. I’ve had my share of friends and their teen children asking for advice on everything from birth control to sexual function to STD prevention. My group of male friends, re-entering the hi-tech dating scene, is not asking me for advice, but clearly they need a refresher on sexual health. This will benefit them and their partners. This population poses some interesting and different challenges that the program planner in me can’t resist continuing to research and address.
I’m wondering what experiences others in the health care world—providers, planners, researchers, evaluators—have had with populations of newly single men in their 40’s and 50’s. How is the field reaching them with essential sexual health information? What more could we be doing to support better choices in this population? What are some good research questions for us to begin to ask?
If you’ve got ideas, let me know. I’d love to continue the conversation.
Anne Freiwald, MPH, is a Research Associate at ETR. Ms. Freiwald has been working in public health for more than 25 years, and specifically in evaluation and research for over 12 years. She has also taught Program Planning & Evaluation and Epidemiology at San Jose State University. Contact her at email@example.com.