Friends up north and across Tampa Bay chuckled as Brian Lafferty revealed where he’d bought a new house.
His 30-year-old daughter in Boston called to express her concern.
Even his ex-wife asked him about it.
“Without exception, everyone I’ve told about buying a house in The Villages has asked the same thing,” Lafferty said. “‘Isn’t that the STD capital of the United States?'”
The Villages, a giant retiree community that was the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country two years ago, is no stranger to folklore. Central Florida Seniors Haven Has Spread Rumors about swingers and public sex for decades.
But perhaps no myth is more ubiquitous — or more enduring — than the idea of rampant numbers of sexually transmitted diseases.
“I feel like I have to justify to every person I know that I didn’t buy this place to hunt women,” said Lafferty, who is 69 and single. “I bought it because I want to play golf.”
Sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise nationally in the wake of the pandemic. But is the world’s largest retirement community – about 80 miles northeast of Tampa – really a hotbed for these diseases?
Where did this ubiquitous legend begin? And will it ever go away?
‘More worried about alligators than crabs’
Residents hear the joke all 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 said when he asked where we spend time in Florida, ‘Oh, The Villages – the highest STD rate in the country,'” Jan Schweitzer wrote in the post.
“We’re more concerned about alligators here than crabs,” he wrote Sean Donnelly.
Roy Rowlett wrote: “It doesn’t matter what the truth is. Some people like gossip about old people and sex.”
A moderator disabled comments on the post within a few days. It had received more than 300 responses.
Rumors galore about how the STI rumor started.
Some say a disgruntled nurse threw it as an insult. Others think it started with a joke on a radio station. But most trace it to a 2006 television news story “Doctors in Retirement Community Seeing or STDs.”
“While the statistics don’t reflect the trend yet, a doctor from the Women’s Center of The Villages said that even in her years working in Miami, she’s never seen so many cases,” reported the since-deleted WFTV article.
Stay on top of Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
We bring you the latest news and information you need to know every weekday morning.
You are all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters delivered to your inbox? Let’s start.
Discover all your options
The Villages Women’s Center is no longer open. And the doctor was never mentioned.
The myth snowballed from there. It has appeared everywhere from the New York Post to the Daily Mail over the years. Often the stories took advantage of signs that The Villagers were engaging in casual sex or dating, using them as evidence of heavy transference within the retiree community.
At times, they cited data on the rising rate of sexually transmitted infections among seniors in the state as evidence that the same was true for The Villages.
In 2009, the New York Post called The Villages “ground zero for geriatrics getting serious.”
“As a result, the place that likes to consider itself ‘America’s friendliest place to live’ has seen a massive increase in sexually transmitted diseases,” according to a 2013 Slate article citing the tabloid coverage. It cited two links that are no longer active, including the 2006 story.
“It had legs,” said Andrew Blechman, author of “Leisureville: Adventures in a World Without Children,” a 2009 book about life in The Villages referenced in nearly all of this issue’s coverage. “It’s irresistible — nobody wants to think about their parents having sex, but they love news articles about old people having sex. ‘STDs. Old people. Highest rates.’ It’s an easy headline. It never goes away.”
Is it true?
Residents of The Villages are naturally sexually active, says Dr Marivic Villa, an internist who runs a health clinic at the retirement home.
Many of her patients turn to testosterone therapy to improve their sex lives. They are all tested for sexually transmitted diseases.
“In reality, I don’t see many STDs,” says Villa, who has worked in 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 here in New Orleans.
“I’m not saying they don’t think about sex,” she added. “They do — a lot — but not to the point where there are STDs left and right and everywhere.”
Florida tracks sexually transmitted diseases by province of residence. A health ministry official declined to analyze the agency’s data at a more detailed level, such as a census-designated place as The Villages, citing privacy concerns.
Covering an area larger than Manhattan, The Villages covers three Florida counties: Sumter, Marion, and Lake.
The number of bacterial sexually transmitted diseases – gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia – among people aged 55 and older has risen slightly in these provinces since 2006, the year the myth about The Villages began.
But so are sexually transmitted diseases everywhere.
Since the 2000s, lawmakers have reallocated money for sexual health, a move experts often view as contributing to a nationwide spike. When the barriers to healthcare are high, so are the rates of sexually transmitted diseases, studies show.
However, compared to Florida in general, the three counties with The Villages tended to have significantly lower rates.
Sumter County had one of the lowest rates of sexually transmitted diseases among older adults in 2019 — at about one in 10,000. That’s compared to six in 10,000 seniors statewide. Marion and Lake showed similar trends. The same patterns emerged for diagnoses of the human immunodeficiency virus, also known as HIV, in older adults in Florida.
At the provincial level, The Villages similarly outperformed 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 Hispanic populations, state data suggest, such as Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Broward counties. 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 affect marginalized groups.
In The Villages, 86% of seniors are white, according to US Census data. And the percentage of older people living in poverty is slightly lower than the national percentage, suggesting that the retirees may have better access to health care than the country as a whole.
‘A punch line’
While sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis are on the rise across the country, much of this burgeoning 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 among people aged 15 to 24 years.
But rumors spread quickly in communities with shared values and histories. In the United States, sexually transmitted diseases carry a heavy weight — despite being remarkably common and highly treatable — because of the ongoing stigma, said Elizabeth Finley, spokesperson for the National Coalition of STD directors.
“One of the ubiquitous features of sexually transmitted diseases is that people make it a punch line,” Finley said. “Because there’s so much shame associated with it.”
Blechman, the author of Leisureville, suspects that ageism plays a role.
“This really has nothing to do with concerns about high STD rates — it has to do with old people having sex,” he said. “People who are older are just people who are older. And they should be treated with respect, not as a caricature.”
Many villagers agreed, noting that they have never heard the myth of anyone living in the community.
“I think there’s a little bit of jealousy from the outside,” says Christine Wynne, a 50-year-old resident. “‘Oh, you don’t want to go there, there are STDs.’ It’s a utopia here. It’s safe and everyone is happy. I think that fueled some of those rumors.”
Some residents wondered why Mark Morse, the developer who owns The Villages, hadn’t spoken out to correct the record.
Notoriously averse to media interviews, Morse and The Villages community relations team did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
But Lafferty has a theory.
“It goes back to the old advertising world,” he said. “‘Any publicity is good publicity.'”