Friends up north and across Tampa Bay snickered when Brian Lafferty revealed where he’d bought a new home.
His 30-year-old daughter in Boston called to express concern.
Even his ex-wife asked him about it.
“Without exception, every person I’ve told I bought 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 mammoth retirement community that was the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the nation two years ago, is no stranger to folklore. The central Florida senior haven has fielded rumors about swingers and public sex for decades.
But perhaps no myth is more ubiquitous — or more enduring — than the idea of rampant rates of sexually transmitted diseases.
“I feel like I have to justify to every single person 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 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 pervasive legend start? And will it ever go away?
‘More worried about alligators than crabs’
Residents hear the joke all too often. A Tampa Bay Times inquiry on the 38,000-member Facebook group, “The Villages Word of Mouth,” was revealing.
“My doctor in Ohio even, when he asked where we spend time in Florida, stated ‘Oh, The Villages — the highest STD rate in the country,’” wrote Jan Schweitzer on the post.
“We are more worried about alligators than crabs here,” typed Sean Donnelly.
Roy Rowlett wrote: “It doesn’t matter what the truth is. Some people love gossip about old people and sex.”
A moderator disabled comments on the post within days. It had received more than 300 responses.
Rumors abound about how the STD rumor started.
Some say a disgruntled nurse hurled it as an insult. Others believe it began with a joke on a radio station. But most trace it to a 2006 television news story “Doctors in Retirement Community Seeing Increase in STDs.”
“While statistics aren’t yet reflecting the trend, one physician at the Women’s Center of The Villages said, even in her years working in Miami, she has never seen so many cases,” the since-removed WFTV article reported.
The Women’s Center of The Villages is no longer open. And the doctor was never named.
The myth snowballed from there. It appeared over the years everywhere from the New York Post to the Daily Mail. Often, the stories seized on signs that The Villagers were engaging in casual sex or dating, wielding them as evidence of heavy transmission within the retirement community.
Sometimes, they cited data about the state’s rising rates of sexually transmitted infections among seniors as proof that the same held true in The Villages.
In 2009, the New York Post called The Villages “ground zero for geriatrics who are seriously getting it on.”
“As a result, the place that likes to bill itself as ‘America’s Friendliest Hometown’ has seen a huge increase in sexually transmitted diseases,” according to a 2013 Slate article referencing the tabloid’s 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 on life in The Villages that is referenced in almost all coverage of this issue. “It’s irresistible — no one 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’ll 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 her patients come seeking testosterone therapy to improve their sex lives. All of them are tested for sexually transmitted diseases.
“In reality, I don’t see much STDs,” said Villa, who has worked in The Villages almost 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 that they’re not thinking about having sex,” she added. “They do — a lot — but not to the point that there’s STDs left and right and all over the place.”
Florida tracks sexually transmitted diseases by county of residence. A state Department of Health official declined to parse out the agency’s data on 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 slightly trended upwards in these counties since 2006, the year the myth about The Villages is believed to have begun.
But so have sexually transmitted disease rates everywhere.
Since the 2000s, lawmakers have reallocated money for sexual health, a move that experts often credit with contributing to a nationwide spike. When barriers to health care are high, so are rates of sexually transmitted diseases, studies show.
Compared to Florida overall, however, 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 older adults in 2019 —with about one in 10,000. That’s compared to six in 10,000 seniors statewide. Marion and Lake bore similar trends. The same patterns emerged for diagnoses of human immunodeficiency virus, also known as HIV, among Florida’s older adults.
At the county-by-county level, The Villages similarly fared better than most.
Spread of sexually transmitted diseases among older adults in Florida tended to be higher in counties with major cities and large Black and Latino 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 impact marginalized groups.
In The Villages, 86% of seniors are white, according to U.S. Census data. And the percentage of older adults living in poverty is slightly lower than the national rate, suggesting its retirees may have better access to health care than the country as a whole.
While sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis are surging nationwide, much of this nascent spread is among adults in their teens and 20s, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Half of all infections are among people 15 to 24.
But rumors travel fast in communities with shared values and histories. In the United States, sexually transmitted diseases carry salacious weight — despite being remarkably common and highly treatable — due to ongoing stigma, said Elizabeth Finley, spokesperson for the National Coalition of S.T.D. 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, suspected ageism plays a role.
“This really has nothing to do with concern 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 they’ve never heard the myth from someone living in the community.
“I think there’s a little bit of jealousy from the outside,” said Christine Wynne, a 50-year-old resident. “‘Oh, you don’t want to move there, there’s STDs.’ It’s utopia here. It’s safe, and everyone’s 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 saying,” he said. “‘Any publicity is good publicity.’”
Data editor Langston Taylor contributed to this report.