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.
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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:…