It’s been eight years since Newsweek famously proclaimed 2009 as the year of the cougar. The now well-known term wasn’t a reference to the Chinese calendar; rather, it was a bordering-on-crass idiom coined to define 40-plus women with a predilection for younger gentlemen.
Although the US-based magazine reasoned that the cougar-craze was a fad destined for cultural oblivion, the article offered up an intriguing explanation for the newfound popularity of older woman/younger man relationships.
According to the piece, the main driving force that brought cougars in from the wilderness was Hollywood. Indeed, shows like Sex in the City paint a more sophisticated picture of mature woman’s sexuality.
On the other hand, the aptly-named Cougar Town bolsters a smuttier stereotype. Commenting on the programme’s host - Courtney Cox - San Francisco journalist Jane Ganahl wrote that the producers did a great job of converting the former Friends star into “a hapless, sex-obsessed divorcee who seems to be a mash-up of Mrs. Robinson and Bridget Jones”1.
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Off screen, the frenzy that surrounded Demi Moore’s marriage to Ashton Kutcher, not forgetting the widely reported liaisons of stars such as Madonna, Mariah Carey and Sandra Bullock, allegedly serve as further evidence.
Nevertheless, it somehow seems precarious to start explaining away the genuine rise in older women dating younger men by skimming off examples from LA’s amorous glitterati. What’s more, the way in which news outlets around the world, Newsweek included, represented the issue is perhaps more telling of the way older women are perceived by society.
First off, the very word ‘cougar’ is most certainly moot. Without getting too entangled in semantics, EliteSingles resident psychologist, Salama Marine, is quick to discuss this point. “Prejudices have a tendency to stick, even if society is changing,” she says, “calling an older woman a cougar isn’t meaningless, it’s a way of defining her as a predator who’s only interested in hunting down younger prey.”
For an enlightening comparison it’s worth looking at an equivalent expression for older men who hook up with younger women. Whilst still packed with hidden meaning, ‘sugar daddy’ isn’t nearly as derogatory as its big-cat counterpart. Instead it’s a jocular reaffirmation of man’s traditional role as father-figure and provider of material wealth (and woman’s role as recipient).
The reality for older women dating younger men
Around about the same time cougardom exploded into the mainstream, social scientists became increasingly immersed in researching age-dissimilar couples where the woman is the older party. Prompted by this shift in the demographics of modern relationships, a team of sociologists at the University of Maine set about investigating the reality of older women wedded to younger men2.
In their 2006 study, Sandra Caron, Mary Logue and Nichole Proulx interviewed eight married couples where the wife was between 10 to 17 years older than the husband. Their findings revealed that whilst both partners were content with their relationship, they still worried about how others judged them. Also, women expressed concern over the prospect of ageing and whether it would affect their partner’s attraction to them.
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The trio behind the project were sure to report that “vast age differences, especially in woman-older relationships, clearly violate the norms of this society”. And this is by no means a revelation. 40 years ago, writer and activist Susan Sontag penned ‘The Double Standard of Ageing’ for the now defunct Saturday Review3.
In the native New Yorker’s opinion, older women are routinely subject to much stricter norms when it comes to picking sexual partners. “For most women, aging means a humiliating process of gradual sexual disqualification,” she scathingly wrote, “society is much more permissive about aging men.” Marine builds on Sontag’s earlier woes: “Many people are still shocked to see an older woman with a younger man,” she says, “they might think ‘what if that was my mother, or my son!’.”
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Yet it’s not all cradle snatching and oedipal gloom for older women dating younger men. In fact, research carried out last summer by McGill University’s Milaine Alarie and Jason Carmichael concludes otherwise4. After pulling data from the National Survey of Family Growth, the Canadian initiative found that approximately 13 percent of sexually active women between 35 and 44 have slept with a man at least 5 years their junior.
Not only did they discover that middle aged women who’d been previously married were more likely to seek a younger mate, they also showed that older woman/younger man relationships are rarely brief flings (on average they last for 2 years).
Crucially, the Quebecois researchers disproved the ‘rich white’ cougar stereotype by demonstrating that many of these older women come from diverse ethnic backgrounds and also fall within lower income brackets. So, if women from all walks of life are ignoring the stigma and romancing with the more youthful cohort of the male population, it begs the question; what’s the appeal?