The Cougar: Progressive or Exploitative?

9 years ago

Age disparity in relationships is nothing new. But this year has seen an increase in older women in relationships with younger men in movies and television, leading publications like Newsweek to declare 2009 The Year of the Cougar.

For those of you who, for one reason or another, don't know, a cougar, essentially, is an older woman who pursues and enjoys sexual relationships with men at least ten years their juniors.

Valerie Gibson, who wrote Younger Men: How to Find Them, Date Them, Mate Them, and Marry Them, told AARP that the book caused quite a stir when it came out fifteen years ago.

“And not a good one,” Gibson recalls. “People were horrified. They were absolutely horrified that older women should be having sex with younger men.”

Things have changed since then. These days, not only are such age-disparate relationships featured in the media, they have become the subject of several shows, such as Cougartown and The Cougar. Older women who are interested in younger men are not an oddity today any more than men who are interested in younger women. A host of sites have appeared to assist in matching “cougars” with “cubs,” the term used to describe the younger men they pursue, and classes centered on becoming a better “cougar” and “hunting” for one have become wildly popular.

Many women see “cougar-mania” as a sort of liberation.

“There is a growing population out there of divorced women who are over 40. They are not the cast aways of previous generations,” writes Marilyn Campiz, an over-40 divorcee who has dated men 10 years her juniors. “Though there are a lot more dangers, such as HIV/AIDS, the plus is that our identities are fully developed. Women in this age group have a strong sense of self. We also know what we are looking for... younger men expect women to be more liberated and they don't try to have a traditional relationship. They tend to view the relationship as a partnership.”

Barbara Kantrowitz and Pat Wingert, who write about health for Newsweek, note the progress that this trend highlights: “In Victorian times, for example, doctors routinely warned midlife women to abstain because intercourse past menopause could be fatal. The exact mechanism for this predicted demise wasn't always clear, but physicians of that era did believe it was dangerous for older women to even think about sexual activity because erotic thoughts might, among other evils, evoke regrets for lost allure and those regrets could trigger disease. Medical literature and popular culture of the time (mostly written by men, of course) often portrayed women over 50 as borderline insane. The supposed reason: they were no longer appealing to the opposite sex.”

Not only are older women no longer warned to abstain from sex nowadays, they're told that 40 is their sexual peak—similar to the peak men experience in at 18. So it follows that women, who are perhaps past a time where their primary concern is creating a relationship suitable to raise a family would seek out men who can match their drive for another desire: sex.

Not surprisingly, not all women are comfortable with the ethical issues engendered by the notion. One of the most reluctant, fellow contributing editor here at BlogHer, Gena Haskett, took the time to explain her concerns with me.

“For the record, I would like women to be sexually emancipated,” Haskett prefaced. “Meaning, that they get to explore what they need sexually. I do believe in consensual adult sexuality. It would be silly of me not to. There is sexual responsibility as well. With this commercial/advertiser driven version of the hungry Cougar situation, are we now saying that your sex drive is so important that you will snag young men to satisfy that need? That is part of where the exploitation could come into play. What would some people do to get a young man into their bed? Just because you can, should you? Do we really need just a body? See, I think there would be a kind of emotional spackle going on. Is sex being used as a metaphor for covering up being lonely? Companionship without obligation? Is is necessary to have any man or woman satisfy you sexually when it isn't really about sex?”

Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Situations vary across the board. A Marilyn Campiz mentioned earlier, for her, it's about being with someone who sees their connection as a partnership as opposed to a traditional relationship bound by gender roles.

For other women, it's not so much about not having obligations to the person you're dating as much as finding someone who can more readily focus on them.

“Younger guys seem to have fewer issues,” says Riki Altman, a relationship expert at The Examiner. “Unlike the guys I’ve dated in their forties, gents in their late twenties and thirties typically don’t have ex-wives or children to deal with, they haven’t gotten themselves into financial distress, and they seem to have more energy and joie de vivre.”

But what if it is about sex and only about sex? If both parties are above the age of consent and consenting, is there really an issue?

“Yes, mechanically it is possible to have casual sex,” Haskett tells me. “People do that all the time. My objection isn't about the mechanics. It is about all the gunk we bring into the bed in hopes of getting an vaginal massage and not really needing to care about who does it for us.”

Does a “casual relationship” mean you don't care about the other person? I define “casual relationship” one wherein there is no commitment, but lack of commitment does not mean I don't care about my partner.

“A casual sex relationship to me is when two people decide that for a duration of time they will hook up,” Haskett clarifies. “You can call and can hook up a bada bing or not. But it is stated and agreed it is non-committal. Can you do that with a much younger person? I suppose yes. I still think there would be power and control issues that would come up with much younger adults. That points back to the possibility of exploitation. Not just financial but emotional.”

There is always the possibility in non-committed relationships that one party will desire to take it to the next level, regardless of age. Haskett is concerned that some older women who are looking for more than sex or younger men who find they want a committed relationship may end up hurt.

And there is the question, as she brings up, that while women in these relationships may be attracted to a younger man's sex drive, these men may come to their bed with their own agenda—one primarily concerned with the boon of having a financially successful lover.

“Exploitation works both ways,” Haskett says. “Young men will approach an older woman for sex as a gateway to have their financial, emotional and other needs met. You might think it is a one-time thing only but Junior has other ideas. Safe sex has an added dimension if you are dealing with one of those people. They are very willing to run an emotionally dangerous game on any woman that takes the bait. Would older women have the discernment skills to avoid these predatory young people? No, not necessarily. But you better know and understand that they are out there, smiling with drink in hand.”

Sharing yourself, whether in sex, love, or both, is a risk. With risk comes responsibility to the partners we choose and to ourselves. Haskett and I may disagree on many points, but at the core, we both share the belief in the importance of fairness in our interactions. Breaking hearts is not a barometer of your desirability. The real barometer is the connections you forge and nurture—even if they aren't made to last forever.


In Dating an older woman (a.k.a. cougar hunting), by Riki Altman, the Miami-based relationship columnist gives some of her feedback on her own experience and offers tips to “cubs” seeking to connect with an older woman.

Linda Franklin disagrees with Newsweek that the “cougar” will be extinct by next year in Cougars - this is your year: “Older women and younger men have been falling in love since time began and that's not about to stop anytime soon. So just get over it!”

In Hot Cougar Sex!, Rebecca Traister defies the notion that there is anything progressive about “cougars”: “The enthusiasm for the 'Wild Kingdom' analogy is a sign of how strange and hysterically funny the idea of energetic female sexual desire is... How sad and backward that we have to give it a nickname, animalize it as if it's outside the boundaries of civilized human behavior, make it a trend, pretend that Demi Moore invented it. That's not progress, and it's not a step forward for women.”

Meanwhile, Linda Holmes wants the word “cougar” to die a miserable death in Let Us Allow The Word 'Cougar' To Die Instantly And Painfully: “Maybe there was some cultural moment in which this term had something to do with being self-possessed enough, or in control enough, or financially independent enough that it was no longer necessary to consider the career prospects of blah blah blah yes, okay, fine. Maybe for a brief moment.”

Em and Lo don't wish a swift death to the term “cougar,” they just want a more dignified word for it. In Why the term "cougar" gives women a bad name, they explain why.

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