Why Cougars Deserve Respect by Jeanie Keogh
Ever since The Graduate (1963) and Harold and Maude (1971), the older woman-younger man paradigm has been a topic of cinematic curiosity. However, it wasn’t until the term “cougar” emerged 25 years ago that the relationship gained a more public profile.
The term was reportedly first coined in the 1980s by members of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team to refer to older female fans who sought to date hockey players.
Despite the negative connotations of the word, the cougar-cub pairing has come a long way from the notion of a cougar as a heavily made up woman decked out in leopard print clothing (some Canucks must have been confused about the markings of wildcat species) poised at the end of a bar, sucking lustily on martini olives and ready to prey on the detritus of younger women. It didn’t hurt that strong, independent women likeSusan Sarandon and Demi Moore were in
If the media craze is any indication, it seems that we’re beginning to embrace the idea that older woman-younger man unions can be commonplace. After all, Time magazine published a photo essay celebrating 17 famous historical cougars, and the New York Times ran a story in 2009 that claimed younger men are more active pursuers of older women, rather than the other way around. In 2008, playwright Donna Moore produced the Broadway hit Cougar: The Musical, a light-hearted look at the phenomenon from a woman’s point of view. Then, Viacom International, the company that created The Bachelor, launched the reality show The Cougar in 2009. It features young men who vie for an older woman’s affection. Are these signs that the cougar stereotype is beginning to shatter?
Today, the Canadian cougar website cougarlife.com boasts 1,500 new members per month. Its CEO, Claudia Opdenkelder, is a self-identified cougar who has publicly accused Google of sexism for deeming her company’s ads not “family friendly.” Regardless of Google’s view, the first International Cougar Week was held in 2011, a year after the Miss Cougar Canada competition sent its 48-year-old winner on a cruise for the presumed purpose of meeting a desirable cub.
There are some signs that the term cougar is losing some of its stigma. However, a closer examination reveals that the taboo of older woman-younger man relationships is still widely present. Despite the increasing visibility of such relationships, older woman-younger man relationships haven’t made a dent in Canadian relationship statistics. In fact, they are so unrepresentative of the relationship preferences of Canadians that very little census data has been collected on the issue. More data has been collected on same-sex and interracial relationships.
Rhiannon Bury, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Athabasca University, confirms there is little empirical research on the subject. Grasping the extent of older woman-younger man relationships is made difficult because most articles on the topic are conducted by journalists who find a few couples to interview. At most, the stories are anecdotal.
“As for measuring effects and changing social attitudes, you would need government agency statistics or published findings from a large university study, and those won’t be easy to come by,” says Bury.
According to Statistics Canada, the last study on age-discrepant relationships where women were the older party was conducted in 2003 by Monica Boyd and Anne Li. They found that women who were older than their male partners by four or more years made up six per cent of relationships. Women who were older than male partners by 10 years made up just one per cent of relationships. In contrast, relationships where men were older than their female partners by four or more years made up 36 percent of relationships. Men who were older than female partners by 10 years or more made up seven per cent of relationships.
Zoe Lawton, a New Zealand-based researcher who authored a 2010 study, Older Women-Younger Men Relationships: the Social Phenomenon of Cougars, believes the prevalence of older woman-younger man relationships has been exaggerated by recent media attention. However, she believes this exaggeration has led to more widespread acceptance of the cougar phenomenon. Lawton predicts that, with time, the derogatory nature of the term cougar could disappear altogether.
She attributes this change to women having more relationships over their life cycles and to a historical shift in the types of people available as partners. At the same time, less traditional societal norms with regard to mate selection and the acceptance of women’s sexual interest beyond their child-bearing years play important roles in dating patterns.
British love and sex relationship counsellor Susan Quilliam believes this type of relationship has become more prevalent since she first began speaking about the subject 30 years ago. She believes a major shift happened when women gained greater control over their reproductive abilities.
“The minute women have the control over this—and you can see this in all cultures—they then have control over being able to carry on an education, and therefore they have the control over being able to have a career, and therefore they have more control over their own earning power,” she said. “They don’t need to go out with a man who is going to support them, and therefore they can go out with a younger man who is not as financially stable.”
Trends aside, there are also cougars who are not making themselves known, preferring to avoid the negative implications the word cougar invokes.
This was my experience when I became involved with a man 10 years my junior at the age of 30. More than a few people of my generation made jokes about my love of young “fresh meat” and they frequently asked questions such as, “How is the teenager?” Or, if I complained about an aspect of my relationship, I would hear comments like, “Ah! The joys of puberty!” Some people have suggested my ability to rob the cradle is a product of my still-young looks and physique, which they subsequently warned I would one day lose. “He’s just a baby” or “What could he possibly offer you?” were other comments I heard regularly. I tried to extol the virtues of his personality. I told people that he makes incredible tiramisu, reads non-fiction books on relationships, calls his grandmother twice a week, drinks responsibly, doesn’t do drugs and listens to the same music I enjoy.
Harder still to listen to were sexist comments about needing to find a man who would “take care” of me. Telling these people that my current boyfriend was taking better emotional care of me than any same-age boyfriend with a bulging wallet became a moot point. Well-argued reasons for my decision to partner with someone younger, rather than someone my own age, became exhausting and demoralizing because I was being asked to commodify my relationship. So I simply stopped telling people my boyfriend’s age.
What I came to realize was that older women with younger partners are not taken seriously because they do not share the same playing field as men in relationships with significantly younger women.
“Nobody calls an older man going out with a younger woman a tiger, or a lion, or a panther,” Quilliam observes.
“Unless it’s a big age difference, nobody suggests that he’s being perverted or predatory. But the age differences sometimes criticized as ‘cougar’ are sometimes just a couple of years, so there is a tendency to criticize older women in age-gap relationships where they wouldn’t criticize older men.”
While cougars and their male counterparts may be on a level economic playing field, they are not necessarily regarded as equal players. An older man with a younger female partner tends to be viewed as someone who could have someone his age, but chooses not to so because he is able attract a younger, more desirable woman with his money.
Conversely, an older woman with a younger male partner tends to be viewed as someone who has chosen a younger man because the men her age are either married or spoken for. Her money is seen as proof that she doesn’t need to be taken care of, giving her younger boyfriend the financial freedom to date her without having to be a provider.
Indeed, a woman with a significantly younger boyfriend poses a threat to the old adage that a woman is supposed to want a man with money. As such, it is a relationship that can also be seen as a desire for a more equal relationship.
Quilliam believes that one reason the cougar relationship is seen as deviant or transitory is because of the idea that “normal women” are supposed to bear children from heterosexual partnerships. Such heteronormative expectations do a disservice to many couples.
“We still think that a valid relationship leads to children and if it’s not going to lead to children, it’s not quite real,” Quilliam says.
Media representations tend to encourage this view by depicting older woman-younger man pairings as either a sexual fetish or, at best, a relationship not expected not to last. Part of this has to do with slut-shaming. Sex and The City’s character Samantha was an essential precursor to the widespread awareness of sexually liberated older women who dated younger men. Where the show and many of its successors fell short was in their depiction of only short-lived cougar-style relationships in which the possibility of something long-lasting was not addressed.
Interestingly, the term cougar is more common among heterosexuals than in the gay, lesbian or trans populations, suggesting that the phenomenon can be boiled down to a power dynamic that is more prevalent in heterosexual relationships.
One lesbian from B.C.’s Lower Mainland, who preferred to remain anonymous, told me the label cougar isn’t applied to her relationship with a woman 15 years her junior, perhaps because age-discrepant relationships are common in her community. Because the gay community is a smaller group of people, dating someone younger may be less about being a cougar and more about who is available—“ a crime of opportunity,” she jokes.
“People in their 20s are more accessible because they have less responsibility,” she adds. “It’s hard to find someone you’re own age because they are busy doing their 40-something thing and living up to their 40-something responsibilities.” Also, as stigmas go, being a lesbian still trumps being a cougar.
In this light, it’s difficult to determine if the lingering criticism of the cougar relationship is more ageist or sexist.
Shearman thinks another thing working against cougar relationships is the ageist concept that men mature more slowly than women and remain boys longer. This, she says, forces women to consider only men who, by virtue of their age, are seen to be ready for a relationship.
“Curriculum and education teaches this idea that men and boys stay immature for longer and women mature faster,” according to Shearman. “The reverse of this …goes against all the things that women are supposed to want. Women are supposed to be looking for a secure, mature man, something a 20- or 25-year-old is not supposed to be.”
We’re selling men the idea that they are not ready for serious relationships at an age when, two generations previous, their grandfathers had already been working for years and were married by their mid-20s.
Of course, times have changed and modern-day relationships require different things from men and women. As more women continue working after having children, men are required to take a more active part in raising children, to be emotionally mature, to be better organized, to accept their partners’ career demands and do their share of the household chores. Could it be that younger men are turning to older women for this education?
If my experience is anything to go by, the answer is yes. My boyfriend’s mother left her partner because he wasn’t doing his fair share around the house, leaving her with 100 per cent of the work and a full-time job. As a result, she raised her son to do his part. Lucky for me, he cooks dinner and drops it off for me at work on his days off, cleans the oven and comes home with wonderfully scented soaps and massage oils. He is a good communicator and a person who accepts responsibility if he makes a mistake. People can call him what they like—whipped, well-trained, my “bitch,” a sucker, a mama’s boy, or in the closet. They can think what they want about me and my motivations, and they can cast their votes as to how it will end.
In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy all the benefits and struggle through the pitfalls of my relationship with the hope that, in time, people will come to accept my partnership the way they would any other loving partnership between two consenting equals.
Until this happens, sexist and ageist biases will be a determinant in the way we view heterosexual relationships.
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