Redefining Cougar Women: Sexual Healing


Column If you learned everything you know about “cougar women” from “The Graduate” or even “Sex and the City,” you’re still woefully ignorant about a very common dating scenario. There’s nothing predatory about older women dating younger men.

The Mrs. Robinson myth is alive and well, despite major cultural shifts in the last decade. Why are people still so freaked out about older women having sex with younger men?

We may gently “tsk tsk” when we see an older guy with a younger woman – but it’s certainly not viewed as a scandal, as we’ve seen it all a million times. We have a frame of reference for older man/younger woman pairings – evolutionary psychology even tells us that there’s a biological basis for it. (Note that I’ve roundly debunked Evo Psych in various Sexual Healing columns.) We know this guy — he’s just having a midlife crisis and he’s not a danger to anyone but himself (and maybe his mistress). But when women dabble in age-gap dating, they are ferocious animals stalking meat in the dark of night — they’re terrifying.

This is all, of course, just another form of the Madonna/Whore complex, with cougars as a stand-in for the whore. Except this whore is so sexually insatiable that she can’t help but hump everything in sight, and people like laughing at her as much as they feel sorry for her. (Too bad that she’s probably having the last laugh, because she’s having great sex.)

Over the past five or ten years, “cougar” dating sites have proliferated – most likely because of demand. But out there in TV land, the arbiter of our cultural standards, “Sex in the City” character Samantha Jones set up the 21st century cougar trope. Sam wasn’t exactly mocked for her taste in younger men, but she was presented as voracious and relentlessly sexual – something women just aren’t supposed to be in polite company. More recently, a television show called “Cougar Town” was a vehicle for former “Friends” star Courtney Cox.

But has our gut-level response to seeing older women and younger men together in real life shifted? I went straight to the source – women dating younger men, and the men who love (and sleep with) them.

Here are some comments from a few women over forty about sex in midlife generally, with a generous side helping of dating younger men:

“The sex is OFF THE CHAIN.”

“He likes his women like his cars, older, classier, more beautiful and dependable, strong, sturdy, true.” (From a 52-year-old woman dating a 34-year-old man.)

“They like us because we know our sh*t. We’re also probably not (as) desperate to get married as many 25-32 year olds are (as all their friends troop to the altar and start having babies) — we may have already BEEN married.”

“Forget Botox — orgasms are the ultimate youth elixir.”

Women over forty are mostly written out of the sexual narrative, similar to the way that women over forty in Hollywood are written out of every single screenplay. When older women want to have sex — and specifically, when they want to have it with younger men that can keep up with them — they are are compared to wild animals and framed as something less than human.

The fact that these women want to have sex, period, is what brings the judgment. How dare they still have libidos when they may no longer be perfect, perky, 24-year-old specimens of culturally-sanctioned beauty standards? We need to reexamine why the very idea of a woman who expresses her desires is so threatening. A woman over forty who wants sex isn’t a wildlife program on PBS — her dating life is not a reality show.

Television and movies may not have caught up to the actual women, the ones we call “cougars” — who are rediscovering their relationships with their own bodies, figuring out how to feel desirable again after having children, or perhaps finding their way back from divorce. Their lives are not over — in many ways they’re just beginning.

So we’ve established what’s in it for the so-called “cougar women”, but what about the younger men in the equation? More and more young guys are firmly in the “I don’t want kids” camp, and hooking up with an older woman who’s already had kids or who is proudly childfree is one way to sidestep the breeding discussion.

As for why young guys are increasingly attracted to older women, my theory is that confidence is hella sexy, and when you get to be a woman “of a certain age” you have far fewer f*cks to give about what other people think about you. You carry yourself that way, instead of looking around to see who’s checking you out. You’ve worked hard at becoming the subject of your own life, rather than someone else’s object. When you’re in your twenties and thirties you’re ostensibly in your most physically desirable stage of life — but you’re often not feeling what people are seeing.

I also credit decades of feminism for the confidence older women grant themselves — sisterhood isn’t just powerful, it’s damn good for our sex lives. The cougar narrative assumes that women are financially well-off in their forties, and that’s somehow part of their allure — but I don’t buy it. I found few examples of Sugar Mamas, but I can show you a troop of sexy artists, writers, and other not-particularly wealthy, but extremely sexually open freelancers in their forties. The men they’re dating and/or sleeping with certainly aren’t in it for the money.

Women in their late thirties and beyond have (hopefully) had plenty of sex, multiple partners, and know what they want — and often that includes dating younger men. Younger women are often just figuring it out, and sometimes perform in bed rather than truly take pleasure in the experience. (See almost any episode of “Girls” from season one for evidence of the “Sex kinda sucks but I’m going to do it anyway because I really want this guy to like me” theme.)

Another theory that’s bandied about (and I’ve done some of this bandying) is that there is a perfect libido match between women in their late thirties/early forties and men in their mid-to-late twenties. Anecdotally lots of men and women I chatted with seem to agree — the assumption is that our sexual peaks line up perfectly. (Note: there’s no scientific proof of this, and some researchers entirely debunk the very idea of sexual peaks.)

My own experience is that the older I get, the more young men seem to be interested in me. I don’t think I’m giving out “cougar” vibes, whatever those are, but online and in real life, I get hit on more and more by men in their twenties (even as young as TWENTY, which sometimes freaks me out, and I write about sex for a living.) But I must admit — I kind of dig it.

Got a question for Stefanie? Email  stefanie at ecosalon dot com and she’ll answer it in the next Sexual Healing column.

Keep in touch with Stefanie on Twitter: @ecosexuality

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Image: Mark Dumont

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Stefanie Iris Weiss