An Unfair Affair: Is It Time to Put the Term “Cougar” to Bed?
Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft in 1967’s The Graduate, became a toxic trope for a sexy older seductress who preys on younger men, in this case, Benjamin Braddock, a star-making role for Dustin Hoffman. Photo: tBFA/Alamy Stock Photo
In the effort to banish stigma and gender-based double standards, should we put the term “cougar” to bed? Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.
A May-December romance often describes a relationship between an older man and a younger woman, but when the roles are reversed, the older woman is commonly dismissed as a “cougar” who stalks and preys on younger men. The term was popularized in the early aughts when former Toronto Sun sex and relationships columnist Valerie Gibson published Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men, where she wrote about “the new breed of single, older woman … [who] knows exactly what she wants. What she wants is younger men and lots of great sex.” The flip side of her premise was that many young men were relieved to be free from the pressure to settle down.
I wasn’t aware of the book when I met my life partner, who is 14 years younger, but I always felt self-conscious about being perceived as a cougar. After a few uncomfortable conversations, I quickly learned to avoid the topic around acquaintances. Since most people assumed we were both in our 20s then, it was easy to sidestep.
When I recently slipped our age gap into a casual conversation at work, my millennial co-worker blurted out, “That’s weird!” I asked her why, given how common it is to see an older man with a younger woman. “You’re right, it shouldn’t make a difference,” she admitted. I was surprised it was the first time she had considered the double standard.
I’ve been with my partner more than 15 years, and as I enter my 50s, he’s in his late 30s. I know from experience a large age difference can impact a relationship, mainly because it affected our friend groups (which can be surprisingly ageist – we each lost a “best” friend) and how family members treated us (in some cases, horribly). My co-worker was one of many people who have stepped into uncomfortable territory; years earlier, another female colleague suggested I should be extra cautious because my partner might be with me for financial support. That was especially amusing, because we met when I was broke.
I usually avoid talking about my relationship, while my partner proudly (sometimes too loudly) proclaims my age like a medal of honour. He enjoys seeing the looks of disbelief, since most people still assume we’re the same age. We sometimes joke that he’s my fountain of youth.
Reversing the Roles
No matter what stage of life we’re in, everyone can have major differences when it comes to financial success, having children, physical abilities and sexual needs. A large age gap can amplify those differences, but why should public opinion judge a relationship more harshly when the woman happens to be older?
We can partially blame conventional gender roles, according to Justin Lehmiller, a renowned social psychologist, research fellow at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, author and self-described sexpert. In his 2011 paper, “May-December Paradoxes: An Exploration of Age Gap Relationships in Western Society,” Lehmiller and his co-author explain that “pairings between older men and younger women seem logical because they are consistent with the traditional provider-homemaker marital arrangement.”
Now, it seems antiquated to expect the older partner to take care of the younger one, but patriarchal tradition dictated the man in a heterosexual union provide financial stability, while the woman managed the children and household. For centuries, a woman was called a “spinster” if she weren’t married by her mid-20s. Young women were traditionally seen as more fecund, and recent research supports the belief that girls mature earlier than boys. As Lehmiller notes, definitions of normal relationships are evolving, and he cites the #MeToo movement as one reason attitudes are changing. “There is more celebration of older women, but also more stigma against older men dating younger women,” he explains. “There’s a broader rethinking of relationships and sexual partnerships. Stigma hasn’t disappeared, it’s just shifting directions.”
A Question of Age
So now that we are in a time of somewhat precarious equality between the sexes, how have age-based gender assumptions changed? It depends where you look. “Cougar” is a word that can be found in many headlines about celebrity relationships, but in early 2021, a New York Post article about Olivia Wilde and Harry Styles (who have a 10-year age gap) proclaimed: “Once seen as desperate women on the prowl, cougars … are having a cultural moment.”
The unofficial queen of cougars, Madonna (now 64), hardly fits the “desperate women” cliché, and she’s been dating younger men for decades – some more than 30 years her junior. However, her blatantly sexual persona and questionable cosmetic surgery choices tend to reinforce the negative “cougar” stereotype – which encompasses the lonely divorcée, the filthy-rich widow and the seductive school teacher.
One of the most well-known examples, Brigitte Macron, met her husband when Emmanuel (the future president of France) was her 15-year-old student. A 24-year age difference didn’t stop her from eventually marrying him, but to avoid scrutiny, the couple didn’t make their first public appearance until several years later. In 2017, The Washington Post noted, “Even supporters of other candidates now say that the details of their relationship should not impact voters’ decision-making process. They point out that many other male world leaders (one of them living in D.C.) have married much younger women, without causing a national debate.”
Another example of aging rebelliously, 81-year-old fashion icon Vivienne Westwood is approaching her 30th anniversary with husband Andreas Kronthaler, who is 25 years younger; obviously, she didn’t give a damn what anyone thought about their union. Several other high-profile relationships have contributed to the normalization of older women with younger partners, such as Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, who have a 15-year age gap, and more recently, Holland Taylor, who turns 80 in January, and Sarah Paulson, 48 in December, who connected romantically almost a decade after they met.
Meanwhile, as older women are becoming more accepted, some older men have contributed to the bias against “trophy wives” – notably, when David Foster, 73, last December posted a photo of his bikini-clad, post-birth wife Katharine McPhee, 38, on Instagram. Critics accused him of objectification; it doesn’t help that it’s Foster’s fifth marriage, and his wives keep getting younger.
Then again, in a consenting relationship between adults, why should age be anyone’s concern? Of course, it’s relevant in terms of life stages and self-realization, as illustrated by the recent film, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande – in which Emma Thompson’s widowed character hires a (significantly younger) male sex worker, played by 29-year-old Daryl McCormack. As The Guardian speculated, “What if this was a middle-aged man with a younger female sex
worker? … It naturally wouldn’t be the same; the tone would shift away from comedy, but that is because the power relations of gender affect the bought-sex experience, as they affect every other kind of experience.”
North American statistics are sparse when it comes to the details of age-gap relationships, but most numbers show somewhere close to 10 per cent of marriages have a significant age gap (more than 10 years); in these cases, only about one per cent of marriages involve an older woman. In Canada, almost 60 per cent of marriages land within a three-year age difference, according to the most recent data on marriage released by Statistics Canada in 2003; it is currently analyzing key indicators from marriage registrations between 2009-2020, but no release date has been set.
The 2003 report, “May-December: Canadians in Age-Discrepant Relationships,” noted that “until recently, much of the attention given to age-discrepant unions was negative,” and the unions were expected to be “fraught with problems,” although other factors such as poverty or ethnic differences contributed to more conflict than age. The report also highlighted a significant difference for male same-sex couples, where one-quarter had an age gap of 10 or more years, compared with 18 per cent of female same-sex unions, and eight per cent of heterosexual unions.
Sex, Love and Power
When asked if a large age gap negatively affects a relationship, Lehmiller admits the topic is relatively unexplored. “Due to the lack of available data, that’s an unresolved question,” he says, “but one obvious implication is that with a much larger age gap, the older partner will most likely pass prematurely.” That’s often a discussion in my home, so it’s a fair (although painful) point. Then again, unexpected events can happen to anyone, anytime, regardless of age.
The conversation with Lehmiller quickly moves on to menopause and other age-related issues. “There can be concern around perception of appearance and signs of aging because women are held to a harsher standard in terms of appearance,” he emphasizes. Naturally, attractiveness and sex appeal are in the eye of the beholder, but when it comes to the bedroom, Lehmiller highlights a few logistical challenges for women. “Sexual difficulties can arise, such as pain, dryness, sexual functioning, desire discrepancies or sex-related issues. But there are also remedies, including hormonal treatments and lubricants,” he notes. On the other hand, men aren’t immune to sexual dysfunction and age-related issues.
When it comes to the balance of power, Lehmiller believes reducing the discussion to age alone is narrow-sighted; the older partner isn’t necessarily “in control,” he says. “A lot of younger folks view a power imbalance as creepy, but it’s also interesting how there’s an assumption that older means more power. Many could make the case that youth, beauty and attractiveness are also a form of power.”
Discussions about May-December relationships often suggest a man’s ability to have children at any age sets the stage for the older-man scenario, but when a woman is past child-bearing age, the issue is moot. Many older women value their independence and guard it carefully. As Lehmiller explains, “Women tend to take on the caretaker role in relationships more often than men. Older women are increasingly living apart from new partners in order to maintain independence and avoid taking on a higher-effort role in the relationship.”
Reading the Label
Let’s get back to cougars, and how Carlyle Jansen, a Toronto-based sex therapist, producer of the Toronto International Porn Festival and founder of the sexuality shop Good For Her, believes it’s an empowering word. “A woman can say, ‘Yeah, I’ve got wrinkles but I’m still sexy, and I have experience, and I know that I can be a good partner to you, and I can teach you some things.’”
I shared her comments with our teenager, who’s received more than her fair share of unsolicited approaches from older men, and she was quick to point out another double standard. “Some of the guys who try to lure me say the same things: ‘I’m mature, I can teach you.’ And why is it always just about sex, not love?” Several years ago, as she became aware of our age difference (especially after visiting her friends’ homes, and comparing parents), our daughter started teasing me – mainly by threatening to date much older men. But she also appreciates that her friends are envious of her “cool” dad, and since I am the same age as most of her friends’ parents, none of the kids seem to notice the age difference.
When I met her father, I was completely blind to his interest, but then he pursued me like no other man had (in the best of ways). Conversely, in my late teens, I chased after an older man who was so uncomfortable with our 20-year age gap that he would rarely go anywhere in public with me, other than in the company of close friends. (No, we didn’t have sex – mainly because he didn’t want to.) Decades later, I can say that our relationship was a mature friendship, complicated by our attraction to each other and his worries about what some people might think. Ironically, I stumbled into a similar dilemma almost 20 years later.
The stigma that surrounds older women dating younger men is so pervasive, a prominent mental health advocate, who is in a relationship with a man more than 10 years younger, declined an interview unless she could remain anonymous – despite sharing many personal details about her life throughout her public presentations. It made me wonder if some people believe being labelled a cougar is more harmful than being labelled mentally ill.
Along with stomping out the stigma around race, gender identity and sexual preference, it’s time to rethink our preconceptions around older women, especially when it comes to how we judge or label their personal relationships. Now that I’ve entered my 50s and I am in the longest relationship of my life, even as I begin to contemplate the ticking clock of mortality, our age difference has faded in my eyes. But for others, it’s all they see.
A version this article appeared in the December 2022/January 2023 issue with the headline ‘An Unfair Affair’, p. 72.
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