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Interview: “Cougar” Spells Sexual Controversy

 

Over the past decade, the term “cougar” has been used to describe older women who set out to date younger men.

A new U.S. study examines attitudes toward the cougar phenomenon, and asks what has changed for women’s sexuality.

Dr. Beth Montemurro

Dr. Beth Montemurro


Beth Montemurro and Jenna Marie Siefken reported their findings online in the Journal of Aging Studies (Vol. 28, January 2014).

To learn more, AHB reached sociologist Beth Montemurro at Penn State University in Abington, PA, U.S.A.

Ruth Dempsey: Where did the term cougar come from?

Beth Montemurro: According to lexicographer Grant Barrett, the term first became popular in North America in 2001 after Valerie Gibson published her best-selling book: Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men.

However, Barrett traces the word’s origin to 1999 when a dating website designed to match older women and younger men was founded. The story goes that one of the two women who founded the website was told by a nephew that the two ladies were like cougars in search of small defenseless animals.

RD: Some of the participants liked the term: what reasons did they give?

BM: Several women appreciated the idea of the cougar because it acknowledged older women’s sexuality. In popular culture, there are relatively few examples of sexually-appealing women over the age of 40. The term cougar allows us to imagine that women maintain sexual desire throughout their lives.

Some also noted that the animal cougar is strong and powerful, thus recognizing women’s strength and sexual self-assurance.

RD: More women objected to the term . . .

BM: That’s right. These women recognized that cougars are predatory. They saw the term as insulting because it labeled women as aggressive and merely interested in using sexual partners as conquests.

Women are more often expected to be passive or at least not the initiators of sexual interaction. The cultural image of the cougar challenges this view. And this made women we spoke with uncomfortable.

RD: The participants thought “ordinary” women were unlikely to become cougars.

BM: Yes, a number of women said celebrities like Cher or Demi Moore came to mind when they heard the word cougar. These women believed that only a woman with money or who was exceptionally attractive would be able to attract a younger man.

RD: Meanwhile, 58-year-old Iris dated younger men, but she did not want to be known as a cougar. Why is that?

BM: Iris was interested in these men as individuals, not because they were younger men.

As she put it, “I don’t think of the relationships that I’ve had with younger men as being I’m just after, you know, younger men. It’s because I meet a person, we have fun together and we really like each other, and so then it turns into a sexual thing.”

When someone labeled her a cougar, it created an image of her that she did not feel fit with her actual experience.

RD: Studies show there are significant numbers of women in their 70s and 80s, and even 90s who remain sexually active . . .

BM: Sociologist Linda Waite and her colleagues declared, “Sexuality has no expiration date.” Although there is often a decline in the frequency of sexual activity, there is rarely a cessation of sex for those with partners.

Sexual scripts influence behaviour. This is why it’s important to look at phenomenon like cougars. Looking at images of older women who publicly express sexual desire is important in countering stereotypes that conflate aging and asexuality.

In my forthcoming book, Deserving Desire: Women’s Stories of Sexual Evolution (available September 2014 from Rutgers Press), I find that women generally grow more confident and comfortable with their sexuality as they age.

I interviewed 95 women between the ages of 20 and 68, and I found that women in their 60s were most at peace with their sexuality.

RD: So how do you see the cougar phenomenon?

BM: Like the women I interviewed, I have mixed feelings about the term. I do think it’s great and important to recognize older women’s sexuality so that women feel more comfortable expressing it and do not believe that they should lose interest at a certain age.

On the other hand, the cougar as stereotype is often mocking such women, painting them as desperate and pathetic.

In fact, the image does little to change the tide. It reinforces the idea that women who express their sexuality – at any age – will be chastised for doing so.