Don't Call Me a Cougar - Rejecting the Cougar Stereotype

Avoiding the Cougar Term, UK Entrepreneur Creates Popular Dating Website

Although the term 'cougar' has become synonymous with older women who date younger men, its predatory image is neither accurate nor acceptable in the opinion of many women tagged with the label. Since there's no similar word to describe an older man who dates younger women, many feel it's far from complimentary. In fact, they say it is ageist, sexist, and certainly not empowering to women.

Celebrities from Demi Moore (whose husband Ashton Kutcher is 16 years her junior) to Kim Cattrall have emphatically stated, "Don't call me a cougar!" Cattrall in particular rejects the the idea that Samantha, the iconic character she played for six seasons on Sex and the City, is a cougar, saying that some who are uncomfortable with strong women use the term to label women. As Cattrall told the celebrity news show Extra, "I don't see anything negative about Samantha and her sexuality, sensuality and choice."

Long before Moore or Cattrall took a public anti-cougar stand, UK artist and entrepreneur Julia Macmillan defied the label by making the domain name her own. There, she started a blog supportive of women in relationships with younger men because, as she sees it, "it should be as normal for a woman to date a younger man as it always has been for a man to date or marry a younger women."

Like many attractive and intelligent women who look younger than their years, Macmillan typically dated younger men not because she sought them out but because they had approached her and were more compatible than men her age.

When she tried online dating in 2006, she found she wasn't connecting with the same type of men she had met in person; and those that were contacting her didn't suit her at all.

Thinking that there had to be a better way, in 2007 she founded a UK dating website with a deliberately sassy, tongue-in-cheek name -- -- where members abide by one simple rule: that women date men at least a year younger, and men date women at least a year older.

Nowhere on the website is the word 'cougar' ever used. As Macmillan says, "It's not empowering to women."

She seems to have hit a nerve. Three years later, the site is so successful she's planning to launch a US version of ToyboyWarehouse in late 2010 in the New York City area.

I spoke with Julia Macmillan about the cougar stereotype, the reasons why it persists even as women reject the term in growing numbers, and whether there's greater cultural acceptance in the UK or the US toward older female/younger male relationships.

You avoid the term 'cougar' and have said, "In my view there should be no label. After all, there isn't one for a man who dates a younger woman." What is that stereotype that people have regarding cougars that's offensive to you?

It's a stereotype of a woman who's looking for younger men for casual sex which is how the term started originally. I think there's so much more to it than that. The attraction is an enormous part a relationship but sometimes two people can be attracted to each other because they have so much in common.

'Cougar' is too oversexualized and too predatory an image to apply to a broad section of women. It's just one particular type of woman, not all the types of women that necessarily date younger men. Quite a lot of women find it offensive because they're not the predators. In fact, I know on our site it's the young men who are chasing the women.

These women are just fabulous. They're independent, attractive, but they're not pouncing on young men. So I think it's inaccurate and limiting.

Women who routinely date younger men have told me it's not as if either side is asking about their partner's age. In fact, they say that age doesn't come up in the discussion. The men take the women at face value. Do you find this to be true?

That is so true -- that comment is so spot on. Age doesn't really come up in the conversation. Women are looking fantastic; they're looking better than before and taking care of their bodies. It's not like 10-15 years ago when a woman over 45 found herself abandoned by a husband who had left her for some young secretary. Today women have the same choices as men.

I think 'cougar' is a bit demeaning. Many women say it doesn't apply to them at all. They wouldn't want to be called a cougar and never refer to themselves as cougars.

When you look at all the dating sites with cougar in the title there are pictures of attractive middle-aged women in a state of undress. There's something slightly tacky about that. There's a lot of really classy women out there who wouldn't want that label attached to them.

When an older man dates a younger woman, nobody blinks. Yet not too long ago, if a woman dated a man just 3-5 years younger than herself, she faced disgust and outrage. Back then, she'd have been called a 'cradle robber.' Why does this double standard exist? Why is there such animosity towards women?

I really think it has to do with who's losing ground in this whole thing.

When you look at news articles in the online media referring to some new celebrity who's going out with a younger man, you get a lot of really unpleasant aggressive comments from men because they're the ones who are going to be left out. They've had it their own way for so long; they've always been able to play the field with women their own age or younger.

For women, it's been very restricting and socially unacceptable until fairly recently -- although I do think it's been going on longer in a more secretive way for women to date younger men.

And I don't mean to be racist about this, but it tends to be older white men that are upset.

More and more women are acknowledging their sexuality which before they had to keep in a closed closet. And older white men don't like the kind of freedom that women have been gaining because they don't have so much power anymore. Unfortunately they're the ones who tend to run the whole establishment and their views have been the predominant views.

Women are becoming more powerful in more and more areas, including business and in their choice of partners. Men are going to have to accept the fact that they're going to lose ground but that it's going to be better for all of us in the end.

What do you think younger men appreciate about older women?

Older women, younger women -- that's all relative too. I've got younger women signing up on ToyboyWarehouse who are 30 years old. It's the type of women they are. They're independent; they've got great jobs; they aren't looking for a man as a meal ticket because they can take care of themselves.

Instead, they're looking for a man to have a connection with. It could be a purely physical connection; it could be a mental and physical connection (which is obviously the best); but they're not looking to be dependent on a man.

I think that is what the men absolutely love.

Older women tend not to have the ticking clock young women have who are looking for husband material. Older women tend to take the relationship as it comes and see how it develops.

Most 'cougar' dating websites treat women as if we're simply sexual toys; they don't take the whole woman into account. That's not the case with your website. What did you want to create in ToyboyWarehouse that you had not found on other existing sites?

I've had feedback from other women that confirmed my own bad experiences with online dating. I was 46 when tried it for the first time in the summer of 2006. On the mainstream sites I found that a woman over 40 would tend to get messages from rather boring older men. I'd always dated younger men and I just wasn't interested in the type of men I was 'meeting.'

Although I'd never done anything in the dating industry, I thought, well it can't be too difficult to create the kind of site that I would actually like to be on.

The very name ToyboyWarehouse is humorous and witty, and that's an essential part of attraction. The idea was to be fun and playful -- it's from a woman's point of view. It evokes the image of a woman going around with a shopping cart and saying, "That one looks nice on the shelf. I'll have that one."

When the site went live in 2007 there was literally nothing out there for women in their late 30s or older who wanted something a little more exciting than a pipe-and-slippers man whose highlight of the week was probably watching his car in his drive. That was what was missing for me.

Do you see any cultural differences in the way older woman/younger man relationships are perceived in the UK vs. the US? It seems that in the UK these women are seen as cheeky and playful, whereas in the US we're much more judgmental and make moral assumptions about women who date younger men.

I think there are two slightly different issues here.

There's the issue of the actual word 'cougar.' My feeling is that it's more acceptable in the US than the UK. We did a survey to see what women thought of the word -- whether they'd like to be labeled as that. And 95% said, "No, it doesn't apply to us. We don't like that word."

Possibly in the UK it's more acceptable that a older woman should go out with a younger man. Every time a film star or pop star dates a younger man it puts the idea out there.

In the US some might see the word 'cougar' as positive because it's a beautiful animal; they like the idea of it and they don't see it as a stereotyped label whereas in the UK we fight labels more and it's not a badge of honor to be called a cougar -- it's seen as really derogatory.

We're going through a transition period. In the next generation it will be as normal for a woman to date a younger man as it always has been the other way around. We're fighting for equality in how we're being referred to as well as acceptance that a women can express her own sexuality.

Women are so critical of themselves when they're younger. But as we get older, particularly once we're into our 40s and 50s, we tend to become free of those former constraints. We'd like to see that freedom reflected in the partner we're with. Yet it seems that at the same time women become more free and liberated within themselves, men seem to shut down.

You've absolutely hit the nail on the head. Young men don't close down but older men do.

I've heard from women who say that if they go out with a man their age, generally he's been through a marriage and he's got a lot of baggage and the kids and the awful ex-wife that he goes on about. It's not much fun for a woman to deal with all of that.

Younger men don't tend to have that. They're much freer to appreciate a woman.

We get a lot of divorcees on the site that have just come out of a 15-year marriage. Maybe their husband hasn't paid them much attention and they haven't had sex for years and their self-esteem is at rock bottom; they think they're not attractive. But then they get adoring emails from young men who say, "You're so beautiful," and suddenly they realize how attractive they really are. It's the most enormous ego boost. They begin dressing up again and then relationships start and suddenly it's a whole new world for them.

Your website understands what a woman past a certain age wants, and you emphasize intelligence, elegance, and wit. How is it that you 'get' this when so many mainstream sites completely miss this?

I think it's because I'm one of the very few site owners that's a woman. Most sites are run by corporations with all-male boards. There are only a couple of sites that I know of that are founded by women, and women know what other women want.

All the marketing I do tends to be social media marketing aimed at women because we've never had problems getting men. There are three times as many men on the site as women. The more you move towards classy, intelligent, elegant, the more women will come. The more you move towards 'it's just about sex' the more you cut out a whole swath of women who wouldn't join that kind of site.

You can be sexy and intelligent -- that's going to come through in a site -- but you can't just push it as a sex site, because that will put a lot of women off.

I've tried to make sure that ToyboyWarehouse is responsive to our UK members. I've been good at listening to what they ask for. I'd like to hear what women want in the US version of ToyboyWarehouse. The tagline in the States will be "Where smart meets sexy" and I think that encapsulates what it's really all about.