What Does It Mean When a Woman Is Called a Cougar?

Couple on Holiday in Provence.South of France
Marcus Clackson / Getty Images

A cougar is typically defined as an older woman who is primarily attracted to and may have a sexual relationship with significantly younger men. Although precise ages vary with the definer, in general, the woman is 35 years or older, the man is more than eight years her junior. Some women and men consider "cougar" a sexist, derogatory term, but the flavor of the meaning in context varies from empowering to offensive. Current terms for men who marry or seek relationships with (much) younger women are such things are the derogatory "dirty old man" and more rarely, a "rhino." 

Key Takeaways: The Slang Term "Cougar"

  • Cougars are defined as older heterosexual women (typically ages 35–55) who pursue sexual relationships with men who are eight or more years younger. 
  • Cougar marriages are relatively rare (only about 1.7 percent of U.S. marriages in 2016 had women 10 years or more older than their husbands) but more common in nonpermanent relationships (a 2002 survey revealed that 13 percent of women in the U.S. ages 35–44 had had sex at least once with a man who was at least five years younger). 
  • Cougars can present both negative and positive images: they are independent, sexually confident women, or they are women who are striving to conform to the social norms of youth and beauty. 

Popular Culture and the Cougar Dating Scene 

The term cougar is an illustration of how modern culture defines and prescribes the roles for (heterosexual) women and men in society. Other similar stereotypes include sugar daddy or sugar mama: what these have in common in addition to an age difference is an imbalance of power and wealth. The wealth and power are held primarily by the older person: the younger, poorer half is sometimes referred to as a "sugar baby." Other terms of "alpha cougar," "beta cougar," and "sweet" or "angry" cougars appear to be categories invented by dating websites.

In part, cougars produce uneasiness in people because of the moral ambiguity we share about aging and sexuality. Western culture has a well-documented bias toward youth and health. Although such age different relationships are not new, the baby boomer generation has embraced the notion, and the use of cosmetics, pharmaceutical products, and cosmetic surgery—coupled with better health and exercise—has made a sexy senior more common, even though the requirement of youthful appearance has not waned. 

Celebrity couples made up of older women and younger men include Susan Sarandon, who was 42 at the time she started dating 30-year-old Tim Robbins in 1988; Sheryl Crowe (41) and Lance Armstrong (32) in 2003; Ivana Trump (59) and Rossano Rubicondi (36) in 2008; Rachel Hunter (37) and Jarret Stoll (24) in 2006; and Demi Moore (48) and Ashton Kutcher (27) in 2005. 

History of the 'Cougar' Term

The earliest documented use for the term "cougar" referring to a woman seeking such a relationship is said to have been in professional sports locker-room talk. In the 1980s, the Canadian ice hockey team the Vancouver Canucks used the term to refer to the older, single women who attended their hockey games to pursue players sexually. The Canadian dating site Cougardate.com was launched in 1999 to assist in establishing older woman and younger man relationships, and in 2001, the website became the focus of a story in the Toronto Sun. Sun columnist Valerie Gibson leveraged her investigations into cougardate.com into a 2002 self-help book titled "Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men." 

Since that time, there has been an increasing number of newspaper articles and blogs on the subject. Such relationships have been seen in television programs such as "Sex and the City" (1998–2004), "Cougar Town "(2009–2015), "Lipstick Jungle" (2008–2009), and "Riverdale" (2017–ongoing), and movies such as "Prime" (2005), "The Rebound" (2009), "Adore" (2013), and "The Boy Next Door" (2015). Seductive older women are featured in pornography, and "cougars" is a common subgenre in pornography websites. Many other dating sites have been launched, such as dateacougar.com, cougarlife.com, and datemrsrobinson.com, to name a few.

Cougar Characteristics 

The popular stereotype of a cougar is a heterosexual white or black unmarried woman between the ages of 35 and 55. She maintains a youthful physical appearance, either by exercise or by cosmetics or cosmetic surgery. She is comparatively wealthy, or at least financially independent, and she expresses her sexuality by publicly pursuing younger men for casual relationships or sexual encounters. She does so, she says, because she wants a partner who appreciates and can satisfy a sexually assertive and financially independent woman.

That stereotype also suggests that cougars are commonly looking for fun, temporary sexual liaisons. At the same time, they are perceived as women who strive to correspond to strict, ageist conceptions of female beauty—maintaining a youthful appearance and slimness well into middle age.

Statistics

Sociologist Milaine Alarie compiled statistics for her 2018 Ph.D. thesis on the subject of the relationships defined as older women and younger men. She found that overall, and just as in the past, women typically marry men who are slightly older than they are. In 2016, the U.S. Census reported that women were older than their husbands by four years or more in only 7.9 percent of marriages, and by 10 years in 1.7 percent. By contrast, men are older than their wives by four years or more in 31.8 percent of marriages, and by 10 years in 7.4 percent of marriages. Canadian statistics are similar. 

The statistics also show that the majority of the women in such permanent relationships are generally low-income, not well educated, and select "other" rather than black or white as a racial designation. Statistics about longevity from these sources are mixed: divorces between couples with age gaps, whoever is the older, are more common than in couples with similar ages. Also, these documented relationships were not flings; most had lasted at least two years. 

In terms of nonpermanent relationships, however, Alarie cites a National Survey of Family Growth finding that, in 2002, at least 13 percent of women in the U.S. ages 35 to 44 had had sex at least once with a man who was at least five years younger, and 5 percent with a man who was more than 10 years younger. A third of the women said they had had sex with a man who was older than they were by five years, and 14 percent at least 10 years older. 

Is 'Cougar' a Derogatory Term? 

The meaning of the term "cougar" seems to vary with the speaker. On the positive side, cougars are associated with gender equality, an outgrowth of the sexual revolution, and the availability of reliable contraceptives, which have given women more freedom when choosing a partner. They are also an explicit reflection that sexuality is not necessarily connected with childbearing. Moreover, an increase in status, education, and income mean that women can enter into relationships with younger men since these women are no longer financially dependent on partners. 

However, there is a considerable negative undertone prevalent in the media, particularly on internet sites such as Askmen.com and the Urban Dictionary, where cougars are often described as "desperately aggressive" or "desperately clinging to youth." Surveys show that women, in general, feel that such behavior is ultimately dangerous for the men, themselves, or both. The cougars are seen as predators of unwary men, or victims of the cultural imperative to find value in their physical appearance.

Benefits and Drawbacks 

There are many reasons why women might choose to enter into such relationships on a more or less permanent basis. A woman might choose a younger man as a partner because she is less likely to have to eventually support her spouse (physically or emotionally) in their final years as his health declines, but rather be cared for herself. Women still do live longer than men, so it may be a rational choice to select a younger partner. Women also say that younger men do appreciate their financial independence, their interest in sex, and their freedom from stereotypes. 

But the drawbacks are severe: there is a social stigma, and men are often pressured by their friends and family to find someone younger. Women are not likely to want (more) children when their partner does, and while many men say that their partner's higher income is a benefit, some research shows that can lead to conflict.

Social Norms and the Cougar 

Why those reactions are so strong, says Alarie, is that cougars violate long-term social norms. One assumption in Western culture is that men value youth and beauty, while women value financial stability. Men have stronger sex drives than women, so these assumptions go, and are expected to make the first contact, while women are encouraged to wait passively for men to choose them. Further, women are constrained to reactive behaviors, by refusing or accepting a man's romantic approaches. 

In addition, by their late 20s, single women are often pressured to take on the roles of wives and mothers. On the other hand, older women are expected to be asexual, or their sexual desires are presented in a humorous way. 

Interestingly, in Alarie's qualitative study of 59 women who had participated in such relationships, she found that, by and large, the women had conformed to the social norm stereotype. They reported playing a rather passive role in the formation process, with the younger man taking the lead. Several mentioned that they struggled with the importance or impossibility of keeping to the youthful appearance cultural norm and how that impacted their relationship.

Her results showed that, depending on their age, women differed with regards to their experiences in cougar relationships. Older women were less likely to be affected by the social discourse about cougar relationships, were less preoccupied than younger women were about how long the relationship would last, and were less worried about whether they would miss out on having children or losing their partners as they continued to age.

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