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

What are the characteristics of cougar women?

One Senior Woman Alighting From a Limousine Holding the Tie of Her Chauffeur

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A "cougar" is typically defined as an older woman who is primarily attracted to younger men, often involving a sexual relationship. Although there are no precise ages, the woman is usually 35 years or older with the man more than eight years her junior. Some people consider "cougar" to be a sexist, derogatory term, but the meaning varies from offensive to empowering depending on the person.

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% of U.S. marriages in 2016 featured women 10 or more years older than their husbands. Nonpermanent relationships are much more common for cougars—a 2002 survey revealed that 13% 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 positive and negative 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 example of how modern culture defines and prescribes roles for (heterosexual) women and men in society; other similar stereotypes include sugar daddy and sugar mama. What these have in common—aside from an age difference—is an imbalance of power and wealth, with the wealth and power being held primarily by the older person. Other related terms of "alpha cougar," "beta cougar," and "sweet" or "angry" cougars appear to be categories invented by dating websites. 

Cougar relationships have appeared in pop culture over the years. Celebrity couples made up of older women and younger men include Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, who were 42 and 30, respectively, when they started dating in 1988; Sheryl Crowe (41) and Lance Armstrong (32) in 2003; Demi Moore (48) and Ashton Kutcher (27) in 2005; Rachel Hunter (37) and Jarret Stoll (24) in 2006; and Ivana Trump (59) and Rossano Rubicondi (36) in 2008.

History of the 'Cougar' Term

The earliest documented use for the term "cougar" as it pertains 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 relationships between older women and younger men, and in 2001, the website became the focus of a story in the Toronto Sun. Columnist Valerie Gibson leveraged her investigations into cougardate.com to write 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 also featured in pornography—"cougars" is a common subgenre in pornography websites. Many more cougar-specific dating sites have been launched as well, 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, cosmetics, cosmetic surgery, or a combination of these. 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 both 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, i.e. maintaining a youthful appearance and slimness well into middle age.

Statistics

Sociologist Milaine Alarie compiled statistics for her 2018 doctorate thesis on the subject of relationships defined by 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% of marriages, and by 10 years in only 1.7% of marriages. By contrast, men are older than their wives by four years or more in 31.8% of marriages, and by 10 years in 7.4% of marriages. Canadian statistics are similar.

In terms of nonpermanent relationships, however, Alarie cites a National Survey of Family Growth that found that in 2002, at least 13% 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% 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% at least 10 years older.

Thus, in both marriages and nonpermanent relationships, the trend is that men are typically older than their female counterparts. Though women are sometimes younger than their partners—entering "cougar" territory—, it is more likely that they will be involved with a younger man in a nonpermanent relationship, rather than a marriage.

Social Norms and the Cougar

Alarie proposes that negative reactions to cougar relationships are so strong because they violate long-standing social norms. For example, there is an assumption in Western culture that men value youth and beauty in a partner, while women value financial stability. Men are also understood to have stronger sex drives than women and are expected to make the first contact, while women are encouraged to wait passively for men to choose them. Finally, there's the idea that older women are expected to be asexual. Cougar behavior turns all of these norms on their heads.

In Alarie's qualitative study of 59 women who had participated in cougar relationships, results showed that women had different experiences of social norms depending on their age. For example, 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.

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 means that a woman can establish herself as the more powerful party in a relationship (should an unequal power dynamic be desired by both partners).

However, there is a considerable negative undertone prevalent in the media, particularly on internet sites such as askmen.com and Urban Dictionary, where cougars are often described as "desperately aggressive" or "desperately clinging to youth." Surveys show that women generally feel that such behavior is ultimately dangerous for the men, themselves, or both. 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 relationships that give them the "cougar" label. She may be less likely to have to eventually support her spouse (physically or emotionally) in their final years as his health declines, but would 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 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. In a cougar relationship, 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 also lead to conflict.

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