[This is a piece I wrote a while back, which you can now read in it’s edited and enhanced version in the beautiful Whore! Magazine]
I have been going to The Gym religiously for the past three months as part of an effort to try to alleviate a knee injury which I was told, none to gently, was much to do with my age and over use of said knee. In fact, the doctor had basically described the problem by saying that while I am forty, my knee is actually more like that of a 60 year old. For more reasons than would ever be necessary to articulate this has landed me in The Gym. As I was working my way through my circuit the other day two girls came over to share my space. It was clear that one of them had a plan and the other had no clue and they were there together as some sort of team effort to “get fit.” I kept working and watching. Like everyone else at the gym I now do that immediate, yet cursory, comparative evaluation of the people around me. For example, these two women were clearly younger than me, but also, not nearly as strong, toned, or athletic. Okay, they were pudgy, in that soft way that somehow is okay in youth. I carried on. They began to chat.
“I was listening to the radio on the way to drop my kids of at school today, and it was talking about how women in their forties want sex way more than younger women.”
“Yeah. Like how I guess they have done all this other stuff and now they are just, like, able to get what they want and stuff.”
“Well, yeah, I mean that makes sense. I mean, if you are forty what else is there? It is not like you can do anything else like go settle down or something. You are so old you might as well get what you want.”
I was looking straight at these two at this point. Either I did not appear to be one of those old people who had no other point in their eyes or they really were as clueless as their conversation indicated.
Forty. Too old to do anything else. Might as well get what you want.
I kept lifting weights and considered the myriad interpretations of this conversation replete with contradictions. Am I a sex-crazed, past the point of redemption, goal oriented, middle-aged woman deserving pity? Or was it jealousy I heard? The conversation went on:
“Yeah, I guess. Kind of like Cici. Have you seen her on my Facebook? She is smoking hot. She so tight. And she’s like that.”
“I haven’t seen her except for that little picture, we’re not friends.”
“Oh, well, she is like 36 and she look so good. Of course, I’d look like that if I didn’t have kids too.”
“Yeah, me too.”
I felt sorry for Cici if these were who she called her friends.
As I walked away it considered the effects of women now joining in on this stereotyping and pigeon holing of single women well beyond their early thirties who are not raising young children or married – happily or otherwise. Now, it seems, it is not just men doing the labeling, but other women as well. They all look and judge, and cry “Cougar!”
The double standard is obvious and deserves little exploration or examination beyond reiterating the obvious ignorance and durability of it. In high school, the guys who have sex with lots of girls are studs, the girls who do the same are sluts, it is a universal tradition. As we get older and people begin to pair off into legally sanctioned couples, the men who remain single are called bachelors, a term with plenty of panache and class. The women? They are spinsters, desperate, divorcees. At my 20-year high school reunion I was one of maybe five single people. And of that five I think I was only one of two who had actually never been married. My male friend was congratulated by all his buddies. I was questioned: Are you married? No? Never? Huh. How come? Why not?
Interestingly I have found that it is the men who seem far more desperate to settle down than the women I know, and while I have no evidence beyond the empirical about this, I think it would be an interesting study to see if the issue lies somehow in some strange, buried rejection psychology. Logic would hold that the women who remain single have more likely rejected certain men than never have been propositioned or considered. Therefore, it seems to me that the women who remain single into their thirties and forties may trigger some sort of deep seeded resentment from men, and consequentially, women.
And what of the women who are now joining in the labeling and judging? To say it is simply jealousy seems short sighted, but why do these women care about the single ladies? They have already stipulated that one of the things they find the most offensive is the Cougar tendency to seek younger men, therefore, their husbands are not even under consideration. And I would agree, the type of man who catches my eye is never the middle-aged guy with a wife and kids. Ever. My tastes have remained consistent from my earliest interests as a single teenaged girl. And this, I am certain, is the root of any type of Cougar nature that I have. It lies purely in the aesthetic. It is like everyone around me has grown up and out and older while I still appreciate the man who is out there being single and putting a little effort into his game. Perhaps it is the reminder of a lifestyle that they (mistakenly) believe they have given up. Though I would be quick to point out that no single woman I know has ever even suggested that somehow having a husband and or children should require a) an older man or b) a resignation to the world of abstinence or (perhaps worse) self-conscious sex.
Further, it is important to consider the basic mathematical circumstances that we are dealing with. Women live longer than men. Women (through their own mental torture and the insistence of society) are forced to stay in better shape than men. Women are more likely to be single by choice than men (again, this is unsubstantiated beyond my own years of observation, but will be used as a given here.) There are more women on the planet than men (this happens to actually be substantiated, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html ). Putting these facts together lends a level of understanding, or perhaps necessity, to a measurable part of the female population currently being labeled Cougars.
There are numerous studies coming out around the world describing the plight of men as the gender gap takes on new characteristics (see Where Are the Boys? The Growing Gender Gap in Higher Education, Thomas G. Mortensen, as an example.) In China men struggle to find wives amidst a female population embracing academia and professional options. In America, women are outpacing men academically and professionally (in spite of the fact that their salaries are yet to be truly commensurate) and feel less inclined to settle for a relationship where this discrepancy could cause friction.
Women in their forties are better equipped to seek and create sexual relationships that are more satisfying. This is from experience, knowledge and diminishing concern about needing to behave a certain way based on the age-old social rules of “How To Get A Man.” It all equates to confidence. And herein lies the real issue behind the Cougar label. Confident women freak people out, in just about any circumstance: dating, work, politics, school, and on and on and on. This is a conundrum because there is a general understanding that confidence is somehow desirable and beneficial, but apparently it is the Goldilocks syndrome: must be confident. But not too confident.
The term Cougar is also often misused. Carrying with it a clearly negative connotation, the label suggests a women seeking prey – and of course this prey would be younger. Younger because it is easier to snare or manipulate? Maybe, but I would guess it is more likely to do with aesthetics than anything else. No one ever asks Hef why he likes buxom blondes in their twenties, it is his obvious taste (and I rarely hear him being described in predatory terms, which I am sure we could all argue would be far more appropriate than suggesting a 38 year old woman with a 20-something boyfriend is predatory.) The label itself does little to consider the actual nature of any sort of relationship between an older woman and a younger man, and the obvious suggestion that the women had to chase, capture and claim her young man is offensive at every level. If Hef is excused from labeling because the women come to him rather than him chasing them, it seems obvious that the assumption a woman has had to chase a younger man only gives further credence to the chauvinism that perpetuates such labeling in the first place. How could anyone know if the women sought the young man or it was the other way around? I can say with certainty that I am not a chaser though I certainly date younger men.
I recently began asking men (generally single) what they thought of the term Cougar. Did they think of me as a Cougar? Did they think it had positive or negative connotations? The results of my informal straw poll were predictable but still interesting. The men I know who I consider confident and intelligent took the term with a grain of salt (and of the ladies who would earn the label, they were generally complimentary.) Bartenders were very positive, apparently older women tip very well. Young drunk frat boys were also very positive, though I would assume they would have been as equally enthusiastic over a bacon wrapped hot dog in their condition. My married (male) friends saw a place for the term, but likened it more to Sex and the City’s Samantha, who they appreciated far more in celluloid than the possibility of reality. Everyone I asked assured me emphatically and repeatedly that I was in no way a Cougar. This made me laugh because in just about every situation where the subject came up I was with a younger man, or had last been with a younger man. It belied their acceptance of the term showing that in fact they do all see it as an insult, and one they would not levy on a person that they know or like. Of note, they defended their insistence that I was not a Cougar on the basis of my arrogance and unwillingness to pursue. Another backhanded compliment?
In even a superficial examination of history it is easy to see the discomfort that females who own, promote or embrace their sexuality have engendered. This has long been the domain of the fancy peacock – not the more subtle of the species. Anytime a woman acts in a way that is considered more masculine in tradition she is bound to run into some friction. Hence the double standard. I would guess this double standard will far outlive the current terminology and will morph into a series of new descriptors as humanity carries on, especially in light of the fact that the current trends in gender disparities appear to be on a trajectory that will only intensify the situation. From harlot to whore to slut to dyke to bitch to desperate housewife to Cougar and beyond,
A few years back I met a nice young man at the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens. I was in the latter half of my thirties and he was just at the midpoint of his twenties. I would describe this young man as strapping – he was after all, one of the famed New Zealand All-Blacks, 6’2”, 230 according to his official stats page, with what I will describe as negligible body fat. Clearly younger than me, that fact was of no consequence to him (or me) as we walked around the City all night. We heard nary a word regarding our (unlikely?) pairing. The following year I met a nice young man from Chicago at the same tournament. Our presence together should have garnered far less interest than my pairing from the year before. Yet as we walked around the always crowded corner at the top of D’Aguilar street in Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong, a group of boisterous Aussie and British guys who had attended the tournament dressed in matching pink tutus and sparkly cowboy hats (also pink) looked right at me and started to point and yell, “Cougar! You are such a COUgar! Hey, here’s a COUGAR for you!”
I went from stunned to mildly irritated to embarrassed to enraged in less than five taunts. A man (sans wedding ring, by the way) in a sparkly pink dress was trying to insult me because I was with someone younger than me who could not obviously kick their ass in an All-Black-minute.
And so it goes, around and around. The Cougar label suggesting far less about those to whom it is attached and disclosing far more about those who choose to throw it around. At it’s root, it seems to be a way for those who feel threatened by less conventional women to somehow disenfranchise them through put-downs and insults. In terms of a cultural phenomenon, the existence of a “Cougar” population seems a completely logical outgrowth of the demands that society, and the name-callers especially, have put on women for years. You demand we look good, be achievers and embrace the virgin-whore dichotomy, and this is what you are going to get: a huge group of women terribly disappointed with their available options for partners leading us to embrace single-dom and consider unconventional partners.
I am reminded of any number of tales of genies bearing promise of wishes granted. Be you oh-so-careful when given the chance to make your wish.