Insight Therapy

Psychologically informed reflections on how we interact.

The Cougar Conundrum

What older women can teach younger men, and society as a whole

The scientific data are scant, but anecdotally at least, it appears that the ‘cougar’ phenomenon—relatively older women choosing sexual relationships with younger men—is experiencing a flowering of sorts. 

There are a number of plausible reasons for the uptick in older woman-younger man couplings. Some sociologists speak of the ‘marriage squeeze’—the fact that single, middle-aged women have a shrinking pool of potential conventional partners (ie older, educated men with high incomes) and are thus compelled to seek alternative arrangements. Others point to increased, rather than decreased, opportunities. After all, women are more financially independent today than ever before. In the U.S., for the first time in history, the number of women in the labor market exceeds the number of men. In addition, the wage gap between the sexes has narrowed and even reversed in certain sectors. Young women (ages 20-30) now earn on average more than young men, mainly because they are more educated. Women now constitute a majority in universities, medical and law schools, and doctoral programs. In roughly a fifth of American families, women are the main breadwinners.

When women are more independent financially, they have more power, more choices, and more influence. Social change invariably begets a change in consciousness. The classic wife narrative (find a husband, have children, raise them, then go knit in the rocking chair) is all but extinct. Those with money, knowledge, social freedom and confidence can realize broader aspirations, and shape their own paths regardless of their gender

“In the past women had to partner up with a man who could support her," said Susan Sarandon, currently in a relationship with a man 30 years her junior. "Now women are quite financially independent, so we partner up with someone because—radical thought—we like him.” 

In this new arena of increased gender equality, it seems that many women—like many men—find the company of a young and beautiful partner appealing and rewarding. Attractive young men can play the same role long assigned to young women, entering into the unspoken agreement: “Be sexy, beautiful and obedient and I'll teach you a little bit about how the world works, show you off to my friends, buy you nice clothes, and have sex with you.” An eye-pleasing younger partner may eventually become a status symbol for the hard-working and powerful older woman.

In this context, it appears there are many young men who could learn a thing or two from mature and experienced women. The New York Times recently published an interesting article about an advertising executive named Cindy Gallop, a successful businesswoman in her fifties, with the means and the appetite for action, who has turned her sexual experiences with young men into a protest of sorts, along with, of course, a TED conference talk and the obligatory web site. Her chief insight—and complaint—is that young men nowadays tend to learn about sex from pornography on the Internet. Consequently, their understanding of what real sex looks like in the real world aspires to zero. A whole generation is coming of age knowing how to do porn, but not how to make love.

Gallop's qualms are not directed against pornography—she watches porn herself and appears to regard it as a legitimate auxiliary entertainment. Her criticism is directed instead mainly at the puritanical American society, which refuses to educate and teach young people about real sex.

Due to the sexual education vacuum, pornography has de facto turned from entertainment to education. In the lives of many young men, porn has taken over the role that parents, schools, and the innocent, halting experience of young romance were supposed to fill: real-life sex prep. Pornography’s vision of sex has usurped real world sex in young people's consciousness and imagination.

This has some dire—and/or comical, depending on your temperament—consequences for women. For example: in porn, all women love, desire, cannot wait for the man to come on their faces. In the real world not everyone does. According to pornography, no women have pubic hair. In the real world not quite so. In the world of porn, women have orgasms all the time, every time, at a moment’s notice, in all positions. In the real world most women need proper clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm. In porn everyone is begging for anal sex. In the real world some are and some are not. The main and often only contact in porn is between the participants’ genitals. In real sex, however, partners often enjoy touching each other all over their bodies, before, during, and after genital contact. In porn, all women crave deep, choking and gagging oral sex, and can’t wait to swallow the male’s ejaculate. In real life, not necessarily so. In porn all the women scream and squeal with delight constantly. In real life sex you sometimes need to go quietly, so as not to wake up the children.

The problem with using porn as sex education is that not everything that’s fun to watch is also fun or sensible to do. Even those who love to watch car chases in the movies may not want to advocate that young people learn how to drive from the movies or engage in wild car chases around town. Porn is sexual entertainment, titillation, distraction, or self-medication, but it’s not supposed to be taken literally as an account of how people generally have sex. Those who follow the teachings of porn are more likely to get a concussion than have an orgasm. Cougars, says Gallop only half in jest, can teach some sexual sense, manners and real world skills to today’s clueless youth and thus serve a useful social function, all while having a rollicking good time.

Still, many see the cougar phenomenon as unnatural, in part because it appears to violate the basic tenets of evolution, by which men are supposed to like younger women because of their fertility while women are expected to prefer older, high-status men, better equipped to provide for the offspring.

But biological logic is notoriously ill-equipped to explain social behavior. Alice Eagly, the renowned psychology researcher, has long argued that patterned differences in behavior between the sexes are not shaped by evolution, but by the differences in social roles. Social roles over time produce differences in abilities, expectations and opportunities, which are then mistakenly perceived as innate and natural. According to this argument, innate biological differences between the sexes do exist, but they are more responsible for the launching of certain gendered patterns than for maintaining them in the present. After all, what initiates a process is not always what maintains it. The reason you started smoking is not the reason you're still smoking. Moreover, social structures can shape how biology plays in the social world. The society can choose to enhance or suppress genetically-based gender differences. For example, the average man is more muscular than the average woman, but the culture may still decide to forbid him from using his biological advantage to inflict his desires violently on a woman. (Society, in fact, may undermine evolutionary mechanisms altogether. Evolution works by killing the weak young before they reproduce. Our society is dedicated to saving the lives of even the weakest infants and seeing them through to and beyond reproductive age).

Thus gender stereotypes, which we attribute frequently to evolution, are actually shaped and maintained by the social order. We think of wealth as a masculine quality not because most men are naturally rich but because most of the rich in our society are men. Division of labor establishes the stereotype and reinforces it. When social roles change, so do stereotypes, and with them social opportunities, expectations and norms, and with that also social consciousness. If women achieve the social status that was previously reserved for men, many of them will behave as men have been behaving. In this situation, the definition of femininity itself will change, without any genetic change. Evolution provides the hardware. But the culture produces and updates the software.

The cougar phenomenon may support this notion. The development of the known historical pattern by which women prefer older, high-status men may have been informed by evolutionary pressures, but the attendant stereotype evolved and crystallized in a society where men were rich and powerful and women poor and dependent. Now we see that as the social roles change, and women assume the positions of empowerment and freedom once reserved for men, some of them are easily drawn to pretty young things and find them of interest. The attraction is not evolutionary, but social. These women do not turn to young men for their protective or reproductive promise, but because it’s gratifying to win a younger man’s attention and admiration, flaunt him, exercise power over him, and sleep with him—at least after he’s adequately instructed how to make love, not porn...

Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein College and a practicing clinical psychologist in Columbus, Ohio.

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