Women can feel sexually empowered by choosing younger men as their sex partner.
A cougar, according to writer Linda Lowen, “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.” Although the cougar term is considered by some as “sexist and derogatory,” others view it as an empowering expression, portraying “independent, sexually confident women.”
Research exploring the dynamics of these relationships is severely limited, except for a recent interview study of 55 women from the Greater Montreal metropolitan area conducted by gender and sexuality professor Milaine Alarie. She wondered whether such women are “liberated from the cultural imperative to present themselves as less desiring and less sexually assertive than men?” That is, are they challenging traditional gendered expectations about what is appropriate for older women in regard to sexual desire and behavior?
To some degree, the sexual dynamics within age-hypogamous intimate relationships (relationships in which the woman is older than the man) depart from traditional cultural scripts, but they can also reinforce them. Within the defiant modality, these relationships are avenues in which women can more freely express and receive sexual pleasure. This is largely enhanced by several factors:
1. A younger man’s robust sex drive, sexual endurance, reliable erections, and erectile stamina enhance the older woman’s sexual pleasure. This is in contrast to older men who can be highly sensitive about any possible inference that their masculinity is declining or not on display, which can then negatively impact the woman’s sexual satisfaction.
2. An older woman perceives that younger men may desire a sex partner who is sexually experienced, assertive, confident, and active in bed—and many younger women do not have these attributes. Many of the older women believed that their younger male partner wanted to be with women “who were confident in their own skins, who knew what they liked in bed and who were not afraid to say it.”
3. A younger man is more open to his female sex partner taking primary responsibility by signaling what she wants to happen in their sexual encounter and by engaging unconventional sexual practices or fantasies such as manual stimulation of the clitoris, cunnilingus, role playing, or dominatrix activities—most of which would upset older men.
4. A woman’s orgasms are more frequent when she is with her “inherently attentive and generous young lover” because she can negotiate sexual scripts with younger men.
5. A woman might feel an element of disgust when she realizes a man in her age bracket shows little interest in older women. The classic example of an aged man dating or marrying a woman in her 20s irritates many middle-age women.
Alarie concluded that younger men might be motivated to pursue older women in part because their experiences with women their own age have been disappointing and an older woman who knows what she is doing is a relief.
Cultural Scripts for Women
In terms of reinforcing normative cultural scripts, older women placed considerable value on men’s erectile capacities, which mimics the cultural message that sex is primarily about penile–vaginal intercourse. Some older women felt they were being “used” by younger men as sex objects rather than as real people.
In addition, some women expressed sensitivity to cultural stereotypes that they should not present themselves as being a highly sexual being. “They often seemed torn between their desire to present themselves as sexually empowered women and their desire to avoid being associated with stigmatized cultural representations of cougars.”
Conclusion and Suggestions
Counter to normative gender expectations regarding deficient female sexual desire and willingness to have sex, many of the older women in Dr. Alarie’s study believed that their intensive sexual history was exceptionally appreciated by the younger men.
The women’s level of sexual knowledge, desire, and conduct was in marked contrast to the sexual passivity and inexperience of younger women. In addition, the younger men’s sexual stamina and erectile capacities helped shift gender power dynamics in favor of older women.
Now, let’s ask the “cougar cubs” whether their perceptions of the sexual encounters matched those of the cougar women. Furthermore, let’s hear from the spurned older men in the cougars’ age group whether they have the sexual liabilities they are purported to have and, if so, how they compensate to give their same-age sex partners sexual satisfaction.
This article was first published in Psychology Today.