Cougars. Maybe it’s because this is the sex issue and you knew it was coming, or maybe your mind just automatically goes there, but you’re not picturing a four-pawed mountain lion right now are you? No, no. We all know what women of a certain age who have an interest in much younger men get called behind their backs and if you think long and hard about it—that’s what she said—maybe it’s a bit unfair.
Koko Carlson, an educator at The Traveling Tickle Trunk sex shop in Edmonton, has no problem pointing out the stigma attached with this label.
“I think along with labelling women’s sexuality and not labelling men’s the same way, it’s really odd that women are dehumanized with animal terms. So if you’re in your late teens and legal or early 20s you’re a bunny. And then there are all these cat terms. Why do we have to turn women’s sexuality into something animal? They’re humans, not cats in heat.”
In case you’re wondering, those other cat terms for ladies looking for a good time with a man at least eight years her junior, are generally called puma for a woman in her 30s, cougar for 40s and jaguar for those 50 plus. And for men preying on younger women? No label. What about the homosexual crowd? Nothing. This is a purely hetero female to male thing.
“There are animal terms in the gay community. Some gay men call themselves bears, for example. But there’s a big difference between people self-identifying as something versus the mass media telling you this is what you are,” Carlson says, adding that she has never met anyone who self-identifies as a cougar.
So why is this term so popular and why do we continue to throw it around in a society that has become increasingly more accepting of different expressions of sexuality? After all, these are just aggressive women who finally know what they want. Cressida Heyes has an answer. As the Canadian Research Chair in Philosophy of Gender and Sexuality, these types of issues are kind of her thing.
“I think that there’s always been a double standard for women and men when it comes to aging—that men don’t necessarily lose their sex appeal as they get older, whereas for women, age is seen as the ultimate way to stop being a sex object. So it’s this horrible double bind. You start your life as a sex object and then once you hit 40 you become kind of an invisible, older lady. I think the invention of the cougar at first looks like it’s going to break that double bind, but I think it just sort of gets you back into it because there’s no such thing as a slumpy cougar.”
Carlson adds that women grow up thinking that their sexuality will vanish when they hit menopause, but that’s not totally true. “We get women into their 80s, possibly 90s—I don’t know, I don’t ask people’s age—who are still very sexual [coming into the store]. Since there is so much cultural shame when you’re younger, it’s harder to have as good of a sex life as you could have, but the older you get, either the less you care about what the culture says, or you process it differently. But you’re able to be sexual the way you want to.”
So maybe the cougar is actually more of a stereotype breaker than she is given credit for. Instead of sitting idly by watching her sexuality flit away, she is living it up and saying, ‘The hell with it. I know what I want and I’m going after it.’ It might be beneficial to do a little soul searching to figure out just why we label people the way we do. Heyes says there are two main reasons for it.
“One is that we’re trying to make sense of the world. Having categories is a part of making sense of the world. The other reason is I think we want to erase some aspect of someone’s identity as a human being. We use labels a lot of the time to make people legible to us, but in making them legible, we wipe out some part or all of them. It’s notoriously difficult for sexist societies—and I would include ours—to see women as full human beings and so there always has to be a sort of lens that reduces some part of their personhood.”
Moral of the story: women will continue to chase younger men. Just don’t call them cougars.