Surprising Truths About Real-Life 'Cougars'

New research finds the older woman-younger man dynamic is not uncommon, but it seldom plays out the way it does on television.
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Kim Cattrall as Samantha Jones in Sex and the City. (Photo: HBO)

Kim Cattrall as Samantha Jones in Sex and the City. (Photo: HBO)

Thanks to their vivid depiction on television and in the movies (think Kim Cattrall and Courtney Cox) most of us have a very specific image of the "cougar"—the middle-aged woman who takes a younger lover.

White, affluent, and more interested in a fling than a serious relationship, the fictional representations of such women "have been able to surgically turn back time with their looks," write McGill University sociologists Milaine Alarie and Jason Carmichael, "or literally buy young men's attention."

Given that well-traveled stereotype, it's no wonder the term "cougar" has taken on generally negative connotations. But newly published research reports that—shockingly—real life has little in common with Sex and the City.

Sexual relationships between middle-aged women and younger men, while not as common as those between older men and younger women, "are not rare events," Alarie and Carmichael write in the Journal of Marriage and Family. They note that a large survey of Americans found "roughly 13 percent of sexually active women between ages 35 and 44 had slept with a man who was at least five years younger."

However, "contrary to conventional assumptions," low-income women were more likely than their better-off counterparts to be in that group. What's more, a majority of such relationships "last at least two years," the researchers report, "and a sizable share of 'cougars' are married to their younger partners."

In other words, that botox-injected, predatory creature from pop culture is largely a myth.

"Roughly 13 percent of sexually active women between ages 35 and 44 had slept with a man who was at least five years younger."

Alarie and Carmichael used data from the National Survey of Family Growth, a survey of young and middle-aged American women. They focused on 1,519 women between the age of 35 and 44 who had been sexually active over the previous 12 months.

The researchers examined how many of the women reported having relationships with a younger partner or partners, noting the length of these relationships and the demographic characteristics of the women involved, including their race, level of education, and religiosity.

They found 13.2 percent of the women in their sample had been in a sexual relationship with at least one man who was five or more years younger, and 4.4 percent "had a partner who was at least 10 years their junior."

Defying the stereotype that such relationships tend to be short-lived, they found approximately 54 percent lasted at least two years. What's more, 43 percent of the women in the five-year-gap group were either married to—or co-habitating with—their younger lover.

They found few differences between racial groups, the exception being that "Latinas were more than twice as likely as non-Latinas to engage in sexual relationships with men who are at least 10 years younger."

That botox-injected, predatory creature from pop culture is largely a myth.

They also found that "previously married women were more than three times more likely than both married/cohabitating women and never-married women to sleep with a man at least 10 years their junior." Such women "might be less concerned with following restrictive norms regarding women's sexuality in general," they write.

And contrary to another stereotype, they discovered that "women who reported higher incomes were significantly less likely to be with a younger man." The least affluent women in the survey (those making less than $20,000 per year) were more than twice as likely to be in a relationship with a younger man than the most affluent (those earning $75,000 or more annually).

It all suggests media portrayals in which such relationships represent "a midlife crisis or a woman's desperate attempt to cling to her youth" do not represent most of these women's actual experiences. Far from it, in fact, and that disconnect points to a larger problem.

The "cougar" stereotype, characterized by aggressive pursuit followed by a short-lived fling, "encourages aging women to doubt themselves," Alarie and Carmichael write. The researchers hope their findings "motivate us to reflect on our society's tendency to (re)produce sexist and ageist conceptions of women's sexuality, and women's value more broadly."

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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