“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” The infamous line from The Graduate refers to a recent trend in love and dating that seems to have just emerged from the closet – or bedroom. Cougars: they are sexually and romantically active middle-aged women who seek “cubs,” younger men usually in their early twenties and thirties. Are cougars a recent phenomenon or a long-standing tradition? Cultural ecologists and feminist anthropologists have different opinions.
To the cultural ecologist, the recent Cougar phenomenon is not recent at all. Pressure from environmental stresses – warfare, disease, famine, etc. – forced women to remain sexually active for as long as possible for a greater chance at offspring survival. Prime fertility years for most women occur in their late teens to mid-twenties, and due to the ease of conception during this slim time frame, younger women do not have to spend much time having sex. But this is not true for the middle-aged woman! Due to her advancing age, an older woman’s eggs may not be as viable as they once were. To increase the chances of conception, the middle-aged woman responds by having more sex. But why do cougars go for “cubs” rather than men of their own age? From the perspective of a cultural ecologist, an older woman’s best chance at conception would be with a sexually healthy and active male; typically, a younger male. (The availability of older men was probably slim due to deaths incurred from high-risk activities like hunting.) Competition from other men for younger females may scare off some younger males, compelling them to seek other women in the group to help pass on their genes. The practice continues today probably due to the reduced availability of eligible middle-aged men. They may already be married, have interfering health problems, or may not be attractive options for cougars.
To the feminist anthropologist, the recent attention shift toward cougars can be explained by the increased scholastic and financial independence of women in the past few decades. Women of all ages and marital statuses are no longer tied to their male counterparts. With increased education and economic autonomy, women who were once thought of as romantically and sexually unavailable have reentered the dating scene and are viewed by many as mature, romantic, and experienced partners. With economic success no longer limited to men, many women are taking on the traditional male role of household provider. Delaying marriage to focus on careers and increased divorce rates among middle-aged couples are reasons why many older women (re)enter the dating scene. Due to the increasingly important roles of women in the community, taboos of age disparity in relationships are slowly breaking down. Once thought of as unacceptable in Western culture, relationships between older women and younger men are now thought of as empowering for the woman; taking charge of the relationship and representing an equal portion of the concept of the “couple.” The prospect of a sexually dominant partner can be appealing for the often inexperienced younger man.
— Jessie M.