The Cougar Phenomenon: From Men to Boys

By Josie Brown

The older woman and the younger man. In France, it’s considered a rite of passage. America has been slower on the uptake, but for a sophisticated woman of a certain age, the boy toy is now as de riguer as the annual nip/tuck.

In fact, according to a recent survey by the American Association of Retired Persons, almost one-third of unmarried women over the age of 40 are dating much younger men.

The movie The Graduate is over 40 years old. This classic, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman, was one of many in a new era of movie making: that in which the hero is really an anti-hero (lost, morose, morally conflicted), and the heroine doesn’t always play nice.

Or get the guy before the credit roll.

And yes, Bancroft’s character-the now renowned Mrs. Robinson-is the heroine, not Katharine Ross, the dewy-eyed ingenue who was cast to play her daughter, Elaine.

Bancroft gives a sublimely nuanced portrayal of a woman whose sexual fire can’t be dampened by a dead marriage, or drowned in a scotch rocks tumbler like those clasped between the polished talons of the other women in her O.C. posse. The first crack in her chilly demeanor doesn’t come from the friction she makes with Benjamin between the sheets, but from the terror that he may be more attracted to own daughter-emotionally as well as physically.

For that, she’ll claw his eyes out. Because losing her daughter’s respect would break her heart.

On the other hand, boys like Benjamin are a dime a dozen.

Since May West strolled across the silver screen and growled that famous line to a young, yet-to-be-discovered Cary Grant “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?” older actresses had a ball (or two) robbing cradles as opposed to rocking them.

In real life, though, the cougar-cub combo wasn’t viewed as lustful or loving, but lascivious. Judy Garland and Liz Taylor may have been the cinema’s sweet girls next door, but off screen they didn’t purr; they prowled, all the while ignoring the clicking of tongues, and shaking of heads of the gossipy gadflies who wondered if their December-May relationships could last five minutes, let alone five years. (Certainly not fifty years. Her heart will give out long before that…)

Today, cougars aren’t scorned, but admired. Just look at Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell;  Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal; Julianne Moore and Bart Freundlich; or Madonna and Guy Ritchie.

What better proof that love is priceless at any age?

Now, even in the media, the cougar is no longer seen as pathetic and over-the-hill, grasping at youth (or the youthful members of the opposite sex) What greater proof is that than seeing Samantha, Kim Cattrell’s character on Sex and the City, settle down with a male model half her age?

But she wasn’t starting a trend, just following it. By then actress Demi Moore had snagged her cougar: actor Ashton Kutcher, who is sixteen years younger. Demi, Ashton and Demi’s ex, Bruce Willis, get along famously, and Ashton is also appreciated by Demi and Bruce’s three daughters.

Why does it work?

I’m guessing the sex is good, for sure.  But more than that, when they’re together, I’m willing to bet that  other things are stimulated, too:

Like their minds. Their funny bones. Their imaginations.

Don’t doubt for a moment that there are many reasons for mutual attraction. The younger man can’t help but be drawn to a woman who is more knowledgeable than needy. Like him, she is at a stage of life where personal pleasure now takes precedent over marriage and making babies.

As for cougars, they are looking for a partner whose drive for unencumbered, fun and satisfying sex meets their own.

Can such a match have staying power? Certainly under the following circumstances:

1. Both partners understand the initial (and perhaps, only) attraction in the first place.

For her, it may be sex. For him, it could be that, too-or something else. Perhaps he’s tired of younger women who are always watching their biological clocks tick away. Or maybe he’s got a mommy complex. Or maybe he likes a woman who knows her way around (him).

In any regard, if the need of one partner changes, and it is obvious that the other partner cannot or will not meet that need, it may mean a break in the romance. For example, most cubs “mature” to desire a relationship that can provide them children-something their current paramour can no longer do, or for that matter may not want to do at her stage of life.

2. Both enjoy similar sexual appetites.

Even in unions where the ages are equal or the woman is younger, a dearth of passion is a relationship killer. However, those couples whose levels of lust are on a par will benefit from great sex whenever other issues arise.

3. Both recognize the need to take the relationship a day at a time.

Sure, it would be  great if we could freeze-frame ourselves in the present. Unfortunately, we can’t. Life moves on, and sometimes so do relationships. By keeping open mind and open heart to accepting change is the best survival tactic for any couple, and any age, or stage of life.

But if not, remember this: You may not always be lovers, but you may stay friends for life.

Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.


Josie Brown is’s  Relationships channel editor.

She is also the author of SECRET LIVES OF HUSBANDS AND WIVES,, soon to be a dramatic television series on ABC, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.



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