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Why the cougar didn't die out

Appeared in Sunday Magazine, 20th March 2011

Be honest: when you first heard the term ‘cougar’, did you think it was any more than a silly buzzword that would soon buzz off? It was Canadian sex and relationship expert and social commentator Valerie Gibson – herself a woman with a penchant for younger men – who invented the term in her 2001 book ‘Cougar, A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men’. But back then, did we ever think it would stick?

No, we all tutted, pointed out how men had been doing the same thing for centuries, and expected it to burn itself out in a matter of weeks. Yet here we are, 10 years on, and we're hearing the term ‘cougar’ more than ever. T-shirts proclaim their wearer is ‘Cougarlicious’; out and proud coffee mugs tell the world ‘Cougars 4 Ever.’ In 2007, the cougar even made it into the Macquarie Dictionary.

“Words that are included in the dictionary have to have currency in the community,” says Macquarie’s publisher and editor Susan Butler. “We found examples of 'cougar' used in a way that made it clear that it was in common usage.

“The social mores surrounding relationships between older women and younger men are changing,” she continues. “In the past, people would have applied negative labels like 'cradle-snatcher' or ‘man-eater.’ Today, there seem to be more women who are older, independent and well-off, who are able to do their own thing and initiate a sexual relationship. The term ‘cougar’ belongs in a world of liberated sexual relationships.”

Suddenly, with Macquarie Dictionary’s seal of approval, isn’t it starting to sound far more positive? That’s how 43-year-old single mother of three Voula Dendridos feels.

“I think the notion is slowly shifting perceptions of single, sexually liberated women in the right direction,” she says. “Ten years ago, the concept of the cougar was less acceptable, and far less attractive. But now, I think of her as a mature woman with a youthful spirit and a drive to survive, against all odds.”

Which is lucky, given that Dendridos was crowned ‘Miss Cougar Melbourne’ in February 2010. Cubs were granted a gold token to award to the older woman of their choice, and at the end of the night Dendridos was surprised to find she had hit the jackpot. She didn’t set out to win – in fact, she didn’t even plan to enter.

“The guy I was dating told me about the competition two weeks beforehand. He was 8 years younger than me; he thought I was great cougar material. I mentioned it to a girlfriend as a joke, and she dragged me along!”

She’s dated and married men of many different ages, but rationalises her attraction to those younger than herself. “I’ve found the majority of men my age or older are less emotionally available than younger men,” she says. “I think its fear; perhaps they’ve been burned and are afraid of getting burned again.”

It’s a sentiment often echoed by Courtney Cox’s character, Jules Cobb, in the popular sitcom Cougar Town, which was renewed for a third season by the American Broadcasting Corporation in January. 

However, Dendridos, a casting agent and actress with Visions MCP, has set herself some guidelines in terms of her cubs. “I’ve got a firm policy now; no under thirties! The last time I dated a 20-something he did my head in. He was all about the party and the sex. I’m not about that: I’ve got substance and depth and soul and heart. I’m just a single Mum who has done it tough, and made it, and I’m proud of it. I believe younger men are attracted to me because I have a youthful spirit.”

Her colleague in cougardom, 38-year-old Kylie Grigg, aka Miss Cougar Brisbane 2010, first came across the term in magazines, when it began gaining currency in the Hollywood circuit.

“They suggested older women go out there deliberately to get a younger man; it made us look quite shallow. But it takes two to tango,” points out Grigg, a business coordinator for the State Government. “It’s the younger guys who approach us. We’re often more comfortable and confident than younger women; that appeals to them.”

That helps explain the popularity of dating websites such as Cougar Life, which recently launched in Australia after doing big business in America. International Cougar Week, meanwhile, kicks off on March 27, with events happening all over the world.

Even the feminists are on board. "I quite like the term cougar," says writer, feminist and social commentator Eva Cox. "Any label can be suspect, but given other terms for women, this at least suggests power!"

Still, with recent additions to the vernacular including ‘puma’, for women who prefer younger men, but are under 35, and ‘sabre tooth’ for women who are heading towards the top age bracket, perhaps it’s time to accept that this is one fad that isn’t about to go away in a hurry.

Brings a whole new meaning to the opening line in singer Helen Reddy’s 1972 hit, ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ don’t you think?