There are numerous bothersome layers to “cougar” – it is sexist, singlist, and heteronormative. And it reflects the taboo of friendship between men and women. It is sexist because it denigrates women – there is no comparable term that describes older men going after younger women. In fact, that constellation seems to be encouraged, almost taken as normal (yeah, yeah, I know the evolutionary psychology argument – men are just trying to spread their genes more widely and more successfully – I will take on evolutionary psychology in a future post, so I will leave this aside for now). And the urban usage of “cougar” is also singlist. It reflects the myth that single women and especially single men are only interested in one thing: Sex. Could it be possible that they are interested in just having fun at a night club, you know, like enjoy the dancing? It is amazing that this thought doesn’t even seem to occur! The only possible thing a single woman could be looking for is a partner – and if it’s not a marriage partner, it must be a bed partner. And, of course, the same is true for the young man: He must only be interested in sex. It would be entirely impossible for him to be interested in a woman older than him because she might have more experience and thus be fun to talk to. Finally, heteronormativity, especially in its historical definition, plays in here as well: A woman must be interested in a man. If the younger person were female, the cougar label wouldn’t be hurled at the older woman.
What about the taboo of friendship? That goes a little deeper and ties in with my experience of being back in school. I am a single woman in her early forties often surrounded by men in their mid- to late-20s. Granted not in nightclubs but at classes but still I have often wondered if my interactions with these men would be completely different if I, too, were male. Of course, it might be my imagination but there always seems to be a cougar lurking in the back of people’s heads! The only thing I could possibly be interested in is sex (of course, it might not have helped that I recently had on my Facebook profile “Rachel likes Sex at Dawn” since it was entirely unobvious that this is a book reference not a sexual preference… I couldn’t help leaving it since it was such beautiful double entendre… Oh, well.). Would these guys be more open to email, talk, and meet with me if I were male? Would they see my reaching out to them as something other than me hitting on them? To me, if the answer is “yes” – and I suspect that it is – this points to one of the dark sides of matrimania: Because we are so culturally indoctrinated with the idea that the only valid interaction between men and women is one that at least potentially leads to matrimony, we completely miss opportunities for friendship!
I have also observed some internalized singlism. It starts with hugs. I have made the conscious choice that I need to give and get lots of hugs – something I am still learning thanks to a Prussian upbringing that disdained hugs. I am getting pretty good at hugging women. But men? That is a whole other learning experience because of all the matrimanical assumptions that are triggered (or are these heteronormative? Whatever, I’d say, some stereotypical assumptions are being triggered!). Why is hugging a person of the opposite sex more taboo? Again, I think it is because of the taboo of opposite-sex friendships. Men and women are supposed to partner up. Hugging across gender-lines is a form of partnering up, so you better only do that with potential marital partners. This seems so absurd as I am writing this, I am hoping that someone will set me straight but at least in my experience this seems to be at play. Maybe this is just a reflection of my own internalized singlism… Plus, I have also observed that most of the hugging itself is only going on between women. Men don’t hug each other, which is a completely different taboo… Or maybe not.