The case of a Manda Reyneke, accused of attempting to have the young rugby player Deon Helberg killed, has filled the news this week.
Reyneke, aged 47, is alleged to have had a sexual relationship with the 21-year-old provincial rugby player, and the headlines repeatedly refer to her as a "cougar".
What does the term mean?
According to about.com, a cougar is "an older woman who is primarily attracted to, and has sex with, significantly younger men”.
It goes on to say that a commonly-accepted definition is a woman 40+ who pursues very young men, and an age difference of ten or more years appears to be an accepted minimum between partners.
Typically, as the term is used, cougars prey upon men almost young enough to be their sons. Some are less interested in a relationship than in a sexual conquest, perhaps enjoying the fact that they are physically appealing to men who are considered to be in the prime of their virility.
About.com adds: "A cougar may be married or unmarried, and some even go after their daughters' boyfriends", which is telling when looking at the story making headlines.
Cursory research shows that the term is thought to have first appeared in print on a Canadian website called Cougardate.com.
But the phenomenon is far from new. An example from history is Queen Elizabeth I. Known as the Virgin Queen because she never married, Elizabeth I, was reportedly apt to show affectionate preference for young courtiers. One such courtier was Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. While sexual congress cannot be verified, it's noteworthy that the age difference between them was more than 30 years.
What's behind it?
Several factors contribute to the modern cougar phenomenon:
Being health-conscious means longer lives, better fitness levels and bodies in better shape
A high divorce rate finds a percentage of women over the age of 45 single again – by choice or necessity
For many women in their 40's, sex is better. Whether it's about patience, acceptance of their bodies or experience, sex is something they enjoy.
Greater independence for women, both financially and in society, has brought with it confidence and choice.
To some extent, women have to battle double standards.
A middle-aged man can date his twenty-something conquest with no qualms, whereas when a woman does the same thing, it is frowned upon as inappropriate, possibly sordid. But well-publicised and successful relationships, such as that of Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry (age difference 10 years), Demi Moore and Ashton Kucher (15 years), and Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell (7 years), have gone some way to normalising the notion.
What's in it for him?
On the surface of it:
older women have sexual experience,
they are more likely to be financially self-sufficient
their stability and the support they offer can be very attractive to younger men
The downsides are not too different from any other modern relationship - should the relationship get serious, baggage in the form of exes, possibly from both sides can make life difficult. In addition, an age-gap of 15 years may be fine when she is 45 and he is 30, but it may be less easy to cope with when she is 70 and he's only 55.
What's in it for her?
For the post-45 woman, such a relationship can mean a new lease on life, sexual satisfaction with the health benefits that go with it, independence and the enormous boost we all get from knowing that we're attractive.
Dr Elna Macintosh says of menopausal women: ‘It’s who you have the sex with that plays a huge role, as well as how you feel about your own body.’
And Marlene Wasserman, a sexologist also known as Dr Eve, says: ‘After 40, a woman becomes kick-ass powerful. Because, with age, women are not as concerned about what others think of them. Many women decide they want to enjoy sex now, that it’s time to take charge of their sexuality. They are more daring, more adventurous and more demanding.’
Possible pitfalls for women are:
Being taken advantage of by predatory young men who prefer to be “kept”, rather than bringing home the tofu.
Exposure to STI's by Lotharios who have done too many unprotected laps across the dating pool.
Coping with insecurity and doubts about losing him to a woman closer to his own age
It must be stressed that the attempted murder case currently splashed across newspapers countrywide is not so much about “cougarism” as it is about what appears to be a deeply dysfunctional family. There is no parallel to be drawn between an independent single woman who chooses to have a relationship with a younger man, and a sordid situation involving family betrayal and an intent to harm.
How to eroticise safer sex
The mature adult female
(Joanne Hart, Health24, November 2010)
Health24 Woman (Interview with Femina)