Pop culture so often portrays older men dating younger women that this type of age gap relationship seems almost normalized. When the genders are reversed, however, questions, judgements, or doubts often arise. Canadian-based dating site, Cougar Life, surveyed over 1,000 Americans to understand people’s attitudes around female-led, age-gap relationships — a dynamic sometimes called cougars and cubs. We spoke to Cougar Life to learn more about their survey and findings.
Women were less accepting of a cougar-cub dynamic
In Cougar Life’s 2022 poll, more than 1,000 cisgender, heterosexual Americans were asked how they feel about age gap relationships between cis-het partners when a man is 10+ years older than his female partner or when a woman is 10+ years older than her male partner. Female participants, more than male participants, reported feeling more negative toward age gap relationships in which the woman is older.
65% of male respondents found it more socially acceptable
Of the participants polled, 65% of men reported that they somewhat or strongly agree that it is socially acceptable for women to date someone 10 or more years younger than them. However, this number drops to 56% when women were asked the same question. Meanwhile, 70% of women are accepting of male-led age gap relationships. And respondents carried these beliefs into their personal lives; 60% of unmarried male participants said they’d be open to dating someone 10+ years older than them. Only 40% of unmarried women said they’d be open to a younger partner.
4 factors may help explain the stigma
Dr. Sarah Hill, a psychologist with an emphasis on women and sex, tells O.school that there are a slew of societally influenced reasons for Cougar Life’s findings, specifically for why women disapprove of female-led age gap relationships more than men.
1. Double standards influence our attitudes.
“We live in a world where there are a lot of double standards about what it’s okay for men to do, and not okay for women to do. Society has told us it’s okay for men to date younger women, and that it’s not okay for women to do the same thing,” Dr. Hill tells O.school. “I think these findings are just an emergent property of these double standards that we have governing women’s sexual behavior.” In the study, 13% of women said they’d avoid dating a younger partner simply out of fear of what others might think.
2. Evolutionary psychology might be at play.
Dr. Hill adds that Cougar Life’s research feeds into the existing theory that humans stigmatize others’ dating behavior when it threatens their own. (1) I.e: Young single women may feel resentment towards older women dating men their age if they think these women are monopolizing the dating pool.
3. We may be more conditioned to accept youthful-looking women, in general.
Through her research, Hill found that the present-day stigma has a lot less to do with the actual age difference between the couple, but the perceived age difference instead. While it’s true that people will be quicker to accept a female-led relationship where the woman is five years older than 15 years older, social acceptance has more of a basis in how young the woman seems to be.
“In the case of somebody like Kim Kardashian, who conforms to our standards of beauty for younger women, that also plays a part in making her relationship culturally acceptable,” Hill explains. Kardashian dates Pete Davidson, who is 13 years her junior. “We’ve been hit over the head with the idea that for females, desirability is limited to physical beauty. Kim Kardashian is seen as beautiful and therefore youthful, making her relationship easier to understand.”
4. We may falsely assume a cougar-cub relationship is based solely on sex.
Hill asserts that a stigma around female-led age gap relationships is the struggle to believe there is a genuine connection. After all, a cougar-cub label has a highly sexual connotation. Furthermore, 25% of women in the study reported feeling like they wouldn’t have anything in common with a younger partner, and 17% said they wouldn’t be attracted to a younger man. At the same time, however, physical attraction and free spirit ranked high on reasons to pursue someone younger.
“People have a hard time understanding that an age gap relationship can be based on something other than sex,” Hill tells O.school. “If people are able to see the relationship as being more than sex, then they see it as acceptable, because it means the female is behaving more within the confines that they think women should be operating in.”
3 ways to celebrate female-led, age gap relationships instead
When considering age gap relationships, it’s important to examine why we are usually quicker to accept male-leg age gap relationships versus relationships where the female is older. There are a few things we can do to try to reduce the taboo.
1. Look to positive examples.
With mounting exposure to celebrity couples where the woman is older (think Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson, Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra, Harry Styles and Olivia Wilde) we’re hopeful that people will begin to lean into the social acceptability of female-led age gap relationships.
Hill explains, “[...] throughout human history, women have had to choose partners for financial sustainability. These celebrities are showing that we’re now financially independent, and able to choose the relationships we want to be in as opposed to those we have to be in for stability, which has traditionally been a reason women choose older partners.”
2. Leave assumptions and stereotypes at the door.
While an age gap relationship (or any relationship, for that matter) that’s solely about sex is completely valid and worth celebrating, it’s also important to check our assumptions. A relationship with a large age gap between partners can be just as suited for the long-haul as any relationship. Although Cougar Life didn’t collect any data specifically speaking to the longevity of this kind of pairing, Hill confirms that a look at general literature on the subject will demonstrate that these relationships are more similar to what’s considered “the norm” than you’d think.
“One of the most important points we found in the survey is that perception matters. Getting past the stigma is all about getting other people to understand the basis of your relationship. Help them look beyond the stereotype. When people see a happy relationship playing out, they’re much more open-minded, and willing to accept that something might not conform to their previous expectations of what a relationship looks like.”
3. Know that these relationships are just like any other.
In their study, Cougar Life found that more than four in 10 respondents who have been in this kind of coupling claim they entered the relationship due to an organic connection, in spite of an age difference. Twenty-seven percent of survey participants said they jumped into an older woman/younger man union as a result of living in the moment, or focusing on having fun. Women specifically cited the open-mindedness of younger men as a key reason they seemed appealing, followed by physical attractiveness and free spirit. On the other hand, 54% of men considered emotional maturity as a key benefit to dating an older woman. Forty-three percent cited financial freedom, and 33% said financial success. (2)
The bottom line
Research confirms that stereotypes around female-led age gap relationships still impact the way people view them, and this is particularly true among women. However, thanks to an upward trend in open-mindedness brought on by pop cultural influences, there is hope that this stigma might be mitigated. The more we can move past these stigmas, the more we can celebrate older women exploring their sexuality. After all, for some, sex after 50 feels like their peak.