Cougars: New Sexual Scripts for Older Women

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    • 00:00


    • 00:11

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO: Hi, my name is Beth Montemurro.And I am a Professor [Dr. Beth Montemurro, Professorof Sociology at Penn State University, Abington]of Sociology at Penn State University in Abington.Today, I'm going to be talking about the idea of cougarsas an example of changing ideas about older women's sexuality.So I'm going to talk about the following points-- I'lltalk a little bit about older women'ssexuality in our culture.

    • 00:32

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: And then I'm going to talk about the idea of sexual scriptsand evolutions in sexual scripts.I'll talk about how the term "cougar" originated,and the concept of the cougar as evidenceof changing sexual scripts.And then I'll finish up by talkingabout positive and negative aspects of the cougaras a sexual script.

    • 00:52

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: [Older Women's Sexuality]What we see in culture is that older womenare generally desexualized.So once women get past the age of 40,we rarely see them in media as sexually desirable or sexually

    • 01:12

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: alluring.And we tend to think of them as sort of sexually dormantonce they get past that age.[Idea of Sexual Scripts & Evolutions in Sexual Scripts]So a way of thinking about older women'ssexuality is using something called "sexual scripts."

    • 01:34

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: And sexual scripts are these social guidesfor understanding sexual behavior.If you think of a script-- like a script for a movieor a script for a play-- it gives people their lines,and tells them how to act, how to interactin different situations.And sexual scripts are really the same idea.So we have these scripts about older women, which

    • 01:55

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: suggest that older women shouldn'tfeel desire, shouldn't be that interested in sex,or that their interest in sex should diminish as they getolder, and that older women are not sexually alluring,are not sexually desirable.However, sexual scripts are dynamic--that they allow for change.

    • 02:15

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: And so we're starting to see some new sexual scripts thatgive us some images of what a sexuallyinterested and desirable older woman might look like.[Origin of the Term "Cougar"]So one of these new sexual scriptsis the idea of the cougar.

    • 02:35

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: What a cougar is, is an older woman whois interested in younger men.And it seems like this term originated in the late 1990s.It first appeared in print, from whatI could discover, in 2001, when there was a book thatwas published by a Canadian woman namedValerie Gibson called Cougar, a Guide for Older Women

    • 02:59

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: Dating Younger Men.However, it seems like people startedusing the word "cougar" a little bit before that book came out.In 1999, there was this dating websitewhich was designed to match older women and younger men.And it was founded by two women.The nephew of these two women described them,

    • 03:19

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: when they were talking about creating this website,as two ladies who were in search of small, defenseless animals.And so they were acting like cougars looking for prey.[The Concept of the Cougar as Evidenceof Changing Sexual Scripts]So the cougar can be seen as one of these new sexual scripts.

    • 03:42

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: So sexual scripts are guides for behavior.They shape individual action, and then theyshape interaction.They also give people ideas aboutappropriate emotional experiencesor emotional expressions.And there are these three types ofsexual scripts-- cultural scenarios,interpersonal scripts, and intrapsychic scripts.Cultural scenarios are models for behavior.

    • 04:04

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: So this is what we see in popular culture.So when you see a show on televisionlike Cougartown, which shows an older woman whois dating and trying to meet men,and happens to date a younger man, you get this idea,OK, well, maybe this type of pairing is OK.Or maybe this type of pairing happens.

    • 04:24

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: And then there are interpersonal scripts.So interpersonal scripts govern interaction between individualsin sexualized situations.And so that in the situation of a cougar,if we can watch somebody like Courtney Cox on televisionin Cougartown interacting or flirting with younger men,then we get an idea about how that dialogue is

    • 04:47

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: supposed to go.The third level of sexual scriptsis intrapsychic scripts.And this is how individuals process or cognitivelyinterpret cultural scenarios-- sohow they make sense of those messagesthat they're getting from popular culture,and think about how they might allow them to play outin their own lives.

    • 05:08

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: A woman's anticipated reaction from a significant otheror from people in general could prohibit herfrom acting on fantasies that she might haveor straying from dominant cultural scenarios.So before we had this script of cougar in popular culture,there really wasn't much to encourage older womento demonstrate their sexuality, especially older women who

    • 05:31

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: were un-partnered.So that if an older woman wanted to go out,and she happened to come across a younger man,she might have thought, oh, I can't.This is not appropriate.This isn't an appropriate partner for me.And have not acted on that desire,even if she found the person attractive.So with this new sexual script, an older woman

    • 05:53

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: might think, well, yeah, women can date younger men.And so if I'm interested in a younger man,then I'm going to date a younger man.And it's OK.So we see that there are these dominant sexual scriptsand alternate sexual scripts.And cougar is an example of one ofthese alternate sexual scripts.And an alternate sexual script like this-- it

    • 06:14

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: positions a woman as active, as assertive,as in control of her sexuality.Women's experiences, exposure to,and critical evaluation of popular cultureinfluences their attitudes about the term cougar,and whether or not they see it as a viable scenariofor themselves, or for other women they know,

    • 06:35

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: or for women in general.So women think about this idea of cougarthat's out there in culture.And the more they learn about it,the more they process whether or notit makes sense as an option for themif they are in that position, or if it's OKif they encounter women that they know whoare going out with younger men.Is it OK for there to be that age disparity between partners?

    • 06:59

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: [Positive & Negative Aspects of the Cougar as a Sexual Script]The term cougar is demonstrative of competing ideologiesabout aging and sexuality.So we have these two dominant ideasabout aging and heterosexuality.The first is the discourse which links aging and asexuality,

    • 07:20

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: as I mentioned before, which we find in the healthliterature, the gerontology literature and someof the literature in sociology.And this literature suggests that as people get older,they become less interested in sex,we see this decline in sexual functioning,and that it is normal for older people

    • 07:40

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: to be sexually disinterested.In contrast, there's an alternate discoursewhich has become more popular.And this is looking at sexuality as a lifelong pursuit,and says that when people get older,they don't become disinterested in sex.And in fact, research finds that people who are partnered,

    • 08:02

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: people who have an available partner,are sexually active throughout most of their lives.The frequency may change, but their interest in sexdoesn't change.They still have sex.They're still quite sexually active in some cases.And so you have this alternate discoursethat recognizes that people are sexual throughout their lives.So sexual scripts call attention to the interplay

    • 08:23

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: between cultural scenarios and intrapsychic scripts.So that's the way that individuals process or makesense of societal expectations for sexual behavior.And people are usually rewarded for conformityto dominant sexual scripts.So because the cougar's an alternate sexual script,women often who are seen as cougars

    • 08:44

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: often are teased, or chided, or stigmatized for being cougars,because it is seen as a not-normal sexual pairing.However, it's becoming more accepted.So the more we see cougars in popular culture,

    • 09:04

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: the more it becomes seen as an appropriate scenario,an appropriate pairing, and the more womenwho are interested in younger menfeel free to pursue that type of relationship.So I talk to women about their feelings about the term cougar.And really, women reported mixed feelings.

    • 09:24

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: A lot of women did not like the term cougar,because they thought that it sounded predatory.So these women were rejecting this as a cultural scenario.They rejected the term cougar because they thoughtthat it made women look bad.They didn't like the connotation that it was women going outthere and hunting for men.Some women felt that it was inappropriate for women

    • 09:47

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: to be pursuing men-- pursuing younger men,in particular-- for women to be sexually assertive first,and then also to be pursuing younger men second.And then some women were OK with the idea of the cougar,but didn't like the term "cougar."So that they were OK with women dating younger men,

    • 10:08

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: but they didn't like the idea of puttingthat negative label-- what they saw as a negative labelon women.Other women that I interviewed-- and it was a minority--other women that I spoke with suggestedthat cougar is a positive term.It's great that there is somethingthat recognizes that women are still sexuallyactive over the age of 40.

    • 10:29

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: And so that they liked that we have a label for older women'ssexual behavior.Even if it's a small group of women,they liked that there was a cultural recognitionof sexuality of older women.So what we see is that these sexual scripts,

    • 10:49

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: in particular cultural scenarios,influence intrapsychic and interpersonal scriptsand interpersonal interaction, and that ultimately,they shape social change.As people start to absorb these messages from cultureand start to live them out in their lives,we start to see changes in behavior.

    • 11:11

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: So once people hear the term "cougar,"think about the term "cougar" as OK-- so youhave the cultural scenario, then youhave the intrapsychic script-- and then act on that,pursue it in their own lives, or not judge peoplefor their cougarish behavior, then

    • 11:31

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: it becomes more of a dominant sexual script.The sexual script gains status as a viable option.And this influences our ideas about aging and sexuality,and allows us to accept the idea that people can be sexuallyactive throughout their lives.

    • 11:52

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: [Conclusion]So in this case study, I have examineda specific sexual script-- the cougar.I looked at how cultural imagery can influence social change,in this case change in attitudes about sexuality and aging.So some questions that you might think about--

    • 12:12

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: what do you think of the term "cougar,"and what does it tell us about women's heterosexualityand women's status in society, as well as social change?What other sexual scripts exist thatcommunicate norms about aging and asexuality?Are there similar sexual scripts for men's sexuality?And then how important is media in shaping sexual scripts?

    • 12:33

      PROFESSOR BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: Why should we care about ideas like "cougars" or other imagesfrom popular culture?[MUSIC PLAYING]

Cougars: New Sexual Scripts for Older Women

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Professor Beth Montemurro discusses "cougars" and changing ideas about older women's sexuality. The dominant sexual script in the United States sees older women as asexual. However, acceptance of sexual behavior among this group is growing, partly linked to the alternative script of the "cougar"--and older woman pairing with a younger man.

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Cougars: New Sexual Scripts for Older Women

Professor Beth Montemurro discusses "cougars" and changing ideas about older women's sexuality. The dominant sexual script in the United States sees older women as asexual. However, acceptance of sexual behavior among this group is growing, partly linked to the alternative script of the "cougar"--and older woman pairing with a younger man.

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