Pity the poor cougar. In a short amount of time, cougars - older women who couple up with younger men - have gone from being celebrated to being castigated. TV shows like Cougar Town, movies like Sex and the City, and glamorous younger-man-dating celebrities like Demi Moore and Madonna have made "cougarism" an aspirational lifestyle. Now for the backlash.
In May, a German research company, Max Planck Institute, published a study saying that women who marry men either older or younger than themselves die earlier than those who marry men their own age (within one to two years). Yet the press has almost uniformly spun the study as a cautionary tale to cougars, blaring headlines like "Sorry Cougars: Boy Toys Hazardous to Your Health" (New York Post); "Cougars Die Young" (Fox News); and the straightforward "Women Who Marry Younger Men Die Earlier" (UPI).
These warnings--as joy-killing as the ones on cigarette boxes--are usually accompanied by a picture of Demi Moore and her 15-years-younger hubby Ashton Kutcher. (Perhaps Halle Berry, who recently dumped her 10-years-younger baby daddy, got a hold of an early copy of this study.)
But what the press failed (or deliberately decided) not to scream in lurid prose (or even acknowledge in many cases) is the fact that the study also concludes that women marrying older men die earlier too.
In fact, the 20% increase in mortality that a woman marrying a man seven-to-nine years younger suffers (at least in Denmark, where the two million couples in the study lived) is almost exactly the same as the mortality rate of women who marry men 7-to-17 years their senior. But, oddly, I didn't see one headline along the lines of, "Marrying a sugar daddy kills you as fast as marrying a boy toy, so might as well go for the hot stud!"
After all, if your choice of husband is going to kill you early, why not pick one who looks like Ashton Kutcher?
As if that isn't bad enough, the study also concludes that this early death syndrome affects only women who marry outside their immediate age range. Not so for men who have years added to their lives when they marry younger women. (Did Hugh Hefner fund this study?)
The head researcher, Sven Drefahl, admits that the reasons for women's increased mortality rate when there's an age gap in the marriage are "unclear." But he goes on to speculate that, in the case of the older-woman-younger-man scenario, this type of romance is not sanctioned by society, therefore the women in them could suffer more stress-related health problems.
Of course, we have to assume that this research is sound and the statistics valid. Let's not forget that it took Newsweek 20 years to debunk its own cover story with the infamous stat that single women over 40 had as much chance of getting married as being killed by a terrorist. Turns out those stats were way off base and--surprise!--the media not only oversimplified the matter, but ran with an angle sure to strike fear into the hearts of single women everywhere.
Even Drefahl expresses some bafflement at the press's obsession with the cougar slant. "The other pattern (women with older men) deserves more attention, because it is much more common," he says. "Women that are much older than their husbands are very rare." Yet, this didn't stop the press from issuing broad cougar advisories as if Maggie May marriages were the new swine flu.
Glad the press is looking out for me, but I'll take my chances with Ashton.