Cougars and Cradle Snatchers


We all have our own rules about the legitimacy of significant age gaps in relationships. James O’ Connor looks at this issue from a student perspective

Founder of Playboy Hugh Hefner once said: “Age is just a number,” and when it comes to love, perhaps this is true. However, Mr. Hefner seems to forget that he must divide this number by two and add seven in order to gauge the suitability of a potential partner. Of late, Mr. Hefner (84) has been dividing his age by four and leaving it at that. He clearly feels that his troupe of platinum blondes are just as capable of discussing the finer things in life as their older counterparts.

Hugh Hefner is, of course, an extreme example of a niche phenomenon. Most will concede that, in general, women mature faster than men. This widely-held belief would partly explain some women’s tendency to pursue older men. But, this is not the only reason for this trend.

Traditionally, women have been given the chance to rear the family, while men took satisfaction in playing the role of breadwinner and protector. Realistically, a much smaller proportion of women would accept this conventional perception of familial roles nowadays. However, tradition will often have an impact. While it is not completely free from criticism, the older male with the younger female is still a common occurrence.

On the other hand, a woman dating a younger man is arguably less socially accepted. It is hard to determine why this situation is treated differently. Women may feel more pressure from friends to conform. Despite the stigma that is often attached to such relationships, some women still opt for the Hugh Hefner approach to dating and are nicknamed ‘cougars’.

Notable cougars include Linda Hogan (50-year-old ex-wife of wrestler Hulk Hogan) who is currently engaged to a 21-year-old former schoolmate of her two children and Demi Moore (47), who is married to Ashton Kutcher (32). With the advent of shows such as Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, it seems women are only now showing the same tendencies as men. It is slowly being seen as more socially acceptable for older, self-sufficient women to have a younger partner in the same way men have done for years.

As for students, it appears that the further you progress through adolescence, the more acceptable the age gap in a relationship becomes. In secondary school, one would rarely venture outside their year. However, during the time spent in college, other factors come into play.

The major difference is drawn across institutional lines and age is less of an issue. The difference between sixth year in secondary school and the first year of college is a chasm seen by many as inappropriate to cross. And strangely, the difference between the first year and the third or even fourth year of college is viewed as more acceptable.

Yet males are still expected to be the older character in a relationship and it appears women want it this way. One female student spoke of the “three years up, one year down rule” when choosing a suitable partner. In other words, for female students, not going more that three years older or one year younger was seen as ideal to avoid receiving any criticism.

In general, men quizzed on the issue expressed little concern when it came to age. Stories bandied about included 31-year-old women canoodling and locking lips with 17-year-old students. When it came to the younger sisters of fellow students, some were even considering a strong campaign to have the age of consent lowered (the current age of consent for both men and women in Ireland is seventeen).

Student life is often less extreme than the views of society as a whole. When it comes to age differences in relationships, this assumption is true to a certain extent.

For the most part within the student body, there is little made of age differences. This is partly because when it comes to an average nightclub encounter, students have little need to know the age of the person on the end of their tongue. Or maybe this generation will take a more liberal view of age differences in relationships. However, it is more likely that the prejudice held on this issue may take a long time to dissipate.

In the long run, such attitudes give the impression that youth and beauty are innately more valuable than experience and wisdom. The physical perks, while being more obvious, may not be the only positives being drawn from a relationship. Over the years, society has come to accept civil partnerships and interracial relationships. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before we realise that age truly is just a number.