‘South Africa is the natural habitat of the cougar. Named for the panther-like wild animal, they are older women, fizzy with sexuality, whose quarry are the young males they track down in packs.’

I rolled this opening sentence around my head a few times the first time I read it. It was the intro to Lin Sampson’s column about cougars – those ‘well-rouged’, ‘titillating tannies’ – in the Sunday Times last week. It was bothersome. It scratched at my brain.

I wanted to settle on the fact that the sentence bothered me because anyone fizzy with sexuality might need to seek medical help. I did not want to read further and I didn’t want to be bothered by yet another sloppy piece of tired cliché about women’s sexuality: the older woman daring to do herself up with painted nails (‘claws’), high heels (‘reckless’), hair done (coiffured) and flashing some skin (ew).

‘Tannies’, see, should be dressed appropriately and not want to fuck. And if they do, should do so in a more age-appropriate ‘Martha Stewart-meets-Diane Keaton’ shade of pastel – with men their own age, for heaven’s sake.  Anything outside of that and you’ll have to be wealthy, famous and successful (a la Madonna, Demi Moore, Cindy Gallop…) not to be made fun of. And even then.

I know lots of women don’t have a problem with the term cougar or the stereotypes that surround it. But I just can’t get behind what that says about how women’s sexuality is labeled and sold in a broader context.

To me there is nothing empowering about it, just as there is nothing empowering about how some older women denigrate a younger woman’s journey into her sexuality.

There seems to a very narrow window for women to be sexually acceptable and to be expressive in this sexuality. Too young, and she’s a loose canon with no morals who’ll never hook a man; too old, and she’s a cougar, a MILF to be mocked.

And, anyway, whatever age she’s at, if she’s ‘dolled up’ she’s probably a slut.

Maybe sexual empowerment and expression is only fit for those between the ages of 23 and 32, and even so, that’s when good girls settle down and pledge their bodies to one person for all eternity. Right?

Of course, should divorce happen and/or they find themselves single at an age old enough to be confident in their bodies and self-empowered enough to know what they like and what they want, they’re suddenly bracketed in the MILFs and cougars pigeon hole.

At least that’s what shitty, lazy journalism would like to keep punting. Because in both Sampson’s piece and the one that probably spawned it – M&G’s cougars in Bryanston – those women actually interviewed said variations of the very normal, sane thing: They were just out for fun. And so are the guys. So WTF.

Drop the women’s age by a decade or two and no-one bats an eye-lid. Reverse roles and it’s almost endearing, expected.

When did fun, sex and dressing up require an upward age limit for women?

I wonder when I will become a ‘tannie’ too – prevented by this sort of stereotypical language of what is considered sexually age-appropriate to have sex with whoever I like, wearing whatever I like … without being mocked for it. At 36, I suspect I may be reaching this imaginary glass ceiling soon. I should try and get as much young cub penis as possible before it becomes any creepier than the actual phrase.

Which brings me to the men in this equation. Because, the term ‘cub’ is just as disempowering by this predatory picture of being hunted, of being prey. Are they victims? Brainless? Have they no agency of their own?

Can’t we all just be consenting fucking adults here. Double entendre intended.

Strange how different worldviews present different realities. So when scrolling through CougarLife.com, where people like Lin Sampson see ‘middle-aged women with lipsticked fangs (que?) and rouged claws’, I’m seeing some pretty amazing-looking women looking to enjoy themselves and their bodies.

Isn’t it time women stopped mocking, labelling and judging other women for their choices?

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