The cougar gets her due

The 1965 bestseller "In Praise of Older Women" is designated a classic

Published March 4, 2010 10:05PM (EST)

When I wrote recently about Judy Blume's "Forever" being the mildly scandalous novel of choice for dog-earing and passing between adolescent girlfriends in the mid-'80s, I had no idea that boys did the same thing with titillating fiction -- or at least, they did 20 years earlier in the U.K. In Wednesday's Independent, John Walsh writes of Stephen Vizinczey's "In Praise of Older Women" -- which is being re-released as a Penguin Classic this week -- "Once we'd established that it wasn't some pervy encomium about grandmothers, it quickly became a favourite in school locker-rooms: copies were passed from hand to hand, pored and sniggered over, heads were shaken about the 'amorous recollections of Andras Vajda.'" After describing content way more salacious than anything Blume ever conceived, thank you very much, Walsh adds, "And to our head-spinning envy, the priapic Andras started his Don Juan career when he was our age. There it was, in black and white, on page 22: the little beast discovering oral sex at 12, from a soldier's wife in her 40s."

Hold up -- what? That's not May-December romance, that's sex with a child too young to consent. And while Vizinczey told Walsh the book isn't strictly autobiographical, he says, "I did have my own experience to draw on. I was very lucky, at 14, to have a girlfriend, a neglected wife in her 30s. I learned a great deal from her about English poetry." (So that's what kids called it back then?) Obviously, the author doesn't recall the experience as traumatic -- which I'm glad of, for his sake -- and 12-year-old Walsh didn't mind the thought of it. But the double standard is still shocking; imagine those lines appearing in an article with the genders reversed, and no one batting an eye.

Having said that,  I do think Vizinczey has some very interesting things to say about double standards that apply to couples who are old enough to consent. And at a time when the "cougar" label just will not die -- yet pairings of young, beautiful women and much older men remain unremarkable as ever -- his thoughts are awfully refreshing to hear. For instance, here's his take on 25-year-old women: "I'm sure they're very attractive. But I'd say to them, 'If you are 25 and intelligent, you'll be a more intelligent and worthwhile person, at 40 or 50.' I'm not against youth. But I think I'm a wiser and better person than at 25." He expands on that theme in an interview with Celia Walden for The Telegraph: "The sex appeal of a woman has very little to do with the kind of things magazines talk about. It doesn't have much to do with big breasts, small breasts, figure -- the most important part of sex appeal is humanity, an affectionate nature, intelligence." And in response to the claim that older woman/younger man couples won't last, Vizinczey, who's been married for 47 years to a woman 6 years his senior, says, "Most relationships don't last, regardless of the age of the couples. Enduring relationships depend not only on the ages of the couples, but whether or not they are people on the same wavelength, which is why I think mine will go on lasting."

Contrast that with psychologist Oliver James, who tells Walden that "the 'older woman' dynamic is not straightforward, because women, on the whole, are not attracted by nubility in younger members of the opposite sex -- whereas men are" and states bluntly, "There probably is something wrong with women who persist in going for very large age gaps." Ah, that's more familiar! Men like sex and women don't. Men are attracted to youth and beauty, while women are only attracted to money and status. Men who date women their daughters' age are just being rational -- grandpa caveman still want symmetrical features and good waist-hip ratio for make baby caveman! -- but women who date men even a few years younger are stunted, vain and predatory. Given how rare it is to hear anyone argue against those points, it's no wonder Vizinczey's originally self-published book has sold millions of copies.

Nevertheless, even a fan like Walsh seems skeptical of whether it deserves Penguin classic status "along with Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique." And although I agree with Vizinczey when he says "Predatory relationships ... can exist even between people of the same age," I'm still unsettled by the implication that relationships between 12-year-old boys and fortysomething women should be seen as consensual and mutually fulfilling. (Demi and Ashton, I get. Demi and a seventh grader? Very different story.) But as long as cougar-panther-puma mania persists, casting pretty much all women who dare to express their sexuality past the age of 22 as simultaneously ridiculous and threatening, there's something to be said for a bestselling author who believes " The sexiest thing about a woman is her intelligence" and "the intelligent 20-year-old will be even more interesting and exciting when she's 40 or 60."


By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

MORE FROM Kate Harding

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books To Watch Out For Broadsheet Love And Sex