How Much Do Cubs Cost in Cougar Town? The Economics of Dating Younger Men
Updated: Oct 5, 2022
Sexual Economics Theory (SET) claims that, in heterosexual exchanges, women are the sellers of sex, men are the buyers, and men compensate women with resources like financial protection, love, compliments, and social status. The original paper points to almost all of human history as evidence for SET. It insists that, historically, sex has been a “woman’s resource” with a price that increases or decreases based on her sex appeal: factors like her age, the number of women she is competing with, and how many sexual partners she’s had in the past are most notable.
Admittedly, the entirety of history is hard to disagree with. However, in light of the feminist movements of the 20th and 21st centuries as well as the Sexual Revolution, critics like myself point out how SET doesn’t pay attention to the impact extreme patriarchal circumstances have had on blurring the reality of the heterosexual sex exchanges. SET is not flexible enough to accommodate the fact that when the barriers of patriarchy come down, the theory unravels. The buyer-seller relationship is no longer based on gender; it’s based on power.
One of the most prominent examples of SET turned on its head is the ‘cougar’. Less like the cat kind and more like the Yung Gravy kind, the term gained cultural notoriety in the late 2000s and early 2010s from shows like “The Cougar'' and “Cougar Town.” Cougars are older, sexually mature women who typically date and have sex with younger men. Some women who date younger men find the term offensive (for its predatory implications), while others have found the term quite empowering and embrace how it recognizes the fact that women can have sex lives past the age of forty and don’t just retire into asexuality. From a theoretical standpoint, Cougars’ role in sexual exchanges defy many of SET’s price principles. Most significantly, SET emphasizes young women with fewer sexual partners as more valuable. But as older women with longer sexual histories, cougars are considered high-value “sellers of sex” due to stereotypes of advanced emotional maturity, sexual experience, and conversation skills. Another reason, though under-researched and under-reported, is the potential for social capital gains (increased popularity) in male-dominated social groups as a result of the recent hyper-sexualization of older women in pop culture and rap with songs like Fergie’s “M.I.L.F. $” or Big Sean’s oh so cleverly titled “MILF”.
Moving past the price theory, many women have begun obtaining higher education levels and making more significant economic contributions to their relationships. Pew Research has reported that in 2021 women made up more than 60% of earned college degrees, and, in 2020, women earned 84% of what their male counterparts earned, up 20 points from 64% in 1980. This trend is intensified among young women between the ages of 25 and 34, who earn 93% of what their male counterparts earn compared to 67% in 1980. Pew Research also reported that in 22 U.S. Cities, young women earned as much or more than young men.
Closing education and wage gaps may explain why in March 2020, a TD Ameritrade survey found that almost half of women earn the same or out-earn their male partners compared to less than 5% in 1960. In addition, one study published in the International Economic Review found that women who out-earn and out-educate their partners are 45% more likely to be in a “toyboy relationship.” These trends may account for the gradual increase in the number of women in relationships with men at least five years younger over the 20th century. An increase that has only accelerated at the turn of the 21st century.
As women have gained more and more economic power, we have ushered into an era of sugar mamas. The sugar mama is the female counterpart to the sugar daddy who is typically of higher socioeconomic status than her younger male partner and is frequently known to provide financial resources like gifts, housing, or even monetary allowances in exchange for emotional and sexual partnership with attractive, usually younger, men. Sugar mamas completely flip SET on its head by denying to set price for their sex at all and instead becoming the buyers of sex.
In both cases, their younger male partners, cubs or toyboys, take on the role of women proposed by SET. Cubs are typically resource-maximizing young men, who trade sex for economic resources and security. Their price is usually determined by factors including physical fitness, eagerness to prioritize female sexual satisfaction, intelligence (or lack thereof), and even smell. Research shows that women who do choose to date younger men are more satisfied with their relationships than women who date older men or men of the same age. To cougars, attentive younger men are well worth the price.
In fact, some pleasure-seeking cougars who wield high levels of economic power, especially sugar mamas, go as far to participate in the highly controversial practice of sex tourism. Just like men, women from wealthy countries have been known to capitalize on their economic freedom and mobility to visit lower-income countries and solicit sex and companionship from lower-income men. Often, the countries most frequented by older, female sex tourists – Kenya, Senegal, and The Gambia – are some of the world’s lowest income countries, according to the United Nations. In The Gambia, tourism makes up almost 20% of the GDP of which many sector leaders argue “sex with young men” makes up a significant part. Whether it is exchange for financial compensation through outright prostitution or exchanges of immigration sponsorship and romance (e.g. 90-Day Fiancé), both men and women actively participate in the – morally questionable – buyer’s end of the sex market.
SET attempts to make an argument about gender when, in reality, their theory would be much more effective as an argument about economic power. Historically, women have lacked financial and political power, but in the cases where they do have the upper hand, like today, women are also major purchasers of sex. Though SET tries to account for the increasing economic freedom of women through price shifts, cougars and sugar mamas turn the theory on its head. I am not arguing that the concept of women as consumers in the sex market is any better or more ethical than when men are consumers. Though, as gendered power dynamics shift through the economic empowerment of women and the subsequent rise of the sugar mama, the reality is that SET needs to leave behind the gendered distinctions of sexual exchange and embrace the reality of the sex-power market.