Men can reproduce late in life, so an older man with a nubile woman makes more evolutionary sense than an older woman with a man in his prime.
Psychologist Nigel Barber, author of , says our gut reaction to the incongruency reflects how we quickly size up a person's mate value: by his or her looks.
"Our families were horrified at first," Berlin says.
George Clooney and his new wife, Amal Alamuddin, are the talk of the town.
"If you're trying to maximize your remaining fertility, it makes sense to seek out a younger partner because his sperm is healthier," says lead researcher Judith Easton. One theory: The pairing dredges up associations with the incest taboo—a taboo that's ingrained across almost all cultures, says Christopher Ryan, author of S.
You might think the cougar backlash stems from the fear of older women poaching guys from young women. Humans developed aversions to sex between family members, so seeing a young man with his arm around a more senior woman might touch on the same incest associations and leave people feeling squeamish.In a small study about marriages in which the women were 10 years older than their husbands, wives said they bore the brunt of the backlash.Men may receive some gentle ribbing for marrying an older bride but manage to brush it off better, says University of Maine researcher Nichole Proulx, Ph. "Women are socialized to be extremely conscious of how they look, dress, and act, so if they do something outside of the norm, they fixate on it more so than men," she says.Ryan predicts the phenomenon will follow a path to acceptance similar to homosexuality's.Today, the majority of college-aged people approve of gay marriage, in stark contrast to attitudes just a generation ago. Cheryl Covey, 67, and Stuart Mark Berlin, 53, have lived together for the past five years. So a young man on the arm of an older woman looks like he's dating below his level. If the woman's smoking hot (think: Demi Moore), she's not judged as harshly because the pair's mate values appear equal, Barber says.Ryan draws parallels between the backlash against a less fertile older woman with a virile young man and the recent uproar about gay marriage.An older man with a trophy wife can spark similar disgust.A more common (and intuitive) theory maintains that these couples aren't at the same desirability level, a mismatch we find aversive.Earlier this year, Carnival Cruise Lines dropped its second annual "Cougar Cruise" for older single women and younger single men—even though the first voyage drew 300 spirited attendees.And Google stirred up controversy a few months ago by banning the dating site Cougar Life from its content pages.