The appeal of the cougar

Hugh Wilson
Sam-Taylor Wood and Aaron Johnson(Rex Features)
New reports confirm Harry Styles’ fondness for older women, so what do young men see in girlfriends of a certain age?
It now seems pretty clear that when the amorous eye of One Direction's Harry Styles goes a-roving, it often alights on women with, let's say, a few more miles on the clock.
According to newspaper reports, Harry had a three-month fling with 32-year-old radio DJ Lucy Horobin last year, when he was just 17. Famously, he then went on to have a relationship with TV presenter Caroline Flack, who is 15 years his senior.
Of course, he's not the only one. This weekend also saw Sam Taylor-Wood marry actor Aaron Johnson, who is 23 years her junior. The couple have two childreen together after meeting on the set of Nowhere Boy back in 2009.
Most young men have fantasised about the delights of an older woman at one time or another, and now the term 'cougar' - an older woman who deliberately targets younger men (who presumably make more-than-willing prey) - has entered everyday terminology.
So why are young men attracted to older women? MSN Her tries to find out.
Older women, younger men
It's not really supposed to work like that. According to classic evolutionary theory, men fancy younger women for their fertility, and women go for older men for their stability. The older woman/younger man relationship turns this theory on its head.
And it's certainly not a rare or purely modern phenomenon. Way back in 1967, Anne Bancroft's turn as Mrs Robinson in the movie The Graduate made a generation of young men look at older women in a whole new light.
Very young men like Harry Styles are happy to have flings - Graduate-style - with seductive older women. But statistics show that many men take it a lot further than that. According to a report for the Office for National Statistics, the number of women marrying a younger man has risen from 15% to 25% in 25 years. Around 7% of brides are marrying grooms at least six years younger than themselves.
30 is the new 20
But why would Styles, and lots of other men, prefer a 30-something woman to a teenage girl of their own age. Aren't men supposed to be into flawless skin and firm figures?
Speaking as a man, the first thing to acknowledge is that both Lucy Horobin and Caroline Flack are very attractive women. They may not look Harry Styles' age, but they certainly don't look 'old'.
And that, experts say, is part of the secret. The fact is that evolutionary theory may not be turned on its head after all. Men are still hardwired to be attracted to youth, but in 2012 - thanks to modern health and beauty regimes - older women look suspiciously like younger ones, at least as far as our subconscious yearnings are concerned.
In a nutshell, male brains are looking for physical evidence of good fertility, from shiny hair to smooth skin. If a woman displays those characteristics, we'll lust after them whatever their age.
They have experience
But it's not just botox and beauty parlours that explain the phenomenon. When I was 20, the allure of older women was about far more than physical appearance. It was also about physical performance.
To put it bluntly, young men think older women are great in bed. They know the secrets of seduction. They know what they want, what you want, and how to make sure both parties get it. That can't always be true, of course, but the appeal of older women is that it's more likely to be true with them.
According to Dr Fayr Barkley, an expert on 'cougar' relationships, "the younger men fall into one of two categories. The first is what I have termed 'The Myth of Stiflfler's Mom' after the movie American Pie. These are younger men who think the mature woman exists to somehow fulfil their adolescent male sexual fantasies."
And the fact is, even if your 30-something girlfriend doesn't know every position in the Kama Sutra, compared to 20-year-old you she is likely to be experienced, experimental and unembarrassed, which can be huge turn-ons in themselves.
It's not just sex
I can't speak for Harry Styles, of course, but for many young men the appeal of older women goes way beyond sex anyway.
When you're 25, the dating scene can seem shallow and manipulative. Compared to women (and men) of your own age, a 35-year-old can appear confident, genuine and unaffected. Some men turn to older women to break a cycle of bad dates.
Barkley also believes that young men go for the "depth and maturity" of an older woman. A 30-something woman will have experiences to relate and lots to say. She'll be interesting. An older women may also be more emotionally stable than a younger counterpart. After years on the dating scene she's worked out what she wants and what she doesn't, and is less likely to jump ship for a new experience.
Which all adds up to a pretty alluring package. Even setting aside the Mrs Robinson fantasy, older women can present the perfect mix of sexiness and maturity. Maybe Harry is heading in the right direction, after all.
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