28 Dates Later, by Willard Foxton: Part Ten, the Cougar

In which Willard dates an older woman.

Back when I was starting the blog, I asked friends to email me any strange dating sites they might have seen or been on. Obviously, this was all on Facebook, and a huge list of dubious dating sites presented itself fairly rapidly—especially from my more, erm, alternative friends. I can't even remember the name of the most disturbing one, but it definitely was for people who get turned on by smothering each other in baked beans. But this was suggested by a man who lives year-round in a camper van and has a proudly open relationship. I mean, normal people don't do that sort of thing, do they? 

Thus, I was rather surprised by one very stylish older lady who I once worked with suggesting "Have you thought about CougarDate.co.uk? Lots of the divorced women at Jessamy's playgroup swear by it". She claimed it was a haven for divorced London ladies who lunch—the sort of Sex & the City woman in her late thirties who are looking for younger men for a bit of a fling. Now, I'm hardly the 19 year old Brazilian bartender/model I'm sure most of these ladies are looking for (the site divides you into "Cougars" or "toyboys"), and I'm not really looking for a fling but it seemed worth a roll of the dice. For the research, like.

I'd dated older women before—notably the farmgirl recently—and one of the big issues is always children. Once, in my mid-twenties, I'd dated a woman who had a teenage daughter, and it is weird, having a person with real opinions who you befriended as you date their mum. That particular relationship had a very embarrassing moment where the mum in question asked me to do her doggy style while she watched Pride & Prejudice, which would be bad enough anyway, but then having to talk to the depressingly worldy teenager the morning after was, as you can imagine, excruciating: "I heard Mr.Darcy last night. You got lucky then?"

That said, Samantha is definitely my favourite character in SATC, so I took the plunge. I'll confess I was a little bit sceptical—most Cougar sites I've seen look like fronts for identity theft, or pure sleazy hookup sites. I've always been adamant that this is a dating blog, not a sex blog (I'll leave that to Girl on the Net), so I wasn't really looking for a one-time sex thing. That said, my ex-boss assured me it was full of women just like her, and she's totally a woman I'd love to date, if it wasn't for her sexy handsome husband. So, on the basis of "no-one who wears Laboutins & loves independent film could be wrong" , I fired it up, created a profile, and had a look. 

It's quite unusual, in that it's very location based. You can turn on a map of your local area, and it will show how many "Cougars" are around you at that given time. It's the closest I've seen to a heterosexual version of notorious (and amazing) gay hookup app Grindr. So, I turned on the map. If what my wise ex-boss had told me was true, Chelsea should have been a hot zone. I waited for the map to load, confidently expecting to be disappointed. But oh no. Once the mapping app got going, it lit up like the motion tracker in the film Aliens.

As you can see, there are literally *hundreds* of women using this in Belgravia alone. Now, it was just a matter of finding one who'd go on a date with me, rather than just pin me down & milk me inbetween the nanny leaving and her husband getting home. 

It's very clearly a fairly sex-oriented site—lots of the pictures are overtly sexual, with stockings, suspenders, and low cut tops a particularly common trope. After a morning of looking and messaging, I spotted a lady with a very artful set of profile pictures, where she'd cleverly obscured her face with a variety of large vintage cameras. I dropped her a line complimenting the photography, and we started chatting.

We agreed to meet up down on the London waterfront, at a lovely pub called the Blue Anchor on the Hammersmith waterfront. The weather was unseasonably nice for February, so we sat outside, talked and she smoked. She was very attractive, funny, and very thin indeed. She had white wine, I had cider. We talked about her career—she had a fascinating job in the creative industries, that I can't really talk about as it would identify her all too easily. She had seen a bunch of the documentaries I had made, so I treated her to a couple of tales from the good old BBC days, which had her "laughing until her face hurt".

We talked about previous relationships—she'd read the blog, so asked for the full details on my disastrous previous form, and I filled her in on the details. I asked her how someone as successful & lovely as her had managed to dodge the wedding bullet. She was in her early forties, so well within the bracket of maybe a bad "starter marriage", or a long relationship with a guy who wouldn't commit. You know the sort, the 33 year old "professional saxophone player" who has been with her since she was 23, and has never held down a real job, because "he's an artist, man".

She said no, she'd rarely had relationships over six months long—and that usually the bloke ended it because she didn't want kids. She then said her smug married friends had always been taunting her that she'd change her mind as she got older, and she was enjoying proving them wrong, and watching them get divorced. 

We talked about how the people we'd known at university had aged, got married, had kids, got divorced. I am just entering the phase of the first round of friend's divorces, but my facebook newsfeed if printed out would be pretty much a wedding-baby-wedding-baby montage for about 14 feet. It's got so bad I've recently installed a thing called "Unbaby me" which replaces images of children with images of the Associated Press' best photographs of the day.

This occasionally leads to disasters when I see a friend has posted a photo of a man skydiving into a volcano wreathed with lightning, comment "awesome pic!" and they say "I know! She's just got her third tooth!". The Cougar found this idea hilarious, and I sent her the link to it there and then. We got onto the thin ice territory of why she didn't want kids—she fairly matter-of-factly said she liked the *idea* of children, but thought as someone who'd struggled with anorexia all her life, she'd find it impossible to go through pregnancy. It was something that as a bloke with a healthy (probably too healthy) relationship with food had never occurred to me as a reason not to have kids, but I totally get it.

She really liked me, and we emailed & texted a bit over the next few days. She is a bit put out that I didn't want to "lead her on" and do more romantic dating with her because I want kids. She said something that made me feel very sad, when she said "Good men always want the meat, only dogs get left the bones". We've chatted more since, and agreed that because I wanted kids, and she didn't, it probably wasn't going to work as a romance, but we are on very good terms, and have seen each other since.

She's exactly the sort of woman I could see myself with if I'm single and 50; but, sadly, I'm single and 32. It's just a shame we want different things. What can I say, I'm a sucker for a woman who knows her way around a Leica:)

 

The other type of Cougar. Photograph: Getty Images

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.