“Antonella” is a 53-year-old divorced woman who lives in Genova. After 25 years in a violent marriage, she thought she could finally find the sort of non-committal relationship she wanted with a much younger “boy-toy” boyfriend she’d hooked up with on the Internet. Instead, last week she was beaten near death after weeks of verbal humiliation. She suffered broken ribs, a broken nose and untold psychological damage. “Beatrice,” a 50-year-old divorcee from Turin, wasn’t as lucky. She was stabbed to death in December by a man 15 years her junior whom she’d been dating for just under a year.
Domestic violence that often leads to femicide is sadly not a new phenomenon in Italy where one woman is killed every three days at the hands of men who once loved them, according to Italy’s primary domestic violence Telefono Rosa, which takes thousands of calls from women under attack each year.
But cases like Beatrice’s and Antonella’s underscore a disturbing and growing phenomenon that local authorities refer to as “puma” or “cougar attacks,” in which young men prey on women looking for solace from bad relationships. But unlike in cases in other countries, where younger men are looking for a wealthy woman to be a sugar momma, in Italy, the numbers imply that younger men are looking for older women to beat up.
In 2013, 128 women between the age of 15 and 89 were killed by “their loved ones” by strangulation, suffocation, stabbing, beatings and gun violence—up from 124 in 2012—according to Telefono Rosa’s recent report “The Secret Voice of Violence”. But the victims were far older and the perpetrators far younger than ever before. “Our data shows an obvious increase in the median age of victims of violence,” according to Telefono Rosa’s Dacia Maraini. “The number of victims between 45 and 54 grew by 28 percent in the last year.”
“Couger Italia”, Italy’s most popular hook-up site for women of a certain age, is trying to help women stay safe by offering up useful hints to avoid situations like Beatrice’s or Antonella’s, including handy questions women can ask to spot a red flag in a potentially violent lover. The site is the first in Italy to cater to so-called cougars (puma in Italian, but the site founders opted to adopt the Anglo reference to mature women who prefer younger men), offering helpful hints, including explaining the Italian interpretation of the subtle difference between a cougar (a single or divorced woman) and a MILF (married women or mothers). But the site organizers are concerned for the safety of women who use their services, prompting them to use more rigorous screening for men who want to be listed on the site.
There is good reason to worry. According to Telefono Rosa’s 2013 statistics, 35 percent of all victims of domestic violence are between 35 and 45 years old; nearly 20 percent are between 55 and 64. More than 20 percent of all women who were killed by their loved ones last year had college degrees and were gainfully employed, meaning they do not fit the standard portrait of a domestic violence victim. “This is an old, cultural prejudice against women,” Maraini says, adding that whatever age, the high statistics are a “battle cry” for help. She blames cultural traditions in Italy, which even today do little to teach men that women are their equals. According to a recent study by the organization, more than seven million Italian women between the age of 16 and 70 have been sexually or physically abused at least once in their lives. “The data sends an important message to those of us who are involved with domestic violence and femicide prevention that the phenomenon has no genre, and no classic victim,” she says. “All women are vulnerable.”