'Cougars' on TV and in Real Life Find Romance Overcomes Age Gaps
May 5, 2005 --
What do Samantha on "Sex and the City," and Gabrielle on "Desperate Housewives" have in common?
Sex and relationships columnist Valerie Gibson would call them "cougars" -- women who date men more than eight years their junior -- and they're part of a trend that's coming off the screen and out of the bedroom.
Gibson says the term originated in Vancouver, British Columbia, as a put-down for older women who would go to bars and go home with whoever was left at the end of the night.
But now, it's more positive -- describing women usually their in 30s and 40s, who are financially stable and mentally independent and looking for a younger man to have fun with.
Gibson, who is single but has been married five times -- the last time to a man 15 years younger -- describes cougars like herself this way: "She's in control. She's very attractive. And she's very sexy."
The National Association of Retired Persons released a survey in 2003 revealing that one-third of the single women between 40 and 60 are dating younger men. (But they didn't say how much younger.)
Comedienne Fran Drescher, 47, said the trend might be due to increased self-sufficiency among the fairer sex. The former star of "The Nanny" dated a man 16 years her junior for four years and now uses those experiences in her new sitcom "Living with Fran," in which she plays a divorcée with a 20-something boyfriend.
"They no longer have to evaluate a man based off of whether or not they're going to be a good provider and take care of them," she said. That opens up "a much wider pool to choose from," Drescher said.
Competing for the 48-Year-Old
There may also be more cougars today because there are more men that love them.
Self-described cougar hunters, 29-year-old Jeremy Mape, who works in commercial real estate in San Francisco, and 28-year-old Mark Lobosco, who is in software sales there, say they like the confidence and sexual experience of the cougars they know -- and the fact most are not looking for commitment.
They even created a Web site, www.urbancougar.com to pay homage to cougars, and say its popularity has soared.
Many older women also look great, said Mape. "You have 30, 40, 50-year-old women who look like they're 25. And you can't tell the difference," he said.
In fact, a cougar is also becoming the focus of a reality TV show debuting on VH1 at the end of May. In "Kept," a group of 20-something American men will compete to become an escort to Jerry Hall, 48, for the next year.
Hall was famously married to rocker Mick Jagger, with whom she had four children. The oldest are nearly the age of some of their mother's new suitors.
Hall said if one of her sons said he was going to go out with a woman 15 or 20 years his senior, she would tell him, "Pay attention. You might learn something."
Hall said her role on "Kept" will be to teach the guys what she likes. "They were fun to play around with for a few episodes. I think there is a toy boy out there for everyone," she said.
But the cougar hunters thought differently. Mark and Jeremy said they didn't feel like kept men. "There's definitely examples where that is the case," said Lobosco. "But as a rule of thumb, no I don't think that's the case at all."
Tips From the 'Queen Cougar'
Despite their apparent popularity, cougar relationships can be difficult. Drescher described an evening where her boyfriend John invited his dad and stepmom to her house for dinner.
"When she arrived I realized she was two years younger than me. I went running to the closet to put some tie-dye on," Drescher said.
For trickier situations, Gibson has written what might be called the official Cougar handbook, titled: "Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men."
"I tend to see myself as a sort of cheerleader for cougars -- the sort of Queen Cougar teaching young cougar tricks," she said.
The age question comes up often, Gibson said. She advises most cougars not to tell.
"They all have an immediate picture -- let's say a 60-year-old woman: gray hair in a bun, apron on, cooking cookies."
The biggest hurdle for May-December relationships, Gibson said, is the cougar's lack of interest in, or inability to have a baby.
"If he wants children then it's short term, because he will go off to have his children at some point and you should allow that or even send him off to do it," she said.
And for people who would condemn the cougar's behavior as creepy or inappropriate, she said "I don't see these condemnations as valid.
"I do see them as only aimed at women -- putting down older women and trying to control them," she said. "No way."
*Editor’s note: Names of some of the interviewees have been changed for privacy.
Annette Wheeler* didn’t recall the exact moment she first heard the term “cougar,” but she did remember dashing to her computer to look it up. To her shock and bemusement, there was a new term to describe what she had been doing most of her life—dating younger men.
Wheeler, a fiery redhead who lives outside Baltimore, leaned back in her chair and sighed. “I adore younger men,” the 60-year-old purred. “I liked younger guys even when I was in high school—like a year or two younger. I was a cougar before there were cougars.”
Indeed, Wheeler’s pre-marriage and post-divorce dating history reads like a steamy screenplay. She listed a string of young men with whom she had various relationships, occasionally punching numbers into a calculator to determine age differences she had never considered in the first place. She never analyzed her attraction to younger men (or their attraction to her), but with “cougar” an increasingly popular term used to describe older women dating significantly younger men, her longtime preference is suddenly in the spotlight.
For Wheeler and other women like her, younger men—many of them 15 years or more their juniors—are a natural fit. Boomer women are looking and feeling better than ever. Widowed, separated, or divorced, a growing number seek young men for dating and companionship. And since men have been dating younger women for ages, why are so many of us surprised—shocked, even—that women would follow suit?
* * *
Valerie Gibson, author of “Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men,” is all too familiar with this double standard. The self-proclaimed cougar wrote her first book on the topic—“Younger Men: How to Find Them, Date Them, Mate Them, and Marry Them”—14 years ago, “and let me tell you something,” she said in a whisper. “It caused an awful stir—and not a good one. People were horrified. They were absolutely horrified that older women should be having sex with younger men.”
When many of us think “cougar,” we picture the ultimate cougar of the big screen: The Graduate’s legendary, martini-sipping Mrs. Robinson. These days, real-life cougars are stars like Demi Moore (who, in her 40s, married then-twenty-something heartthrob Ashton Kutcher), the coiffed reality-show cast of The Real Housewives of Orange County, and, yes, everyday women—suburbanites and city-slickers alike.
While there’s no denying that cougars are slinking into the mainstream, there’s still an element of taboo surrounding these age-spanning relationships.
“It’s definitely considered creepier for women to go out with younger men,” admitted Junie Smith*, a 52-year-old cougar who lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “For a 70-year-old guy to go out with a 40-year-old woman, as opposed to a 70-year-old woman going out with a 40-year-old guy? A 70-year-old woman going out with a 40-year-old guy is considered creepy.”
Why the double standard? Smith figured it comes down to science: “It probably has something to do with the concentration of the species on procreation,” she quipped.
All scientific notions aside, older women opt for younger men for the same reasons that older men select younger women.
“The mentality of having a youthful person on your arm who makes you feel good, who makes you feel ageless, makes you feel desired and desirable,” Gibson said.
Statistics compiled by AARP The Magazine back up the trend.
A whopping 34 percent of women over 40 are dating younger men, according to a 2003 survey. The same poll, which surveyed 3,500 single people (both women and men) aged 40 to 69 year old found that 56 percent are currently separated or divorced from a spouse, 31 percent have never been married, and seven in 10 (74 percent) of formerly married singles in their 50s have been single for five years or more.
The study stated that the divorce rate now, compared to when cougars were married some 25 years ago, has contributed to the amount of single, 50+ women, said to be “on the prowl” in today’s dating pool.
* * *
For Wheeler, younger men have been a natural fit for an energetic lifestyle that her male peers have never quite matched.
“I can’t explain why, but I’ve always been,” she said, pausing. “Without even knowing someone’s age, you can be sure I’m going to gravitate toward the younger guy. And I don’t know if it’s a function of I’m attracted to younger guys or younger guys are attracted to me. It’s just their energy, their enthusiasm” and—the biggie—“less baggage.”
In fact, the stuff of the past may be what keeps her from dating men closer to her age altogether. That and music, of course.
“They’re always going on and on about their exes and the kids,” she said of her male peers. “The baggage, the baggage, is the main thing. And being stuck in the music they listened to in college. I want to know what’s new. I want to hear what’s new. Younger guys seem to have more to contribute to my life, and they’re just adorable.”
The AARP study concludes that the No. 1 complaint from both single men and single women—42 percent and 35 percent, respectively—dating in their 50s was the history a partner of the same age carried into a relationship.
Men, of course, have their reasons for dating older women, too. In the fast-paced world of Los Angeles, “dating” may mean going out a few times or spending just one night together. “This isn’t about dating,” said Kevin Mercer* candidly. The 27-year-old works in L.A.’s entertainment industry and isn’t shy discussing his city’s cougar phenomenon. “It’s a total transactional situation.”
And that works out just fine for these young men, who often prefer relationships—whether fleeting or long-term—with cougars.
“These older women are confident, sexually mature, they don’t have inhibitions, they know what they like, and they know what they want,” said Nancy D. O’Reilly, clinical psychologist, researcher, author and host of Voice America’s radio program “Timeless WomenSpeak.” Cougars are independent, career-oriented women who have a been-there-done-that attitude towards marriage and “don’t need anyone to take care of them,” she said. “They’re looking for companionship, sexual contact, and someone good to talk to and spend time with. So be it if the relationship goes further.”
* * *
While women aren’t exactly shouting their cougar status from the rooftops (“Women never want to be called a “cougar,” because it implies they’re older,” Mercer explained nonchalantly), men aren’t shy about their relationships with older women. On the contrary, they’ll even boast about them, wearing them, in the words of Mercer, “as a badge of honor.”
According to Gibson, young men are driving the trend, sometimes even calling themselves “cougar hunters” when they’re out on the town looking for sexy older women. “Younger men have no problem whatsoever in approaching an older woman who’s single or obviously not wearing a wedding ring anyway,” she said. “They don’t mind at all what age she is as long as she’s vital and gorgeous or something attracts them. Young men have no fear now of being put down by their peers when there’s cougars like Demi Moore and all these beautiful women around, and they say, ‘My gosh, I would love to bed her!”
Smith has found young men to be quite enthusiastic about spending time with her, and she definitely enjoys the attention. After all, she has worked hard for it, with ample sessions of yoga, calculated vitamin concoctions, a good diet, and even a little Botox here and there.
And while she’s not thrilled with the term “cougar” (“slightly dangerous and prone to wearing animal-print clothes,” was her initial cougar visual), she’s certainly not changing her dating habits anytime soon. Wheeler isn’t either, but she’s warming up to the term—slowly.
“It’s silly,” she said laughing. “But I use it. I use it now.”
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Since I turned 40, I have had more "children" hitting on me than anyone else from ages 16 to somewhere in their 30s. Though in a way it is complimentary, as a married woman with kids older than them I have always found it a bit disconcerting. I do look really young for my age (I'm nearing 50 now and many think I am in my 20s) but I was always attracted to older men.
My hubby looks like he is in his late 60s even though he is only 8 yrs. older. This never bothered me until recently. Now, he acts like he is old--constantly complaining of aches, wanting only bland food and not really wanting to do much --even his conversation is old fashioned .."In my day..." While I am not ready for and do not relish 20 somethings or even most 30 somethings--I can see why some women go that route--just like women, men need to realize they are as old as they feel and act and reflect. With many men acting like aging babies or petulant kids and with a libido that may need drugs to be effective, look for many more 'cougars' to go after 'cubs'.
Posted by toldyouso21 at 02:27 PM : Apr 06, 2007
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How did these older "ladies" become known as "cougars?"
How 'bout "bats?" That would be more accurate in many instances for alot of older women.
Posted by heresmy2cent at 06:02 PM : Apr 05, 2007
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My wife is nearly 13 years older then me, but I don't think it was a trend back when we got married 13 years ago. I remember on our 2nd date she very nervously told me she'd just turned 50 (I had just turned 37 a few month before) and she was worried about what I'd think. So I proposed to her. We got married 3 weeks later and are still happily married. We've had our usual rough patches, but she's still my best friend who I want to grow old (older?) with. A few people raised their eyebrow but I think it was more for how quickly we married rather then the age difference. Though some of her fellow nurses did give her a high five. Hmmmm....
Posted by RandalDS at 04:01 PM : Apr 05, 2007
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I don't think that there is anything wrong with these "May-December" relationships. What's most important is how the couple that are involved feel. I am comfortable at both ends of the spectrum - whether I was the older or the younger partner - and I think that age is ONLY a state of mind anyway! I always tease the men that I am involved with and tell them that I hope that they can keep up with me anyway LOL. Besides, I find it very flattering when a younger man is interested in me. It makes me feel wanted and youthful, not that that I am old at 45! - smiles. Have a great Easter weekend, E/everyone!
Posted by sweetjill1 at 03:24 PM : Apr 05, 2007
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Can't these loser guys find a girl their age? Or even better a younger one. Sick people in this world! Like dating your mother. Gross.
Posted by zoltaric at 02:47 PM : Apr 05, 2007
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I am 46, my boyfriend(whom I don not own)is 40! He's been watching me for 1 year before asking me out! We have been together since November 2006. I have not dated a man in 8 yrs, because I was waiting for my kids to grow up and move out. This man is one of the best things that has happened to me in my life. I will always apreciate what we have and have had. The only thing that I find "funny", is I wear him out! Hee Hee
Posted by rgold02 at 01:59 PM : Apr 05, 2007
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If you're older, single and are ready for a lot of energy, I say go for it! I met a younger man several months ago, completely unexpected, and I'm having a great time. There are ups and downs just like any relationship. The best parts about this relationship is it's honest and playful.
These women say they would have no problem dating younger men. (CBS/The Early Show)
Demi And Ashton
September bride, May groom. These longtime lovers finally took the plunge.
In the eyes of her fans, this veteran actress only improves with age.
(CB Sparks flew when Ann Bancroft seduced Dustin Hoffman in film "The Graduate."
Almost 40 years later, women everywhere — on screen and off — are flaunting their hippest accessory: a sexy, younger man.
"Women are so different now — there's no question," relationship writer Amy Kean told The Early Show co-anchor Russ Mitchell. "Since the beginning of time, women have been basically valued for their youth and their beauty, and men have been valued for their ability to provide for a family. But now so many women have great, thriving careers they just really don't need men the way they used to."
For example, 44-year-old Demi Moore is married to 29-year-old Ashton Kutcher while 40-year-old Halle Berry is dating 31-year-old Gabriel Aubry. There is a 17-year gap between actress Susan Sarandon and longtime boyfriend Tim Robbins.
"When it becomes celebrity driven, it becomes acceptable to everybody. They say, 'Well, if they do then it's OK," Canadian author Valerie Gibson who wrote the book "Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men." "A cougar is a very sophisticated, a very attractive, a very sensually-aware woman, very much in control of her life. She's got a lot of energy. Today they're very fit they're very healthy. They're very successful, very independent and sophisticated."
The cougar-cub relationship is a perfect fit for all kinds of couples.
"I do sometimes compare us to Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher because they're so successful in their relationship," said 34-year-old Stefanie Schwartz, who is engaged to 24-year-old Matt Cavender.
She says one of the great things about dating a younger man is that she is forced to keep up with women his age and, therefore, stays in good shape.
"When I first brought him over to my girlfriends house, she said, 'Oh, you've lost so much weight!' I feel like I have to keep up with women his age and look better and it just makes me feel younger. He's adventurous," she said.
According to a recent online survey, 67 percent of women say they've dated a younger man and 49 percent of men admit to dating an older woman.
Gibson said now the men are even driving the trend.
"The younger men love it. They love the new trend. They go out on their own — they're called 'cougar hunters.' They have Web sites on their own where to find cougars, what to do with them when you find them," she said. "People often say to me, 'Don't these relationships break up more often then others?' and I say, 'They're just like any other relationship: you either get along and everything works or it doesn't.' "
Kean said the trend shows no signs of stopping because women are not going "back to the kitchen" and will only continue to grow stronger and more confident.
"It just means these women are taking what they want," she said. "It's about time. Men have done it forever."
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