*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 much 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 younger 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?
Confessions of a Cougar
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.