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A 'Cougar' State of Mind

Confident, sexy women enjoy dating younger men

So I've heard two reactions from women about "cougars"—defined here as "attractive older women who are desirable to, or mutually desire, much younger men."

One group of women gets a kick out of the term. These women are middle-aged and think that it's pretty trendy that any woman over 45 can saunter down the street and have men's eyes follow her; If those eyes are under 30, so much the better. This satisfaction arises in boomers (or their older sisters) because they all grew up in eras in which Hollywood thought women were past their sexual prime by their late 20s.

Except for very few occasions, women over 35 were simply absent as romantic leads (although they might be loyal sidekicks or pathetic man-chasers). Sexy older role models were almost nonexistent—so it was shocking and swell when older female movie stars started having love affairs on screen ("Bridges of Madison County") and off. This was even sweeter when the men in question were significantly younger. (Think Demi Moore, Susan Sarandon, Cher, Madonna.) Suddenly, it wasn't only an older man who could come into a room with a sexy young spouse or lover on his arm.

At first, cougar-ism seemed like a publicity stunt. We were so brainwashed about how unlikely it would be for a younger man to find an older woman as beautiful or as desirable as a younger woman that we looked for "angles" when we read about the permanent pairings of Demi Moore or Susan Sarandon. When these relationships proved to be loving and stable, it was like a breath of fresh air billowed around women's erotic prospects. The picture of a cougar—sensual, independent, and gloriously self-confident—was a welcome image to many middle-aged babes.

But of course, there's another take on the cougar phenomenon. Cougar critics think of these women as predatory rather than passionate. They think older women who are having active sex lives with younger partners sleazy, especially if the women's lovers are young enough to be their sons (or their daughters). It makes some people uncomfortable to think of middle-aged and older women dating, yearning for companionship and desire, and accepting advances and romance from younger as well as older suitors.

Critics don't like to think about the image of a cougar with someone else's cub. They find the idea of someone's grandmother in a young man's passionate embrace unsettling, insulting, and ultimately undignified. In their mind, that's not romance, it's just perverse babysitting.

Least you think these sentiments are just jealous sour grapes, I assure you, many older women wouldn't want to be cougars if they could be. They don't like the pressure. It takes work to be a cougar (exercising, getting chic hair cuts, sexy clothes, shoes, and the like), and many middle-aged and older women feel they have earned the right not to do that work. Being a cougar feels too much like the ratings games in earlier life periods. They weren't fun then, and all that work certainly seems an improper expectation now.

Who's right? Well first for a dose of reality: True cougars are not all that common. Most 60-year-old women don't look like Susan Sarandon or other fabulously built female movie stars, and as a result, have fewer young men vying for their attention. Less than 15 percent of women marry a man 10 years or younger than themselves. More cougars are with aging lions rather than young bucks.

Still, I love the idea of super-sexual seniors. Even if the reality isn't as common as the fantasy, I waited a long time to see a woman as old as 60 or 70 as the appropriate romantic interest in a film. I loved it when Diane Keaton could be nude in a romantic comedy and bed both Jack Nicolson and Keanu Reeves—and be the one to decide who was right for her. Better yet, I get excited to see the emergence of women outside Hollywood with the cougar mindset.

Cougar minds, by the way, can exist without cougar bodies. Cougar minds can come in any exterior package, but they always are able to exude and generate sensuality. When a cougar is on her own, she is still a cougar even though she is not connecting with someone. You can see it in her eyes, her walk, her smile.  Cougars own their sexuality even if it is not shared at the moment.

The bottom line for me: The evolution of the cougar concept is good for every woman and her partner. It keeps sexual possibilities and eroticism alive. And that continued capacity for passion creates lifelong desirability to younger men, older men, or anyone who can recognize a vital spirit when meeting one.