Saturday, June 7, 2008
Sex and the Single Women
Photographer: Bode Helm, Models: Rosa Collins and Eric James/Campbell Agency Fashion/accessories: Barneys New York, Fashion Stylist: Aubrey Mayo/IA, Special Thanks: Al Biernat’s
by Eric Celeste
It began as a mischievous flirtation on a trip to Las Vegas. Kathleen, a divorced Highland Park mother of three, was flying to Sin City for a convention five years ago, but it was as much a trip to decompress as it was to work. She’d been emotionally bound for more than a decade of marriage, tied to a husband whose mantra was “No man desires a woman over 40.” Kathleen was 43. She knew it was over when they were in Las Ventanas, in Mexico, marking their 11th anniversary. They were on the beach, gazing at the wondrous blue water. Her husband leaned over to show her two women featured in magazine advertisements: one a model for Hawaiian Tropic, one for AARP.
“C’mon,” he said, “which would you chose?”
She chose freedom and a large settlement, enough to maintain her lifestyle: a summer home in Aspen, winter trips to Europe with her children, a Mercedes, a house near Highland Park Village.
But it was on the plane flight where she made her most scandalous choice—a decision, in football parlance, to get younger at the position.
It began with small talk. The young man next to her asked what she was going to do in Vegas. He asked if she was single. He asked if she would ever consider going out with someone his age.
“How old is that?” she asked.
“I’m 29,” he said, smiling.
What the hell, she thought. They went out in Las Vegas. “It was great!” she says now. “It was totally platonic, but we had so much fun. But we did date more when I got back to town.”
He was the first person she’d dated post-divorce, though, so she didn’t want to get too serious. The next man she went out with was more age-appropriate, someone older, in fact. “It was terrible,” she says. “He was controlling, jealous, and he didn’t treat me well.”
Since then, Kathleen, now 48, says she’s mostly dated younger men. She says they’re more vibrant, funnier, with fewer hang-ups. And it’s worth it, she says, to endure those who think there is something unseemly about someone in her 40s dating a man in his 20s.
“When you are an older woman, you know who you are, and you know what you like,” Kathleen says. Right now she’s dating a 28-year-old. “They can be successful and smart, just like older men. But they’re fit, too. When he puts his arm around you and you feel those biceps, you think, ‘Oh my God. I don’t care what anyone thinks.’ ”
More and more, women are thinking like Kathleen. It’s not a trend that older women are dating younger men. That would suggest that, everywhere you look, professional women in heels are sharing bottles of wine with boys wearing big belt buckles and Chuck Taylors. But it is a microtrend, as defined by renowned pollster and marketing expert Mark Penn in his 2007 book Microtrends. Penn says it takes just 1 percent of a given population (in this case, older dating women) to become an influential movement. And if pop culture is any indication, these “cougars,” as the women have been dubbed, are indeed stepping from the shadows of love and enjoying their spotlight: recent acknowledgment of cougars range from an entire episode of 30 Rock with that title to a skit called “Cougar Den” on Saturday Night Live.
And if you think of it like a contagion—say, the cougar flu—then Dallas is the hot zone of the outbreak. With some 46,000 more single men than single women, North Texas provides plenty of eager young men to compete for the affections of wealthy, single, Pilates-sculpted older women. We can easily explore what the term “cougar” really means, why it enrages so many women, why these mature dating females seem so at ease pairing with men a decade or more younger, where they go to meet them, and why the entire exercise at once appalls and titillates.
“My married friends have a little problem with it. They tease me about it,” Kathleen says. “But when my daughters met my current boyfriend, they said, ‘Mom, he’s hot! Go for it!’ They get it.”
Before we explore the trend, we must define our term. So what, exactly, is a cougar?
Simple, right? It’s an older woman who dates a much younger man. Samantha Jones and the college student with the same name, Sam Jones (Sex and the City). Rachel and her assistant, Tag (Friends). Liz Lemon and the coffee boy, Jamie (30 Rock). Stella and the strapping islander Winston Shakespeare (How Stella Got Her Groove Back). Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher (real life).
But that’s where agreement ends. Some women believe the term is reserved for a woman who supports a man financially, even if it’s only paying for dates. The Dallas Morning News suggested that any woman 33 and over who dated a man at least seven years younger was a cougar. Others say there are specific age brackets that cougars must fall into. One of the first articles on cougars, in 2001, quoted a Canadian website that said women in their 30s who date younger men are pumas or cougar cubs, and they “graduate” into full cougar status upon hitting 40.
This cougar confusion suggests why, to a woman, every female interviewed for this article despised the term. They see it as a way to suggest they are as dumb as the men who date young gold diggers. To them it intimates they are taking advantage of young, naive prey, when they all say the men they are dating are sophisticated grown-ups who aren’t looking for a free ride (at least not a financial one). Tiffany, 51, a divorcee who “hasn’t had much luck with men over 35,” put it succinctly when she noted, over a martini at Fearing’s Rattlesnake Bar: “The guy I’m seeing is 31. He knows if he calls me a cougar, it is over.”
For clarification, as well as an argument to embrace the term, we can turn to Valerie Gibson.
Gibson, who was the sex columnist for the Toronto Sun for more than two decades, claims she brought the term to America with her 2001 book Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men. The word was a derogatory Canadian saying that she says she decided to reclaim to help empower women like her who preferred dating younger guys. She even took couples out on “cougar cruises” on Lake Ontario, where young men paired up with single women of a certain age. After four years, the women outnumbered the men on the cruise, three to one.
“Not every older woman who dates a younger man is a cougar,” says Gibson, reportedly in her 60s (she won’t say), in her clipped British accent. “A cougar is in control of her finances. She’s bright, sexy, and confidant. She doesn’t need a man. She doesn’t want marriage, kids, etc. She wants fun, sex, and a good time.”
Gibson understands why women don’t like the term. She says, “It’s virgin ground for them, so to speak.” But she implores women to embrace it. “There’s a double standard, because when a man dates a younger woman, it’s celebrated. ‘Oh, look at Fred. He’s doing well for himself, isn’t he?’ But even though it’s still taboo for a woman, that is all changing. For one thing, now young men are driving the trend. It’s the fashion for a hip young man to date an older woman.”
Julie, a 45-year-old manager in a commercial real estate office, sips her happy hour martini at The Porch, on Henderson Avenue. She puts it down and checks her phone. (All names except Kathleen’s have been changed per request.) She’s waiting for a text from her 26-year-old boyfriend, so she can tell him where they will meet for their date later that evening. She closes her phone and rolls her eyes. He’s late. Boys.
She looks across the table to her protege, Kelly, a 33-year-old marketing director. Kelly is dating (among others) a 24-year-old man. He’s a mature one, compared to the collegiate hockey player from Missouri she is still trying to untangle herself from. “When the young ones fall,” Kelly says, “they fall hard.”
Julie and Kelly return to the task at hand. They’ve come here today to expound on the wisdom of going forever young, to borrow a Rod Stewart lyric. (Himself as close to a cougar as a man can be.) They want to emphasize that theirs is not a tawdry pursuit but a sensible dating decision arrived at by examining the options available and choosing, in the end, the option with the tightest buns.
But when e-mailing each other in preparation for this interview, Julie and Kelly began making a list of the reasons a younger man is more enjoyable to date. Now, wondering how much they should share, they giggle incessantly. After all, they’ve said plainly how much they hate the term “cougar,” because it makes them sound interested only in conquest, not in companionship. And now they realize that this exercise makes them sound like horny old men.
Two more cocktails on the reporter’s tab, however, give them the courage to go on:
1. Less baggage (all men have some baggage, they say).
2. More fun.
3. More respectful.
4. More romantic.
5. Eager to please.
6. A keen interest in prolonging the physical act of love (reworded by reporter).
7. More fit.
8. Better skin (seriously, they said this).
9. Will seek life advice.
10. Don’t demand your time.
Julie considers the list. “Look, it’s just what older guys want from younger women. It all adds up to a good time,” she says.
No. 2 is exactly what Julie was looking for when she divorced last summer. Her husband was six years older, and she wasn’t terribly interested in revisiting that age bracket. “Guys my age or older, they’re married, or they’ve physically reached their expiration date,” she says. “Obviously, that’s not true with younger guys. Just because I’m 45 doesn’t mean I don’t want to be mentally and physically turned on.”
Kelly nods her head slowly in approval. She was married for seven years. When they tied the knot, he was 35, she was 23. As she started going out again, she realized why her ex went for someone so young. Most of the guys she’s gone out with are 10 years younger, or more. That these men have not yet arrived at her social or financial station in life doesn’t concern her. Not that she’s against it, but she says if she’s not physically attracted to a man, then his wealth (or lack of it) is irrelevant. “Who cares about his wallet?” she says. “I make my own money.”
She met her current boyfriend at Carsons Live in Addison, a dance club populated with twentysomethings unafraid to put their pinkie and forefinger in the air while rocking out. One month after their first date, Kelly and her boyfriend had their second date at the Loon. The long time between meetings is further proof, she says, that part of the appeal of such relationships is the control the woman has. The man (or, fine, boy) is there when needed, but not a drain on her busy professional lifestyle.
“In some way, I’m a mother figure to them,” Kelly says. Although she’s quick to point out that she’s still young enough to be a contemporary. She doesn’t mind firing up Guitar Hero with her boyfriend of the moment.
Surely, though, there are the awkward moments, aren’t there? The point at which you realize he’s never heard the song you loved in high school? When you have to rent him a car on your weekend away because he’s not 25? The disapproving looks from the women reading this story with pinched faces?
Kelly thinks for a moment.
“Well, one guy’s grandmother didn’t like me,” she says. “Didn’t like me at all.”
Julie begrudgingly acknowledges second thoughts about one, and only one, young lover. That would be the otherwise memorable time spent with the 21-year-old friend of her daughter.
“Yeah,” Julie says. “I may have crossed a line there.”
Women who talked about dating younger men took pains to point out that, echoing Valerie Gibson’s point, often they end up going out with men not because they “hunt” them, but because that’s who asks them out.
“I get hit on all the time by younger men,” says Sabrina, 41, a Plano interior designer. “And why not? They are cute, full of energy, and they have fun ideas for dates that are outside of the old standbys of dinner and movies. They don’t flinch when I say, ‘Let’s go skydiving!’ ”
In the beginning, she says, her friends were less than understanding. Over time, they realized there was just more of a bond between her and younger men. Also, she says, her online dating experiences were so bad that her friends all but encourage her now to keep trending young. (She tried church, too, to no avail. “Boring!”)
Sabrina, though, is quick to point out the few drawbacks—limited life experience and money among them. But, once again, she rails on the idea that she is a “cougar.”
“I am not here to help some Boy Scout earn his ‘cougar’ badge in life,” she says.
Not everyone who has tried dating younger men likes the experience, of course. Jill, 39, works for a wine company and was divorced four years ago. She understands the appeal of young guys. She’s dated three or four of them. But now she turns them down more often than not. (Including the college hunk in Louisiana who asked her out when she was sitting at the bar recently—although she did e-mail her girlfriends to tell them about the ego boost.) That’s because she’s decided that younger men just don’t work for her. To illustrate the maturity problem, she shows random text messages she received from a guy 12 years younger whom she met at a pool party and went out with a few times. He was “cute as a button,” she says, but he kept calling, then kept texting. Finally, over three days, these were the text messages she received and to which she never responded:
“I love hot peppers!”
“I won the keg rodeo this morning!”
“Oh yeah! Its june teenth bitches!”
Jill never talked to him after that. Before him, there was the guy she caught doing a line of cocaine on their third date.
It’s not that her friends cared about the age difference. They were “high-fiving me,” she says.
“I’ve tried. They’re cute. They’re more romantic,” she says. “But it’s an experience issue. We don’t share any. How can we laugh at the same things?” She recalls how she greeted her young boyfriend at the time with the famous line from Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles: “What’s happenin’, hot stuff?”
“He just gave me a blank look,” she says.
The guys who date cougars, though, have nothing bad to say about the experience. Chris, 28, is a graduate student at North Texas who is dating a 40-year-old woman. Not unusual, he says, because he’s found he enjoys such relationships tremendously. Older women, he says, are more comfortable with themselves. There is less drama. And they have fewer inhibitions.
When he says this, he all but giggles.
“It’s kind of the perfect situation,” Chris says. “I’m not gonna lie to you.”
How odd is this, really? in the context of our big-city mores, in which a lesbian can be voted sheriff, older women dating younger men doesn’t sound odd. But compared to just about every other society in about every other time in human history, it’s shocking stuff.
In most other cultures to date, men are, on average, three to four years older than their mates. That’s for a variety of reasons, says Dr. Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist and spokesperson for the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, but primarily because men need a few years to build up resources so as to be more attractive to potential mates. It’s also why in most cultures women want to monopolize men, because that provides better support for the family, which gives offspring the best chance to survive and thrive, thus continuing the cycle of life. For men, it’s more natural, in these terms, to want to remarry younger women and have more children.
“This is why older women dating younger men seems so counterintuitive,” Kruger says. “But from an evolutionary sense, there are some advantages that young men provide that give short-term value to these relationships. He provides good health, few abnormalities, a good immune system. He’s genetically fit, so to speak.”
For women, it’s also very important, in evolutionary terms, to be considered attractive. (Because potential mates—i.e., damn men—place such an emphasis on looks.) And being able to go out with young men makes a woman feel this way.
This marries beautifully with the needs of a young man, from an evolutionary psychology standpoint. “For a guy, this equals easy sex,” Kruger says. “It’s pretty simple.”
Kruger emphasizes, though, that for this cougar-y behavior to occur, two conditions must exist. First, social norms must be relaxed enough to allow it to happen (which is why you won’t find many cougars in Karachi). Second, the culture must allow women to achieve financial independence, enough so that she can ignore her DNA-coded drive to look at a man as a familial provider as much as a sexual partner.
From a research standpoint, Kruger says, the entire affair is fascinating and shouldn’t be seen as unseemly. “It’s not really a May-September romance,” he says. “It’s more a June-August romance. These guys are not naive, and these women are not old and crotchety. It’s not Pip and Miss Havisham getting it on.”
Many of the women who date younger men don’t go out to clubs often. They meet their dates through friends, or work, or by chance. But there is one place you are guaranteed to see women in their late 30s, 40s, and 50s scoping younger men. That is in Plano, at the Shops at Legacy, in the establishment known as Martini Park. Calling itself “a playground for grown-ups,” it is the first place mentioned by anyone over the age of 30 when asked where women can meet young men. For those who don’t know, Martini Park is an exhilarating new nightlife experience, featuring world-class design; innovative, delicious cocktails and martinis; extraordinary small-plate cuisine; and fantastic live and DJ music. And, yes, that sentence was lifted directly from the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau website. (As if proof were needed that Martini Park is the pinnacle of the North Texas mating scene.)
To witness this nightlife Valhalla first-hand, this reporter and a single Italian male colleague spent a recent Friday night cougar-watching.
The first shock is the $10 cover charge, an amount heretofore experienced by this reporter only while doing undercover work on the gentlemen’s club industry. This extortion-level fee is made to seem pleasant by the sunny blonde at the desk by the front door. “There’s a band,” she explains, smiling. “They’re just taking a break.”
The stage sits behind one of the huge semicircular or circular bars that populate the club. (There are at least four or five. We keep getting lost in all the circles, like dogs chasing their tails.) The decor is sleek blue and gold, with polished silver accents everywhere. It’s as though Michael Graves designed a high school prom.
The rattling cracka cracka cracka of ice, vodka, and fruit-flavored liquors in shakers is like a mating call. By the time we get our drinks (vodka and soda, bourbon on the rocks—we’re not boys), the band has taken the stage. Not a one of them is a day over 25. They break into the 1976 hit “Play That Funky Music.”
“Fifteen-year-olds playing Wild Cherry,” the Italian colleague says, shaking his head. “Kill me now.”
Within minutes, it’s easy to see why Martini Park is considered cougar central for North Texas. It’s the sort of place where no one blinks when a platinum-haired woman in her late 40s walks in with a tall, sandy-haired young man struggling to grow his soul patch. She’s the sort of cougar who has worn heels for more years than her date has respired. The kind of woman who orders him a Bud Light, herself a green apple martini, then begins lip-syncing the words to “Californication” while the band plays.
Moving through the decades, the band kicks into Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” It’s like chum thrown into a shark tank. The dance floor, already shoulder-to-shoulder, fills with whooping women. Bottoms sway, and they sway hard.
We head to the back-most bar. It’s a complete circle, so that everyone who sidles up to it must stare at everyone else. It’s lined with empty cocktail glasses, dating weapons ready to be called to service.
We try to talk to the collection of women at the bar who are either with much younger men or who look to be ignoring men their age in favor of the Converse shoe and Ed Hardy t-shirt crowd. It’s largely a failure, because this reporter forgot his business cards (“No, seriously, I’m a writer!”), and the music is just too loud. So we befriend the bartender and all watch the night’s stalkings unfold before us. The woman nearing 50 (best guess) bored with her date, who appears to be approximately 28. The aforementioned blonde of unnatural color, playing with her young man’s chin scruff as they canoodle in the corner booth. And the two women being eyed by two 25ish-year-old guys in low-riding jeans, big belt buckles, and trendy zip-up sweatshirt tops. They end up forming an awkward foursome, the women looking at each other and smirking, the guys possessing not much game beyond the “what up” head nod and smooth skin.
Will, the bartender, is a stand-up, self-aware sort. He is busy but observant. He says the scene is repeated hour after hour, night after night. “You know,” he says between pouring Apple-tinis, “I’ve been trying to get the manager to put a sign out front that says ‘Cougar Crossing.’ I mean, we’re known for it. Why not advertise?”
After four hours, Martini Park’s cougar-watching has won over the Italian colleague. “This place is awesome,” he says as he pays for his vodka soda. When he does, he accidentally stumbles against the woman next to him. He apologizes in grand fashion.
She is short and trim, in her 50s, with cropped black hair and a friendly smile. She takes no offense to the accidental bump. No, on this reporter’s honor as a chronicler of social trends, this is how she responds:
She puts her arm around the Italian colleague’s waist. She pulls him against her, hip to hip, and smiles wide. She looks him in the eye, and she trills her tongue to make a shockingly loud “GRRR.”
She growled at him!
It’s at this point that every woman’s objection to the term is overruled.
“Life is so different now,” Kathleen says. She’s going to Europe this summer with her daughters (16, 18, and 20). She’s hiking, working out, taking Pilates classes. And every one of her friends has, at some point in the past few years, told her she reminds them of Demi Moore. Because she looks great, and because she always seems to have an Ashton Kutcher type on her arm.
She points out, more than once, that she never pays for her date. She isn’t taking care of anyone. And that if her daughters don’t approve of a man, she doesn’t date him. “And I don’t go after them. I’m not a cougar, prowling. I don’t date for food. They come after me,” Kathleen says.
Recently, she was on the patio at Patrizio in Highland Park Village when she spotted a very good-looking young man. So handsome and well-dressed, in fact, that she called her gay interior designer to tell him to hurry over because she had someone he needed to ask out. He arrived, approached the man, and returned to tell Kathleen, “Sorry, he’s not gay. More important, he’s into you.” They went out soon after.
“To be healthy and fit, to have three beautiful daughters, and to be asked out by a 28-year-old! I’m telling you,” she says, “life is fantastic.”