Friday, December 28, 2007

What is all this "cougar" b.s?

Far from being liberating or egalitarian, the word "cougar," as applied to older women, is a pejorative term that subtly implies a predator-victim dynamic, with the woman in the role as predator.

I am married to a much younger man. Twenty-five years younger, to be exact.

In the old days this was called a “May-December” romance and it raised eyebrows whether the older partner was male or female. Older women were widely expected to be “past all that nonsense by now” and older males often found themselves followed by whispers of “there’s no fool like an old fool.”

In today’s generally more tactless and overtly judgmental society, much-younger wives are still widely regarded…openly now…as gold diggers and fortune hunters. Their older husbands may be publicly disparaged as being “old fools,” but they are secretly envied by their same-sex peers for their young, firm, fecund trophy wives. Older women who partner with younger men, on the other hand, are pretty much universally regarded as cradle-robbing predators, as evidenced by the pejorative nickname, “cougar.”

I suppose that is because most people don’t think pretty young men…at least not emotionally healthy ones…will pursue older women, therefore any older woman who is coupled with a nubile young man must have chased him down. And there must be some kind of aberration that makes him vulnerable to her attentions…either the woman must be deceptively young-looking or the young man must have some kind of unwholesome mother fixation. Or she pursued and seduced him with her greater experience…and perhaps openness…in sexual matters, using his own carnal nature against him. Why else, after all, would a younger man seek relationship bliss with a woman a decade or more his senior?

But my own experiences…and the experiences of several female acquaintances…don’t bear out that predatory image. In every case of which I am personally aware, the younger men have approached the women first and, in some cases, actively pursued them. Sometimes a man falls for a woman and her age…or race or weight or hair colour or breast size…is just not important enough to override those things that attract him to her.

As a plumpish widow in my early fifties and possessing no illusions about my allure on the dating circuit, I decided to place a personal ad. I wasn’t happy with the dating sites as they were too structured for my taste…and too crass. I opted for placing a carefully crafted ad on my local site, and waited for the responses.

In the first week more than sixty men responded to my ad and I had quite a surprise: nearly half of them were married and of the remaining half, there were a surprising number of young men who quite clearly stated they were interested in a romantic meeting with an older woman. This quite shocked me! I refuse to disrespect another woman’s marriage (even if her husband does) and I wasn’t looking for a quick fling, regardless of the man’s age. So I reposted my ad on Craigslist with a few modifications: I specifically stated that no married men should respond and made clearer allusions to my age (I said that I had “gray hair creeping into the blonde”). Over the next week I received a further sixty or so responses and while the numbers of married men declined, the numbers of younger men…and I mean men under 35…did not. (I should specify here that I did not post a photo or physical description of myself because I was not interested in men who would select/reject me based on my appearance.)

Not seeing myself as a cradle robber and presuming that I would have little in common with a twenty-something, I sent notes of polite disinterest to the boys and winnowed through the responses from the men. Three in particular stood out: they seemed to be intelligent men who were thoughtful, interesting, and well-spoken. After exchanging correspondence with them, I finally narrowed my interest down to one particularly erudite and interesting fellow, a professional man from another country who was working on a contract in my area. We progressed from email to instant messages to telephone conversations, and I was further intrigued. He was funny, engaging, thoughtful, and because he was not American, his viewpoints and insights were very novel and thought-provoking. In an IM session one evening about six weeks after we initially connected he asked me out to dinner and I happily accepted. It was then that he dropped his bombshell…

“Before we meet,” he wrote, “there is something I need to tell you.”

“OK,” I typed back.

“If you don’t want to go out with me after this, I’ll understand…no hard feelings.”

My heart sank. What could he possibly tell me that would make me want to break our date? Was he a child molester? A serial rapist? Married?

“I’m 29,” he typed.

My heart sank even further. In that moment I realized that as a result of our communication I had begun harbouring secret hopes for a romantic relationship with this captivating man. I quickly demoted him from “potential partner” status to “fascinating friend.” I would have to re-run that ad and this time specify “45+” somewhere in the text.

“Not a problem,” I responded, having mentally and emotionally changed gears.

But things were not to turn out the way I anticipated. Instead of an arm’s length friendship, over the next eighteen months we became lovers and very intimate friends. When it came time, five months after we first connected, for him to return to his home country, we both wept at the airport. Three months later he was back, on vacation, spending nearly a month with me. And he was back again six months after that. And then I applied for and received my very first passport and flew to his home for a three-week holiday that culminated in a proposal of marriage. “I just can’t see the rest of my life without you,” he said. We recently celebrated our fourth anniversary.

A cougar is a predator, a cat that preys upon other creatures to satisfy its own needs. Driven by hunger, it gives no consideration to the feelings or rights or intrinsic value of their victims. They simply take what they can get their claws into without regard to anything other than their own needs. Applied to older women who find themselves coupled with younger men, it is a pejorative, insulting term that implies that the women give no thought to anything other than satisfying their own wants and desires.

I love my husband and he is the focus of my life. He may be twenty-five years younger than I am, but I am not a cougar.

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