It wasn't easy telling my wife about the singles party. This wasn't your average singles mixer, either, but a "cougar" party where middle-age women and much younger men would pursue one another in affirmation of their mutual attraction. I, being a younger man, would play the role of forbidden fruit. I simply had to convince my loving wife that it was all in the name of good journalism.
She took it surprisingly well, perhaps seeing the occasion for what it really was: a chance to watch me squirm. Even with three weeks to go, I was far more nervous about the party than she was. I'd never been to a singles mixer before, had limited dating experience, and hardly knew how to flirt with a woman of my own age, let alone one twenty-plus years older. Nope, she wasn't worried a bit.
The whole thing started when a press release arrived in my inbox: "Single Cougars Aim to Break the Age Taboo." Opening the e-mail, I learned that the Society of Single Professionals, a San Rafael-based nonprofit singles organization — it claims to be the world's largest, no less — was announcing the East Bay's first-ever cougar party. "A cougar is the new breed of single, older woman — confident, sophisticated, desirable, and sexy," read a teaser from Canadian author Valerie Gibson's bible on the subject, Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men. "What she wants is younger men and lots of great sex. What she doesn't want is children, cohabitation, or commitment."
The party was scheduled for the second Thursday in January, then a full month away, at an upscale Mediterranean restaurant called Faz — which, conveniently, is located in my hometown of Danville. The opportunity was too good to pass up, or so my colleagues assured me, and I was promptly put on the case.
When the night finally arrived, my nerves had yet to subside. My experience with the cougar phenomenon had thus far amounted to little more than catching Saturday Night Live's "Cougar Den" skits and tabloid coverage of Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. All month long I'd been stalked by images of women twice my age in low-cut leopard-print tops who winked excessively and offered to buy me drinks. I feared I'd be way out of my element. This concern was substantiated when I had to ask my wife what "dress to impress" meant. She reminded me to remove my wedding ring and I was out the door with a "Well, here goes nothin.'"
But first I had to pick up my friend Paul, who I'd convinced to come along — ostensibly for his enjoyment but really because I needed the support. Not that he needed much convincing; single, four years older, and seemingly at ease in all social situations, he looked forward to the challenge of attracting an older woman. To seal the deal, I'd even promised to be his wingman. Not that I knew what that meant.
After a fifty-minute rush-hour drive from Oakland to Danville, we reached Faz's front door fifteen minutes late and a few seconds ahead of a group of three younger men. "There's our competition," Paul announced under his breath, helping me ease into character. But competition for whom, I wondered?
"Hi, we're here for the singles party," I declared to the hostess. The words sounded funny coming from my mouth. She gestured toward the adjacent bar area, which was already bustling. At the registration table we paid our $10 and donned nametags. On mine I wrote "Nick." I was officially no longer Nate the newspaper reporter, but Nick the easygoing, fun-loving bachelor. In short, cougar bait.
We took a collective deep breath, ordered whiskeys, clinked our glasses, and sipped in the scene. At least seventy men and women were eagerly mingling, although attendance would later swell past 100. The men, slightly outnumbered, ranged in age from their late twenties to their mid-fifties, while the women seemed to be concentrated between 40 and 55. At 26, I was probably the youngest person there. I figured this meant I'd be getting more than my share of attention. If I only knew.
Not more than fifteen minutes after we entered, a woman in her early fifties, but passable for considerably younger, appeared by my side like an old friend. She wore shoulder-length blond hair and a tight-fitting black dress with a conveniently placed keyhole that showcased her ample cleavage. Her nametag read Melanie. "You're cuuuuute," Melanie cooed — sounding nothing like an aunt might sound while pinching your cheeks, although she was probably old enough. She leaned in as she said it, her lips inches from my ear. It wasn't that loud in here.
Woefully unprepared for the situation, I made a lame attempt at a witty reply: "I know, aren't I adorable?" Perhaps she'd get a kick out of the bashfulness. Evidently she did, leaning in close again and, for a brief moment, pressing her body up against mine. Her tall stature and intense, communicative eyes became all the more intimidating. I may have looked cool and collected outside, but inside was squirming with all my might. "So, have you come to one of these before?" she asked.
I hadn't. She said she hadn't either, explaining that she'd driven all the way from the Sacramento area for the party. After batting her eyelashes a bit longer, she repeated her assessment, this time for anyone else who cared to hear: "Nick's cuuuuute." Then, without warning, in a manner both seductive and utterly matter-of-fact, she raised the possibility of me ending the night at her place. My alter-ego reveled in the accomplishment, as the real me (my altar ego?) scrambled for a way out. Luckily, I didn't have to say anything; Melanie turned and departed for the other end of the bar, letting me know exactly where I could find her. I never did.
As much as Melanie fit my preconceived notion of a cougar, the night from that point forward challenged it. None of the other women who approached me (and they always did – I didn't have to initiate one conversation) were nearly as aggressive as Melanie. Maybe they'd toned down their behavior to suit the environment, but I guessed not. The more I watched and interacted with various women at the party, I came to realize that they were generally normal middle-age women who differed from their peers perhaps only in their tolerance for adventure, openness to dating younger men, and willingness to identify — at least for a night — as a cougar. The party may have been successful at pulling back the curtain on relationships between older women and younger men, but it also represented a contrived reality that engendered unfair expectations and shoehorned a whole lot of people into categories where they don't quite belong.
Few women were brave enough to travel alone as Melanie did; most stuck to the side of one or two girlfriends while they worked the room. Only one other broached the subject of sex, but she appeared to be much younger and disinterested in the whole scene. Likewise, only one other woman made as direct of an approach as Melanie, strolling up to my friend and I early in the evening. "Finally, someone more my age," she joked. "They should've checked IDs at the door and turned away all men over forty." She was forty herself, she offered, and lived in Oakland. She'd driven through the tunnel alone earlier in the day and had her hair styled nearby. "It looks good," I noted as platonically as I could. "You certainly don't look forty."
"Thanks, I appreciate it," she replied. "I get that a lot, but I do appreciate it." There was a sweet sincerity to her that hardly shouted cougar, even if she was one of the prettier and more straightforward women there.
Later I met a petite, fashionable Asian woman — in horn-rimmed glasses and straight, shoulder-length hair with highlights — who, sensing I was too young for her, opted to provide dating advice: "Don't go looking for perfection," she said. "You'll never find it. Instead, look for a best friend, someone you love to hang out with." With that she bid me adieu and encouraged me to keep mingling.
I soon stumbled across three friends in their early- to mid-fifties who offered to help me win the icebreaker game — a Bingo-like card labeled with identifiers such as "Has been married," "Reads the newspaper," and the baffling "Has two cats." You were supposed to walk up to people, say hello, and ask them to complete a square for you.
"Hi Nick," one of the women said as all three sized me up from head to toe. "Are you playing the Bingo game?" I showed her my card with only two names filled in. She pulled it from my hands and began to write down her and her friends' names. This left me feeling we'd cheated the system, but mostly flattered they'd even bothered. It was a subtle, old-fashioned form of flirting and proof that not all so-called cougars approach with voracity.
Eventually, a photographer who'd been milling about the room approached me and a few women. When he introduced himself as being with the San Francisco Chronicle, I gulped: Here I was, a married man reporting undercover at a cougar party, and now a fellow journalist wanted to document my presence. He instructed us to look casual as he snapped a couple shots. Not wanting to break cover, I played along.
Then he asked for my name. My nametag already read Nick, so I needed a last name and blurted the first thing that came to mind: a twist on my wife's maiden name of Santora. Just then a woman appeared behind him with a pen and notepad. A reporter. Now I was really in trouble. When the photographer finished shooting and moved on to another part of the room, the reporter approached and directed a question toward me: "So Nick, why do you like older women?" My new acquaintances were still within earshot — maybe even listening — so, in Nick's somewhat cocky tone, I brushed off her question with a non-answer I hoped she wouldn't quote. I roped Paul into fielding her next query and made my escape.
Ten days later, the Chronicle ran both my photo and quote on the front page of the Style section. My turn as undercover cougar bait had come full-circle: not only had I passed for a cougar chaser among the discriminating women themselves, but I'd unwittingly sold my alternate persona to another newspaper. I wasn't proud of misleading fellow journalists, but couldn't help chuckling at the irony of the result. As long as I was part of it, the cougar scene truly wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
By most accounts a highly eligible cougar, Jerusha Stewart has her own misgivings about the term. She happens to be an expert in the field, having authored The Single Girl's Manifesta: Living in a Stupendously Superior State of Mind and starred in twenty episodes of her The Last Single Girls web series ("We pick up the conversation where Sex and the City left off," her web site boasts. Most recent episode: "Dating After 50.")
"I hate the term cougar," said Stewart, who lives in Oakland's Jack London Square. "It just sounds so predatory. The image is women initiating relationships and targeting younger men. But typically, it's the younger guys that initiate the relationship. ... It's one of those stereotypes that's tantalizing and seems kinda forbidden, so people want to make more of it than it really is." Although the image purports to empower women, Stewart considers it merely "marketing hype" and a form of discrimination. "It reduces the relationship to something cartoonish," she said. "We're just older women interested in younger men."
Stewart, 51, makes no secret that she is indeed interested in younger men — and that she has no problem finding younger men who will return the favor. She was once married for four years to a man eight years her junior. "One of my New Year's resolutions is to date guys who are closer to my age," she said, only half-kidding.
But something keeps her coming back to younger men. For one, she says, they tend to carry less baggage. She finds many men of her age to be stuck in the past and less interested in their current environment. Stewart, on the other hand, bubbles over with passion and positive energy, giggling and nearly shouting with excitement throughout our Monday morning phone interview. She certainly doesn't sound 51, and doesn't look it either, saying men often mistake her for someone in her thirties. Even if they make the first move, she says, she'll clear up the matter right off the bat. But the realization often only bolsters his attraction. "Younger men are totally into bragging rights. They're kinda parading you around. It's interesting, 'cause you're a different kind of trophy."
Rightfully so, she adds. "We're in better shape, we're attractive, we've got really cool life experiences. We know what we want in bed and out, and we're not afraid to ask for it. Confidence is the number one thing that attracts people to the opposite sex, and older women have it." Not only that, she says, but middle-age women's increased sex drive is a perfect match with younger men.
Yet instead of a focus on aggressive older women courting vulnerable younger men for sexual escapades, as the popular image goes, Stewart would hope to see more attention paid to the underlying female independence that makes it possible: "Whereas in the past, where we might have needed a male partner to ensure our financial and social status, that just isn't true anymore." This has allowed older women to date for fun and not simply marriage, as well as broadened their pool of potential partners.
Jeremy Mape, cofounder and CEO of San Francisco-based web site UrbanCougar.com, may have once been the type of guy who'd go after someone like Jerusha Stewart. Now he's in his early thirties, married to an older woman, and working in real estate in Los Angeles. Along with a couple friends, he launched the site from San Francisco's Marina district in 2003 "as a tongue-in-cheek-joke." With 60,000 to 70,000 visitors a month, it's now one of the web's largest cougar lifestyle destinations.
"It's a great option for single guys in their 20s and sometimes 30s," Mape wrote in an e-mail. "Most women in their 20s are difficult to date. They are constantly trying to find themselves, which leads to insecurities. It's a breath of fresh air to date a woman that knows what she wants, and knows how to get it. Also, it doesn't suck to have these women hit on you, and offer to buy you a drink for once."
As much as he appreciates these benefits, Mape acknowledges the illusory nature of the image his web site has helped perpetuate. "The women are just being themselves, doing what they do, and we've just put a name to it," he said in an interview. "There's not a true definition of what a cougar is, everybody has their own idea. It's always kind of a moving target."
When I told him about my experience at the cougar party in Danville, he was surprised to hear how well attended it was by women — but not that it fell short of expectations: "When you set these situations up, it's never gonna work out."
"I think it's hard to categorize anybody," he continued. "Everybody is different and unique. It tends to get twisted and idealized in young guys' minds." If that's so, I asked Mape, and it's indeed the younger men who are embracing the cougar image, then do they have a label of their own? Evidently they have many, "cougar hunters," "cougar hawks," and "young bucks" among them, but Mape favors "prey" or "cub," because they imply that the man is passive and the woman aggressive, which is how he says the encounters have played out in his experience. Yet just like the female counterpart, it's only a word: "I think guys will adopt any label if it will get them laid," he sagely concluded.
The term "cougar" seems to have originated in 2000 in Vancouver, Canada, as a patently disparaging term used to describe an older woman who'd had too much to drink and was groping a younger man. At least that's how Valerie Gibson tells it, and she admits she's only 80 percent sure. Regardless, as a sex and relationship columnist for the Toronto Sun, she picked up on the term fairly early — before it had made its way to the United States — and her reaction was to see it not as a put-down, but as the perfect image for a phenomenon she'd already been exploring, both personally and professionally. As a middle-age woman she'd been going after younger men for years, including her most recent of five husbands, who was fourteen years younger.
"A cougar is a very sleek and powerful and beautiful animal," she said on the phone from her home in Toronto. "It knows exactly where it's at and what it's doing. It fitted from a very positive angle. I decided to turn it from a derogatory name to a positive image." By 2001 she'd penned the cheeky and playful Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men to introduce the public to her upbeat interpretation and to serve as a field guide for would-be cougars.
Her earlier book on the subject, 1994's Younger Men: How to Find Them, Date Them, Mate Them and Marry Them, was met with considerable unease, she says — to put it mildly. "It was far, far too soon. It shocked everybody. They were horrified at older women having sex with younger men. ... If I could've been burned at the stake, I would've been by many people."
Seven years later, her fellow Canadians were still reluctant to embrace the term as anything but pejorative, she said, but it caught on quickly in the states as an extension of women's lib. Thus was launched a still-buzzing media blitz that's landed her on programs from The Today Show and PrimeTime Live to Dr. Phil and Montel Williams to extol the benefits and virtues of older woman/younger man relationships. Through her appearances, she's played a major role in spreading the cougar gospel around the world.
Which returns us to an important question: How, exactly, does one identify a cougar? Gibson's book attempts an answer over seven paragraphs: "Today's cougar is full of life ... She is single, older, and often divorced ... She's a career woman or financially independent ... She isn't interested in marriage or in having any more children." She is interested in "hot, satisfying sex with someone who won't be a lifetime or live-in partner."
MarinaCougar.com, another cougar web site based out of San Francisco, suggests a somewhat cruder mechanism: take the younger man's age, subtract seven, and double it. This gives the man an upper limit for dating, while to qualify on the lower end the woman must be at least eight years older. So, for my 30-year-old friend Paul, a cougar could fall between the ages of 38 and 46.
Gibson is still proud and defensive of the term — at least in part because her career remains entwined with it — but admits that things have changed since she wrote her book. For one, she agrees with Stewart that men have hijacked the trend and women no longer need to be aggressive. She also believes that as the movement grows, a generation of women will eventually come along for whom dating younger is completely normal, making the cougar label unnecessary.
But Society of Single Professionals chairman Rich Gosse thinks we still have a long way to go. "There is still a tremendous stigma against the whole cougar thing. Deep down inside, the average woman would be embarrassed to admit she's attracted to younger men," Gosse said. He has hosted three cougar parties so far in the Bay Area — San Francisco, Palo Alto, then Danville, with a fourth scheduled for Emeryville's Trader Vic's restaurant on Thursday, February 12 — precisely to foster an environment where older women can meet younger men without being judged.
In the past, before "cougar" came along, Gosse and his company occasionally held older woman/younger man parties around the Bay Area to a generally lukewarm response. But the growing popularity of the cougar image, both as an enticing taboo and a female-empowering philosophy, has changed that. It has encouraged older women to turn the tables by defying a societal double standard: men can use women to make them feel younger, but not the other way around. "Suddenly it becomes socially acceptable for older women to go after younger men at a cougar party," Gosse said. "There's definitely a big demand for this. There are millions of women in the US who would love to be with a younger man."
Back at Faz, the clock was nearing 9 p.m. and the party winding down. I'd seen phone numbers copied and possible rendezvous planned, but no signs of the rampant spontaneous coupling I'd anticipated. Momentarily left to my own devices, I glanced around and noticed Paul standing at the other end of the bar. He was chatting with a tall blond in high heels and her two leopard-print-wearing friends. I coolly strolled over for a closer look, trying not to disrupt the conversation. Likely in their late forties or early fifties, the women had an air of casual yet sophisticated affluence. They looked good, too, possibly with the help of some plastic surgery.
"Those were some real cougars," Paul reported later. "They were engaging, but not expecting anything." Confident, but not overbearing. Proud of their appearance. Financially secure. It had only taken him all night to find them.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a woman sitting by herself just a few feet away. She didn't look lonely, just tired, and motioned for me to sit. We exchanged pleasantries, joked about the premise behind the party — she wasn't so sure about it — and eased into conversation. She said she'd driven up from Milpitas. I mentioned I'd gone to college in the South Bay and knew the area. But when I named Santa Clara University, a look flashed across her face that I'd later understand as the moment she asked herself what the heck she was doing at a cougar party.
"My daughter is a freshman there now!" she exclaimed, more out of shock than enthusiasm. And, after a moment's pause, "You look old enough to be my son." All intrigue sufficiently sucked from the room, I instantly felt more relaxed and comfortable than I had all evening. The need to keep up appearances was gone. We proceeded to discuss financial aid, fields of study, the recession, and post-graduation employment. It was about as romantic as a parent-teacher conference. If only my wife could see me now.
"Well, it looks like everyone is starting to leave," she announced after nearly ten minutes, and I took the hint, standing and wishing her a safe drive home. Paul and I walked out of the bar and into the crisp evening air, feeling relieved but more confused than ever about cougars. We decided to decompress over a late-night snack at a nearby Burger King.
Despite my utter failure as a wingman, two women had asked for Paul's number. (A few weeks later, one of them even turned into a couple dates.) Still, we shared a sense that the majority of the women at the party were merely playing a part — normal moms and ex-wives you couldn't pick off the street as different from any other. It seemed to me that the whole cougar image was but a smokescreen for a valuable new dating mantra: you like who you like, and that's okay. Simple as that. On the other hand, deep down inside, maybe I was just bitter no cougar had asked for my number too.
Seven Days - December 1, 4:57 PM
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