I Was Cougar Bait 

Sexually confident older women in search of younger men? Nick Santoro explores the scene at a Danville singles party.

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"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.

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