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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"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.

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