(WOMENSENEWS)--When Susan McBride started dating her future husband, she had to get over the fact that he was routinely carded.
McBride met Ed Spitznagel when she was 41 and he was a baby-faced 32.
A mutual acquaintance introduced them at a party thrown by St. Louis Magazine to fete the men and women profiled in its "Top Singles" issue, of which McBride was one. He followed up with an e-mail inviting her to a hockey game. Though somewhat unnerved by the age difference, McBride, a full-time author of mysteries and commercial fiction, was charmed by the software engineer's good spelling and proper use of the semicolon.
Eight months after they met, they bought a house together. He proposed five months after that and they married in February 2008.
Couples such as McBride and Spitznagel have been drawing attention since 2003 when the media latched onto movie star Demi Moore dating Ashton Kutcher, 15 years her junior. Pop culture dubbed women dating younger men "cougars," a term some find harmless and others insulting. Such a label doesn't exist for older men who date younger women.
McBride--who in February saw the publication of her book "The Cougar Club," about three career women who reconnect in midlife and who happen to date some younger men--embraces the term.
But not Priscilla Nelson, who says it "feels demeaning to my relationship." Nelson has been married to Ed Cohen, 10 years her junior, for 21 years. They live in Encinitas, Calif., where they raised two children and now run a global consulting firm together. Cohen calls Nelson his best friend and points out that because women live longer than men, the age gap means "I won't have to leave my wife alone on the planet. We can go together."
"It wasn't about a younger man," Nelson said. "It was about this man."
Celebrities Weigh In
Movie and TV actress Kim Cattrall, 53, also keeps the cougar concept at a distance, though she did date a chef two decades younger than her for several years. She recently refused to pose for a magazine cover because the publication wanted to photograph her with an actual cougar.
Besides Cattrall and Moore, who has been married to Kutcher for five years, Madonna has been linked to the cougar image. She married director Guy Ritchie, who's a decade younger, and, following their divorce, dated Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who is 17 years her junior.
Last year the first Miss Cougar America contest was organized by the California-based Society of Single Professionals.
The 2009 winner, Gloria Navarro, of Redwood Shores, Calif., said in a recent phone interview that the men she's dated have introduced her to salsa dancing, snowboarding and the rock band Coldplay.
"I went from being a soccer mom listening to kids' music in the car to listening to rock bands," Navarro said. "It's a whole new discovery. I didn't know I had this sexy (side) in me or this zest for life."
The second annual event, held in June in Chicago, turned the crown over to restaurant manager Amy Roberts, 36, of Aurora, Ill. Younger men attending the event voted to award her the title.
The reality TV show "The Cougar" aired on cable in 2009 and showed younger men competing to date a 40-year-old.
Last fall ABC debuted "Cougar Town" with Courtney Cox, and in December Universal Studios released "It's Complicated," the romantic comedy starring Meryl Streep, 61, as a woman involved with both her ex-husband and a new suitor.
Echoing Cultural Misgivings
While the cougar craze may seem to help women fight the notorious loss of sexual status that comes with aging, it also echoes cultural misgivings about female sexuality.
Often people assume dating younger men is synonymous with promiscuity, Navarro said. People have made remarks about being "on the prowl" to her and to Sherry Eckert, a jewelry maker and yoga instructor in Seattle who has dated younger men. Not only were the remarks off-putting, they didn't even describe Eckert's experience. The men, she said, always approached her.
Media accounts describing these relationships often play up the supposedly predatory, implicitly desperate nature of such women. A 2008 New York Daily News article headlined "Rowr!" went on to say Kutcher "fell prey" to Moore.
The same judgments can befall non-celebrity couples. Spitznagel's mother had reservations about McBride until they met and she realized her future daughter-in-law "wasn't some scary, mini-skirted, high-heeled, club-hopping cougar."
"People see that stereotype and immediately think it's trashy and there can't be any meaning to the relationship," McBride said.
In an effort to combat those assumptions, much like the feminist reclamation of "bitch," author Linda Franklin coined the term "Real Cougar Woman" in her book "Don't Ever Call Me Ma'am." The term describes a middle-aged woman who's not afraid to "crash through glass ceilings," who takes care of her body and finances and who refuses to be defined by the man in her life.
Study Delves Deeper
Love stories like that of McBride and Spitznagel or Nelson and Cohen reflect a reality that isn't much discussed, according to Nichole Proulx-King, a marriage and family therapist in Maine. Proulx-King and Sandra Caron, a professor of family relations and human sexuality at the University of Maine, published a study in 2006 on age-gap relationships; they are expanding the study this summer.
So far they have surveyed eight married couples in which the woman is at least 10 years older than her spouse. In this tiny sampling they have found some general patterns. The women--more often than the men--are college-educated, focused on their careers and have had children. Most did not know the other's age when they were introduced.
Men generally appreciated the women's maturity, Proulx-King said.
Eckert told Women's eNews that the younger men who have sought her out seemed more comfortable than her peers with dating a strong woman. They liked the fact that she had produced her own yoga video and appeared on TV.
The survey found the age gap mattered more to other people than the couple themselves, who saw their relationship as akin to any other, Proulx-King said.
Pepi Parshall, volunteer services coordinator for the St. Louis Public Library, said her female friends' unanimous reaction upon hearing she was dating a man 18 years her junior was, "You go, girl!"
Her family was less comfortable with it. Parshall had a good job and house; they worried at first that her then-boyfriend was trying to take advantage of her. But family members have come around in the 12 years they've been married.
Claire Bushey is a freelance journalist based in Chicago.
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Essay on "The 'C' word" by Susan McBride:
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