By Claire Bushey
Sunday, July 11, 2010
The cougar craze--of media interest in women with younger men--boasts a gallery of celebrities, books, TV shows, movies and mixed feelings. But in plenty of couples the dynamic is simple: He just happens to be younger.
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.
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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To participate in therapist Nichole Proulx-King and professor Sanda Caron's expanded study of older women and younger men, fill out the survey here:
Essay on "The 'C' word" by Susan McBride:
Linda Franklin's Web site, author of "Don't Ever Call Me Ma'Am: The Real Cougar Handbook for Life Over 40":
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