For a decade now we've been chronicling the emergence of cougars in the dating jungle: women, usually over 40, who hunt younger men, or cubs, and shower them with a tantalizingly experienced kind of love and lots of Abba music. There are cougar celebrities 47-year-old Demi Moore married 32-year-old Ashton Kutcher cougar books, cougar cruises and, perhaps the ultimate affirmation, cougar sitcoms, including the popular Cougar Town, starring real-life cougar Courteney Cox. What further proof do we need of this species' existence?
Michael Dunn isn't buying it. The noted psychology researcher at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff has just released a study that he insists renders the cougar craze a "myth." After examining the age preferences expressed in 22,400 singles ads on popular dating websites in North America, Europe, Australia and Japan, he found no sizable cohort of women seeking younger men. To the contrary, almost all of them wanted men their own age or older. Nor did he find evidence for the proliferation of cubs: the overwhelming majority of men displayed their eons-old preference for younger women. "I do believe the cougar phenomenon is a myth and, yes, a media construct," Dunn, who specializes in human evolutionary psychology and mating behavior, told the Australian Associated Press.
But faster than Madonna can pick up a 21-year-old male model, self-identified cougars and their supporters are striking back. "I get angered by this silliness," says Valerie Gibson, the British-born, Toronto-based journalist whose best-selling 2001 book, Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men, is considered the first to identify the wave that Dunn wants to debunk. Gibson, a self-described cougar who is over 40 but won't reveal just how much over, sees in studies by investigators like Dunn who last year presented research that men who drive expensive cars really are more attractive to women an anti-cougar bias. "Society has always told us that the older woman who is still sexual isn't supposed to exist," she says. "We should be wrapped in a shawl baking cookies for our grandchildren and all that crap."
What's more, a 2003 study by AARP found that while a not-surprising two-thirds of American men over 40 were dating younger women, an unexpected 34% of 40-and-older women were dating younger men. And 35% said they preferred that over dating same-age or older men. That study offers a more valid picture than Dunn's, Gibson insists, because it reflects the actual dating lives of older women, as opposed to what they're socially conditioned to tell dating websites.
Dunn denies any misogynist agenda, even though, when asked last year if his car research suggested that women were shallow, he was quoted as saying, "Let's face it, there's evidence to support it." He also suggested to the Australian Associated Press that the cougar craze may well be fabricated by "the 'cougar' or 'toy boy' dating agencies themselves." But Rich Gosse, executive producer of CougarEvents.com in San Francisco, said his business wouldn't be growing next month the International Cougar Convention will take place in London if the number of cougar-cub relationships weren't burgeoning as well.
Gosse, author of his own book on the subject, The Cougar Imperative, acknowledges that Dunn's website research is probably accurate. But, like Gibson, he insists that while women may still state a preference for older men on the Internet, on the ground, the empirical evidence suggests that traditional inclination is falling away among many older females. "What's changed so dramatically in the past few years is how much more open women are to the possibility of looking for younger men and vice versa," says Gosse.
And that, says Gibson, is largely a product of women's new Sex in the City style economic independence. In the past, she notes, only aristocratic women could "get away with flouting the rules about being in a relationship with a younger man," not just because they could pay the champagne bill but also because their resources and education often kept them younger-looking and more intriguing to young studs. Today, she says, the middle-aged of the middle class can take that path too.
Miss Cougar Canada, Alison Brown (who "won't admit to being anything more than 45"), is a divorced single mom in Toronto who has her own online art gallery and is a personal trainer. "What I've noticed on dating sites today," Brown says in response to Dunn's study, "is that younger men are coming on to me, and it's not just because we're 'easy marks' for sex. It's because we're successful, intelligent, looking great, and we don't play games like so many of the younger girls they date."
Then again, Gibson adds, "it's also because we're great in bed." Still, while Dunn's study doesn't definitively mean cougars are a myth, it raises interesting questions about why more older women may be eager to date younger men but not be so keen to admit it on dating websites. Either way, it doesn't prove that they're shallow. Mysterious, maybe, as any cub will attest.