Cougars Try to Change Image with Valentine's Convention

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Richard Cartwright / ABC / Getty Images

Courteney Cox starring in Cougar Town

Last year, things weren't looking good for cougars. Carnival banned cougar-themed cruises; Google refused ads from cougar dating sites (despite gladly taking ads for sites that match sugar daddies with college-age women); and a university psychology researcher in Wales released a study, based on dating-website data from around the world, that concluded the whole cougar craze of older women seeking younger men was a "myth" and a "media construct." Courteney Cox, Kim Cattrall, Susan Sarandon ... were they just celebrity front women for an elaborate hoax?

No. Just in time for Valentine's Day, cougars say they're pouncing back like Madonna at a Brazilian male modeling agency, out to show the world that their movement is alive and purring. According to, on Saturday, Feb. 12, the first Cougar Valentine Convention will take place in Costa Mesa, Calif., outside Los Angeles. The keynote address, by Beverly Hills psychology researcher and "übercougar" Fayr Barkley, will assert that someone like baseball player Alex Rodriguez, 35 (who once dated Madonna, 17 years his senior, but is now with the more age-appropriate Cameron Diaz, 38), is hardly alone. In fact, says Barkley, cougarism isn't driven by middle-aged gals hunting 20- and 30-something guys, but rather, vice versa: "There are far more younger men looking to date older women," she argues. "Younger men are driving the cougar dating dynamic."

That might sound like a bold claim, since younger men — "cubs," in cougar parlance — are usually viewed as the minority cohort in that dynamic. But Barkley, who has a syndicated column, "The Uber Cougar Expert Roars," and whose doctoral thesis examined cougar-cub relationships, says the male-female membership ratio on her dating website, (one of the largest of its kind), can be as high as 12 to 1.

Barkley believes, based on two decades of clinical interviews, that the reason involves the psychosexual "imprinting" many men experience as boys and teenagers: "They may have had a positive imprint through a babysitter or a teacher or something as innocuous as actresses on TV, seeing smart, strong, independent women like Charlie's angels or Emma Peel in her tight outfits stomping bad guys on The Avengers. They yearn for that ideal, who happens to be an older woman, and many go out looking for women like that when they come of age."

It's an interesting idea (although it was probably Xena the Warrior Princess who imprinted today's cubs). But we many never know if it's really what motivates guys like Hollywood stud Ashton Kutcher, 33, who's married to Hollywood diva Demi Moore, 48. What it does explain, says Barkley, is the difference between "true cubs," who are looking for genuine relationships with older women, and "opportunists," the sleazeballs "who are looking for easy sex and money and think older women make easy targets." The men on her dating site, which weeds out the opportunists, "want me to make that distinction — they're tired of being called horny frat boys," she says. "This is about more than having six-pack abs and a raging libido."

Likewise, says Barkley, true cougars "are far more selective than that." And they're not, she insists, the sex-crazed, Jello-shot-fueled predators the media and pop culture so often portray them to be. "Women who behave that way, acting out sexually, are not cougars. They were almost certainly that way when they were younger women, and it's a dysfunctional and diagnosable profile." Ditto, she says, for cougar stereotypes like Mrs. Robinson in the 1967 film The Graduate, who was just "a neurotic alcoholic cheating on her husband," and for the depiction of cubs like The Graduate's Benjamin Braddock as easily seducible prey for lustful suburban housewives.

Overcoming those stock images won't be easy. Regardless of which gender is leading the cougar-cub dance, society's acceptance of it will always be double-edged. On the one hand, the cougar movement can claim its feminist bona fides: now that so many single, middle-aged women have the economic independence that their male peers have always enjoyed, they too can openly pursue May-December romance. Rich Gosse, a cougar advocate and spokesman for the San Francisco–based nonprofit Society of Single Professionals, a host of the Valentine event, says cougarism "is correcting a long-standing demographic inequality, because too few older guys are willing to date" their female peers.

That's because older guys remain fixated on younger women — many of whom, says Barkley, are conditioned by imprinting, often via the fairy tales they read as girls, to seek more mature men as their ideal princes (the Charles-and-Diana disaster notwithstanding). But if society is more accepting of older-men-younger-women couples like Cary Grant and Dyan Cannon (61 and 27, respectively, when they eloped in 1965), age disparity will always be grist for sugar-daddy jokes. And so cougars will always face some disapproving satire, from Lady Bellaston in Tom Jones to the Cougar Den matrons on Saturday Night Live, no matter how many societal double standards they topple.

Still, cougars can rest assured that last summer's study by Welsh researcher Michael Dunn — who, say critics, didn't consider that cougars and cubs often eschew mainstream dating sites — hasn't convinced many people that cougarism is a myth. The benchmark is still the AARP's 2003 study that found more than a third of 40-and-older women in the U.S. date younger men and say they prefer it that way. That gives cougars something more to celebrate this weekend when they and their cubs gather at Costa Mesa's Shark Club (beware mixing metaphors, ladies) for Barkley's address, a dance party and the crowning of Miss Cougar Valentine. Hoax or not, they're at least bringing some romantic fun to a cruel winter.