demi-moore-ashton-kutcherThe first decade of the 21st Century may come to be called, at least in some circles, the “Age of the Cougar.” We don’t mean the garden variety mountain lion. We’re referring to a certain pop-culture stereotype, a strong-minded, usually financially-independent (and usually single) woman, who enjoys the, ahem, company of younger men. There is so much hype about cougars (and their “American Pie” movies-inspired subset, the ‘MILF’), we now have our first Miss Cougar USA (a 42-year-old ‘hottie’ crowned by an audience of “cubs” – men in their 20s and 30s). There are also cougar cruises setting sail, online cougar sites, and reconstructive and plastic surgeons offering to “cougarize” clients. Newsweek, observing the phenomenon of romances between older women and younger men, declared 2009 “the year of the cougar.” The surge of cougars in pop culture reflects what many sociologists say is a demographic shift, driven by the choices women over 40 make as they now define their choice of mates. Relationship conventions are being shaken to the foundations. While the challenge to the status quo include new combinations of economic status, religion, and race, the most rigorous changes (at least perceptually) can be seen among female baby boomers, who, sociologists say, are facing a “marriage squeeze:” a shrinking of the available pool of compatible males, conventionally defined as being two to three years older, with similar backgrounds and usually higher levels of income and education. That’s because, although some women have delayed getting married, men still tend to date and marry younger women. Over the past few years, as the term “cougar” gained popularity through the media’s fixation with Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher’s marriage (he 15 years younger than she), and the trysts of stars like Katie Couric and Madonna, social scientists have started to dissect the older woman-younger man dynamic. It’s a relationship that has long been held to be a taboo, influenced by the Freudian belief that older women are substitute mothers who are “robbing the cradle.” A 2006 study of married couples in which the wife was 10 years or older found positive views about the relationships among the couples, although the fear of social stigma and insecurities about getting older among women were common. The study, which was published in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, reports that couples think age differences matter more to others than to themselves. It also found that men were drawn to the relationships at the start because of physical attraction. The researchers found that the women were drawn to the vitality that younger man brought into their lives, and men liked maturity and confidence of the women, although there were generational differences that sometimes made both partners uncomfortable. Infidelity is cited as a stronger possibility in relationships with a sizable age difference. Census data relating to age difference in married couples show the number of marriages between women at least 5 or 10 years older than their spouses remains relatively small, 5.4% and 1.3%, respectively. But the rates doubled between the years 1960 and 2007. And the data show the percentage of marriages between older men and younger women steadily decreased through 1980, and has remained stable since then. Social scientists say the numbers represent a real change, and possibly a major shift, in marriage patterns. But marriage stats are just part of the picture. Experts say a growing number of men and older women are dating, or are thinking about it. The women generally are highly educated, have been married before, and aren’t necessarily looking to get married or live with someone. A 2004 study compared the dating preferences of women ages 35 to 50 to those of women aged 20 to 25; it found the older women were more open to dating younger men, as well as to crossing religious, racial, and socioeconomic lines. Earlier research suggested that women, regardless of age, were seeking the same qualities in a partner, which lead to a famous 1986 Newsweek cover story declaring that a single woman over the age of 40 had a better chance of being blown up by a terrorist than getting married. Newsweek issued a retraction 20 years later in an article called “Rethinking the Marriage Crunch,” but the damage, at least in the popular consciousness, had been done. A 2003 survey by AARP of 2,094 single women, ages 40 to 69, found that 20% had dated or were dating a man at least five years younger than themselves. But that remains a hefty minority, as research continues to show that men overwhelmingly identify themselves as seeking younger women. Researchers at the University of Chicago and Massachusetts Institute of Technology say that men “consistently dislike older women,” and indicate a preference for women five to nine years younger. The word “cougar” remains controversial for those women who say the image of an animal – even one that’s sexy and empowered – on the prowl for prey, or of a legion of Mrs. Robinsons (a character from the 1967 film The Graduate) seducing men young enough to be their sons, is degrading. Although Demi Moore, who has been married for four years to Ashton Kutcher, has been called a cougar, the term is more often associated with the image of sex-starved women trolling bars for younger men to fulfill their physical needs. The online Urban Dictionary lists a number of definitions of “cougar” that are too racy to print, but in general, a cougar is always on the hunt, and is at least 35-years old (although many Hollywood and tabloid descriptions paint a picture of women in their 40s, 50s, and even 60s). Experts who study these relationships generally look at women in those age groups who are involved with men 10 to 15 years younger. The older woman, if she is what some experts refer to as a “Samantha-type” (a reference to a character from “Sex and the City” who exhibited a strong sexual appetite for younger men) may just be searching for a “boy toy.” There is plenty of research to support Alfred Kinsey’s idea that women reach their sexual peak much later than men, so older women and younger men may be more sexually compatible. The paradox is that older-woman relationships makes sense from the standpoint of life expectancy, since women outlive men by an average of five years. But men’s fertility far outlasts women’s, so biology makes a good case for the older-man scenario; recent research even suggests that older men having children with younger women was key to the human species’ survival.