These days, one hears a lot of talk about the “Cougar lifestyle,” a subculture of youngish men and “experienced” women who seek each other out for intercourse, or at least a vodka gimlet. We see it in sitcoms, in motivational posters, and in Twitter memes. Increasingly, we’re invited to participate through dating sites, which include meetlocalcougars.com, dateacougar.com, and CougarLife.com, the flashiest and best-financed of the bunch.
“Join CougarLife Today!” a splash-page enjoins you, “the premier online dating service that pairs women in their prime with younger men and ends the double standard!”
The “double standard” here is that we allow older men to mack on women 20 years their junior but frown when ladies flip the script. There should be no difference between being a “kept” woman and a “kept” man (especially when the economy sucks), but the general trend in our culture still makes it seem freaky when older women rob the cradle, no matter how rich, sexy or generous they feel.
This is the glass ceiling (or ass ceiling?) that CougarLife aims to break. But who does the site serve, exactly? According to a 2012 billboard on Sunset Boulevard—CougarLife.com: For Mother F—kers, it read—suggests that it caters to dudes. So why do thousands of women maintain accounts on the site?
And who exactly are these “mothers?” They are “in their PRIME: independent, sexy and wildly successful,” according to CougarLife, and “already possess many of the finer things in life — but now want the young, hot guy to go with it.” I wondered, could this female clientele be as zestful and moneyed as the site suggests? And more importantly, is the “Cougar Life” fantasy as real and pervasive as CL claims? Or is the site peddling something more flimsy, the reduction of intimacy to a meme?
To find out, I joined CougarLife.com in June (at the behest of an editor who took a joke email from me far too seriously) and went on a series of dates throughout the summer. I justified the experiment in the name of gender equality: could I, a 28-year-old male, somehow be an accessory, the “young stud,” that “women in their prime” thought they deserved?
The result, for me, was a series of close, friendly encounters, all in the name of research, and most of them pointed me toward one idea: dating sites are bad enough, but tarted-up fantasies about how a dating service will change your life are actually noxious. CougarLife has managed to convince thousands of women as young as their 30s that they are old and need young man-juice to keep them vital. This is no favor, either to men or to women.
Hello Mr. Van McCoy, nice to meet you… My name is [___]… we dont live to far from each other, sure we could meet for a drink one evening soon. It possible could be a fun way to decide about a swimming lesson. A massage, huh?
Oof, can you possibly forgive the slow response? I’ve been in California for the last month. Still around for a drink? I’m back as of tomorrow….
I might can forgive u:)…oh okay…hope ur enjoy time in California. Let me know when u are back:)
Hello Mr. Van McCoy, hope you made it home safely:) What about meeting at Bailey’s tonight
Perfect. I’ll be in a blue shirt, short beard & a smile.
Ok…Lol…I will wearing a pewter top and jeans
My sobriquet on CL was Van McCoy, the name of a soul impresario from the ‘70s who produced “The Hustle” and whose side-projects I am inordinately fond of. For the photo gallery, I did the expected thing, uploading a shirtless photo taken from enough distance that it didn’t scream vanity, but merely whispered it. (I am willing to wager that most guys on CougarLife do the same thing—posting at least one shirtless photo because hell yes bra we’re living the Cougar fuckin’ lifestyle, man.)
To secure dates, I used the strategy that a statistician friend at MIT had engineered to “maximize” his options on OkCupid: rate tons of women four or five stars and they’ll all write to you. It sort of works, actually, this method of letting them come to you, and like so much else during my CougarLife-style, its success was deeply confusing.
The messages began to arrive, as did invitations for drinks, which cost me far less in money (feeling guilty, I paid for most of them) than in self-respect. The women I met were uniformly kind, thoughtful, a little nervous at the outset but fundamentally comfortable in their own skin. Most of them claimed I was the first person they had met IRL off the site. I believed them, and do still—Raleigh-Durham isn’t Los Angeles, and once in a while I’d see a first date glancing around to see whether coworkers or friends might be loitering by the bar, wondering what their friend was doing with a man younger than her son.
Most of these women did have sons, and most of the sons were older than I. We discussed these items matter-of-factly—after all, the age gap is the commodity on sale—and I was always sure there was a pool table nearby in case conversation became boring, slow, uncomfortable, or all three. I contributed greatly to several women’s education in billiards, and my own game went to hell. “Do you often date across?” asked one date, while I was racking the balls. She was black and meant, did I usually date non-white people. I said yes, and she smiled. “Me too. I prefer it. All my boyfriends have been white.”
This particular woman, call her Crystal, was my first CL date and I was hers. We talked about her kids (older than me), her sex drive (prodigious, from what I could gather), and her thoughts on men and aging: Men in their 30s only care about drinking, she said. “In their 40s they’re all just stuck in their ways. Men in their 20s know what they want. They’re flexible; they have energy and imagination.” These generalizations surprised me (don’t 20-somethings binge-drink pretty hard?) but were undoubtedly true to Crystal’s experience with older men who didn’t have their shit together. Different women shared similar complaints over different pool tables, on different nights, with different versions of me. Sometimes I was “Van” all night, sometimes “Ted.” One lady arrived at a date having Googled me and read some of my articles.
To her, as to most of the others, I explained that my duty on CL was twofold: to meet interesting people, and to write a story about it. False pretenses felt like bad form, and I have never wished to write How to Lose a Girl in 10 Days. Either way, it seemed more diplomatic to say, yes, I’m on a fishing expedition, but I’m also interested in you. This was no fraud. Romantically, my tastes swing gently toward older women, and I have a wonderful, unrelated habit of falling in platonic love with saucy septuagenarians. (Elaine Stritch once kissed me in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel.)
What began to worry me was the number of women in their early 30s who were enthusiastic users of CL. These were wonderful and sharp people whom someone had convinced they needed to self-actualize in the hands of a younger man. Some were refugees of OkCupid and other sites where they resented being “creeped on” by much older men; for these women, CougarLife offered an improbable but not unreasonable alternative. Other women seemed to covet Cougarhood-as-lifestyle, in which romantic and sexual control are in the woman’s hands.
I observed this impulse in quasi-offhand remarks about “teaching me a thing or two.” Those remarks always fell hollowly on the bar, to the embarrassment of us both, not because they couldn’t have taught me a thing or two (I’m quite certain they could) but because it was such undisguised role-play. Still others exuded more resignation than aspiration, a tired going-through of prescribed motions. For every woman on CL who wants to spoil (and despoil) a younger man, there are ten who just want to be loved in the normal way, even if they’re going at it rather obliquely.
That is the final irony of CougarLife, as far as I’m concerned: the company peddles liberation-through-lifestyle, but eventually you realize the purported lifestyle is really just a different and quite strict mode of conformity. I’ve watched talented, smart, and, yes, “experienced” women slip into roles they’ve been told to play: the middle-aged sexual rapacity, the perpetual youth of the aging coquette, old innuendoes about balls and shafts exchanged anew over a game of eight-ball. I found myself playing to type, as well: the carefree 28-year-old who exists solely to make women laugh, to teach them bar games while maximizing physical contact, to narrate my own sexual misadventures on the road in Nebraska or New Mexico, to play coy, to play dumb. My job was also to keep the conversation moving, especially with the shyer among my dates.
Good morning… it was great to meet u :)… I really had fun…it was good.. ha now u know my pool game was not all that…. did u get some writing done?
I asked several of these women why they had joined CougarLife, why they had come for a date with me, why they hadn’t gone out with any strapping youngsters before. One response: “I don’t know, really, I’ve always dated younger but everyone on [CougarLife] just expects, like, immediate cybersex, which is not my thing.” Another: “You were a hot white boy and you responded to my message with respect—it felt respectful.” Is respect truly such a rare commodity on CL? “You wouldn’t believe,” my final date told me. “I would just get filth from these men. All they want to do is see your private photo gallery and don’t comprehend that some people want to have a drink and chat before going to bed with each other.”
It is a truth rarely disputed that men behave terribly on the internet, and perhaps it should come as no surprise that a self-styled female-empowerment site hosts the same cesspool of male libido as every other dating site. Its marketing is clearly geared (aggressively, though not exclusively) toward men—remember that L.A. billboard?—which is one reason, in my own narrow experience, that the CougarLife fantasy-platform can’t really deliver on its lifestyle promises.
As one woman put it: “CL wants us to think we’re tabloid celebrities, with money and five boyfriends and something. I don’t care about any of that. If I can meet someone who makes me laugh and isn’t a creep, I don’t care whether I meet him on a business trip or on CougarLife. I’m not going to let the douchebags define my experience,” she said, referring not just to CL but to every dating site, the internet in general, maybe even the physical world.
This last woman was an interesting outlier among my CL experiences, neither seduced by the fantasy nor compelled into some kind of performance. Not once did she threaten to “give me a good workout” or (mercifully) to “rock my world.”
We lingered longer than had been my habit in previous encounters, and then we parted ways. Soon after, I deactivated my CL account. The experiment was done, and much like CL, it was something of an interesting failure.