"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 %C3%A2%C2%80%C2%94 and lots of ABBA music. There are cougar celebrities %C3%A2%C2%80%C2%94 47-year-old Demi Moore married to 32-year-old Ashton Kutcher %C3%A2%C2%80%C2%94 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. A noted psychology researcher at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff, Dunn 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, the lioness' share 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, the 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 now 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 %C3%A2%C2%80%C2%94 who last year presented research that men who drive expensive cars really are more attractive to women %C3%A2%C2%80%C2%94 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 the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) found that while a not surprising two-thirds of U.S. men over 40 were dating younger women, an unexpected 34% of 40-plus women were dating younger men. And 35% said they preferred it to dating same-age or older men. That study offers a more valid picture than Dunn's, Gibson insists, because it reflects who older women are actually dating these days as opposed to what they're socially conditioned to tell dating sites they're interested in.
Dunn denies any misogynist agenda, although, when asked last year if his car research suggested women are shallow, he was quoted as saying, "Let's face it, there's evidence to support it." He also suggested to AAP (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 %C3%A2%C2%80%C2%94 next month the International Cougar Convention will take place in London %C3%A2%C2%80%C2%94 if the number of cougar-cub relationships wasn'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."