OFFBEAT: Cougars and creeps

A friend asked me what the male equivalent of a "cougar" would be. I answered without hesitation.
Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010

 

A friend asked me what the male equivalent of a "cougar" would be.

I answered without hesitation.

"Pervert, pedophile, creep -- take your pick," I said.

Then I took a moment to reflect on the fact that there really is no glorified title for an older man who slinks after younger women -- at least not one that carries the same sexy, powerful and arguably positive connotation as a middle-aged woman escorting a young man.

Could our society finally have a double standard that works in the woman's favor?

For far too long, we've heard about girls called unmentionable names and shunned by peers for their sexual activity, while boys who pull the same stunts were "studs" or "boys being boys."

The scorn seemed to follow us long after those high school days.

Strongly opinionated women in the workplace, wearing power suits and piling on demands, were flagged with less-than-desirable labels, while men were given a pat on the back or a promotion.

Even in old age, it seems, there's no mercy -- a man with graying hair and wrinkles is often perceived as "distinguished" and more socially acceptable, while a woman who's crossed over to the silvery side has "let herself go."

Then someone unleashed the cougar.

The term seemed to become widespread after celebrity couples like Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher debuted -- relationships where a powerful, successful woman falls for a man much younger. But it's probably safe to say the concept has been around long before Mrs. Robinson seduced Ben Braddock in the Graduate -- just kept a little quieter.

Now, cougars are seemingly everywhere.

One is the subject of a new reality television show where

20 young men fall over themselves in ridiculous contests to win over a sophisticated 40-year-old divorcee.

Looking for a cougar closer to home? Look no further than any of the dozens of Web sites promising the savage kind of romance that could only come from the jungle.

There's DateACougarInOhio.com, CougarPersonals.com, even CougarsAffairMatch, for committed cougars who apparently woke up one day and decided to leave their mate in the Sahara while they hunted down greener pastures.

At first glance, the cougar concept seems to be about empowerment.

Women who have spent much of their youth working toward personal and career goals find themselves single, at what many experts seem to agree is their sexual prime (most argue it's between the mid 30s and early 40s). So they pursue a man who's also at his peak (usually 18-22).

But as our culture embraces the "cougar mentality," the line between seduction and sexual predator is blurred.

More and more women are being charged with sex crimes for preying on teenage boys. A 2004 federal Department of Education study called "Educator Sexual Misconduct" found that 40 percent of the educators who had been reported for sexual misconduct with students were women.

High-profile cases such as that of Mary Kay LeTourneau -- who at 34 began a sexual relationship with her 13-year-old student and later gave birth to two of his children -- seemed to illustrate a clear difference between a cougar who feels empowered and a woman who may need serious psychological help.

The National Center for Juvenile Justice 2005 report on statutory rape found that 5 percent of victims were boys and adult women were overwhelmingly the abusers.

The report also found among children ages 7 to 11 and 15 to 17, boy victims outnumbered girls. On average, female molesters were nine years older than their male victims, compared with a six-year age gap between male offenders and teen girl victims.

When an older man is prowling after a teen girl, public opinion is unforgiving.

But when the roles are reversed, we tend to dismiss it -- assuming the boy is always a willing, even lucky, participant.

David Finkelhor, director of Crimes Against Children Research Center, told USA Today that this attitude could be changing as more women enter law enforcement.

A 28-year-old Sandusky woman was recently charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor after allegedly having sex with a 15-year-old boy. Det. Helen Prosowski said reports like these are still far less common than the reverse.

But we're still likely to assume the best -- rather than the worst -- about these women. The media probably shoulders some of the blame, implying that a 20-something woman who has sex with a 15-year-old might be some sort of "cougar in training."

It's also hard not to wonder (as some of our commenters suggested) if the boy was bragging to his friends about the whole thing.

Maybe that's the case, and maybe not.

Without a doubt, there are plenty of cougars who charm their way into a young man's heart and live happily ever after. But we shouldn't confuse them with women who target underage boys because they're looking for someone who's too naive to question them.

It's the difference between a cougar who should be proud to roam free and one who needs to be caged.

Annie Zelm is the assistant news editor of the Sandusky Register.