Two summers ago, I dated Connor, a big, blonde, Golden Retriever of a guy. I was twenty-nine. He was twenty. After our first date he asked, "So, Rach, what exactly are you doing dating a twenty-year old?"

I didn't have a good answer, so I said, "Well, what are you doing dating a twenty-nine-year old?"

He nodded — touché — and we left it at that.

"I told my sister about you," Connor soon reported.

"And?" I prodded.

He gave me a look, then said, "She thinks you're a cougar."

Technically, I don't think I'm old enough to be a cougar. The consensus seems to be that cougars are "mature" women — in their forties or older — who date and dote on men who are significantly younger, as in a decade or more. Confirmation of the cougar as cultural phenomenon comes online at Gocougar.com, a dating site for older women and younger men, and at Urbancougar.com, a resource guide that every week features a profile of a particularly hot cougar, usually accompanied by somewhat disturbing shots of her in lingerie. There's even an article on the AARP website with a photo of a seventy-something redhead in a tight dress, brandishing a Cosmo, entitled "Cougars and Their Cubs."

Perhaps a woman in her late thirties who dates a guy in his early twenties we could consider a precocious cougar, but I think that we're casting the net a bit too wide when I could be emblazoned with the scarlet C at the tender age of twenty-nine. I prefer to think of myself as "having range."

At twenty-nine, it seemed to me equally appropriate and acceptable to date men either in their forties or their twenties, but when I met Connor, way too young was the thought that came to mind, a mantra I practiced as a college English teacher. Despite the gravitational pull I felt toward him, I discounted Connor immediately as a potential beau — he was not just twenty, but downright boyish in his flip-flops and designer hoodies.

I saw Connor, and I thought Why not?

In spite of this, we always made a point to say hello when we ran into each other, after which we wrapped each other in a full-contact hug. He addressed me as sweetheart. I told him that he looked cute in yellow.

Our innocent fascination with each other continued for months until one day in February, after another dreary Valentine's Day, when something changed. I saw Connor, and I thought Why not? Enough of the weekday academia and weekend loneliness. After all, he wasn't one of my students, and I was moving in a matter of months anyway. What would it hurt to date the kid? I experienced what New Agers would call an "energetic shift," and Connor took the cue.

"I'm taking you out, Rach!" he blurted one night when we were with a group of friends at the local diner. It came out sounding kind of like a question, as if Connor were as surprised as I that he had the nerve to say this. As he recorded my number in his cell phone, he crooned "Yoooo-der," my last name.

Our evident and effortless attraction to each other was not logical. A dating service would not have paired us with one another; mutual friends would not have thought to set us up. I had a master's degree, taught college writing classes, liked foreign film, and ate organic food. Connor had a GED, worked as a wilderness guide, watched cage fighting, and chain-smoked. And, of course, there was the omnipresent matter of our ages.

But it was, bottom line, fun being with Connor. He'd say, "Let's do something," and I'd ask, "Like what?" and he'd say, "I don't know, just get in the car and drive." We'd go to the grocery store and volley beach balls in the seasonal aisle. We'd drop in on friends later than was polite. We'd drive up to Thumb Butte, Connor barreling through the potholes, and find a place to camp. He took to calling me The Professor and texted me song lyrics. He insisted on trying to bench press me, then swung me around upside-down and finally pinned me to the wall. Honestly, it was a very wholesome, pure romance in the beginning.

"But you know what people are thinking," Connor sometimes worried. Yes, I did. They were thinking that our bond was purely about sex — kinky, sweaty, marathon sex — lots of it. Fair enough, but that came much later, and was only part of the attraction.

This is how I think cougars are most often misrepresented, as one-dimensional creatures, predatory women on the prowl for supple young men with whom to engage in carnal, animal sex. But it wasn't the sexual stigma that I worried about when Connor's sister labeled me a cougar; at this point, "cougar" seems more tabloid than taboo. What bothered me was the way that older-woman-dating-younger-man often turned into a lampoon. I didn't want to be laughed at, or pitied. I didn't want conclusions to be drawn by others.

But in the beginning, even I couldn't bring myself to fully legitimize this relationship. When I told my friend Sarah about Connor, I felt the need to call him "The Twenty-Year Old." With my sister, it was simply "The Boy." And with my friend Megan, Connor was known as "The Beef," so dubbed because of his Midwestern, corn-fed heft and my proclivity for late-night hamburgers. I had a hard time taking myself, or our thing, seriously. I was self-conscious: Exactly what kind of twenty-nine-year old woman dates a twenty-year old guy? I tried not to overanalyze, or even analyze at all. I didn't want to know what my attraction to Connor — the fact that I was really happy with him, that I not only put up with but enjoyed his adolescent antics — meant about me and my own psychological make-up or maturity.

Commentarium (41 Comments)

Sep 23 09 - 12:39pm
J.M.

loved it! i think we've ALL had those daliances with 'the younger man', and this perfectly articulates just how difficult it is to entirely express the swooning confusion of such an experience.

Sep 23 09 - 1:06am
MM

I'm so disgusted at how every single thing women do romantically or sexually is turned against them. Why do you even have to justify this attraction? Fair enough you don't want to be as pathetic as a man (nudge nudge wink wink, look at THAT) etc but can we stop apologizing for being human for five minutes?

Sep 23 09 - 1:15am
aj

Really good article. I'm a 30 year old, almost exclusively interested in men younger than i and i've asked myself similar questions about my motives/wants, same as you. I'm wondering if i'll still only be attracted to 20-somethings when i'm 40. Considering i find the reverse distasteful in older men with young women, i have a lot of conflicted feelings about age and attraction.

Sep 23 09 - 5:07am
LMR

This felt true in a solid way -- not pretentious or precious. Having read it, I feel cleaner, somehow. Does that make sense? Anyway, well done.

Sep 23 09 - 10:54am
AM

Best article on Nerve in a long time. We so often categorize and label and forget the human side of everything. Thanks for sharing and reminding us that life is bigger than social expectations.

Sep 23 09 - 11:00am
ro

More on the sex please.

Sep 23 09 - 11:02am
da

Not really sure why you consider the 20 year old rudderless and in need of growing up without taking a good look at yourself. If anything, I'd say the old broads are usually the immature, adrift ones in the cougar dynamic. Doesn't it speak to some wise-beyond-their-yearsness that these young bucks can put up with old folks at all? (Don't worry; I'm old!) Still, pretty hot!

Sep 24 09 - 12:31am
yop

To answer the age old question - yes, you are a cougar. You can be a cougar past the age of 27 if you date much younger guys. Period.

Sep 23 09 - 1:35pm
to

So, wait, you threw away love because of a number? Because of what other people might say? He was willing to move to Iowa to be with you and you said no because that's what impulsive 20-year-olds do? 20-year-olds do that sort of thing because they can - they don't have families, jobs, etc. tying them down yet.

When I was 23, I started dating a 35-year-old woman. Our age difference was merely that - a difference. One of the many that any two people will have. I'm now 38 and she's my 50-year-old wife. 15 years on, that age difference doesn't seem so big.

Sep 23 09 - 2:16pm
LF

I'm almost 30 in a relationship with a younger man - he's 22. This was nice to read, but there is nothing to be ashamed of. Men date younger women all the time and nobody says anything. It's just a number. If you care about each other, have fun, communicate openly and have a good relationship, who cares about age?

Sep 23 09 - 4:33pm
KEM

Rachel Yoder is my college roommate and I love her and I love this story. She's the best.

Sep 23 09 - 5:38pm
Nos

I believe what she had to say was entirely justified. We are all confused and trying to learn in this debacle we call life. She followed her heart. Isn't that what really matters in the end?

Sep 23 09 - 6:24pm
ja

I'm 26, recently dated a 22 year old, and still experienced everything she talked about here - being labeled a cougar, feeling like I had to justify it/make fun of myself by calling him "the kid" "the boy" etc...anyway, this was great, really well written and rang true.

Sep 23 09 - 7:31pm
RM

Nerve has officially jumped the cougar

Sep 23 09 - 8:27pm
Kms

Rachel, like KEM said, you are awesomeouTou have such a gift with words (not that this is new to me). I loved every bit and could relate - we all remember skippy, don't we?

Sep 23 09 - 9:13pm
KT

why would you throw away a love like that? You describe it with such this.. detail.. full of life and vibrancy!
Is moving to Iowa only a "20-year-old" thing to do?
I am 19 years old, and i am in love with someone twice my age - yet that is the only difference. I am in love with a man, and nothing more.
so the question begs to ask, did you break up with Connor because of age or because you really did see the relationship as just another summer fling? In the process of worrying over the label "cougar", i think you may have corrupted what could have been.

Sep 23 09 - 11:27pm
jc

This was a wonderful, beautifully written article.

Sep 24 09 - 11:11am
NE

I hate this label for its predatory connotations. I dated a 28-year old man for awhile when I was 48. We would sit up talking all night when we were together and sometimes talk for hours on the phone when we weren't. I knew it couldn't last -- he knew he wanted to get married and have kids, I'm all done with the kid thing -- and it made me weep to think it would soon be over. But we had so much fun together, the sex was amazing, and he was so kind to me. It ended when I met a man my own age, but we are still good friends, and I cherish his friendship. And yeah, at 50-plus now, it makes me feel really great when he pretend-comes-on to me because I know he'd jump my bones in a heartbeat if I let him and every woman needs somebody like that in her life!

Feb 15 11 - 6:08am
Yusuf

I really like your stories. It is fantastic. nice

Sep 24 09 - 6:01pm
ccm

A lovely story to read. I also have a similar one in progress -- me being in my late 30s and my man 11 years younger. Yoder captured all the society induced anxieties accurately, and the irony of it -- it seems that because of the age difference, I also willingly took a chance - to let myself have some 'fun' so to speak, and surprisingly have watched it unfold, revealing something loving, earnest, and yes - tons of fun! Perhaps dropping the tendency to countdown toward an engagement whenever I met a man with 'potential' - right age, employed, etc. etc. - finally allowed a more genuine, non-agenda me to come out. I'm certainly more in the moment as opposed to in anxiety about "where is this going?" Questions still abound, but it seems easier to take it in stride with this one and just let go.

Sep 24 09 - 6:18pm
hkc

when i was 25 i met the love of my life. he was 18, and we spent the next six years together. when we split, it wasn't because of the age difference, or "what people were saying", it was because of normal long term relationship complications that can clog shit up no matter how in love you are. four years later, he's still one of my best friends. i liked this article a lot, but i have to say...sometimes it really is just a number, and there's no need to attach silly labels.

Sep 24 09 - 7:37pm
dmt

makes me want to cry

Sep 24 09 - 9:18pm
ME

Great writing Rachel! I enjoyed the story. My dad is 18 year older than my mom. Everyone said it wouldn't work but 36 years later... Side note: The Subaru lasted a year and thinking back I prob owe you a 100 bucks.

Sep 26 09 - 3:47am
sxa

I don't think the term cougar should apply to the author. I feel like the cougar phenomenom is about older women chasing after young men/boys in a pathetic attept to recapture their youth. This post reads as a love story with the author deciding that her love for her boyfriend was not strong enough to include him in it as her life changed.

Sep 28 09 - 5:12pm
EM

I would love to see women reacting to a guy justifying a relationship with a younger girl by saying he was "hovering between a conception of" himself as a "boy or man". Hahaha. It's men that are made to justify themselves every time they get an erection - in the States.

Mar 04 10 - 12:13pm
Vinn

I totally understand! I've been thinking about this guy who's just a year younger than me, and already people are talking.

Mar 23 10 - 3:43pm
BR

Thanks to "to" and "KT" for your comments. It really bothered me too how it seemed that she dumped him just because of his age. It

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Feb 27 11 - 4:17pm
Kit Kat

This is just society's way of keeping us women "in our place. I'm in my 30's my boyfriend is late 20's. We look the same age and if the age difference is not mentioned there are no assumptions made.

It's interesting that you have men in their late 40's and 50's who will not date women their age and that is socially acceptable. Well, just like some of them want younger women, not all of us want old men either. I find it hilarious when a 50 plus year old man says a 40 year old is too "mature" for him. I'm like what makes you think the 40 year old wants you when you are like 15 years older than her? They sound silly and it's is why they usually cannot get the younger women they're after, unless the younger woman is looking for a sugar daddy. No woman of any age wants to deal with that midlife crisis crap. Bottom line is that age is just a number but if you date people based only on their age and how they make you look, you have some underlying insecurities going on. Be with someone because you actually care for them and get along. Age should be the last thing two consenting adults should be thinking of if they are on the same page as to what they want from a relationship.

Feb 27 11 - 4:31pm
Kit Kat

Also the whole cougar thing is a put down of women too. Just for the record there are a lot of not so cute 25 year olds in the world, too. It's like saying for example that Kelsey Grammer's or Jesse Jame's new fiance' are more attractive than Angelina Jolie or Monicca Bellucci. The latter women would have to be deceased for these younger women to be deemed more beautiful. Thus, beauty is beauty no matter how old you are and age is just a number. Society needs to stop with the labels. This is why so many women have issues with loving themselves and the "mean girls" growing up into mean women phenomenon, is so prevalent.

Apr 23 11 - 3:08pm
cloud 11

Follow your heart, not your head. I was with this magnificent, Jesus like man, he died eight years ago, he was much older than me but age did not matter if it was your destiny. This time, I am with a man 14 years younger than me, it felt so right in my heart. I am so glad that I can run into love again.

Jun 02 11 - 1:35pm
Kuuipo

I've been single for a while and a much younger, very handsome man has become interested in me. My head says, "don't go there" and my heart says, "isn't it nice to find someone who is kind, respectful, sweet, fun, good-looking, etc. I could go on and on about all of his endearing qualities, and we have great fun together. So far, we haven't ventured past friendship, other than long, sensuous hugs, but I am feeling weak. Men my age don't seem interested in me, but this young man does.
The word cougar implies that the woman is the predator, and I find that very demeaning. In my case, there seems to be mutual interest.
I don't know where this will go. So far, I have only disclosed this with one close friend and her advice to me was to keep it as a great fantasy. And that's what I am going to do for now. Sigh.