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MAY-DECEMBER (lose the Cougar)

In 2003, the very beginning of online dating, I created my profile as a wild experiment. I posted an up-to-date photo and my true age, 60. Most of the men who contacted me spoke in tongues about what they wanted, but Ken, a 37-year-old policeman was clear. He wanted a “friend with benefits” I asked him to define the term and he said, “You’re friends but you also get laid. Who doesn’t want to get laid from time to time?” Yes, that was exactly what I wanted.

“Why did you choose me?” I asked. “Haven’t you heard that men like younger women?”

“You guys know what you want. You’re not always worried about your hair and don’t want to know when we’re getting married.”  He patted the bed. “Besides, once you make it this far, it doesn’t matter.”

Ken’s hard-working mother had worked hard to raise him. Out of high school, he drove a bread truck, among other things, and then became a policeman. From him, I learned how hard-scrabble people look at life. They have nothing to back them up, so they need sound strategies and courage. I came to appreciate the family resources I had that could bail me out and realized how soft-headed I’d been about many of my decisions. When it came to street wisdom and guts, the kind that save you from yourself, Ken learned more driving a bread truck than I learned in college.

Our arrangement was meant to get us both through a time that otherwise would be lonely and arid. I was “conducting a research project,” as my friend Carolyn called it, dating different men, reading the profiles of hundreds, answering their emails and phone calls, learning lessons I wished I had learned long ago.

Ken aspired to having a wife and family, and a year after we met, he told me that he’d run into an old girlfriend at a party, the one he’d always loved. Two months later he told me they were getting married, and our liaison ended. I was sad for a while.

On the eve of his wedding, he called me at 2:30am in his cups. He went on for quite a while. “Ann, I can’t do this. I don’t want to go through with this.”

“Dear Ken, this is what you said you always wanted, to have a family, and in particular to have a family with this particular woman. You’ve got what you wanted. Go take it.”

The last time we were in touch, he was leaving to pick up his wife for their 13th wedding anniversary dinner. Their kids were with their grandmother. I had been happily married for a while, too.

Older women are thought to be “No trouble. No drama.” That may be true superficially, but get past the surface and there are wounds, loss, and survival. There may also be defiance of norms they’d been forced to obey, people they ‘d been forced to endure. They well may have rid themselves of inhibitions (aided by the free gift of no fear of pregnancy) that limited them when they were younger. They absolutely don’t deserve to be reduced to the word “cougar.”

In one episode of the television series, Masters of Sex, Dr. Masters presents his research findings to a room full of doctors, all male in his era. He tells them that despite the myth-making about males, women are the sexual champions. They can have sex all day long and all life long (barring an impediment of course). The doctors are so outraged by the bursting of their bubble that they start to walk out and by the end of the talk, the room is half empty.

In May-December liaisons, the older woman is receptive to a younger lover, of course, but the younger lover is also attracted to her. Her wisdom, experience, and calm make him comfortable, though sometimes a long-buried monster appears. The young man can learn from that, too.

I feel pretty sure that the older women around me when I was growing up, widows all, who seemed sterile and sexless, had strategies for fun and pleasure that were well hidden. I was almost 50 when I learned that my great aunt, who died when I was 30, had had a relationship after her sainted husband died with a man who lived in Little Falls .

In centuries past, it was fashionable to pretend that young women maintained their virginity until marriage. Blessedly, that myth has been shattered. Now it’s time to shatter the myth that older women grow desperate and melancholy as they grow older, turning to young men to save them from their despair. It’s just as likely to be the other way around.