Shorter New York Times: High-school-age girls who date boys a year or two younger are predatory and suspect. It’s more normal for them to date college-age men, because of course there is nothing at all sketchy about an adult man in college who wants to date a 15-year-old.
RECENTLY, as I heard my daughter, a junior in high school, and her friends discuss their plans for the prom, I had a vaguely troubling thought: can a 16-year-old be a cougar?
Her best friends wanted to take boys younger than themselves (much younger … two entire grades younger) to the prom. And one of those boys just happened to be my ninth-grade son.
Two entire grades?! Those deviants.
Back in my prom days (when the big slow dance was still “Stairway to Heaven”), I went with a boy who was not just taller than me, but older as well. O.K., I was only a few months younger than him, but that still mattered to my friends and me. We would never have even considered venturing out to the prom, let alone the school parking lot, with a boy in a lower grade, unless we were baby-sitting him.
High school years were like dog years back then. A one-year difference might as well have been a seven-year span, which is why the older boys looked so much wiser and more sophisticated than the boys our own age with acne. To score a college boyfriend was a real coup.
Senior boys have taken younger girls to prom since forever. But when girls do it, they’re “cougars”? They’re predatory or weird?
In fact, it sounds like the girls are just trying to avoid the sometimes-crappy power dynamics that come with dating someone older:
Said Charlotte about Josh, who is her first boyfriend: “I just feel so much more comfortable with him than I do around older guys. This feels easier as I can just be myself around him.”
And Josh sounds like a winner:
“I think my relationship with Charlotte has made the kids in our two grades get to know each other much better,” Josh said, adding that he feels honored to be with Charlotte. “I really respect her. I am willing to admit that she is older than me and has more confidence and experience. I think I prefer dating a senior to someone my own age.”
Doesn’t sound like a bad thing, does it?
But if Kate Burkhardt, a junior at Dartmouth College, is correct, the cougar-in-training trend could continue as these high schoolers get older. She dated her high school boyfriend, one grade below her, through her freshman year of college. They finally broke up when he went to college.
“It was hard because we were having such different experiences,” she said, adding, “But here at Dartmouth we have a saying, ‘Get the guy before he pledges.’ ”
“A lot of my friends are dating freshmen,” she said. “That way you grab them before they are corrupted by fraternity brothers.”
So in other words, girls are dating boys they like, and are trying to date boys who are nice and respectful to them — something they don’t necessarily see from older boys. Instead of looking at this and saying, “Well it’s actually pretty normal to date people who are a year or two older or younger,” the Times reporter brands a bunch of 17-year-olds “cougars in training.”
I actually am a little skeptical of relationships where there’s a large age difference, and where that age difference reflects a major gap in life experience — which is why I think that, for example, a college sophomore dating a junior in high school would likely pose more issues with power imbalances/potentially predatory behavior than a 30-year-old dating a 34-year-old, even though the age gap is the same. But when both students are in high school? Or everyone is in college? The experience gap isn’t quite as large. And it’s more about finding a nice person in your peer group (key term there: peer group) who you want to spend time with.
It sounds like the girls and the boys here are doing everything right. They’re seeking out boys who are within a year or two of their own age, and they’re choosing boyfriends because those particular boys are nice and kind and respectful, and they respect those boys in turn; the boys are choosing girlfriends who are within a year or two of their own age, and who are nice and kind and respectful, and who they respect. But because the girls are doing something that boys have done forever, their behavior is problematized, and they’re tagged with the “cougar” slur.
Perhaps the reporter should be happy that her daughter is apparently a self-confident and bright young woman in a healthy relationship, instead of calling her hateful names and using her dating life as ridiculous trend-piece linkbait.