In this town, even a blind man could tell you that the streets are filled with gorgeous women. Just head to the College of Charleston where many girls care more about their looks than their GPA. And there's no argument that the Market is jam packed with attractive young women on a Saturday night.
But the good looks of the city are not limited to young co-eds and 20-something party girls. Both west of the Ashley and east of the Cooper lie suburban bastions of beauty. Toss in a high divorce rate and you've also got plenty of older single ladies looking for a good time.
If 40 is the new 30 and the 21-year-old bus boy has a nice ass, what's to stop these feisty, mature women from finding a guy with a little youth on his side? And if you're a broke, 21-year-old bus boy getting hit on by a woman in better shape than your girlfriend, what have you got to lose? Ladies and gentlemen, we're talking about cougars and their prey.
We don't need to tell you what a cougar is. The term is now part of the American lexicon, and cougars themselves have become a part of popular culture.
Cougars have been depicted on television (Sex and the City's Samantha) and on the silver screen (Stifler's Mom in the American Pie flicks.)
There's a self-help book (Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men), an online community (Urbancougar.com), and two reality shows, The Cougar, in which young men compete, a la The Bachelor, for the attention of a 40-year-old woman and VH1's 2005 show Kept, featuring former supermodel Jerry Hall as she sifts through a crowd of young beaus.
And, of course, there's the mother of all cougars — Demi Moore, who in 2005 married actor Ashton Kutcher despite the fact that he was 15 years her junior.
But while cougars are typically successful, confident, and sexually experienced women, who, as Urban Dictionary claims, "will not play the usual bullshit games that women in their early 20s participate in," the term is generally considered to be a pejorative.
Ginger Emas, a divorced freelance writer, is a petite yet feisty redhead that can stop anyone in their tracks with her megawatt smile. She was originally far from flattered by the term. She says, "The first time I was called a cougar, I did not think it was in any way complimentary."
Luckily, a friend offered an encouraging insight, telling Emas that a cougar is sleek, confident, and powerful. Armed with this outlook on the cougar phenomenon, Emas slowly changed her mind about the much-maligned term.
"I have always dated men younger than me," she says. "There are lots of women who tend to date certain kinds of men. 'Younger men' is just another type."
As for why Emas likes younger men she says, "[They] have a ton of energy, and they tend to be up for anything. They also really appreciate a woman who knows what she wants, how to give, and how to enjoy herself."
She adds, "Here's the truth, and I didn't make this up: I read it somewhere and confirmed it by asking all my guy friends if it's true. It is. When an older woman is about to have sex with her younger guy, she's thinking, 'My boobs are too low, my stomach's too big, my butt is too flat.' The younger guy is thinking, 'Yay! She's naked!' "
And once the action starts, Emas says it's "hot, long, lots of round twos."
Corky Summers shakes off the cougar title completely. "Let me just state clearly, up front, that I am not a cougar," she says.
The closest hint that Summers offers about her age is that she has a 32-year–old daughter. With hazel eyes to match her long brunette locks, Summers possesses the confident beauty that could easily pass for that of a soap opera starlet.
"I do not hang out in places looking for younger men," the mother says. She does, however seek out men who share her same interests and hobbies (she likes the beach and the mountains), regardless of their age. "The limiting factor is that probably 99 percent of those men who are single are younger."
Pop culture may claim that cougars are strong and powerful, but few women have found the same silver lining as Ginger Emas. The truth is that calling a woman a cougar is a gamble. It's like telling your wife she's got a huge ass; even if you follow up with "...but huge asses are hot right now, dear," you're still going to get slapped.
The website Dateacougar.com is just one of a number of dating sites built around the lore of the cougar hunt. Taken together, these sites perpetuate the unsavory image that gives the term cougar its sometimes bad reputation.
Targeted at young men in their 20s, the site is filled with personal-ad profiles of older women. The women aren't portrayed standing in confident poses of sexual authority. Quite the opposite. Many of the site's cougars are depicted posing like a college co-ed ready for her Girls Gone Wild boob flash. Burdened with heavy eyeliner, sallow complexions, and plenty of wrinkles, these women perpetuate the sad side of the cougar stereotype. Many look as if they've been beaten down by some side of life. Their desire for a younger man seems like the dating equivalent of the quest for the fountain of youth.
The negative connotations of cougar-dom are enough to make any woman embarrassed. Even after 20 years of marriage, "Margaret" scoffs at the mention of cougars.
"So if I'm sitting at a bar enjoying a glass of wine while my husband is out of town on business, someone might mistake me for a cougar?" says Margaret, who asked that we not use her real name.
A retired South of Broad entrepreneur, Margaret sees the term as yet another sexist double standard. "How are those women any different than those sleazy old men who stake out Rue de Jean every weekend looking for an 18-year-old piece of ass?" she asks.
The simple fact is that there exists no male counterpart to the female cougar. It's simply too commonplace for an older man to seek out a younger woman. No playful terms required.
But if certain downtown watering holes like Raval and Henry's on the Market are reportedly hot spots for older male patrons in search of young tail, then what places are their female counterparts supposedly hitting?
Downtown, it seems as if cougars flock to both the Pavilion Bar and the Rooftop Bar at Vendue Inn. Meanwhile, wine bar Social also appears to have a healthy flow of cougar business thanks to its extremely friendly bartenders clad in "Wine Stud" tees.
West of the Ashley, Pearlz is often cited as an alleged cougar-favored hangout, while J. Paul'z is thought to be the place of choice for James Island cougars, thanks to the restaurant's martini list and night-on-the-town tapas menu.
According to Bud Huber, bar manager at J. Paul'z, the older female clientele he serves are quite different from the ready-to-pounce cougars of pop culture. "As a general rule, these women aren't really hitting aggressively on younger men," Huber says. "Mostly they're fairly mellow, kind of under the radar. They're just kind of quiet women that are not married or are still single, and people piegonhole them into being a cougar."
But perhaps no other area conjures up cougar fantasies like Mt. Pleasant.
As the most Stepford wives-ish area of the Lowcountry, there are plenty of reasons why folks think of this as the mythical cougar's natural habitat. It's also home to what some believe to be the heart of Charleston's cougar phenomenon, Red Drum Gastropub.
Chris Mills is a 26-year-old with a slight resemblance to Jude Law. He currently waits tables while working on a master's degree in accounting. He clearly remembers the first time that he and two friends ventured away from the typical routine of Upper King Street in search of cougars. "My friend John was all hyped because he heard, from somebody, that Red Drum was the cougar hangout of Charleston. My roommate seconded that opinion," Mills says.
The word on the streets was very specific: Wednesday night was the prime time to meet cougars. "I don't know why Wednesday," the grad student says. "What's special about it?
Mills, who typically dates girls in their early to mid-20s, is honest about his initial motivation. "I was trying to meet an older woman," he says frankly, "like 40 or something."
From the moment that they arrived at Red Drum, Mills was surprised by just how right that rumor appeared to be. "It was exactly what I thought it was going to be like," he says.
Upon entering into the upscale restaurant, one is almost surprised by the understated elegance of the décor and layout. The bar is spacious and well stocked with wines, and the bartenders are cordial and attentive. "There were a bunch of older people, drinking," observed Mills. "More women than guys."
One might expect the reportedly top cougar joint in town to be run by a herd of muscle-bound mixologists with a loud soundtrack in the background and flashing lights overhead, hallmarks of those buzzwords "youth" and "fun," but Red Drum draws a refined crowd by offering a superb menu, extensive cocktail options, and a subdued environment in which to enjoy them both. In hindsight, it seems logical that this place would become a favored restaurant for many of the city's well-educated, professional women.
According to Charles Chance, general manager of Red Drum, the unofficial "cougar night" at the gastropub may have gotten its start when a local DJ christened Wednesday with the designation.
"Unfortunately we had some near and dear friends of ours that were good customers that were irate because they thought that we sponsored it," Chance says. "They didn't come in for two months, and then they let me know why."
Chance says that he was offended by the designation. "There was no way, shape, or form that was something that we put out there to put more money in our pockets and sort of make women feel like they're some sort of predatorial commodity."
On the night of Mills' cougar hunt, he and his friends left without even a phone number. But what may be harder than scoring digits from a cougar is living up to her expectations. Cougars can be scarred from failed relationships and worried about how they might measure up to younger girls.
"We want to meet nice guys but we have a hard time believing they're out there," says Ginger Emas. "We want to try another relationship, but we don't know how it will fit with our kids, our work, our lives."
Guys in their 20s seldom want to align themselves with those adornments of an older woman's life.
Take Mills for example. "I wasn't looking for a long term thing," he says. "I was looking for a week or two with someone that could pay for drinks."
It may sound shallow, but perhaps much of the lust that some young men have for cougars is a product of their own laziness. Free from the stress of the constant dating driver's seat, being with a cougar allows a man to play the role of a young, impressionable companion. "It's nice to meet a girl who will lead the way every once in a while," Mills says.
"Cougars know so much more than you — you're a little intimidated and in your place," the 26-year-old grad student adds. "It's kind of cool to be put in that different sort of position."