Cougar life: Are you man enough, little cub?
It is early evening in Bryanston and impeccably dressed twentysomethings are mixing supper with cocktails and beer at the News Café. Most are in large groups, joining tables and constantly raising their voices to be heard.
The odd exceptions are tables with couples, and groups of men and groups of women. Holding a drink for courage, a few people cross the divide between the groups. By and large, the interactions follow the traditional mating dance: a drink is offered, conversation flows and the couple retires to a table.
In a few cases there is a stark age difference between the men propositioning and the women looking them up and down.
This is cougar central, according to the dating site CougarLife. It has four million members worldwide and 34 000 in South Africa, and it offers the tantalising chance for anyone who signs up to "meet divorcée, single moms and sexy singles looking for a young stud". A controversial billboard over the N1 highway in Johannesburg advertising the website recently said it was "For Mother F***ers". A blonde woman, sitting on a leather couch and cradling a cocktail completed the image.
According to CougarLife, Bryanston has three cougars for every bar in this northern suburb of Johannesburg. The bars and restaurants are sleek and upmarket, and the cars parked outside cost as much as many people's houses.
For younger men, the allure is simple. A friend, seasoned from several tangles with cougars, says: "It's very simple. You both want sex and, unlike younger women, a cougar is honest about it."
Two young men, dressed in jackets and sporting polished black shoes that reflect the bar lights, confirm this. "Girls our age are too hard. They think so little of guys our age."
Women in their mid-20s are disillusioned by the men they have met, so want someone older. By their 40s, they know exactly what they want, they say.
After a shared drink, they become a bit more frank about their motivation. Older women know what they want and cut through the foreplay of drinks and chat when looking for sex. If they like what they see and you can hold their attention in conversation, they will tell you what they want. "All you have to then do is say 'yes'."
Young men in several other bars seem more cavalier – they talk the talk of "hunting a cougar" but seem more interested in the women at their tables. In one case, a man walks up to two older women standing at a tall table and, after a brief conversation, enters a number in his phone. He smiles when he sits. His friend winks.
A similar excursion for a young male reporter is exponentially harder. Interviewing can often be a process of lightly flirting as you work your way to a deeper truth, but in this game people are here to hunt and can see through anyone trying to fake it. There can be no worse game-killer than a mention that you are a journalist delving into a person's mating habits.
The first success comes at a bar counter. It is always less intimidating to talk to one person. But the brunette asks: "Would you want your name in the papers saying you are out looking for men?"
It is a concern that is repeated during the night.
She has been divorced for "a couple of years" and says she is not looking for anything serious, "just fun". She is coy about her age, but volunteers that she is under 50.
(She looks much younger than that upper mark). She came with two friends but they went elsewhere. She does not want to be too far from home.
"I find it easier to find men when I am alone, otherwise they get intimidated." Her eyes scan the other side of the bar and it seems impolite to get in the way of her hunt. This cub moves on.
Cougar was only recently accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary as something other than a North American wild cat. Its meaning has been extended to: "Informal: An older woman seeking a sexual relationship with a younger man."
CougarLife says: "Cougars are looking for some no-strings-attached fun … these sexy older women are on the prowl, looking for a cub so they can take his breath away. She's at her sexual peak and not just proud of her age but ready to flaunt it."
But this definition is problematic. Rights groups say it is sexist branding – a woman looking for sex is seen as an aberration and needs to be branded. A man doing the same thing is "just a man".
However, there is a rarely used label for an older man on the prowl – a manther. One informal definition calls this "a man who carries an unusually fat wallet, wears too much cologne and dresses younger than his age".
There are clearly a few manthers on the prowl – buying drinks for young girls who smile, running a hand along their arms and then leaving for greener pastures. They look as if they are having a midlife crisis and are trying too hard to do what the women achieve effortlessly.
A group of three older women sitting together laugh at the suggestion that they are cougars. "We are just out to have fun. We don't label what we do. How are we any different from all the other people you see here tonight?"
They are here to hang out with friends and are hostile to any further questioning.
Bartenders at two bars laugh at the suggestion that their establishments are frequented by cougars. "Of course, just look around," says one. They normally come in when the sun is setting and have light suppers – salad is a winner – while drinking wine before moving to cocktails.
"What makes this different is there is none of that where the guy has to buy the girl a drink to earn the right to talk to her," says one.
The talk on this particular cold night in July is rarely of sex – people say they are here to "have fun". But the image painted in songs and films is all about sex and an older woman hunting down a partner for this duet.
Popular culture's first take on the cougar seems to be the 1960s film The Graduate. In it, Anne Bancroft seduces a much younger man. Dustin Hoffman asks: "Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs Robinson?"
The cougar title has kept growing in stature. When Demi Moore started dating Ashton Kutcher, 15 years her junior, celebrity sites ran with headlines like "cougar Demi Moore dating yet another toy boy".
But even with the excitable headlines, cougars are becoming mainstream. Marlo Jordan, the current American holder of the Miss CougarLife title, says the attraction to younger men is simple. "Cubs don't have any baggage, no inflated sense of self, and they're extremely confident, unlike many older men who can be intimidated by a strong, sexy woman."