Dani Garavelli: Cougar or cradle-snatcher?

WHEN it comes to the concept of cougars – women over 30 who seduce younger men – I think I’m distinctly off-message.

Apparently, such creatures are symbols of female empowerment. According to Valerie Gibson, author of a book on the phenomenon, they are “confident, sophisticated, desirable and sexy” women who want great sex without “children, cohabitation or commitment”.

Admittedly, on one level, the concept of sex without strings is liberating. But it also seems to me to represent the flipside of feminism: the notion that equality depends on them being as narcissistic and emotionally detached as many of their male counterparts have proved to be.

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At the same time, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with women choosing to form relationships with younger men. Personally, I can’t see the appeal of a partner who likes rap and can’t tear himself away from his Xbox long enough to make me a nice cup of tea, even if he is in peak physical condition. But if Madonna wants to date 24-year-old French dancer Brahim Zaibat (even though her relationship with 22-year-old model Jesus Luz broke up when she realised they’d nothing in common) it’s nobody’s business but hers.

And to be fair, lots of relationships with big age differences do go the distance: Barbara Windsor is 31 years older than her husband Scott Mitchell and they’ve been married since 2000, which must be at least 77 showbusiness years.

The problem with ITV2’s Xtra Factor host Caroline Flack is not her cougar tendencies; it’s that, at 32, she is to all intents and purposes dating a child.

At 17, One Direction singer Harry Styles may be over the legal age of consent. But the urge that his mop of curls, slightly acned forehead and stubble-free chin provokes in most women over 21 is to succour not seduce him.

Of course, we don’t know for sure Flack is doing any more than acting as a mother figure; it is entirely possible the overnight bag she was seen clutching last week was merely a receptacle for his dirty washing. But the drunken kiss, the sneaking around and the coyly evasive answers they have given to questions about their relationship have done nothing to dispel the perception that they are doing more than toasting marshmallows at their sleepovers.

When not giggling like a schoolgirl about the whole thing, Flack has been on the defensive. “It’s a social thing that people aren’t accepting of big age gaps,” she has said. But the truth is, if she were 45 and he were 30, no-one would have batted an eyelid; it’s Styles’ immaturity and the power imbalance that’s the issue. Just as it would have been if 38-year-old X Factor host Dermot O’Leary had paired up with 17-year-old contestant Janet Devlin.

Clearly, it doesn’t merit the death threats Flack has been receiving from jealous One Direction fans. But when you think that most boys Styles’ age are studying for their A-levels, their relationship seems inappropriate at best and, at worst, predatory.

This is a difficult stance to take, because I know, even as I write, young men will be sneering. Half of them will be saying: “I wish Caroline Flack would prey on me”; the rest will be implying I’m jealous because there’s more chance of Louis Walsh marrying Tulisa than there is of any handsome young pop star showing an interest in me.

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We live in a culture where a boy losing his virginity to an older woman is seen as the ultimate male fantasy. If anyone suggested to Styles that his liaison with Flack was potentially harmful, he would doubtless laugh in their face. But it doesn’t matter that he is up for it. You only had to watch the excruciating exchange on The Xtra Factor, where Styles was reduced to a gibbering wreck, scarcely able to look Flack in the eyes, to see how ripe he is for exploitation.

At a time when he should be enjoying adolescent fumblings with an equally doe-eyed girl, he has put himself at the mercy of a woman who looks as if she could eat him for breakfast.

With Styles saying he’d like to take her on a date to McDonald’s, it’s hard to believe Flack won’t tire of him. And what then? Will he be able to cope with the public rejection, or will it make him wary of future relationships? When he looks back at his first love, will he feel nostalgia or a sense of humiliation?

For all their sexual bravado, most 17-year-old boys are still in puberty; their hormones are raging, their moods all over the place, and they are very much in need of protection.

Of course, it is possible this whole are-they-or-aren’t-they furore is nothing more than a publicity stunt dreamed up to raise viewing figures for the The X Factor final or sales for One Direction’s album.

But the drooling puppy-dog expression on Styles’ face whenever he comes in range of Flack suggests one of them at least is taking it seriously. With this in mind, she really should take care. Forging a reputation as a cougar is one thing; but cradle-snatching a boy barely old enough to shave is quite another.