There was an especially intense electric charge in West Hollywood on the night of Thursday, May 15. The California supreme court had ruled that morning in favor of gay people’s freedom to marry, and the thousands who had gathered in WeHo for a celebratory rally were now pouring into the nightclubs along Santa Monica Boulevard. Among those carousing at Platinum, a popular women’s party at the bar East/ West, was Jackie Warner, the star of the Bravo reality series Work Out. Tanned, blond, buff, and 39 years old, Warner was beaming as two of her 20-something ex-girlfriends, Mimi and Brianna, circled nearby.
The following day, Ellen DeGeneres, 50, proudly announced on her TV talk show that she would marry her longtime love, 35-year-old Portia de Rossi. And when Melissa Etheridge turned 47 a few weeks later, she undoubtedly celebrated with her 33-year-old wife, Tammy Lynn Michaels.
The common thread among these high-profile couples is the presence of “cougars”–older women dating younger women, proving that Demi Moore, Madonna, and Ivana Trump aren’t the only ones who get to enjoy the company of a sexy younger partner. Women are extending the prime of their youth well into middle age. Acting their age no longer means being a boring homebody or settling down. As Mariah Hanson, the 47-year-old founder of the modern Dinah Shore Weekend, puts it, “I think women are suddenly realizing it’s not over at 40.”
ON THE PROWL
Cougars are everywhere: At the box office the ultimate chick flick, Sex and the City, features four middle-aged women, including sex-pot Kim Cattrall, whose character turned 50 and still eats younger men for dessert. In porn, once solely the domain of women under 25, lesbian cougar flicks regularly join MILF titles in sexy solidarity. Cameron Diaz recently turned in a cougar parody on Saturday Night Live with her current big-screen costar Ashton Kutcher (himself dating the world’s most famous cougar), and The L Word’s last season featured a prominent cougar story line.
Lesbian cougars are more visible these days, largely because lesbians are more visible, but age-disparate relationships among women have “been going on forever,” says Savage Love sex columnist Dan Savage. “That is what Sappho was: an older lesbian attracted to a younger lesbian.”
The lesbian cougar’s motivation is as age-old as the island of Lesbos itself: Being around younger women simply makes an older woman feel young. And, as Grace Moon, a 40-year-old adjunct professor in New York City and the managing editor of OurChart.com, says, “Being able to relate to someone in their 20s–and keeping a flexible attitude–is a healthy thing to do.”
Adds comic Poppy Champlin, who gives her age as “40s,” when you date a younger woman, “you pick up a sense of their youthfulness. And hopefully they’ll want to have more sex–it’ll keep my sexual libido pumping.”
Plus, the younger your partner, the less likely you’ll have to deal with the romantic baggage and bitterness of women who’ve been around the block, says Kennedy Varellas, a Glendora, Calif.-based customer service rep for a prominent straight dating website. Although Varellas is only 31, she considers herself a cougar because she routinely dates women eight to 10 years younger. “They have fewer stories to tell about being screwed over by somebody,” she says.
Varellas also sees her younger girlfriends as a way to balance her own 30-something pessimism. “These women have so much potential,” she says. “They have these huge dreams and goals. As opposed to me-I’m so cynical. They are still so determined in their goals and who they want to be as a person. They kind of string me along for the ride.”
Though older men both straight and gay have long enjoyed the pleasures of younger company without too many raised eyebrows, women taking on younger mates have earned the moniker cougar, a term loaded with aggressive insinuations. Cougars are constantly on the prowl for prey. “It’s about a wild time, even just the word cougar,” says queer sex columnist Rachel Kramer Bussel. “The Demi Moore model is an interesting thing. It’s been an actual relationship, and that sort of throws that cougar stereotype on its head.”
Not every lesbian cougar identifies with the predatory image. Mariah Hanson says that the first time her production managers called her “the Coug,” she laughed. But “I don’t relate to that,” she adds. “I’m in a relationship with someone who has so established herself,” she says of her girlfriend, Kathy Valenti, 34. “She’s so amazing. She’s just very mature and together.”
As Hanson sees it, “someone who’s 25 and taking up with a 45-year-old because she’s got a career path in mind–that’s not a cougar relationship, that’s a relationship of opportunity.”
Kiki Fries, a 30-year-old psychology researcher based in Miami, is even more blunt: “I don’t mind the term cougar, but I hate the term sugar mama.”
Savage points out that the rise of power lesbians such as Hanson and DeGeneres has contributed to the visibility of lesbian cougar relationships. “There are more women out there who can be the set-up, well-preserved, powerful cougar than there could be a generation ago,” he says. “But 30 years ago there weren’t rich and powerful women, let alone rich and powerful lesbians who were out and who you could identify.”
That might be why, following the aftermath of the California supreme court ruling, E.D. Hill, a guest host on Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor, quipped of the DeGeneres and De Rossi pairing, “How did a 50-year-old woman get a 35-year-old woman?”
“Because they are women, it sticks out,” says Savage. “It wouldn’t register if Portia was dating Alec Baldwin, because it’s so common and we see it so often with straight men.”
Still, there are those who are uncomfortable with intergenerational relationships regardless of the gender of the people involved. “A lot of people in general, whether gay or straight, when they see an age difference, they wonder, What’s going on?” Fries says. “They assume it must be something messed up.”
Savage thinks that people in general are a little too sensitive about the age thing. “The older person usually brings power and status, the younger person brings youth and beauty, and that power balance sometimes creeps people out,” he explains. “Some women are attracted to women who are more powerful because they are powerful. It’s part of the point. There’s the whole trope that lesbian relationships take perverse pride in–it’s all very egalitarian and wonka wonka. But there’s a desire for that power balance just as in straight relationships.”
Even among gay men, age- disparate relationships are more commonly seen and accepted. Famous couples include Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy–who, though they were separated in age by over three decades, were a committed couple from 1953 until Isherwood’s death in 1986–and Armistead Maupin, 64, and Christopher Turner, 36. “There’s a kind of well-documented history of intergenerational dating among gay males,” sexpert Tristan Taormino says. “Many men have experiences with an older guy–the daddy relationship. I don’t know that it’s as visible or as documented or as written about among lesbians.”
Grace Moon thinks there’s more than a whiff of sexism at play. “It’s a bunch of bullshit. Harrison Ford doesn’t have a special title,” she says. “When women are not acting within the heteronormative set of rules they get these special titles.”
THE HUNTERS BECOME THE HUNTED
Although the term cougar implies a predatory relationship, Fries says it’s often the other way around. “The irony is it’s usually the younger woman hitting on the older woman, but cougar references the older woman.”
J.D. Disalvatore, a 42-year-old lesbian filmmaker and activist can attest to that. While she holds court in the smoking area outside East/West, her short silver-white coif glistens as she greets a never-ending stream of friends passing by, which might be why her nickname is “the Mayor.”
“I have never experienced so many women hitting on me in my life,” she laughs, pointing to her gray hair and glasses. “And it’s funny how many younger people hit on me. I used to be thin and hot and young and [the attention] was never as consistent as it is now.” Unfortunately for those attentive younger women, Disalvatore prefers dating women her own age.
Poppy Champlin agrees, though unlike her friend Disalvatore, she frequently dates the younger set; when she was 40 she dated a 23-year-old woman for eight months. Champlin, with a shoulder-length blond bob, has a soft-butch touch; she’s sweet and tough and just assured enough to let you know who’s in charge. And that, say many women interviewed for this article, is the reason so many younger women seek out older women. Cougars, Champlin says, are pursued for “their knowledge and their experience.”
It was this experience that Champlin herself sought when she was just coming out after graduating from high school, dating an older woman in her early 30s who had taught sports at her alma mater. “I was infatuated with her,” she says. “I was just knowing my gayness. She was blatantly gay and she didn’t care what people thought. It was a turn-on to see such a strong, independent woman doing her own thing, living her own life. Goddamn, that was hot.”
For many of the younger women, the cougar represents confidence and stability–especially when compared to their 20-something friends.
Mariah Hanson’s partner, Kathy Valenti, is an emergency room trauma nurse. Valenti says she usually dates older women in part because she couldn’t relate to the immaturity of girls her own age. “I can’t go out every night,” she says, referring to younger lesbians who party till the crack of dawn. Her day job is serious business, she notes. “You are dealing with people’s lives. You have to be on your toes; you never know what kind of day you are going to have.”
Before meeting her current 26-year-old partner, Kiki Fries dated older women almost exclusively. “I saw a lot of friends my age go through addiction issues,” she says. “I didn’t want to surround myself with people doing drugs. I found that dating people older than me took me out of the younger party realm.”
But it turned out Fries got more stability than she bargained for; her last lover was 12 years older and happy to spend nights cooking dinner and renting movies. “Her energy levels were lower, and I wanted to go out more, do more social things,” Fries says. “We got in a lot of arguments. She felt like I was putting too much pressure on her to be more social. My wish list in life is long: travel, career, a Ph.D. Having more than a decade between us, her wish list is much shorter–most of it is already done.”
There is also the cultural gap to contend with, says 27-year-old GO Magazine columnist Katie Liederman. “When I was dating a 47-year-old woman, there were so many references I wasn’t getting from the early ’80s,” she remembers. Similarly, her girlfriend couldn’t always understand her younger perspective. “I like connecting with the person and making a reference and having them get it.”
MEETING OF THE MINDS
The predominant response from many of the women interviewed for this story is that the age differences don’t really even register anymore. Fries describes her current partner as an “old soul.” And Hanson says that instead of focusing on the number of years, “there’s a certain way of approaching aging that is much more vibrant and committed to really living your life as fully as possible. In that sense, it wouldn’t really matter what age it was that you were dating, but the state of the mind of the person that you’re dating. It’s just a meeting of minds, a like philosophy about your experience of life.”
She points to a classic cougar couple who got together in the ’80s and are still going strong: “Susan Sarandon–s-e-x-y, going out with a younger guy, she’s a coug. That’s sexy; she’s hot. Tim Robbins–that guy’s brilliant. You don’t wonder why she’s dating him; he’s good-looking, but he’s cerebral.”
Varellas thinks that female relationships, no matter what the age difference, are often more emotionally connected than relationships between men and women and gay men. “I take these phone calls every single day,” she says of her work at the dating site. “All the guys care about is ‘What do they look like?’ And every call from a woman is, ‘Why don’t they have introductory information filled out? I really want to get to know this person.'”
But when it comes down to it, lesbians are just like anyone else. They have libidos. They like sex, and they sometimes like it more when their partners are young and attractive. “I don’t go out thinking to myself, I am gonna go and pick up a 26-year-old,” Moon says. “It just so happens a pretty girl catches my eye, and it happens that we end up in bed together. And all the girls in the last year have all been in their 20s,” she adds, laughing.
Or, as Disalvatore says, “For lesbians over 40, if you had your choice of dating a 40-year-old or a hot and sexy 25-year-old, who would you pick?”