"I was told that if I played this song, I'd get a lot of people on the dance floor," said Jeff the DJ. He had been absentmindedly scrolling through his iTunes. The next words came from Gloria Gaynor, proclaiming that she had been, at first, both afraid and petrified. A handful of women came to the center of the dance floor, ignoring the men. This song was for the women. They'd earned it. And you don't have to be a shrink to understand why I Will Survive had a resonance at the California Cougar Convention at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Beverly Hills.
This "convention," held on a Friday night earlier this month, was a way for "cougars" (women over 40 who are single and exclusively date men at least ten years younger) and "cubs" (the younger male side of the equation) to mingle and add another cliched pairing to the pile. The rules of cougardom have been established over the past half-decade by a handful of celebrity couplings. "It seems like every Hollywood starlet is dating young guys," Rich Gosse said, through his 80s used car salesman mustache. "Alex Rodriguez dating Madonna. Ashton Kutcher dating and marrying Demi Moore. The whole phenomenon is growing right now." Gosse has been organizing singles events from his home in San Francisco for more than a decade, but the recent cultural enthusiasm for the buzzword 'cougar' has allowed him to target a niche audience. "The only thing I'm concerned about is: does the news media love the word? And that answer is: yes."
Gosse delivered his sales pitch while sponsors set up booths in the hallway. "Here's what's awesome," said Molly, my girlfriend, pointing at a nearby booth. She had come partly out of her own morbid curiosity and partly to take photos for the Vice essay that was my reason for being here. "The candies they have here are old lady candies." She was right. Laid out on the table of Rapid Dating Consultant Renee Piane, as an incentive for people to linger a bit and check out her brochure, were those same butterscotch hard candies your grandma always had in her purse. These tiny indicators, to remind you that tonight's participants weren't the usual drunken club debaucher set, were all over the place.
"We left the more explicit toys at home," said Courtney Meredith from Love Shack Parties, a sex toy/lotion/lingerie company based out of Long Beach. Worried that women attending might not be the most sexually liberated around, they brought along subtler versions of their products. This concern turned out to be legit-they were forced to hide their more phallic vibrators after a couple of cougars complained they were "too racy". (The evening's gift bag, it should be noted, included four different types of lube, which seems a bit excessive, even when taking into account the age of the female attendees.)
Women began arriving. "Don't go home early," Gosse pleaded with the sparse crowd during Cougar School, a 10-minute class scheduled before the main event. Its intention was to help cougars address pertinent questions, like who picks up the check and who initiates sex. "There's a lot of people on their way who haven't made it yet. Lot of traffic jams, they tell me, down here in Southern California." Sig alerts must have been raging; the school was attended by eight actual cougars and 11 members of the media.
A small woman in a red backless-and-bedazzled dress caught my eye. She was facing the corner of the room and pantomiming some kind of routine, just like Miss Lonelyhearts does during the saddest scene of Rear Window. "She's wearing low-heeled character shoes," said Molly. "You only wear those if you're doing community theater." This woman was known as Unique Monique. She is the type of performer who sings a religious-themed lyric while making the sign of the cross, synchronizing each tap on her body with a beat in the song, in earnest. She was brought on to warm up the crowd after Cougar School and before the keynote speech.
Awkwardly, but somewhat expectedly, she ended her set by pushing her own political agenda. "I'm behind an effort to stop de-clawing cats," Unique Monique said, quite seriously. "There's going to be a big vote in Berkeley, if anyone's near there on Tuesday." She quickly changed into her 'just joking around' onstage accent. "And ladies, we're cougars. We need our claws!"
Later that night, Monique would be hit on by an early-20s Asian version of Russell Brand. He used the following pickup line: "So, you're all into animal rights and stuff?"
As more actual cougars and cubs began to trickle in-my final count of attendees that night was somewhere between 150-200-so did the number of people there to exploit them. Four skeevy guys hovered on the sidelines with a video camera and clipboard full of legal releases. "We tell them we're looking for 'America's Hottest Cougar,'" said Mitch, a producer. They were looking for a particular type of cougar that made up, maybe, 15% of the ladies present: tucked, tanned into leather, collagen-injected, fake-breasted and comfortable (perhaps excessively so) in front of their camera.
Their plan was to film an introduction with the cougar downstairs in the comfort of the crowd, have them sign a waiver that gives them control over whatever else they film that night-and then invite them upstairs to a hotel room. There, after prying them with some alcohol and kind words, they'd talk them out of their cleavage-accentuating halter tops and use the footage for whatever "Cougars Gone Wild"-like film they could sell. "We'll probably get two or three tonight," Mitch said. Then he revealed his secret weapon to getting the women to sign away their dignity. "They don't find me threatening because I'm gay."
They were nowhere to be found during the dance party portion of the evening to come. One presumes their night was profitable.
Someone who would have been high on his wish list was the night's winner of the title Miss Cougar California. Her name was Tyana. Upon entering the party, each cub was given a plastic coin to give to whichever cougar he prefered-each would arrive at his own definition of what exactly that meant. Tyana received the most coins and claimed a prize package that included a gift certificate for laser removal, a copy of the Ashton Kutcher vehicle Spread and a "free berth" on the International Cougar Cruise. It departs out of San Diego this December. There on the open seas, Miss Cougar will have her pick of the cubs who will pay their own way, with the sole purpose of bedding an older lady.
Which makes this as good a time as any to bring up the compelling question: Why, exactly, are young men trying to have sex with older ladies anyway?
"She is the total package," said Lucia about the lure of the cougar to the cub. Lucia was the keynote speaker. For her expertise on the subject of older women dating younger men, she's been dubbed the "Queen of the Cougar Jungle" by local radio stations. "She has her act together mentally, emotionally, spiritually, psychically and sexually. People say we're desperate, aggressive and unattractive. Look around this room. Do you see desperate, aggressive and unattractive?"
"I see that first one," said the cub next to me under his breath. For this kind of cub-the kind who wouldn't look out of place at a Jersey Shore club, four popped collars and all-the night's $30 fee was a ticket to a feeding frenzy, with their nubile genitals acting as the chum. But there was also another kind of cub present, one who saw the event less as an all you can eat buffet of varicose veins and more just the place where the women they preferred happened to congregate.
"I've always just gone to places that catered to older women," said Malik, a 39-year-old cub. "They're more even-handed and can deal with stuff better. They've heard all the b.s. and are just out there to have fun." Malik pointed out that this cougar phenomenon was around long before ABC premiered Cougartown. "When I was 20, they were called MILFs. Now, every 23-year-old who has a baby says she's a MILF. You can't be a MILF until one of your son's or daughter's friends is checking you out. Then you are officially a MILF."
The reason behind the change in terminology from MILF to cougar is simple: It's about women taking back control.
MILF is the popular acronym for "Mother I'd Like to Fuck." This is a title given by one person: the one who wants to do the fucking. And since the younger man is always the one bestowing the "MILF" title, the women are inherently the passive party in this transaction.
Cougar, on the other hand, allows women to turn the table. No longer are they the ones being fucked; they are doing the fucking. It's an important but subtle shift-like the dominance of shoulder pads in female workplace fashion during the 80s-that says "we can do what you can do." No longer are men the only ones allowed to bang younger members of the opposite sex.
"In the 17th century, the burning of witches served the purpose of eliminating women who threatened carefully regulated patriarchal societies," said Lucia. "Today cougars, I am proud to say, hold the same threat. We are strong, powerful and independent women."
In other words, this is progress.
The accuracy and morality of this thinking notwithstanding, the longer an outside party stays at an event as the Cougar Convention, the more one realizes the authoritative rhetoric and overreaching parallel-the Salem witch trials, Lucia?-are in conflict with an underlying personal sadness.
Take Malik. At 39, he's not exactly a young cub out on the prowl. He'd been in a relationship for the past 11 years with someone who broke his heart "in a million pieces." This convention is his first foray back into the dating scene. And to his credit, he was doing a bang-up job most of the night, chatting up every cougar in sight and getting the first dance with the runner-up for Miss Cougar.
Or Unique Monique. She released her song "Cradle Robbers" back in 2000. That she's still performing it at these events makes the earlier Miss Lonelyhearts comparison a bit too precise. Her political leanings, about saving cats from being de-clawed, indicates that she, if not the audience at large, belongs to the category of Lonely Cat Ladies.
Or the number of awkward guys, most in their mid-to-late 40s, endlessly circling the dance floor, trying to either work up enough courage (liquid or otherwise) to talk to the cougars, or waiting around for cougars to become inebriated enough to make the first move.
Or the four skeevy guys upstairs-and whatever unfortunate drunk middle-aged woman was with them.
Or even Lucia, Queen of the Cougar Jungle herself. As an aside during her keynote address, she told a story about a man who was head-over-heels in love with her. Somehow, though, they didn't have sex during their five-year relationship. He then broke up with her by text message.
The closer you look at that old house down the block, the more cracks you notice.
Midway through I Will Survive, one of the cougars got caught up in the song, snatching up the DJ's microphone and belting out the lyrics in its entirety: "Go on now, go. Walk out the door. Just turn around now. 'Cause you're not welcome anymore." After returning the mic, some media entity asked her to sign a release. She took the clipboard, quickly signed her name and handed it back. Almost instantly she grabbed it back and scratched out her last name. She paused for a moment, and then replaced her last name with another and berated herself for the lingering muscle memory of a recent divorce.
There's still a lot left to deal with once the party ends, for cougar and cub alike. Luckily, they've got all their life to live, they've got all their love to give. They will, ultimately, survive. But in the meantime, they might as well start the healing process by filling in the most important crack of all.
Rick Paulas lives in Los Angeles and can be reached here.