Call of the cougars
Well hello, Mrs Robinson. According to a new study by online dating service parship.com, one third of single Irish women in their forties are looking to date a younger man; while 18pc of single Irish men under 40 are seeking an older woman.
The study of 4,500 Irish singles indicates that since 2005, Irish women in their forties and fifties have become significantly more interested in dating men who are their junior by five years or more.
Dr Victoria Lukats, psychiatrist and Parship's dating expert, commented: "Dating a much younger man has now become mainstream and acceptable -- perhaps this is down to the media reporting of celebrity age-gap relationships, or more likely it's due to the growth of internet dating where people realise that if they are more flexible in their search criteria, including age, they will have more potential matches."
Toyboys, and the women they date, are no longer the reserve of the celebrity contingent or the stuff of media fallacy; the older woman/younger man relationship has become a social trend, rather than a rare anomaly. Where once we associated the dynamic with rich and desperate divorcees and opportunistic young men, a paradigm shift has occurred. The stereotype has evolved and our overall attitude has become more liberal.
Dating websites catering exclusively for the older women/younger men have mushroomed. Would-be cougars can log on to sites such as toyboywarehouse.com or cougarconnection.com.
Even the term "cougar", originally a derogatory Canadian slang word for older women who would leave bars at the end of the night with any 'leftovers', has been rebranded.
While the connotations of the word still suggest that these women are on the 'prowl', the inference is that they are in control of the hunt.
These days, the media portrays cougars as empowered and independent, rather than neurotic and needy. Thanks to sitcoms and celebrities such as Demi Moore, our preconceptions of cougars have changed. They have been destigmatised and glamourised all at once. Cougars have been written into the most prolific female-centric sitcoms of recent years. There's Kim Cattrall's Samantha in Sex and the City and Nicolette Sheridan's Edie in Desperate Housewives.
Recently, there was US reality TV show, The Cougar, which saw a string of handsome young men compete for the affections of fortysomething mother-of-four, Stacey Anderson.
Then there's Courteney Cox's Cougar Town, a sitcom following the sexual adventures of a group of divorced fortysomething women.
Elsewhere, authors have been capitalising on the trend by writing guides for would-be cougars. Pioneer cougar, Valerie Gibson, recalls the reaction she received when she wrote her first book almost 10 years ago. "You'd think I'd written something about incest," she says. "In fact, there are more books out on incest than there are on this subject.
"I find that horrifying because this is two single people enjoying each other -- and yet they're condemned for it."
Ilona Paris, author of part memoir/part guidebook, Hot Cougar Sex, agrees, but she reckons the modern poster woman for the cougar contingent can continue to reshape our attitudes.
"She's 40 or older; she's educated and accomplished; she's affluent; she takes care of herself; she's sexy, confident and adventurous; she's about participating in life 100pc. Think Demi Moore, Ivana Trump, Joan Collins, Arianna Huffington -- all stunning examples of cougars who are purring loudly today."
Celebrity cougars have helped popularise the trend. There are 15 years between Demi Moore and her husband, Ashton Kutcher; 10 years between Halle Berry and male model Gabriel Aubry and 28 between Madonna and her Brazilian boyfriend, Jesus Luz.
Even celebrities in their 30s are opting for younger men. Actresses Kelly Brook and Martine McCutcheon are both eight years older than their respective partners.
"The difference in our ages means nothing," said Luz, when asked about his relationship with Madonna. "She looks like a 30-year-old and has a youthful personality to go with it. I love her and nothing else matters."
Ah, 'looks', perhaps the most critical criteria in the younger man/older woman dynamic. The universal characteristics of the cougar are good looks and a great body. However, according to the study, female cougars are more interested in personality than looks. Or perhaps they are willing to sacrifice looks for age . . .
Conversely, it seems attraction is more important than age where men are concerned. The rise of the cougar in Ireland must be at least loosely linked to the increasing popularity of cosmetic surgery and a boom in the health, wellbeing and beauty industries.
Of course, it's also a simple case of supply and demand. Now 18pc of men under 40 said they would date an older woman compared to just 5pc five years ago. Perhaps younger men see it as the perfect relationship: commitment- and expectation-free. They know the issues of marriage and children are less likely to be broached and they know older women are too busy for an intense relationship.
A US study paints a different picture. When asked why they choose to date older women, 85pc of men said older women have a lot of money and can take care of them; while 72pc said older women are more desperate and are easier to get in bed.
The same study indicates that ego-bolstering is a major drive for the cougar; 89pc of respondents said they dated younger men because it made them feel young and like they had "still got it". It seems there is no better symbol of youth than a younger partner.
And of course, there's the sex, often the unspoken motivation for women seeking younger men. At the very least, they get to share a sexual encounter with a gentleman whose idea of foreplay isn't popping a Viagra.
Besides, the older woman's approach to sex changes dramatically. Anecdotally speaking, they are more comfortable in their own skin and more confident in the bedroom. The menopause engenders a seismic hormonal shift too. As oestrogen levels decline, so too do oxytocin levels, the bonding hormone women produce after sex. The chemical change makes them less focused on care-giving; in short, they become more "me" than "we".
Put simply: the cougar is better equipped to enjoy sexual encounters for what they are: sexual encounters.
Even so, behind all the bravado, many are still seeking long-term commitment and the biggest problems with dating toyboys, is keeping them. We all know that when men get older, they too start seeking out younger partners. Another interesting finding in the study is that just 8pc of men over 50 would consider dating a woman five or more years older than they are, suggesting that the novelty will soon wear off for toyboys.
Actress Francesca Annis left photographer Patrick Wiseman three times for men "10 years, 14 years and now 26 years younger than me". However, the latter toyboy, Ralph Fiennes, then 43, got caught having a fling with a younger woman and the couple split.
It's a basic evolutionary drive of men of a certain age to seek out younger partners, and while they may be willing to enjoy a rendez-vous with an older woman, long-term commitment still looks unlikely.