Why men fall under the spell of Mrs Robinson
As a survey says Irish women are increasingly open to dating younger men, Chrissie Russell reports on why the age gap is no bar to a successful relationship
Joan Collins once declared: "Age is irrelevant unless you happen to be a bottle of wine." The 76-year-old star has never been one to let age dull her looks, career or love life -- the actress is married to a man 32 years her junior.
Her mantra is bang on trend when it comes to society's current obsession with older women -- especially when paired with a younger man.
Last week, Stephen Vizinczey's 1965 novel In Praise of Older Women was re-released as a Penguin Classic (see facing page).
Today, its Hungarian author's belief that women become more attractive after they've left their 20s behind has never been more appropriate.
Just last month, a pregnant Sam Taylor-Wood (42) paraded the BAFTA red carpet with young lover, and soon to be husband, Aaron Johnson (22), the star of her John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy. The happy couple looked radiant and Taylor-Wood has always been quick to declare: "The age difference doesn't mean anything to me. I don't see why it should mean anything to anyone else."
Singing from the same hymn sheet, Demi Moore (46) is wed to Ashton Kutcher (31) -- 15 years her junior; Madonna (51) is 28 years older than her on/off beau Jesus Luz (23); and Mariah Carey (39) has 10 years on her rapper husband, Nick Cannon (29).
Barbara Windsor (71) has been flying the flag for the older woman/ younger man relationship for some time -- this year she celebrate her ninth wedding anniversary with her toyboy third husband, Scott Mitchell (45).
Now Irish women are getting on board with 34pc of over-40s and 38pc of over-50s admitting a younger man tickles their fancy.
According to a survey by online dating agency, Parship, just over one-third of Irish women in their 40s and 50s would consider dating a man more than five years their junior.
Penny Conway, who works for the dating agency, says the new attitude is down to a general change in the way women act.
She says: "Women have basically become men. In the past, it would always have been men who were seen as being successful and in their prime over 40. Men in this age bracket have always felt entitled to date younger partners -- now women feel the same."
She explains: "Being in your 40s or 50s doesn't mean the same thing it would have done in years gone by. Women still feel young and attractive; in their heads they are still 30, so they think: 'Why shouldn't I date someone younger? I don't feel old.'
"Interestingly, while women tend to see themselves as young for their age, they see men in their 40s and 50s as old, even if they are the same age as them."
The buzz word of the moment is 'cougars', which refers to older women dating younger men.
Ireland recently got its first dedicated website at cougardating.ie and ABC's Cougar Town is about to start on RTE Two.
US TV audiences have been wowed by the series featuring former Friends actress Courteney Cox, while fellow Friends alumnus Jennifer Aniston is lined up to take the same concept to the big screen with Pumas, a film about 30-something cougars-in-training.
Rita Sangha, from womenwholoveyoungermen.com, is a 'cougar coach', and runs events and workshops throughout the UK where women are able to meet, and deal with the issues associated with dating, younger men.
She says: "Business is booming. I have men and women contacting me from the UK, Ireland and across Europe."
Rather than the image of a predatory woman stalking her younger prey, Rita says many enquiries are from men keen to meet older women.
According to her, "guys like the idea of a woman who is sophisticated, cultured and knows her own mind.
"They have a Catherine Deneuve fantasy and the success and sexual experience they get with an older woman is very attractive -- it's the difference between driving a limo or a sports car."
But Valerie Gibson, the Canadian author of Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men, warns that an age-gap relationship can be fun, but also fraught.
She says: "The problem can be that at some point the younger man often wants to make the relationship serious but the woman doesn't.
He may want a child if his biological clock is ticking but she's already done that."
She adds: "Also, the man's career may not yet be at its peak and he may have to move countries or cities for his job while the older woman's career is more likely to have a solid base that she's very satisfied with.
"That's what happened to me with my last, and fifth, marriage to a much younger man. It was a wonderful relationship but his career took him away and mine was booming where I was."
And Linda Franklin, author of Don't Ever Call Me Ma'am! The real Cougar Handbook for Life Over 40, warns that the tide hasn't completely turned when it comes to other people's attitudes towards such relationships.
She says: "Women over 40 are feeling stronger, finally doing what they feel is best and not listening as much to what other people have to say. Unfortunately, though, the old double standard is still alive and kicking. When a man chooses to be with a younger woman, he is considered a rock star -- but an older woman with a younger man and it's a predator on the prowl."
She laughs: "But we're giving this double standard a real swift kick in the butt.
"We are starting a new era and now it's our chance to shine."