There's a new breed of dating animal on the loose -- and she doesn't play nicely. The term 'cougar' has been prowling around the US social scene for a few years now to describe ladies who are over 40, overtly sexy and only interested in younger men.
But the cougar is going mainstream, with two major TV shows dedicated to the phenomenon of the woman who observes the 'half your age, plus seven rule' when it comes to choosing the age of the men she will date.
The Cougar, which premiered in the States last week, is a reality dating show that sees a pack of muscle-bound young chancers vie for the affections of 40-something mother-of-four Stacey Anderson. It's not the first to touch on this cultural phenomenon: Ivana Young Man and Age of Love also touched on the older woman/younger man dynamic.
The first outing of The Cougar has been scorned by TV critics as "cheesy" and "creepy", with one noting that Anderson's eldest daughter is older than the youngest contestant on the show. The New York Daily News dismissed the programme as "feeding a widespread teenage male fantasy about their friends' hot moms".
So The Cougar may not come back for a second helping in next year's schedules, but another upcoming show, an ABC sitcom called Cougartown, is likely to seal the term 'cougar' in common parlance. Written and produced by the Emmy-nominated team behind Scrubs, it stars Friends star Courteney Cox-Arquette as one of those 'hot moms', newly single at 40.
TV is behind the curve on the cougar phenomenon. Relationship expert Valerie Gibson found herself with a bestseller on her hands when she penned Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men back in 2001. In it, she professes to advise mature women on such situations as "meeting his close-to-same-age mother", "finding and identifying the different types of younger men" and "preparing the perfect seduction", which sounds like an inverted version of Lolita. Gibson has been married five times, with a 15-year age gap between herself and her last husband.
Gibson has argued that she has reclaimed the term cougar, which was originally coined to describe the sad oversexed spinster who stalked young men in smoky bars, taking home whichever weakling of the pack was left at the end of the night. Cougars, according to websites dedicated to the 'lifestyle' like urbancougar.com, are not pathetic lecherous old ladies.
They are successful women, who have had their families and a career, and now exercise the right to choose a younger man. They work hard for their hot body, they take advantage of all the surgical and non-surgical treatments available to look younger than their given age -- why should they settle for a guy with middle-age spread?
Tanya Sweeney, a sex columnist with U magazine, says the attraction is obvious for women. "Younger men are much more aesthetically pleasing, more sexually enthusiastic, less jaded and think you're a legend because you have more experience."
Fling is the buzzword, not boyfriend. Where many women in their early 30s complain that men their age don't want to settle down, those who are back on the market after having their families are no longer looking for that stability. And guess what? The men their own age are finally wanting to settle down, so the women have to look elsewhere for a bit of fun.
A rash of websites catering exclusively for the older women/ younger men proclivity have sprung up with names like toyboywarehouse.com, dateacougar.com and the cougarconnection.com. The latter describes itself as "the best place to find cougars, cubs and prey" -- make no mistake, this is about sex.
Celebrity examples have gone some way to glamourising the concept. When Demi Moore married Ashton Kutcher in 2005, the 15-year age gap garnered acres of newsprint -- four years on, they are still together and, for Kutcher at least, in lust. He recently posted pictures of his wife's shapely bottom on social networking site Twitter.
Madonna (50), has chased younger lovers like Alex Rodriguez (33), and model Jesus Luz (22), since her split from film director husband Guy Ritchie.
The danger is that 'cougar' now encompasses any age-gap union where the woman is the senior partner, whether or not the difference in years is by accident or design. A woman who finds herself involved with a younger man might not necessarily be a hunter in the mould of Kim Cattrall's Samantha in Sex And The City, or Nicolette Sheridan's Edie in Desperate Housewives.
Jill McGrath, MD of Irish dating website maybefriends.com, says that internet dating in particular has broadened the possibilities of whom a person might date.
"When people go out, they often head to places where just their own age group tends to go," she says. "On dating websites, there is a massive pool of possibilities. We're not just talking about age -- we might see someone from Dublin going out with someone from Kerry, when in any other circumstances they might not have met."
Attitudes towards an age gap in couples have also changed somewhat, says McGrath. While it can still be argued that the older man/younger woman is still a staple convention -- certainly on our cinema screens -- the taboo is slowly dissolving in the opposite direction. A maybefriends.com survey of its members last year found that 47pc thought a five to 10 year age-gap, in any direction, was acceptable. Even more encouragingly, 30pc of the hundreds of respondents felt that an age gap of any width didn't matter, as long as the couple were in love.
The term 'cougar' is not helpful -- as explained in our case study -- when it is used to completely define such a relationship. The term still carries a note of derision.
The American comedy staple Saturday Night Live carries a regular skit called Cougar Den in which, according to a cultural commentator on salon.com, "hilariously (the word is used sarcastically here) menopausal but libidinous women act like ninnies in pursuit of Zac Efron, the Jonas Brothers and youth itself". Just like MILF -- Mother I'd Like To **** -- there is a hint of frat house fantasy about the term 'cougar' that will take a long time to shake.