Are More Older Women With Younger Men?

What do Samantha on "Sex and the City," and Gabrielle on "Desperate Housewives" have in common?

Sex and relationships columnist Valerie Gibson would call them "cougars" -- women who date men more than eight years their junior -- and they're part of a trend that's coming off the screen and out of the bedroom.

Gibson says the term originated in Vancouver, British Columbia, as a put-down for older women who would go to bars and go home with whoever was left at the end of the night.

But now, it's more positive -- describing women usually their in 30s and 40s, who are financially stable and mentally independent and looking for a younger man to have fun with.

Gibson, who is single but has been married five times -- the last time to a man 15 years younger -- describes cougars like herself this way: "She's in control. She's very attractive. And she's very sexy."

The National Association of Retired Persons released a survey in 2003 revealing that one-third of the single women between 40 and 60 are dating younger men. (But they didn't say how much younger.)

Comedienne Fran Drescher, 47, said the trend might be due to increased self-sufficiency among the fairer sex. The former star of "The Nanny" dated a man 16 years her junior for four years and now uses those experiences in her new sitcom "Living with Fran," in which she plays a divorcée with a 20-something boyfriend.

"They no longer have to evaluate a man based off of whether or not they're going to be a good provider and take care of them," she said. That opens up "a much wider pool to choose from," Drescher said.

Competing for the 48-Year-Old

There may also be more cougars today because there are more men that love them.

Self-described cougar hunters, 29-year-old Jeremy Mape, who works in commercial real estate in San Francisco, and 28-year-old Mark Lobosco, who is in software sales there, say they like the confidence and sexual experience of the cougars they know -- and the fact most are not looking for commitment.

They even created a Web site, to pay homage to cougars, and say its popularity has soared.

Many older women also look great, said Mape. "You have 30, 40, 50-year-old women who look like they're 25. And you can't tell the difference," he said.

In fact, a cougar is also becoming the focus of a reality TV show debuting on VH1 at the end of May. In "Kept," a group of 20-something American men will compete to become an escort to Jerry Hall, 48, for the next year.

Hall was famously married to rocker Mick Jagger, with whom she had four children. The oldest are nearly the age of some of their mother's new suitors.

Hall said if one of her sons said he was going to go out with a woman 15 or 20 years his senior, she would tell him, "Pay attention. You might learn something."

Hall said her role on "Kept" will be to teach the guys what she likes. "They were fun to play around with for a few episodes. I think there is a toy boy out there for everyone," she said.

But the cougar hunters thought differently. Mark and Jeremy said they didn't feel like kept men. "There's definitely examples where that is the case," said Lobosco. "But as a rule of thumb, no I don't think that's the case at all."

Tips From the 'Queen Cougar'

Despite their apparent popularity, cougar relationships can be difficult. Drescher described an evening where her boyfriend John invited his dad and stepmom to her house for dinner.

"When she arrived I realized she was two years younger than me. I went running to the closet to put some tie-dye on," Drescher said.

For trickier situations, Gibson has written what might be called the official Cougar handbook, titled: "Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men."

"I tend to see myself as a sort of cheerleader for cougars -- the sort of Queen Cougar teaching young cougar tricks," she said.

The age question comes up often, Gibson said. She advises most cougars not to tell.

"They all have an immediate picture -- let's say a 60-year-old woman: gray hair in a bun, apron on, cooking cookies."

Appropriate Behavior

The biggest hurdle for May-December relationships, Gibson said, is the cougar's lack of interest in, or inability to have a baby.

"If he wants children then it's short term, because he will go off to have his children at some point and you should allow that or even send him off to do it," she said.

And for people who would condemn the cougar's behavior as creepy or inappropriate, she said "I don't see these condemnations as valid.

"I do see them as only aimed at women -- putting down older women and trying to control them," she said. "No way."