When a college girlfriend called to tell me she was dating someone new, I asked the standard, superficial questions any 20-something pal would:
"He's a foot taller than me!"
"What does he do?"
"He's actually just finishing up school."
"He's in your master's program?"
At the time, a year ago now, he was 20 and she was 23.
Mrs. Robinson she's not; their three-year age difference isn't exactly shocking. It makes sense that two students (she was earning a master's degree and he was working toward his bachelor's) would meet working a part-time job.
Yet, during a recent gathering of girlfriends, she seemed to be the target of as many cougar jokes as Mariah Carey was in 2008 when she married Nick Cannon. (At 32, Cannon is a decade younger than the singer.) It probably didn't help that, at the start of their relationship, my friend's suitor couldn't legally accompany her to the bar.
"It makes people really uncomfortable for some reason," she said in response to my own mindless cougar quip.
As the public becomes accustomed to tales of 40- and 50-year-old women who date younger men, 20- and 30-something women who do the same are still regarded as a strange species. In popular parlance, these young lovers of even younger men are dubbed "pumas."
Take actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler, for example. After announcing her engagement to 23-year-old baseball player Cutter Dykstra last week, the 31-year-old took flak in some online comment sections.
"I can't imagine being 31 and relating so much to a 23 y/o male...they are too immature still!" said one commenter. Another called Sigler "a mini cougar."
One People.com commenter even suggested that 2013 was "the year of the 'young-er cougar,' " noting that race car driver and model Danica Patrick, 30, is dating fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 25.
Three to five years hardly calls for puma and cougar jokes, said Hugo Schwyzer, a professor of history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. If it were the women who were three to five years younger, he added, people would say it's the perfect age gap.
"The biggest obstacle (these couples) are going to face is this enduring myth that boys develop more slowly than girls," Schwyzer said. "We just repeat that as if that's absolutely true. It is developmentally largely true when dealing with infants and toddlers ... but once you get to adulthood, you know, 18 is 18."
Of course, as far as "The Twilight Saga" is concerned, 18 isn't always 18. While Bella jokes that she's "not really into the whole cougar thing" regarding a guy two years her junior, her seemingly teenage vampire boyfriend is actually more than 100 years older than she is -- and that's not creepy at all?
As more Hollywood actresses and models, such as Eva Longoria, date younger men, the unwarranted stigma surrounding such relationships will fade, matchmaker Patti Stanger said.
But for now, a Celebuzz gallery titled "Hollywood's cougars" includes Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban. She's four months older than he is.
Stanger's general rule of thumb for dating, regardless of who is on the winter end of the May-December romance, is "10 up, 10 down." If a couple is 11 years apart in age, she said, "don't cry. It's no big deal. But if you go 15, you're screwed." Stanger has also mentioned this notion on her reality show, "The Millionaire Matchmaker," which is in its sixth season on Bravo. On the series, she often takes on male and female clients who are looking for someone significantly younger than they are.
When that happens, Stanger added, cultural references are lost and one person assumes the caretaker role, which can be a problem when that person is the woman.
"When you do 15 years, when you do Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, it's going to run its course," she added. "It can't last when the woman is older than the man. When the man is older than the woman, unfortunately, there is a double standard and it does last. Especially in different cultures ... that is the norm because a man is supposed to provide and guide for his woman."
The puma and cougar debate also has a place among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender daters, though the lines are blurrier. When 26-year-old actress Amber Heard and 36-year-old photographer Tasya van Ree went public with their relationship in 2010, age wasn't at the forefront of reports the way it was for Carey and Cannon.
"Opinions on age difference run the gamut from fearful to desirable," author Dave Singleton wrote regarding the gay community in his Match.com column, "Ask Dave."