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A whopping 34 percent of women over 40 are dating younger men, according to a 2003 survey.

The same poll, which surveyed 3,500 single people (both women and men) aged 40 to 69 years old, found that 56 percent are currently separated or divorced from a spouse, 31 percent have never been married, and seven in 10 (74 percent) of formerly married singles in their 50s have been single for five years or more.

And since men have been dating younger women for ages, why are so many of us surprised — shocked, even — that women would follow suit?

Valerie Gibson, author of Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men, is all too familiar with this double standard. They were absolutely horrified that older women should be having sex with younger men.”When many of us think “cougar,” we picture the ultimate cougar of the big screen: The Graduate’s legendary, martini-sipping Mrs. These days, real-life cougars are stars like Demi Moore (who, in her 40s, married then-twenty-something heartthrob Ashton Kutcher), the coiffed reality-show cast of The Real Housewives of Orange County, and, yes, everyday women — suburbanites and city-slickers alike.

“The mentality of having a youthful person on your arm who makes you feel good, who makes you feel ageless, makes you feel desired and desirable,” Gibson said.

For Wheeler and other women like her, younger men — many of them 15 years or more their juniors — are a natural fit.“This isn’t about dating,” said Kevin Mercer* candidly. A.’s entertainment industry and isn’t shy discussing his city’s cougar phenomenon.“It’s a total transactional situation.” And that works out just fine for these young men, who often prefer relationships—whether fleeting or long-term—with cougars.On the contrary, they’ll even boast about them, wearing them, in the words of Mercer, “as a badge of honor.” According to Gibson, young men are driving the trend, sometimes even calling themselves “cougar hunters” when they’re out on the town looking for sexy older women.“Younger men have no problem whatsoever in approaching an older woman who’s single or obviously not wearing a wedding ring anyway,” she said.

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