(LifeWire) -- Older woman seduces younger man. Sound familiar? It's a scene from the 1967 coming-of-age classic "The Graduate."
Actress Demi Moore is 15 years older than her husband, actor Ashton Kutcher.
But high-profile Hollywood couples like Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins (12 years her junior) -- who met and began dating while filming an on-screen romance in the 1988 movie "Bull Durham" -- have proven that life can indeed imitate art when it comes to matters of the heart.
Theirs, however, is a real-life love story of an older woman and younger man -- something that is not so uncommon nowadays. A 2003 study by AARP revealed that 34 percent of all women over 40 in the survey were dating younger men, and 35 percent preferred it to dating older men.
"Societal attitudes have definitely changed," says Susan Winter, 52, co-author of "Older Women, Younger Men: New Options for Love and Romance" -- and she would know. At age 40, she was dating a 19-year-old. "We had to break it off. Quite frankly, his mother made it so impossible," Winter says of the six-year relationship, which inspired her book. "But (that kind of discrimination) would not be allowable now."
Hollywood in particular has defied the ageism stereotype, with celebrities like Madonna and Demi Moore marrying significantly younger men (a 10- and 15-year age gap, respectively, with director Guy Ritchie and actor Ashton Kutcher), and the public has come to accept it. See photos of some famous May-December couples »
Moreover, says Winter, women have experienced a significant financial and status shift over the past half-century. "When women as a group are able to have their own economic and social standing and have a power base, they are now able to pick the man that they want rather than having to choose the man to support them and give them social status," Winter explains. "Now we have choices."
But these relationships aren't always portrayed in a positive light. Terms like "cougar" (slang for an older woman seeking a younger man) depict the woman as a predator, rather than an empowered, independent and loving person.
NBC aired a reality dating show this summer -- "Age of Love" -- that pitted women in their 20s against women in their 40s in a battle for the heart of tennis star Mark Philippoussis. Meanwhile, online dating sites like GoCougar.com urge older women who seek younger men to "get what you want."
Such pairings can and do work.
Mary Pender, 37, a high school special education teacher in Huntington Beach, California, connected with a truck driver seven years her junior who she met on an online dating site. Though she'd always dated older men before, she "thought it was exciting to date someone younger" -- and, as it turned out, he thought it'd be just as exciting a match.
"He thinks it's cool that I am comfortable in my sexuality," says Pender. "He likes that I am secure in our relationship and I have my own things to do without him."
Indeed, the idea of dating an older woman is titillating for some younger guys. Jeremy Abelson, a self-styled dating impresario who organized the Natural Selection Speed Date event that paired wealthy bachelors with beautiful women this past February in New York City, can see the appeal.
"Any young guy who has seen (the movie) 'American Pie' can basically say he was right there with the Asian guy and the white guy as they were cheering ... for Stifler's mom," says Abelson, 27. "I was basically standing there cheering with them. And I think that's a very common fantasy for young men."
The potential issues between such May-December couples are the same ones that challenge the longevity of any relationship: different long-term priorities and emotional temperament. "He's not thinking about kids and marriage," says Pender of her boyfriend, "and he bugs me when I forget to dye my gray roots."
If you can work through these issues, the adage holds true: Age ain't nothing but a number.
"When I finally found out how much younger he was, I was a little shocked," says Kimberly Schmitz, a 34-year-old communications and public relations director in Tucson, Arizona, of her now-fiancé, Bobby Kern, 25, owner of a feed store and pet food distribution company in the same city. "(But) he is such an amazing man that I decided to let his actions speak more than his statistics. I was right. He is the most mature and sensitive man I have ever dated."
For Kern, the attraction is mutual.
"There was no fear in dating an older woman," he says. "I prefer to date older women, and for some reason I always have, even in high school. It seems that they are easier to get along with -- there is, for the most part, no drama. Older women know what they want, they usually are in a career, are financially secure and not looking for a man to take care of them." E-mail to a friend
LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Jocelyn Voo is a freelance journalist and relationships editor at the New York Post.
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