'Ew, what are you going out with an old woman for?'
This was the question asked of Jacqeline Hellyer's partner, Oscar, when his work mates discovered his new squeeze was 10 years his senior.
Not that the age gap or his friends objections bothered her. Or him. "He thinks [the fact that I am older is] great," the sex and relationship therapist says. "Age is no longer that important.
"In the past women had to partner up with a man who could support her. Now women are quite financially independent, so we partner up with someone because - radical thought - we like him."
This means that for many, age and affluence do not necessarily factor in. If the celebrity cougar conga line is anything to go by, it certainly seems to be the case.
Susan Sarandon, 65, is the latest to join the long line that includes the likes of Madonna, Demi Moore and Courtney Cox. "I don't go by age. I go by the soul of a person," she told The View, of her paramour, Jonathan Bricklin, who is more than thirty years her junior. "I think that when you really love a person, the age thing, the gender, the colour, none of that matters. It's really beyond that."
It's a virtuous sentiment, but is it an idealistic view? The relationship between older women and younger men is still somewhat of an anomaly in the traditional older man/younger woman matching. Are cougars, the slang term referring to women over 40, and 'newgars', the term for women over 30, who pursue much younger men hot or merely seen as reheated?
Hot, if you compare them to their male counterparts, it seems.
"There is a social stigma for men dating younger women but, the converse is not always true," suggested 32-year-old Oliver after discussing the issue with male friends. "The male friends or father of a younger woman hate you - you seem predatory and the girl naive.
"But, an older woman with a younger man is perceived as still being hot stuff - alluring rather than predatory, and the young guy is perceived as fortunate to be getting laid."
Hellyer has a theory on why this is. Wealthy, but unattractive, older men can attract cute young females in a mutually beneficial arrangement, she says. "For him it's often, but not always, a status symbol and for her it's a meal ticket." But, it doesn't cut both ways. While there are exceptions to the rule, arguably the Duchess of Alba, 86, who married Alfonso Díez Carabantes, 24 years her junior, "I don't think a wealthy older woman who is unattractive would attract a younger [attractive] man... it's [generally] more attractive older women, who are confident and knowledgeable sexually, who are dating younger men."
Hence, the lion-sized appeal of the cougar. Having said that, they are also just as often seen as predatory or past it, Hellyer says.
Marta, a journalist in her 30s, agrees. "While at first the young man gets a few high fives, [cougars] are tinged with taboo," she says. "I actually think older men who date young women are given a harder time and seen as bigger creeps... When we think of a cougar we think of an older women who is sexy, strong and a little dangerous. She's certainly virile and viable – but again, the idea of a younger man and an older woman is still more of a novelty than a realistic basis for a relationship."
This has been her personal experience. Having had several relationships with men around 10 years younger, "I learned that while I was perfectly permitted to want to chase young men sexually, my interest in having relationships with these men was regarded in a much darker light. They'd quickly come to fear that I was attempting to tie them down, more so than a young woman might.
"When you go into certain affairs knowing logically you are being used for novelty sex, at times that can be damaging to your self esteem. Of course plenty of older women have beautiful relationships with younger men, but overall the attitude is 'why is this woman falling for this young dude who is destined to leave her?'"
Flying too close and getting burned by a youthful flame is a risk run by older partners of either sex, Hellyer says. But, if a woman who is significantly older, "enters a relationship thinking 'this is happily-ever-after', she is kidding herself." Happily ever after can happen, Hellyer says, but it's rare.
One study that examined the age preferences in 22,400 singles ads on dating websites across 14 countries including Australia, found few men actively seek older women for a relationship.
But, the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that the proportion of relationships where women were at least 10 years older than their partners rose 23 per cent between 1996 and 2006.
Jeremy, 24, appreciates the appeal of the older woman. "The women I loved from childhood were the powerful ones - Valerie Solanes, Rita Hayworth, Twiggy, Edith Piaf, Tina Turner," he says. "Women like Patti Smith were the epitome, for me, of what a woman should be - equal parts sex appeal, intelligence, creativity... I find [older women] more forward, to the point and less ambiguous about their expectations and demands."
He feels that the women his age have grown up on an unhealthy diet of Kim Kardashian and Cosmopolitan, a "plucked, preened" concept of womanhood that, he said, he doesn't buy.
Instead, he goes cougar hunting. While he has never been on the receiving end of judgment from his friends, "unless the girl is within some reasonable age gap to me - i.e. 8 years" he does not introduce them to his parents.
But, with people living and looking good for longer, age difference can be harder for others to tell anyway. Perhaps it's becoming a moot point.
"Age is the third most important factor that helps single Australians decide who to contact when online dating," says Glenis Carroll, General Manager of RSVP. "Photos are the number one driver and personality description is the second most important factor."
Hellyer agrees. "It depends so much on the individuals," she says. "To me age difference means nothing. Whenever you have a relationship with someone you open yourself up to heartbreak... We used to live in such little boxes and I like to think we're becoming so much more accepting of people being together just because they want to be together... any relationship with significant non-normative factors - cross-cultural, significant age gaps or certain types of employment that make it long-distance - come with challenges, but you go into it with an open mind.