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.