"When I started writing 'Sex and the City,' " says Bushnell, "I interviewed guys over 35 who were saying the most horrendous things, like maybe they'd sleep with a women over 35 but there'd never be that immediate sexual attraction. In the last five years, that's been turned on its ear -- plenty of young guys are finding older women sexy, and women are the ones who don't want to be with a man older than they are."
Bushnell's last boyfriend was six years younger. "For me, it's not an issue," says Askegard, who has dated women of all ages. "Candace seems like my age."
Susan Winter, 47, is a co-author of Older Women/Younger Men: New Options for Love and Romance. She's a statuesque blonde who moonlights as an artist's model for the comic book Lady Death, and when it comes to younger men, she knows what she's talking about. Winter has never slept with a man over 35, and she is an expert on the persistence of the double standard -- i.e., the belief that men who date people half their age are normal but women who do the same are perverts. Men are usually the least tolerant. "They don't want an older woman," she says, "but they don't like someone else having them, either." Recently, when Winter and her boyfriend were at a wedding, a wealthy older gentleman stopped by to say hello.
"Is that your stud for the weekend?" he asked. "When are you going to grow up?"
Winter was furious. "I just looked at him," she recalls. "He's 70. His wife is 35. And he didn't see any connection!"
Less than a year ago, Winter moved from New Jersey to Manhattan, and the change in atmosphere has been a tremendous relief. "New York is a place where just about everything is accepted," she says, "though an older woman with a younger man still retains a bit of the taboo, which just adds a little spice to the whole act."
The spice was right when Ben, 25, found himself on the steps of Bryant Park making out with his boss Suzanne, 38, after an office Christmas party. He was a low-level editor at the publishing company where they worked, and she was the flirty, bubbly blonde at the social epicenter. He was impressed when she came up to him at the party and said, "I look for you in the office." "Suddenly I was Tom Cruise," he says, "and she was Rebecca DeMornay." When Suzanne asked if she could make him dinner, Ben gamely showed up at her Upper West Side one-bedroom with a bottle of wine. "She made shepherd's pie," he says. "We slept together that night."
Their thirteen-year age difference, plus their need to hide the office romance from gossipy colleagues, gave the relationship an added dimension of illicitness. During the day, Suzanne would leave him hidden Post-it notes like YOU MAKE ME HAPPY. They would go out on Suzanne's expense account for $150 dinners at the Oyster Bar. "A 25-year-old can be less sophisticated and cosmopolitan," says Ben. "But she'd wear Armani suits, shop at Barneys."
Ben never knew exactly how old Suzanne was until one night at Un Deux Trois when he sneaked a peek at her driver's license while she was in the ladies' room. He was pleasantly surprised. She was younger than he thought.
Bebe Neuwirth is not your typical 43-year-old. After shimmying and high-kicking on Broadway for 22 years, the actress still has the lithe and limber body of a Lotte Berk instructor. In the new film Tadpole, she seduces a 15-year-old (something she doesn't approve of), while in her real life she's been going out with a guy who's almost ten years younger than she is (something she does).
"This isn't new," she says. "It's common! When I first started going out with my boyfriend, who is exactly nine and a half years younger than me, I would say to people, 'You know, he's a lot younger than I am,' and they would say, 'So?' I realized, Oh, that's right. Of course."
Yes and no. Women have always been intrigued by the possibilities of younger men. The bronzed UPS guy in his cropped shorts and the studly cable repairman are staples of female fantasies and Lifetime movies-of-the-week. But now it's easier to realize those possibilities. Sheenah Hankin, a psychologist on the Upper East Side, remembers when patients wouldn't admit, even to their shrinks, that they were seeing younger men. "They were so ashamed," she says. "Now everything's becoming more open. These are legitimate relationships."
Changing cultural mores -- and an increasing sense of power and control have given women more opportunities to try their fantasies on for size. Samantha Daniels, the owner of Samantha's Table, a Manhattan matchmaking service, hears the request more and more from her older clients: "Find me a younger man!"
"It's not my normal thing," says Michelle, 32, who began dating Christopher, 25, three months ago, after he followed her through the aisles of a Hell's Kitchen bodega. "It just kind of happened. He came up and said some charming things. I ended up laughing and moving on. Then, ten minutes later, he was right next to me again. The age thing may or may not have had something to do with it. But he's less inhibited than some older guys in New York. He was willing to be passionate -- even on day one. I kind of really like that."
"You know what happens to women with younger guys?" says Stephanie, 49, a stylist who dated a 24-year-old after her twenty-year marriage ended. "They are like drugs. When they're over, you have to go through withdrawal."
Most people assume it's just about sex, the classic theory being that when an older woman hooks up with a younger man, their sexual peaks are perfectly aligned, which leads to incendiary lovemaking. There may not be a solid scientific basis for the "sexual peak" concept, but there's some truth to the essential dynamic.
"I've always been sexual -- I've been peaking for years! -- and there's no denying that it's better with a younger man," says Laura Banks, 46, a documentary filmmaker. "Their bodies are better, and they have more energy. I mean, it has to be the right guy. Women get to a certain age, they know themselves better and have more self-confidence. We can be more verbal about what we want in bed. We may be better in bed because we're not pretending or faking."