16/12/2011 09:29 GMT | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

Why Are Women Still Vilified For Dating Younger Men?

The latest May-December relationship to hit headlines is the fledgling romance between Caroline Flack and One Direction's Harry Styles. Flack has received death threats and been labelled perverse and disgusting by the singer's die-hard fans for pursuing the younger man. They seem happy together and insist they're just having fun. So why all the fuss exactly?

caroline-flack-harry-styles Photo: PA

The answer's simple: there's a 15-year-age difference – one of them's 32 and the other's 17.

If only. Of course, the real reason that people are furious is because Flack – the woman – is the older party. So she's a cradle robber, manipulator, schemer and corrupter, naturally.

How is it OK for Hugh Hefner to jump (well, hobble more like) from one 60-years-younger girlfriend/fiancee to the next, without eliciting anything more than an eye roll? Of course, old men with younger women do inspire feelings of revulsion in some, but it's so commonplace that it's to be expected. And applauded, even.

The truth is, we wouldn't blink an eyelid if a 30-year-old woman was dating a 45-year-old man. Nothing seems strange or wrong or unusual in the slightest about that. Reverse the situation and suddenly words like "cougar" and "toy boy" start being thrown about, and the relationship becomes viewed as something salacious and inappropriate – and also, by it's very "perverse" nature, doomed to failure (how many cried "We knew it could never work!" upon hearing of the demise between 16-years-apart Demi and Ashton?).

The hypocrisy is ridiculous. As soon as an older woman steps out with a younger man, she is immediately branded a cougar: predatorial, brutal and sexually voracious. She is something to be feared, a mythologised female rake-type figure looking to steal teenage boys from their bedrooms and seduce them with her crafty wiles (of course, it's incomprehensible that a younger man would ever fall for an older woman, right? He would have to be under some kind of spell to choose proximity to wrinkles over taut flesh).

This whole double-standard is starting to infuriate me, especially the idea of a woman being demonised for simply dating/bedding/marrying someone who is significantly her junior, when it is par for the course with men. A 30-something guy who lands a 20-year-old is a stud, a stallion and a man deserving of back slaps. Perhaps that's why Hef – with his track record – is starting to look so hunched these days.

Of course, some women have appropriated the term 'cougar' as a moniker symbolising empowerment and rebellion against the norm. But isn't it really just the ageist and sexist older sister of a similarly anti-feminist word like slut or slag (also appropriated by some post-feminists as slogans of empowerment, but in reality just deeply offensive labels)?

The reason older women who date younger men are vilified is because their relationship suggests that a woman is failing to fulfil her role and act appropriately feminine (ie. still the one in a position of some passivity or submission, to a degree at least).

The verbs and adjectives used to describe older females dating younger men incorporate the same lexicon applied to paedophiles (corrupting, entrapping, seducing, manipulating, perverse, disgusting). There is something deeply wrong with that.

An older woman/younger man coupling turns the tables on what we've been trained to expect and accept as the norm, since the woman is the one with the life experience, the wealth (often) and maybe even the power, so she starts to take on the traditionally masculine role in a partnership. An older man/younger woman coupling makes sense, however: the man fulfils his masculine role by being older, wiser and more established in order protect his woman.

On the one hand, the fact this debate even exists is progress. Several decades ago the notion of an older woman dating a younger man was so foreign it simply wasn't done. Of course the idea of it was sexually provocative (see Mrs Robinson in The Graduate) but deemed utterly inappropriate by society (and in Mrs Robinson's case, the ill-fated older woman/younger man partnership threatens to ruin true love).

Part of the controversy surrounding Flack and Styles is that it's not the age gap per se, but Styles' actual age – 17. The argument being that Styles is still a boy while Flack is in her thirties, so they're at different stages in their lives. He's barely out of school while she'll be thinking about settling down and children soon. The thing is, since they're both in showbiz, their reality is unreality, and I think Styles is a lot more mature than your average 17-year-old as a result of being in this business.

Or maybe he isn't. But why should we care? If Flack and Styles want to have fun together, they should be able to. And if they fall in love and want to have a child together, that's OK, too. Remember, for every Demi and Ashton, there's a Sam Taylor-Wood and Aaron Johnson, who met when Taylor-Wood directed Johnson in her film Nowhere Boy. With their 23-year-age gap, they're expecting baby number two together.

Of their relationship, Taylor-Wood has said: "In the old days, 'controversial' in a relationship meant same-sex or mixed races. Now, it is a woman with a younger man. That would not happen with a man and certainly not with a male director.Every article about the film in the UK has mentioned the age difference between us, however unrelated, and almost none in America."

But as we know from Ashton and Demi, among others, even in the US, a woman with a younger man can still grab a headline.