Two years ago when John met Sandra at work, he never dreamed they'd ever be anything more than colleagues.
After all, she's old enough to be his mother.
Nonetheless, says the Baltimore real estate developer who's 36, he and the woman (who prefers to say she's fiftysomething -- and leave it at that) have been dating for nearly a year. "The biggest attraction is spiritual, and that is what bonds us more than physical attraction," he says.
But don't get him wrong, they can get physical, too.
"We have a spiritual relationship, an emotional relationship and a physical relationship," he says. "The only thing that's not entirely there is the social acceptance."
After centuries during which men have been able to date or marry women far younger than they, it seems that -- despite lingering taboos -- women are finally receiving fair play in the dating game.
On screen, older women are dating younger men with increasing frequency -- and less apparent guilt or scandal. Sharon Gless, as Rosie O'Neill, a public attorney on the TV show "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill," had a brief but ostensibly happy affair with a 25-year-old. Things are hot and heavy between Susan Sarandon, who plays a 43-year-old waitress, and James Spader, who is 16 years her junior in "White Palace," a current movie about a one-night stand that blossoms into a whole lot more.
In real life, 46-year-old Jacqueline Bisset's doing it, too: Her beau, Vincent Perez, is in his early 30s. Linda Evans was seen at a Washington benefit last week escorted by a much younger man. And the number of women who marry younger men is creeping upward from 15.7 percent of all marriages in 1970 to 23 percent in 1987, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Of course, on screen or not, men -- from Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, who married a woman 32 years his junior, to 51-year-old Rod Stewart, who recently announced his upcoming marriage to a 21-year-old -- have never been shy about dating far younger women.
To be fair, couples of widely disparate ages draw stares no matter who's older. When work brought 51-year-old Lonnie and 26-year-old Martha Carter together, they were equally surprised to find themselves drawn to each other, they say. And "at first, we worried so much about what people thought that we'd rather eat at home than go out. But if you love someone bad enough you're willing to ignore it," says Mrs. Carter, who, after three months of marriage, still works with her husband at his masonry business.
As people live longer and age more gracefully, a relaxing of standards is to be expected, points out Jan Sinnott, the director of the Center for Study of Adult Development and Aging at Towson State University, who has counseled a couple with a 36-year age difference.
But society still frowns when a woman dates a younger man, says Ellen Carr, a Columbia psychotherapist. "People still get more nervous about an older women [dating a younger man]. They think she's corrupting the young boy."
That taboo stems from an age when it was expedient for couples to have very large families -- hence men married women who were as young as possible, says psychiatrist Steven Simring, who co-authored "The Compatibility Quotient" (Fawcett, $7.95), with his wife, Sue Klaven Simring.
But with changes in medical techniques and with families of one to two children, that rationale doesn't necessarily hold up.
And it's still easier for an older man to attract a younger woman, says Baltimore psychologist Shirley Glass. "An older man is of high value because he's achieved some status in life. An older man who is successful can attract younger women." The same is not necessarily true for women, she says.
Since "male sexual response is so visually linked, it is, in a way, logical for men to date younger women," says Ms. Sinnott, "But looking at it in another light, some men are searching for a mother figure, which could lead them to older women."
Undoubtedly, looks are an issue, says the fiftyish Sandra, who doesn't want her real name used because she's concerned about how her boyfriend's young children will feel. "I'd like to say I don't worry, but, of course, women are always concerned about their looks. It's probably more exaggerated in my mind than if he were my age," she says.
Of course, the big advantage is, "I never ask, 'Well, is he liking me for my looks?' I really know that it's much more than that."
On the other hand, Ms. Sinnott says, "It's a good deal for women to date younger men since their sexual enjoyment keeps increasing through their 50s and 60s and men peak sexually earlier. . . . As a general rule of thumb, I tell everyone in my classes, women should date younger men."