Trava Faust drove two and a half hours in California traffic to a sold-out event, in her black dress and heels, even though she didn't have a ticket. When she got to Dinah's Garden Hotel in Palo Alto, she parked in overflow and sat outside with the dozens of other women turned away at the door. She fanned herself in the August heat without giving a second thought to the odds that she had just wasted a whole lot of effort. Why? Because Trava Faust is a cougar, and cougars exude confidence.

Alex Littlewood, by contrast, bought his ticket well in advance. The 29-year-old marketer has been dating older women for years, ever since a 36-year-old "cougared" him in the mall where he worked at age 18. "She was an absolute revelation," he says. "She taught me things I never knew existed."

The cougar phenomenon has no doubt had its 15 minutes of fame. More like 45, actually. But for some odd reason, the world simply can't resist the fad's sad mating call. Rich Gosse has organized events for the Society of Single Professionals for 30 years. He ran for governor of California in 2003 on a "fairness for singles" platform. To promote this Friday-night matchmaking party in Palo Alto, he replaced "singles" and "mixer" with "cougar" and "convention" in the press release. For good measure, he threw in "first annual." Soon he was fielding calls from England and Finland. More than 40 members of the media phoned him too, including a correspondent from Al Gore's Current TV. "We've been doing parties with younger men and older women, and no one knew we existed," Gosse says. "We say 'cougar,' and now we have media from all over the world."

The term cougar started out as a form of slander in the mid-nineties, used (legend has it) by hockey players in western Canada to describe the washed-up groupies who clawed after them in bars. Today it inspires in certain young men—or cubs—visions of smooth-talking seductresses with tight dresses and loose morals. Women at their sexual peak. Hot sex with no strings attached. Exhibit A: Ron, the corrections officer who strolls through the door at Dinah's, fills out a name tag, and sticks it on his crotch. Exhibit B: The woman in the leopard-print dress—a newly minted divorcée—furiously texting her boyfriend to keep him from inquiring about her whereabouts. Exhibit C: The cougar pinned against the wall outside the men's room, giggling and sighing as a cub dives headlong into her chest.

David, a 25-year-old employee at a medical-device start-up, fondly remembers his first cougar: "She had a real job. She had a sweet apartment with a sweet bed. And a dog. She was like a Toyota Supra—good suspension and good parts." "My first cougar was 43," says Stewart Scott, 31. "I was 25. Best sex ever. Next cougar was 48. That broke my record. She turned 49, so I broke my record twice. I'd say 50 is my limit. But if she was hot, 52." He laughs and straightens his tie. Around the corner, a 30-year-old cub named Dino sits and waits for the attack. "There's something exciting about being prey," he says. "All you have to do is open up your jugular."