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NEW YORK (MainStreet) — You may never hear it from their mouths, but men worldwide are experiencing a crisis of masculinity. Caught between tradition and progress, modern men find themselves lost in a sea of internal chaos, confusion and inferiority that would stymie both Hamlet and Tyler Durden. Without a proactive dialogue and the widespread redefinition of what it means to be a "real man," such feelings will continue to contribute to the extraordinary level of violence committed by men, especially in poor communities. Altering the paradigm of the masculine ideal is the only solution to enjoying true gains in gender equality.

What is sex?

Sexual practice is a dominant aspect of masculinity. Studies show that 54% of men think about sex once or multiple times per day, as opposed to only 19% of women. But no male who has ever stepped into a locker room can deny the vital role that heterosexuality plays in the masculine ideal of sexual behavior. This cultural confusion between sexual preference and sex identity is exemplified by nations such as Russia that glorify hyper-masculinity and inhibit homosexuals from considering themselves as "real men."

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Being a man in Russia has never been easy. Much ink has been spilled in documenting the country's obsessive veneration of the military, physical toughness and alcohol consumption. Russian President Vladimir Putin has waged a propaganda campaign to single-handedly embody this masculine ideal by hugging polar bears, riding horses shirtless in Siberia, and shooting at as many WWF-protected mammals as he can find. The Russian obsession with macho behavior has defined the nation for centuries as a place where men who do not conform to such ideals are to be ridiculed as outcasts and unfit to call themselves Russian.

It is no wonder, then, that Russia is the latest country to declare homosexual behavior as legally punishable. Such a narrow view of the masculine ideal leaves no room in the gender for aberrations from the so-called norm, including in sexual preference. The anti-homosexuality law recently passed by the Russian Duma embodies this view that only certain behaviors can be accepted as "male" (or even human), thereby emboldening law enforcement and civilians to beat and bloody anyone seen to be exhibiting non-heterosexual behavior.

Emphasizing the rejection of ostensibly non-masculine behavior, one leading Russian official called for the burial or burning of the hearts of gay organ donors. The de-humanization of the homosexual in Russia was thus complete; the gay man is not a man by Russian standards, therefore he is not a person. His donated organs must be rejected and destroyed for the good of society.

Being a "real man"

Russia is not the only country to impose such strictures of gender behavior on its citizens – countries including Jamaica, Qatar, and Cameron all outlaw "homosexual behavior." Ugandan newspapers publish "gay lists" that publicly call for the hanging of those suspected to be gay.

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Such actions fly in the face of a nation's moral and legal obligations to protect free speech and expression. "One of the most basic and universally recognized human rights is the right to freely develop one's own personality," says Emmanouil Athanasiou, a human rights lawyer and former UN Human Rights Officer.

"At the heart of this right," he states, "is the ability to express one's gender identity, or manhood, as well as one's sexuality – free from persecution and or restriction." Imposing such restriction on a person's liberty to self-expression, says Athanasiou, "opens the door to the kind of authoritarian behavior that dictates not only the norms for manhood, but also restricts citizens' free speech and expression."

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Such restriction of the freedom of expression by imposing norms of masculinity is not limited to nations considered by the West as anti-democratic. For example, traditional expectations worldwide dictate that men be aggressive, physically tough, and able to provide for a family. The notion that a "real man" must have such characteristics serves to emasculate or de-gender those who live outside these standards. American culture is a testament to the worship of the physically strong and economically successful über-man in everything from hip-hop culture to Disney movies to politics. As Neil Irvin, executive director of the non-profit Men Can Stop Rape, says, "Men are conditioned to believe that they have to dominate in the boardroom, the bedroom and in the ballgame."

This is not, of course, to deny the bias and privilege that men enjoy just for being born with a penis (regardless of its magnitude).

As many female writers have correctly pointed out, males as depicted in popular culture are often bestowed with a host of interesting human traits that are withheld from their female counterparts (for example, think Sherlock Holmes versus Lara Croft). But what is often left unsaid is the understanding that "of course" male characters such as Sherlock Holmes are depicted as strong, in addition to their other traits. It is this expectation of strength, this limited vision of masculinity, that has imposed on men a heightened standard that must be met in order to be considered a "real man."

Shame and violence

Falling outside the norm of traditional masculinity can have devastating consequences. Dr. James Gilligan, a former psychoanalyst in the Massachusetts's prison system for 35 years and professor at Harvard Medical school, has long linked the disproportionately male proclivity for violent behavior on the shame and dishonor experienced by failing to uphold traditional masculine standards.

Gilligan describes a "Male Role Belief System" by which a man believes he must look, act, and have sex in certain pre-ordained ways in order to fulfill his gender category. This belief system creates a hierarchal, superior-inferior relationship between those men who fulfill these criteria and those who don't, instilling shame in the latter and the constant fear of losing face in the former. This perpetual battle against shame or the fear of shame, Gilligan argues, leads men disproportionately to express themselves in a violent manner. Gilligan claims that groups of inmates that have discussed and analyzed their feelings of shame in his sessions had a recidivism rate of 83% less than those who did not participate in such discussions.

Gilligan's theory on the violent impact of the male ideal plays out in everyday life, and is exacerbated by rules and norms that prevent men from discussing their feelings. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, sentenced to 35 years by court martial for her role in WikiLeaks, apologized to the military judges for her poor decision-making while struggling with her gender identity at a time when it was illegal to be openly gay in the military. One of Manning's treating psychologists in Iraq, Captain Michael Worsley, stated that if you "put him in this hypermasculine environment, if you will, with little support and few coping skills — the pressure would have been difficult to say the least." Manning was unable to express her confusion of sexual identity, cloaking her in stifling feelings of confusion and shame. As Manning said regarding her time in solitary confinement: "I'm going to die, I'm stuck inside this cage."

As difficult as this crisis is on men worldwide, it should come as no surprise that the poor and minorities are disproportionately affected. The vicious cycle of violence and poverty is well documented, with studies showing that violent crime rates closely track the average income of non-college educated men in a given community. Many poor or minority communities are steeped in this cycle of violence and hatred in which a lack of healthcare, underfunded education and an "indirectly" racist criminal justice system exacerbate the feelings of shame and helplessness experienced by men unable to achieve the economic success they are told they should. The equation is thus simple - poverty leads to shame, and shame leads to violence. This is the result of equating success with wealth, power with manliness. And with 46 million Americans currently in poverty, this cycle needs to be broken.

Going beyond the porn...

Think about what it means to you to be a successful man. Traditionally, such success has been bound to economic prosperity, authority at the workplace, and a dominant role in the home. As a man's role in the house and the workplace changes, allowing young men to grow up venerating this traditional masculine ideal is confusing at best and destructive at worst. The failure to communicate with young men and the tendency to delegate these issues to the criminal justice system feeds the feelings of shame and confusion that all too easily find expression in violence.

In a culture where children learn about sex more from Internet pornography than their own parents, the crisis of masculinity will not resolve itself. Ignoring men's issues, or worse, shaming men from further expressing their feelings, is as good as telling them to go Google it. Growing our boys into men is worth more effort than that.

--Written by Seth Engel for MainStreet