When Michael Haley bent to lift a heavy purchase for a female customer at the Boston hardware store he manages, the impulse was second-nature - lend a helping hand.
But another impulse stopped him. He looked at the woman and said, "I suppose I should ask if this is OK with you." Although this particular customer had no problem with a man carrying a heavy load out to her car, Mr. Haley had learned from experience.
"I've had other women say, 'It's not necessary, I'm very capable,' " he explains. "It's been nicely put, but definitely to the point."
It's a small incident, but for Haley and many other American men, it's the kind of thing that's become a fact of life in the wake of the feminist movement - trying to figure out how women want to be treated.
It's a confusion that has been mounting in the 1990s, as society still feels the reverberations of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s. With social and legal pressures building around issues such as sexual harassment and date rape, many men have come to feel that dealing with the opposite sex can be like walking through a minefield.
Some men have reacted in anger, others have fought for greater recognition of men's rights in areas such as child custody, and still others have searched for new ways to define masculinity and manhood. Men's studies courses have sprung up on campuses nationwide, and all sorts of books on men and boys are popping up.
Experts say that a good portion of the confusion among men stems from the fact that unlike women - who experienced change in the context of a social movement that defined goals and opportunities - men have had no such underpinning. Their lives have changed, in essence, as a side effect of the dramatic changes in women's lives.
"Our lives have been completely transformed by women saying, we're not just going to stay at home, we want jobs and careers," says Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. "My father could go to an all-male college, serve in an all-male military, and spend his entire working life in an all-male environment.
"I tell my students that world is over," he says. "So then I say, 'OK, if your life has changed that much, what have you done to prepare yourself for that change?' The answer is not very much."
Mr. Kimmel and other men's studies researchers argue that whether men admit it or not, feminism has been good for them. They say that by challenging stereotypes for women, feminists opened the door for men to question the same types of restrictions in their lives.
"Thirty years ago, women said they were in a gender straitjacket, that they were half-people because they were only allowed to express the nurturing, caring side of themselves and not the strong, heroic, economically successful part of themselves," says William Pollack, co-founder of the Center for Men at Harvard University's McLean Hospital. "If men can hear that message, they have two alternatives," he says. "One is to say, 'No, you can't be that, because we have separate gender roles.' The other is to say, 'Oh my gosh, if you only have half of what it is to be human, then maybe we only have half, too.' "
Not everybody welcomes that point of view. Some men are uncomfortable, even resentful, about embracing a model for change put forward by women. Kimmel has said that when he lectures around the country it's not uncommon for men to accuse him of being gay.
Upsetting or not, says Mr. Pollack, men must start addressing gender stereotypes about masculinity by examining and critiquing the kinds of male images presented in the media, in classrooms, and in mainstream culture.
"You can't ultimately change the relationship between men and women unless you deal with men's psychology," he says. "Because deeply embedded in all of us are deeply held views about gender, which will keep coming out, generation after generation, unless we deal with them."
Pollack is one of a current wave of authors who have extended the debate on masculinity to the challenges American boys face in coming to terms with manhood. In many ways, the research grows out of recent work on the problems girls face as they make the transition to womanhood.
The research on boys is welcomed by many feminists, who see it as an important part of the dialogue between the sexes. They caution against letting the new focus on boys eclipse the needs of girls. But some of these women also warn against a different pitfall - imposing models developed in research on girls as a way to understand boys.
"It's wrong to impose theories of relationships on boys based on girls' experiences," says Judy Chu, a doctoral student working with Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan, who helped pioneer research on women and girls. Ms. Chu has interviewed some 100 boys, and while she hasn't yet made a final analysis of her interviews, she says the work has raised questions about assumptions about what boys need, including the idea that they should be taught to talk about their emotions.
"I found they don't talk about emotions, not because they're not able to," she says. "It's almost a wise decision, because they've learned that by talking about feelings, they make themselves vulnerable. People make fun of them."
"It's a bit simplistic to say boys should talk about their feelings," Chu says. "It doesn't take into account the context of their real lives."