Five Stupid, Unfair and Sexist Things Expected of Men

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

If you have a scrap of progressive politics in your bones, it’s no surprise to you that sexism hurts women. Like, duh. That’s kind of the definition of the word.

But we don’t talk as much about how sexism hurts men. Understandably. When you look at the grotesque ways women are damaged by sexism — from economic inequality to political disenfranchisement to literal, physical abuse — it makes perfect sense that we’d care more about how sexism and patriarchy and rigid gender roles affect women, than we do about how they affect men.

Lately, though, I’ve been paying more attention to how men get screwed up by this stuff, too. Not screwed up as badly as women, to be sure… but not trivially, either. I care about it. And I think other feminists — and other women and men who may not see themselves as feminists — ought to care about it, too.

I care about this stuff for a lot of reasons. I care because I have men and boys in my life, men and boys who matter to me: I see how they get twisted into knots by gender roles that are not only insanely rigid but impossibly contradictory, and it makes me sick and sad and seriously pissed off. I care because I care about justice: fair is fair, and I don’t want to solve the problem of gender inequality by making things suck worse for men.

And I care for entirely pragmatic, even Machiavellian reasons. I care because I care about feminism… and I think one of the best things we can do to advance feminism is to get more men on board. If we can convince more men that sexism screws up their lives, too — and that life shared with free and equal women is a whole lot more fun — we’re going to get a lot more men on our side. (Like the bumper sticker a friend once had on her truck: “Feminists Fuck Better.”)

So I’ve been looking more carefully at the specific ways sexism hurts men. In particular, I’ve been looking at our society’s expectations of men, our very definitions of maleness. I’ve been looking at how rigid and narrow many of these expectations are, creating a razor-thin window of acceptable manly behavior that you’d have to be a professional tightrope walker to navigate. (Which would be a problem, since “professional tightrope walker” is definitely outside the parameters of acceptable manliness.) I’ve been looking at how so many of these expectations are not only rigid, but totally contradictory, creating a vision of idealized manhood that’s not just ridiculous but literally unattainable. And I’ve been asking the men in my life — friends, colleagues, family members, community members, guys I know on the Internet — what kinds of expectations they get about Being A Man… and how those expectations affect them.

And I came up with this very short, very provisional, not even close to exhaustive list.

Ultimate fighting
Fight, fight, fight! When I did my informal, not- at- all- scientific poll of the men in my life and asked what was expected of them as men, this one came up a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Like, an amount that took me seriously by surprise. My slice of society — and the slice shared by most men I know — is comfortably middle-class: educated, chatty, civilized to a fault, and mostly very peaceful. We resolve our conflicts with words, with glares, with strategies, with the law as a last resort. Even raised voices and insulting language are considered somewhat outre. Not counting sporting events, I could count on one hand the number of physical fights I’ve witnessed in the last decade. Or even threats of physical fights.

And yet, man after man that I talked to brought this one up. The willingness to, as my friend Michael put it, “actually, physically, with fists or other weapons, fight” — to defend one’s honor (or the honor of one’s lady, or country, or sports team, or whatever) — is more central to how men are taught to see manhood than I had any notion of. Even if conflicts never get that far — even if you never actually have to pound anyone with your fists — being both willing and able to do so is a weirdly high priority in the Penis Club. As Adam said, “You would rather get a concussion than be called less than a man.” And Damion told me this story: “I’m in the passenger seat when my (relatively butch) sister-in-law flips off some guy in Baltimore traffic. He jumps out of the car, enraged, and my first thought is ‘Great, now I’ve got to beat the shit out of this guy.'”

Which puts men in a nasty conundrum. The laws and expectations of our civilized society are designed to keep physical violence to a minimum. And for good reason: physical violence is, you know, destructive. So men are expected — indeed required — to avoid and deflect confrontation, and to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence.

And when they do, they get called pussies.


Dan connor
Be a good husband/ partner/ lover — but don’t care too much what women think. This one falls squarely into the category of “not just insanely rigid but logically contradictory”: a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum that ensures a lifetime of self-conscious anxiety if you let yourself take it seriously. Being a good husband and father — a good provider who cares for his family and treats women with respect — is central to the male mythos. And being good in bed has become a crucial part of this mythos as well. It’s no longer enough for a Real Man to nail a lot of women: he has to get every single one of them off. Performance anxiety — it’s not just for hard-ons anymore! Not that I have any problem with the idea that women’s sexual pleasure ought to matter to men who have sex with them. The problem lies with the notion that women’s sexual pleasure is entirely men’s responsibility; that pleasing women ought to be completely instinctive; that women’s satisfaction is a victory to be achieved instead of an experience to be shared; and that this satisfaction has to be accomplished entirely with the man’s hard dick, and not with his hands or tongue or toys or mind. (But that’s a rant for another time.)

Whipped poster
Yet at the same time, men aren’t supposed to care too much what women think. Years ago, when I was married to a man, we were trying to make some difficult decisions together about how to arrange our careers and lives (would he work full-time and maybe even overtime to help put me through grad school?) When he asked the guys he worked with for feedback and advice, he mostly got a load of derision for involving me too much in his decisions about his job. “Pussywhipped,” I believe, was the charming terminology being used. Yes, he was supposed to be a good provider and build the financial foundation for our life… but he was somehow supposed to accomplish this without asking me what kind of life I wanted, and without any willingness to compromise about what kind of life he wanted. For himself, or for the two of us. I guess he was supposed to be The Decider.

Of course, while it was horribly unmanly for him to be guided by his wife, it was perfectly fine for him to be guided by the guys he worked with at the auto shop. As Scott said, “King of Queens is a good example, I think because though he tries to be a good husband and companion, he often finds himself in conflict with what his friends want or with his own sense of what should be considered masculine.” Men’s definitions of manhood are supposed to come from other men — not from women. They’re just not supposed to care all that much what women think of them.

You see this a lot in fashion advice for men. Men aren’t supposed to look like dorks or slobs, of course… but they can’t look like they care about their looks, either. Men — straight men, anyway — have to achieve that perfect, razor’s edge balance between good grooming and carelessness. You’re supposed to look good — but those good looks have to seem effortless. Looking like you care how you look makes you look like a woman. Or a gay man. (More on that in a tic.) Women are supposed to be the ones prettying themselves up into objects of desire. Men are not supposed to be the objects of desire. They’re supposed to be the subjects. And subjects aren’t supposed to care what their objects think of them.

Except when they’re trying to get those objects to come.


Be hot to trot. Always. With anybody This is another expectation that came up with striking (although hardly surprising) frequency. Men are supposed to want sex — and be ready for sex — all the time. With pretty much anyone of the right gender who makes themselves available for it. In his evaluation of male gender roles, Michael T. says, “To be a man you must use sexual conquest as a gauge for manhood.” Jraoul quoted a song, Lou Christie’s “Lightning Strikes,” with lyrics that go, ” When I see her lips begging to be kissed, I can’t stop, I can’t stop myself… When I see a sign that she wants to make time, I can’t stop, I can’t stop myself…” And in his litany of male gender expectations, my friend Michael listed, “Have sex with any woman who says ‘yes,’ or who offers herself. If not, I must be gay, right?”

Playboy 1967
It’s weird. An intense, even predatory sexual desire is a big part of the Manly Man picture. And yet that picture doesn’t allow for men to have preferences. Or rather: They’re allowed and even expected to have preferences — as long as those preferences conform with social norms. I vividly remember an article from a late ’60s Playboy, analyzing men’s personalities based on what kind of female bodies they liked: liking big breasts made you cool, while liking big butts or legs meant you were immature. And that’s hardly a relic of the ’60s: even today, lots of men feel pressured to date women who meet the current standards of female attractiveness. Lots of men, for instance, feel pressured to date fashionably thin women: even if they personally prefer women with more meat on their bones, they feel embarrassed introducing them to their buddies. Like dating a fat chick is a slam on their ego. Like it means they’re not high enough on the primate status ladder to acquire a high-status mate.

So yes, men are allowed to be hotter for some girls than others. But they’re still supposed to get it on with anything that moves and spreads its legs. Anything female and not grotesque, anyway. Men are expected to have sexual desire… but that desire can’t be their own. It can’t be idiosyncratic. Or even all that personal. It can’t belong to them.

And for the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, it can’t be based on emotion.

Stiff upper lip jeeves
Stiff upper lip. Because for men, nothing at all can be based on emotion. Generic sexual desire, and the desire to punch someone’s lights out, are pretty much the only emotions men are supposed to experience. And if they have the gall (or the lack of self-control) to experience their emotions, they bloody well better not let on about it.

This one is so common, it’s almost ubiquitous. At least half the men I talked to made a point about it… and a bunch of the ones who didn’t mention it explicitly alluded to it in other ways. David B. says he learned that men are supposed to be “reserved emotionally. Apparently men are only supposed to be passionate about sex, cars, sports and beer. And even then, passionate is not the ‘appropriate’ way for a man to describe his feeling about something.” David M. got the same memo: “No whining, no complaining, and no crying.” Michael T., got it, too: “To be a man you must be non emotional and disconnected.” And the other Michael: “Have no emotional intelligence / don’t show too many emotions.” Andrew says he learned that a man “is supposed to be hard as nails and is to show no emotion.” Jason learned that being a man means “not showing emotion, being ‘tough’ so to speak — and that one is from peers, family and all of the above.” Dean points out “the usual messages about big boys don’t cry (yes, we do) and how a real man doesn’t complain (yes, they do).” Scott also points to “the ‘boys don’t cry’ mantra.” Ben T. says, “I hate the fact that men can’t be scared of anything.” James says he learned to appear emotionless so effectively that “I did not shed a single tear when my Dad died during heart surgery.” And Georges points out, “It always amazed me how brave I had to be to allow my feelings to show.”

This one, I would argue, is more crippling than all the rest combined. I, personally, might be able to manage a life where I always had to be willing to fight or fuck; where I had to walk an impossible tightrope between caring what my partner thought without caring too much; where I had to twist myself into knots to avoid any hint that I might be attracted to people of the same sex. (See below.) But a life where I had to deny my most basic animal emotions — love and fear, passion and grief — just to not get treated as a gender freak? That would send me screaming ’round the bend. (More than I already am, I mean.)

For the sweet love of Jesus, don’t be even a little bit gay.

Unless you are. In which case, it’s more or less okay.

This is kind of a funny one. Acceptance of actual homosexuality has increased by a staggering amount in the last few decades. In less than 40 years, the LGBT rights movement has gone from fighting for our right to not be put in mental institutions and lobotomized, to fighting for our right to get legally married. (And, okay, the right to not be fired from our jobs or kicked out of the U.S. military… but still.) And social acceptance of queers has paralleled our political acceptance. If you actually are a gay man, the “Don’t be even a little bit gay” message is being replaced, more and more every day, with the message, “Well… okay.”

Chandler joey baby
But if you’re a straight man? It’s a very different story. In TV shows and movies, homosexual panic is still a reliable source of comic hijinks. Wacky situations in which straight men are mistaken for gay — Chandler and Joey on “Friends” being out together with a baby, the “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” gag on “Seinfeld” — these are a staple of modern comedy. And that staple is usually stapled to the assumption that, for straight men, being mistaken for gay is a humiliating blow to their masculinity. You see it in fashion/ dating/ etiquette advice for men, too, which often focuses to an almost hysterical degree on walking that razor- thin line between looking like an urbane, sophisticated man of the world… while still, for the sweet love of Jesus, not being mistaken for gay.

Ultimate guide to anal sex for men
And you definitely see it in some very common male sexual fears. I’ve read way too many letters to way too many sex advice columns from way too many straight men saying they like — how shall I put this delicately? — being on the receiving end of anal pleasure… but don’t want to explore this eminently delightful activity, because they’re afraid it means they’re gay. Or because their female partners are afraid it means they’re gay. (Somewhat testy note to straight men and their female partners: No, it doesn’t. Wanting a woman to fuck you in the ass does not make you gay. Any more than wanting a woman to suck your cock does. Please.)

Now, I will say that these attitudes are beginning to change. The advances of the LGBT movement have freed things up for straights as well as queers, and the younger generation is a lot more fluid and casual about sexual orientation than mine ever was. As my friend Ben pointed out, “The loosening of roles that accompanied feminism and the gay rights movement probably benefited straight men at least as much as it did women and gay men… Witness metrosexuality: now that being mistaken for gay isn’t a disaster, men have more fashion leeway.” And Adam, who describes himself as “effeminate, though heterosexual,” says that being assumed to be gay “gave me a pass on some of the more restrictive rules of masculinity. After all, nobody really bothered to tell me to ‘man up’ when I sounded ‘fruity’ anyway.”

But at the same time, as gay visibility has increased, the likelihood of being mistaken for gay has gone way, way up. And as a result, the number of opportunities for anxious, gay-panic freakouts has gone up as well. Being mistaken for gay isn’t as disastrous as it once was — it’s more of a laugh line and less of a petrifying threat — but it also happens a lot more often. And the anxiety it still creates for a lot of straight men is a lot more constant… even if it isn’t as severe.

Real men don't eat quiche
So What Now?

And I’ve just barely started. I don’t have nearly enough space here to write the full-length novel I could write on this subject. I’ve skipped some of the biggest and most important gender expectations of men: the expectations of competiveness, of status consciousness, of financial success, strength and athleticism, leadership skills, mechanical skills, easy erectile functionality, a dehumanizing attitude towards women, giving a crap about sports. Heck, men get a clear social message that, in order to be manly, they have to be tall. What the heck are you supposed to do about that?

What the heck are any of us supposed to do about any of this?

Well, having unloaded all this depressing crap, I think it’s important to deliver some good news: There are ways out of this, and around it, and through it. A lot of men I talked about this said that yes, they were certainly aware of the rigid expectations held of them as men… but they didn’t personally feel hugely constrained by them. Sure, they were aware of these expectations. But they also felt comfortable rejecting them. Or embracing the parts they liked, and rejecting the parts they didn’t. Or subverting them, in creative and fun and sexy ways.

Kurt cobain dress magazine
And many men pointed out that, while they’re certainly getting a super-sized serving of narrow, stupid cultural messages about How To Be A Man, they’re also getting a decent helping of smarter, broader messages about Not Listening To That Stupid Shit. Plenty of men have gotten spiffy, role-modely lessons and examples about being non-violent, respectful of women, emotionally honest, sexually honest, and just generally their own best selves… from sources ranging from pop culture icons to their own fathers and mothers. As jraoul pointed out, “Do I think men are given rigid and/or narrow expectations about maleness? Well, sure! And we are also given fluid and/or wide ones. Depends on who’s doing the giving.”

Admittedly, because of my own personality and proclivities, the men in my life tend to be — how shall we put this? — outside the mainstream of conventional American society. (“Big nerdy pinko freaks” would be another way to put it.) And a lot of them are gay or bi, which skews the sampling even more. But just like lots of feminist women are able to laugh off the sitcoms and billboards and women’s magazines and live however the frack we want, lots of feminist men are able to unload the John Wayne/ Cary Grant/ “What kind of man reads Playboy” crap they got loaded with — or, depending on their generation, the Rambo/ Tom Cruise/ Maxim Magazine crap — and just get on with their lives.

Different people feel more affected by gender expectations than others. Some of us — women and men alike — still hear these voices in the back of our heads, still feel them shaping our reflexes, still see a need to consciously drag these messages into the light so we know how to recognize them and have an easier time tossing them overboard. And some folks — again, both women and men — feel like this is really not that big a deal. Yes, they say, society wants men to be one way and women to be another. Who cares what society wants? For some people, it takes years of introspection and therapy and processing to unload this junk. Some people never unlearn it, in fact; some people let their whole lives be run by it. And other people seem to unload it just by deciding to do it.

So I don’t know what to tell you about how to do that.

All I can tell you is that it’s totally worth it.

Thanks to Adam, Alan, Andrew, Ben, Other Ben, Chad, Christopher, Craig, Crypt, Damion, Darren, David, Other David, Still Other David, Yet Still Another David, And Yet One More David, Dean, Georges, Glendon, Jacob, James, Other James, Jason, Jeff, Joel, jraoul, Kyle, Lauro, Lenny, Leo, Mark, Michael, Other Michael, Still Other Michael, Scott, Other Scott, Still Other Scott, Sean, Anonymous, and everyone else I talked with, for their invaluable help with this piece.

Five Stupid, Unfair and Sexist Things Expected of Men
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9 thoughts on “Five Stupid, Unfair and Sexist Things Expected of Men

  1. 1

    “Don’t be gay…unless you are” is really funny, but it might be breaking down.
    This might sound strange, but I’m a straight man in college and fake-gay flirting is a staple of our humor. I was at a party and the host was showing me his book collection (we’re fancy intellectuals you know). When he said he had more books in his bedroom, I felt no embarrassment putting on my “sexy eyebrows” and asking “Are you inviting me back to your room?”
    The College Republicans do it too! Two straight conservative philosophy majors joke with each other about a hypothetical perfect universe in which the two of them are eternally fucking.
    I’m not sure what this all means, but I thought you might be interested.

  2. 2

    The idea that men are willing to have sex with any woman – or that “that’s all they’re after” – is a bit annoying for women as well.
    Your whole life you’re told that getting sex is easy if you’re a girl – just wear a short skirt, shake your booty and take your pick of the horny losers falling at your feet. Getting turned down by something you’ve essentially been raised to see as a vagina-seeking penis robot is mortifying.

  3. 3

    “Real” Guy rules:
    #1: Be proud to be a pussy on all suitable occasions.
    #2: Don’t be pussywhipped or a pussywhip. More on that later.
    #3: Don’t wait to be an object of desire.
    #4: If you do not have predatory sexual desires, don’t expect people to believe you.
    #5: Don’t expect people to believe you if you date for personality, intellect, emotional compatibility and relationship skills.
    #6: Cry, but expect that people are not used to seeing it. More importantly do not expect people to know how to handle it.
    #7: Expect things to be perpetually difficult if you don’t fall exactly on the expectation/liberation fault-line that is seen as the enlightened male. Expect that being interested in equality does not make you lots of friends of either sex.
    A few explanations to this.
    We are a far cry from an egalitarian society. Too much is unchanged.
    On #1: Many guys do not want to fight. And there is nothing wrong with being called a pussy. Which one would you rather be? A pussy or a dick? My choice is easy. Especially if it means that everything evolves pleasantly thereafter.
    On #2: Pussywhipping is a difficult topic. I am a naive guy and hadn’t heard the word until my late 20s. When I first heard it I heard it from a woman! And it was in a situation that I found troubling. She was an acquaintance and I ran into her when she had a new boyfriend and they were out for a drink and I joined them for some small-talk. She realized that she needed some chore done (something to fetch, forgot the detail). So she batted her eyes, gave him a kiss and asked him in a sweet voice, if he please could do the chore for her. He ran off. Once he was gone, she turned to me and said proudly: “Pussy power, yeah I have him pussy whipped”. Later I also heard the word in other contexts and other meanings. Of course it’s not OK to treat a partner as an object of manipulation. Nor is it OK to use the word “pussywhipped” to shame a guy into not listening to his partners concerns.
    On #3 many men want to be objects of desire. We want to be liked and desired. To be desired is nice. Gender roles as currently played will very unlikely have this work early on. To hope for it is to hope for a miracle. You have to ask out. If you do not do that, you likely won’t be desired.
    On #6 crying men are rare. People do not know how to handle it. It’s a shame. Nothing like having a bad time and people treating you like a martian that just landed and they don’t know if your skin is toxic.
    On #7 don’t hope for an egalitarian relationship early on. Early dating is extremely gendered. Later on you have to be lucky to fall into that relationship with someone who can handle you not fitting the stereotype, who understands that you want equality, and that you are able to communicate and that’s OK.
    We still have this myth that primarily men have to change. In reality we all have to, and as long as women don’t change men, in some areas have little choice but either be ill-adapted or stick with what works.
    There is a kind of “new masculinity”. Emotional enough but not too emotional. Listening and considerate, but not having too many independent needs. Egalitarian, but still quite happy to lift heavy furniture, change tires and operate heavy machinery. Giving and taking, but still having the characteristics that are still desired, strong shoulders to lean on, confidence, wealth, drive, and only those emotional needs that are charming. Be human in the right spots, but not all spots. In the other spots, be as expected. And if you are not, hide it.
    I don’t think we will see the disappearance of masculinity/femininity any time soon, and a replacement with individuality and humanity. For that we’d need conventions to negotiate the new complexity that we can now just assume, at the price of having to fake it to make it.
    In closing a story of an exchange with a female friend of mine. She had a dry spell dating. Guys wouldn’t ask her out. I told her to try ask guys out, I know there are lots of guys who’d love it. She said, she had tried, once, and got rejected, so she’s back to the old pattern. This alone made clear to me how massively different our worlds are. For I had lost count how many rejections I had taken at that points. But only one of us had a choice in picking a pattern.

  4. 4

    Your whole life you’re told that getting sex is easy if you’re a girl – just wear a short skirt, shake your booty and take your pick of the horny losers falling at your feet.

    Yes, well, “loosers” is the operative word here. If you sit down on the bar, spread your legs and scream “come and get it, boys!”, you almost certainly will have takers. Whether those takers are guys you’d want to touch with a 60 foot pole* or not is a different matter.
    * They might be, but there is certainly no guarantee.

  5. 5

    “Who cares what society wants?”
    This seems the key question that could sum up the whole issue. The answer is of course “the society”, i.e. everyone of us has some expectations of how everyone else should behave (lack of violence is one obvious one).
    Each individual’s expectations are strongly shaped by the general expectations of everyone else, but it’s the individual’s choice whether to conform (and possibly be less happy) or to rebel against them (and risk exclusion from the society). Both attitudes have advantages and disadvantages. What’s interesting is that the more liberal the society gets, the easier it becomes to rebel, while adapting to the norms (and actually figuring out what they are) becomes the harder task.
    As for the many contradictions it seems the problem of unreasonable expectations – many of us just want to both have our cake and eat it. For example, women often want the man to be “the decider” but at the same time they want to be an equal partner in those decisions (or even the dominating side when they resort to “pussywhipping”). It’s unreasonable to try to live up to all the expectations, and we must make choices which ones to try to achieve (and also be careful not to have similar contradicting expectations of our partners).

  6. 6

    Excellent article. I agree with you on your observations. As a woman I have been trying to understand the preferences of the people around me and of course weed through all of the nonsense that goes with it. In college I took and Old World History course that gave me a clearer idea of how society evolved and it seems the rules were created from the destruction of Roman Empire by Germania! These rules are their creation! We are getting free now! We all struggle to find ourselves and we will win in the end!

  7. 7

    Excellent article. As a man I really appreciate these kinds of topics being addressed in constructive ways. I can say I have big problems with the “hot to trot” stereotype. When I was single, it seemed like if I wasn’t aggressively predatory with my desire I couldn’t get even the slightest bit of recognition, and if I was I was just being typical (not that being typical didn’t pay off, but it felt degrading). And now that I’m in a committed relationship of two years that has been wonderfully equal and communicative, my girlfriend and I are about to have a long talk about her telling me, “Well, I wanted to, but you took too long to make a move. It’s ok, you’ll figure it out eventually.” after (unusually) not having sex the night before while I was taking her to work the next day.

  8. Eli

    We resolve our conflicts with words, with glares, with strategies, with the law as a last resort.
    I’m curious about this attitude. If an irreconcilable conflict of values manifests, then it would seem that force is the unavoidable last resort to keep your values from being violated. Being prepared for that would seem to follow naturally. Trying to intimidate or manipulate an antagonist with words or glares without being ready for further escalation is suicidal. Sure the law might avenge your death but that wouldn’t help you, and anyway isn’t that just relying on someone else to deploy violence on your behalf?
    Am I missing something?

  9. 9

    The contradictory nature of manliness can seem like an impossbile trap. However, it allows you to get away with breaking one kind of manliness by referring to another aspect of manliness.
    “Yes, I do ask my wife about pretty much every decision I make in life. Does that make me pussy-wipped? Probably. However, I have no real choice. When marrying her I took an oath to ask her opinion about every major decision. Yeah, it was a stupid oath by a stupid man -but it was an oath. I think a man should stand by his word no matter what other people say.”
    “Yeah I guess being an artist isn’t particularly masculine. However, I seriously believe in art, and I seriously believe I have a talent for it. A man shouldn’t be a sheep. He should stand for what he believes in no matter what society says. I happen to believe in art and I stand for it.”
    “Yeah, maybe I am overdressed. Yeah I do put a lot of effort into my clothes. I don’t really care what you or society thinks about that. If that offends you we can totally take it outside -cause I think your blood will look great on me.”

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