In a time of shifting gender roles, Ashland residents are holding public forums on ways to communicate better across the gender gap — and to answer the age-old question, "What Do Men and Women Want?"

In a time of shifting gender roles, Ashland residents are holding public forums on ways to communicate better across the gender gap — and to answer the age-old question, "What Do Men and Women Want?"

Of course everyone wants love, the six organizers agree. But in a world where women have evolved more powerful roles and men have become more sensitive and in touch with their feminine side, finding love that's compatible and lasting isn't always easy.

At the first town hall, held in November and attended by about 50 people who shared at an open microphone, several women said they're empowered by high-level jobs and good pay but feel men have lost a lot of their masculinity. Now that they have what they want economically and creatively, women want men to be more manly and let them be more feminine.

Organizer Allen Hicks surveyed 125 people and found that most wanted the same things in a relationship — intimacy, honesty, strength, communication and happiness between the sheets. Asked whose sexual satisfaction was more important, the majority of both genders said the woman's — which defies the stereotype of male insensitivity in bed, he says. "The main thing I saw," says organizer Robert Wagner, "was that both men and women want the same things and that women want men to have backbone. Women want men to show up with real presence, with heart open and standing strong, taking charge, like in a tango."

A second forum will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 3, at the Ashland Community Center, with donations of $10 to $15 requested.

Titled "What Do Men and Women Want: What's Love Got to Do With It?" it's billed as an event in which "women and men can share their wisdom, experiences and common challenges around relationships — a unique opportunity to break through the barriers that separate us and potentially to reconnect in profound ways."

Organizers, who are staging the event on their own with no sponsoring organization, say they hope for a new era of understanding and intimacy that will replace the tiresome and lonely "battle of the sexes."

In the historical male-female relationship, the man was strong and in charge but showed little sensitivity, equality or listening skills, says organizer Felice Laurel. Then came a period in which women strove for liberation and empowerment and rejected many gender roles. Now, she says, society is moving toward a third level — and that's what the gender forums seek to define and support.

"Women want men to protect us, but not with the old heartless violence," says Laurel. "It's taken a lot of work for women to get here and we're scared to trust again."

Several women at the November forum complained that personal growth workshops comprise mostly women, and "there was a lot of onus on men, that they need to do more work," says organizer Peter Gross.

He says men can now draw from both the old macho role as well as the late 20th-century sensitivity.

"The new guy will be a sensitive, intelligent, macho guy," Gross jokes.

"I'm still the dude!" says organizer Mark Arinsberg. "Women tell me the sexiest thing a man can say is, 'I am here with my heart open.' "

Whatever it means to be male or female these days, the search for love is universal and heartfelt, organizers say.

Participants at the last forum "stood up and let the tears come down, showing that we're all going through the same thing and shouldn't feel alone," Arinsberg says. "At our core, everyone wants to be accepted, heard and loved."

The forum has a Facebook page and operates an interactive blog at http://whatdomenandwomenwant.blogspot.com.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.