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The Biggest COVID Threat for Men May Be Masculinity Itself

Hypermasculinity in the face of the pandemic is killing us

As countless news stories have highlighted over the past year, men are more likely than women to reject masks, vaccinations and pandemic ordinances limiting large gatherings. And because of this, they seem to get COVID at higher rates.

But a new Fairleigh Dickinson University poll finds the real divide to be among men who care about projecting masculinity and those who don’t. Dan Cassino, a professor of government and politics at FDU and the executive director of the poll, found that of the 600 men he studied, those believing themselves to be “completely masculine” were more likely to not comply with COVID precautions. Consequently (and perhaps unsurprisingly), the hyper-masculine-identified men were nearly three times as likely to have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the last month.

I recently spoke with Cassino about why alpha males are so resistant to wearing masks, how such masculinity is particularly harmful to men of color and what a parallel universe would look like in which following basic COVID protocols were considered manly. 

You first identified men who consider themselves to be “completely masculine.” Why?

Because perceived masculinity is based on society’s understanding of certain attitudes and behaviors. When someone says they’re “overly masculine,” while we don’t know that they actually exhibit these behaviors, we do know that they consider them to be socially desirable. And yet, there’s nothing biological that leads men to be skeptical of vaccinations or insist on not wearing a mask. That’s a gender difference. 

Men are less likely than women to follow COVID precautions. But we can put men into two distinct groups — first, those hewing toward stereotypical masculinity, who tend to be older, more Republican and less educated. This is nearly two-thirds of all men, and they’re off-the-charts compared to every other gender and sex group. Then you’ve got the rest of men, between 30 and 50 percent of them, who don’t care much about stereotypical masculinity and whose views are quite similar to women.

Why is the overly masculine group more resistant to wearing masks? 

A face mask is a potent, visible way to demonstrate masculinity. By not wearing one, what you’re saying is, “I’m not worried about COVID-19. I’m tough enough, and this isn’t going to hurt me.” 

You’re also signaling your individuality, implying that the rest of us are all sheep and blindly following along. Carrying a gun is another way of showing off hegemonic masculinity, especially when it’s threatened. The pandemic has essentially been a double threat to men’s ability to assert their gender identity, because first of all, you’re supposed to be protecting your family but can’t physically do so with an invisible virus. Also, you’re supposed to be providing for your family but so may have lost their jobs. Such threats to masculinity lead some men to look for ways to reassert it, and not wearing a mask is a very visible way to do so. 

Ten percent of “completely masculine” men in your study said that wearing a face mask is dangerous to the health of the wearer. What do you make of that?

That’s not surprising. Remember, men who try to assert strong masculine identities don’t like preventative medicine, tend not to get vaccines or go to the doctor for regular checkups. One of the ways to justify this behavior is to declare these things to be bad for you. Basically, they’re asserting, “I trust my own toughness above everything, including diseases.” In other words, all preventative medicine, including mask-wearing, is a sign of weakness. As are vaccinations, which many in this group also disparage as unsafe. I look at it as a post-hoc rationalization, which is to say, “I’ve got my reasons for rejecting the vaccine, so now I’m gonna find a reason to justify my belief.” Which is why they’re more likely to buy into the anti-vaccination propaganda. 

What were some reasons these men gave for not wanting to wear masks?

It’s too uncomfortable, it’s a free country and they don’t like the government telling them what to do. Typical post-hoc rationalization, but it’s also a masculinity display. Being told to wear a mask is reason enough for some men to reject doing so, because they can show that they’re independent, powerful and have total agency. In fact, the more people who wear a mask, the less likely they are to do so. Because if nobody were wearing a mask, not doing so wouldn’t really mean much. But everyone wearing one is a good reason to show how different you are, or how manly you are. 

The same thing is happening with social gatherings. Having 20 people over for a barbecue is another outward way of demonstrating that you’re not at all worried about the pandemic. 

What did you personally take away from your findings? 

That there is an increasing gap in how we define masculinity. We have the hegemonic group that’s engaging in behaviors so differently from other men — especially younger men. I’m optimistic younger men have a completely different understanding of what masculinity means; their gender identity isn’t wrapped up in wearing a mask, acting macho or being aggressive. It’s based around other ways of understanding what it means to be a man, like protection and being a good dad. It’s a uniformly positive thing that we have people redefining masculinity and understanding it in a new way. But I worry about the racial component. 

How so? 

The movement among younger men is mostly among white men. We have seen men from non-white racial ethnic groups becoming increasingly tied to hegemonic masculinity. African-American and Latino men are actually more likely to buy into traditional hegemonic masculinity, which is why Trump had increased success with them. But it’s a problem, because it means they don’t really see a way to redefine masculinity to meet the challenges of the 21st century. 

We have to understand that traditional hegemonic masculinity is maladaptive. Men are sharing more power with women because traditional jobs in extraction and construction industries are dying. If that’s the way they define themselves, they’re going to become increasingly threatened. And threatened men tend to do bad stuff. So we have to offer them outlets to gracefully exit from the hegemonic masculinity.  

Men who claimed to be “completely masculine” were also way more likely to report having been diagnosed with COVID recently. It kind of surprised me that they would even admit to having been infected. 

I’m not, because they survived! That was Donald Trump’s reaction: “I had it, I beat it and look how tough I am.” And yet, the fact that those men are on average older means they’re more likely to die. That a lot of these men are taking cues from political and social leaders is significant and unfortunate, because there’s no reason it had to be this way. There’s a parallel universe in which wearing a mask is perceived to be especially masculine because it’s a way of protecting your family and community, both key drivers of masculine behavior. In this universe, if somebody weren’t wearing a mask, it would be seen as them trying to hurt your family, so you could beat the shit out of them. 

We’re not living in that universe, though, which is too bad. But it’s not too late to fix it. There’s still time to make a masculinity appeal out of getting vaccinated and wearing a mask, but political polarization makes it much, much harder.