Arianne Shahvisi

In her 1946 book on Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Ruth Benedict distinguished between cultures of shame and cultures of guilt. In guilt cultures, which are typically characterised by individualism, people are nudged towards prosocial behaviour by their consciences. In shame cultures, which are generally more collectivist, people are motivated by the desire to avoid public humiliation and preserve honour. Benedict’s association of US culture with guilt, and Japanese culture with shame, has since been criticised for its oversimplification and for its implications of Western moral superiority. It is more accurate to say that guilt and shame are often context-dependent and may co-exist as moral motivations.

Across 16th and 17th-century Europe, masks of shame were a common form of misogynist punishment. The ‘scold’s bridle’ was a heavy iron helmet attached to the head of a woman charged with ‘nagging’, ‘gossiping’ or other forms of unruly speech, often at the urging of her husband. Part of the bridle was a sharp gag that clamped the wearer’s tongue, physically silencing her and causing uncontrollable salivation. Thus muzzled, she’d be exhibited in public.

The Covid-19 lockdown has seen the public shaming of those thought to be breaking the rules. Neighbours who clap together on Thursdays have been overzealously reporting one another’s contraventions of the lockdown rules, and posting incriminating pictures and videos on social media. Other cases are more clear-cut: the most prominent target of corona-shaming is Dominic Cummings, whose egregious violation of the guidelines has been met with widespread contempt.

Cummings’s disregard for the new social contract is another data point in support of the hypothesis that the repudiation of protective measures is gendered. As with other risky behaviours, men are more likely to break lockdown rules. A study published this month shows they are also less likely to wear face masks. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many men believe they are less vulnerable to contracting or dying from the virus; others worry that masks are shameful or will be interpreted as a sign of weakness or subjugation.

Gendered refusals of face masks aren’t new. During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, mask-wearing was linked to femininity, and a lot of men rejected the public health advice. In the US, ad campaigns were designed to contrive associations between hygiene measures and masculinity. ‘We appeal to your civic patriotism,’ an announcement in the Sunday Oregonian said, ‘to co-operate with us in our effort to stamp out the Spanish Influenza … by wearing a mask.’

Wearing a face covering is mostly a matter of ‘source control’ – containing virus particles in the mask to keep them out of wider circulation. Addressing the cause is a tidier and more effective public health measure than managing its many, dispersed downstream effects. A sneeze behind a mask is a moist mess; a sneeze in the wild is a rapidly diffusing hazard. Mask refusal is the latest and most dangerous incarnation of the phenomenon of manspreading: not only are men without masks more likely to spread the virus, but their repudiation of a visible protective measure compels others to give them a wider berth in the supermarket or street, so they take up a larger share of public space.

It isn’t just face masks. Despite their proven benefits, many men are reluctant to use sunscreen or wear cycle helmets. They are also less likely to recycle, believing it to be at odds with both masculinity and heterosexuality, and many won’t order vegetarian food in the company of other men for fear of ridicule.

Mask refusal has another interesting parallel in condom refusal. A 2002 study found that ‘higher endorsement of masculinity ideology was related to more negative condom attitudes’. (More often than not condom use is also a matter of source control.) Norman Mailer interviewed Madonna for Esquire in 1994. ‘As you know,’ he said at one point, ‘I’m not in love with your book, Sex.’ ‘I didn’t know that,’ she replied. One of the things he objected to was her writing that ‘condoms are not only necessary but mandatory.’ ‘The only thing you can depend on with condoms,’ Mailer scoffed, ‘is that they will take 20 to 50 per cent off your fuck.’ He went on to suggest that using a condom ‘aggravates one’s need for power’ and that ‘condoms are one element in a vast, unconscious conspiracy to make everyone part of the social machine.’

Masculinity is the most glaring shame culture of our age. Those who feel awkward about wearing masks put the avoidance of discomfort or embarrassment ahead of protecting themselves and others. States whose leaders seem most concerned about their masculinity have failed catastrophically in their response to the pandemic. Their fixation on saving face has cost tens of thousands of lives.


  • 30 May 2020 at 4:54pm
    Graucho says:
    What you have observed about human males is a biological phenomenon. The mission of life forms is to make copies of themselves. A person is a gene's way of making another gene as the saying goes. If you look at the crude arithmetic of the strategy that our species uses to reproduce, then it becomes clear that males are pretty expendable. A healthy female at the limit can only produce around 20 offspring. A male can father any number, ask our Prime Minister. So evolution has programmed females to be in the main risk averse and males not so. If males take excessive risks and find out the hard way what works and what doesn't then the casualties aren't going to dent our chances of survival and the serendipity events will improve them. The death rates of young males between the ages of 16 and 30 bear this out.

    • 31 May 2020 at 8:25pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Graucho
      But is there an evolutionary explanation for evolutionary psychology, is what I'd like to know. For its popularity as a hypothesis, that is.

      And if so, might such a mechanism also account for earlier theories such as sociobiology, or social Darwinism?

    • 1 June 2020 at 5:23am
      Martin Pearce says: @ Bob Beck
      Quine: “Creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic but praiseworthy tendency to die before reproducing their kind.”
      "Natural Kinds", in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (1969), p. 126

      Obviously, this mainly applies to inductions with short- to medium-term implications: leaders most concerned with their masculinity would appear to be, on the whole, better at (and probably more preoccupied with) spreading genes than planning for pandemics.

  • 31 May 2020 at 3:07pm
    R_Totale says:
    Oh come on! what a load of pseudo-intellectual tosh. Men believe recycling at odds with masculinity and heterosexuality? Seriously, where do you get this stuff? And then pull up a 30 year old quote from Norman Mailer as somehow exemplifying male attitudes. It's equivalent of a man quoting Andrea Dworkin and pretending her views were typical of the average woman. Very disheartening that this American tinged grad school nonsense is appearing more and more in this paper.

  • 2 June 2020 at 5:38pm
    Robert Hanks says:
    The benefits of wearing a cycle helmet are far from proven; and it's notable that in the societies where cycling is most widespread, such as the Netherlands, helmet wearing is the exception.

  • 2 June 2020 at 6:17pm
    steve kay says:
    As an LRB subscribing Grauniad reader, who has been heterosexual and consecutively monogamous for the last fifty years, and who sorts out the recycling and has always done most of the cooking, I am wholly at a loss to know what this piece has to do with the price of fish. I'd have guessed that Esquire was an American magazine, sounds as if it is not disimilar to Playboy. What Norman Mailer thinks about Alban Berg or Erich Korngold might be marginally interesting but his views on contraception are not.
    However, hanging up in my study is a cycling helmet, it is very badly bashed. It reminds me that, when I had an accident resulting in doing a pile driver over the handlebars, if I had not been wearing a helmet A&E would probably sent me directly to neurology, if a skull as damaged as the helmet had left me alive that is.

    • 2 June 2020 at 8:14pm
      John P brennan says: @ steve kay
      Mailer's opinions on Berg or Korngold, or on Bach, Stravinsky, Amy Beach or Gustav Mahler, whatever they were or might have been, are guaranteed to have been of far less than marginal interest. He was the buffoon who invented the expression "fuggin-ay," after all, and was as much the center of his narcissistic universe as Trump is of his, and Trump's opinions on ANYTHING are absolutely worthless.

    • 2 June 2020 at 8:36pm
      steve kay says: @ steve kay
      I have had an email from an occasional LRB reading friend who does not have a password. They tell me I should be ashamed of that comment not just because it verges on being twee, but because it is irredeemably straight. What Mailer should be accused of is his criticism of the condom and apparent lack of thought about, or possibly dislike of the gay community. Did he think that gay sex was a bad idea, or was he, in 1992 actually saying that unprotected sex was OK if it gave a bit more feeling. Mailer's indifference to anything other than his idea of sex was indeed pretty terrible, and I should have thought of that earlier.

  • 2 June 2020 at 7:47pm
    Miriam Walton says:
    The need for cycle helmets is debatable and when my husband 'did a pile driver' he had the sense to break his collarbone (!) He still believes that wearing a helmet would have killed him. There will always be cyclists who think the opposite and we've had debates with some of them. Studies have shown that drivers pass closer to cyclists wearing helmets and this is borne out by our experience as cyclists.

    As for masks, 'the science', or whatever apology for that is in vogue today (it will doubtless change tomorrow) suggests that masks are not actually necessary or safe outside a health-care setting, as people do not observe the necessary hygiene while wearing them. Moreover, you just breathe in your own bacteria and compromise your oxygen supply. Besides that, what would they be protecting against now that SC2 has all but disappeared?

    As it happens, I'm a woman, I never wear a cycle helmet and neither I nor my husband would be seen dead in a mask. They are indeed a symbol of subjection and they help instill a fear culture. The hyper-rational cult of anxiety which currently pervades this country is disappointingly now afflicting the LRB. As a country, we are struggling to exit from this disastrous lock-down, aided and abetted by Government and its bought-off media and we are sorry to see such unhelpful, infantile, 'woke' drivel here.

    Oh, and by the way, my husband is a vegetarian. I'm not!

    • 3 June 2020 at 12:19pm
      Thomas Jones (blog editor) says: @ Miriam Walton
      The purpose of wearing a mask outside a surgical setting isn’t so much to prevent the wearer from catching Covid-19 – as you say, people tend touch their faces etc while wearing them and there is rarely an adequate seal – as to prevent them from spreading the virus to others. Virus-laden droplets are caught in the mask, and are therefore less likely to be breathed in by people nearby. If everyone wears a mask, then the virus spreads less. It’s about the outcomes of collective rather than individual behaviour.

      As for the lockdown, all the evidence from countries all around the world suggests that lockdowns are an effective way of suppressing the spread of the virus. If it has ‘all but disappeared’ in the UK – though that seems an odd way of putting it, given there were 1613 new cases and 324 deaths yesterday – that’s in large part thanks to the lockdown. I worry that the virus is still too prevalent to make easing it safe, and a ‘second wave’ seems all but inevitable. I hope I’m wrong. Time will tell. In the meantime, I hope you and your husband stay safe and keep well.

    • 3 June 2020 at 7:07pm
      Charlie says: @ Thomas Jones (blog editor)
      How many risk management measures are contained within the umbrella term "lockdown"? All events cancelled. Schools closed. A very small percentage of the population going to work. 1.5 million of the most "at-risk" people told to stay at home for 12 weeks. Anyone with symptoms told to stay at home, along with anyone who lives with them. Everyone told they have to stay two metres away from each other: human contact being effectively made illegal. And now my masculinity is the issue because I don't want to wear a mask?

    • 5 June 2020 at 12:17am
      Bob Beck says: @ Miriam Walton
      Are you aware that COVID-19 is caused not by a bacterium, but a virus? And are you aware of, or do you even care about, the difference?

      I'm guessing not, but either way: to claim that wearing a mask "compromises your oxygen supply" is both false and absurd. If it did, then surgeons and OR techs -- and indeed painters, plasterers and innumerable other kinds of workers -- would routinely faint on the job, or else make grievous errors because of lowered alertness.

  • 2 June 2020 at 11:27pm
    Jon Harris says:
    Miriam Walton, bully for you.

  • 3 June 2020 at 12:01pm
    Thomas Jones (blog editor) says:
    At no point does the piece say that no men/all women wear masks/bicycle helmets etc. Any comment pointing to one example of e.g. a man who recycles, or a woman who isn't a vegetarian, proves nothing. The studies that Arianne Shahvisi links to suggest that, overall, men are less likely to wear masks etc than women are, and there appears to be a correlation between notions of 'masculinity' and a reluctance to wear masks etc. (To put it another way: if they say that eight out of ten cats prefer Whiskas, your cat being one of the 20 per cent that prefer Friskies doesn't disprove the claim.)

    • 4 June 2020 at 5:36am
      Jane Jones says: @ Thomas Jones (blog editor)
      Likewise if you think the research the author links to proves anything either. Main research is an online survey of about 2000 people. And as for the other 'research' the less said the better. The author links to an Esquire article reporting on male attitudes to vegetarianism - sample size 22! Very poor article with unpleasant undercurrent of misandry. Do better LRB blog!

    • 4 June 2020 at 10:01am
      R_Totale says: @ Thomas Jones (blog editor)
      The 'research' linked to in this article in this article proves nothing either. I'd advise all readers to actually click on the links provided to see just how weak it really is (vegetarianism & masculinity 'research' sample size 23). You might want to consider that before getting all sniffy about people posting anecdotes of their own experience.

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