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November 3, 2020

‘Emotional PPE’ and Other Takeaways for Guys in a Pandemic: Part One

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Feature image is ‘where two are gathered’ by Lori Klassen.

In the first of a two-part series, Healthy Manhood speaker and writer Jeff Perera shares with fellow cis-hetero guys some takeaways from navigating COVID-19 to help us better navigate our interactions with people of other genders.

Take a wild guess which three-word phrase makes up the first words in a series of questions I’ve been asked more in 2020: The Year of Coronavirus than any year before. Think about it for a minute, we’ll come back to it in a bit.

Speaking of questions and the pandemic: Amidst the ‘false infodemic’ spread of misinformation and disinformation, we all have questions about what tomorrow holds for us all. Over this challenging year we’ve adapted and changed our approach to everyday routines and interactions. Some of us are also finding lessons and takeaways around how we interact with one another. One powerful takeaway came for many of us who experienced depression and incapacitating sadness in the early and continuing stages of physical distancing and isolation. People who previously felt that those wrestling with depression just needed ‘an attitude adjustment’ or ‘a positive mindset’, now found themselves unable to get out of bed, or needed a week to do what took only a few hours pre-pandemic. This opened a window of insight for them to better understand the immobilizing impact of mental health and wellness issues. 

Throughout all these once-in-a-generation experiences, there are many potential light bulb moments my fellow socially-distanced, straight cis-bros and I can embrace to better inform how we act and interact with people of all genders.

GIMME SOME SPACE

Think about when you cautiously ventured out to a grocery or hardware store as things carefully opened back up. Totally different from the many times we casually strolled into the same store: focused on anything else, or solely on what we needed to pick up. Months into the pandemic era, many of us have developed a heightened awareness when it comes to who is near us, drifting too close, or who we allow within a 6 foot radius around us. 

You know, our personal space.

Remember the first time you sensed someone standing just a little too close behind you? These small moments can help us understand, just a little, what it’s like for people who aren’t fellow bros and dudes walking around at any time of day or night, vigilant and aware of their surroundings because they have to be. I once heard Ravyn Wngz, a Trans Afro-Indigeous woman in Toronto, describe how just leaving her home is a revolutionary act. 

Think about how we sometimes might feel self-permitted or just simply allowed into women’s personal space, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. For example: time to pose with a man at an event for a picture? Arms are likely around each other’s triceps, or hands rest on shoulders. Posing for a pic with a woman? So many men will intimately wrap their hands around a woman’s waist or hip, pulling her in closer. You might be thinking: ‘Whoa, back up. I’ve done that before, but it’s not always a sexual or romantic thing!’ I hear you, I’ve done it before too. I’m mindful of it now though, and avoid doing it because it’s an intimate gesture you do with someone you developed that closeness and permission with, like a romantic partner, or dear friend. 

My friend Laura refers to this as ‘access before intimacy.’ We will assume closeness and permission before working to build, earn, and grow the trust that allows such closeness. Think of it like forcing our personal ‘bubble’ onto someone else. Think about how we will place our hand on the small of a woman’s back to move past her in a crowded space, instead of maybe on a shoulder like we would with other men. Still don’t agree? How about from now on, when you take pictures with men, you wrap your hands around their waist and squeeze them into you, the same way you might with a woman. Not likely, huh? 

Just as we spent the pandemic developing an informed state of awareness, we can also strive to be more mindful of everyday realities that those who aren’t cis-straight dudes like us will navigate daily, mostly because of the impact we have on them.

The Questions That You Need to Hear Too. 

So, about that series of questions I mentioned. Deep breath, men. They start with the three words: 

Why. Do. Men.

Why do men abandon responsibilities, or emotionally distance when they are stressed or overwhelmed? Why do men react to rejection with verbal and sometimes physical threats? Why do men that I don’t know, or just met, suddenly send a ‘dick pic’? Why do men randomly volunteer agitating opinions I never asked for? Why do men leave us to take on extra work at home like a ‘second shift’ on top of our own full-time job? 

You might be feeling yourself get defensive from reading all that, maybe even reaching for the ‘close window’ button. The way we handle moments like these define us. With something hard to hear, we can either get defensive or peace out, or we can sit with it, deal with it, and find a way to do better. Stay with me, let’s dig in. 

Why are these questions coming up so much more this year? Spending much more time with the people we’re isolated with explains a lot of them. My theory for some of these questions though, is that many of our interactions during dates, hangouts, or at work aren’t happening in-person as often, or while we do things together (dinner after a movie, sitting at a sports event, concert, or in the lunchroom). Most of our interactions have been condensed down to words shared through text messages, phone calls and video chats. So, our true nature will surface real quick, and for some of us guys it doesn’t take long until we say something upsetting, disturbing, or just gross out a friend, sister, co-worker, or potential date. To be fair, as my friend Tessa said: “It IS difficult to navigate most conversations constantly through a screen or the phone.” Acknowledging this, however, doesn’t mean we are letting each other off the hook here. Together, we can sit with the way we leave others feeling about themselves, about us as men, the spaces and situations in which we cross paths, and the world we live in.

Okay, let’s look at dick pics for a minute. (No, not literally). To be clear, I’m talking about men sending someone pictures of their penis that were not asked for, expected, nor was there any expressed desire to see them. It seems like there has been an increased spread of these unwanted pictures, like jpeg projectile droplets tossed suddenly at people for many reasons. Sometimes, they are shared because we might actually think it’s wanted. While talking about this with Tony Rezac for his ‘Basecamp for Men’ podcast, he said: “I think it’s about some men wanting to be seen” as far as men who don’t have a proficiency in navigating vulnerable moments, and lack in developing rapport and connection. So, we might shock in order to stand out, like some warped modern version of intended courting.

Laura shared with me how she’s wondered about advice women get such as to not post their best or sexiest pictures on a dating site profile. “Many men will say that women have so much power sexually. They will interpret sexual images of women as them flexing their power, rather than women being sexualized.” This reminds me of how some men consider women wearing makeup or form-fitting outfits in work environments as ‘unfair’ or invoking their ‘sexual power’, oblivious of how even the most sloppy-styled man will upgrade five levels in status simply by wearing a suit and tie. 

“So, for many men,” Laura says: “they perceive themselves to be grounded in their sexuality by aggressively asserting power.” Harmful ideas of manhood tell us that our entire self-worth and value is based on the power we hold, own or can prove. The intention of sending a dick pic suddenly out of the blue can also be to aggressively demonstrate, assert, or seek validation of our power, like someone showing off their car, abs, or gun. It attempts to say: ‘See? I can clearly take care of you sexually!’ It’s also a symptom of our programming to approach connection or intimacy as transactional (‘Showed you mine, show me yours?’)

For some though, it is about intentionally provoking just for the thrill of it. This is the guy who, as my friend Molly Caudle said: “learned at too young an age that any attention, even negative attention (reaction) is better than none? Some people seem to have a mix up where they get similar gratification from conflict as they do from passion, and a dick pic is a perfect bridge between the two.” So before you ‘Free Willy’, when it comes to dick pics, if someone hasn’t directly indicated an interest in seeing one, do NOT send one. 

Thinking of the ways we as men can potentially be disappointing, hurtful or harmful. Dealing with us is like navigating the degrees of being potentially exposed to a virus. Just like how you don’t know if someone you just met has COVID-19, someone won’t know if we will potentially expose them to ‘infected’ attitudes and behaviours, both in the real world or online. Our adapted approaches to daily interactions – being vigilant of invasion of our own space, being present and alert to avoid possible exposure, and layering ourselves in protective personal equipment – can provide insight for also adapting a ‘new normal’ in our character. 

It’s a chance to consider, with similar attentiveness, the emotional layers of protection that women and non-binary folk wear as ‘Emotional PPE.’

image1Jeff Perera has been speaking to people of all walks of life across North America since 2008 about mindful versus harmful ideas of manhood. Jeff’s work helps nurture spaces for real discussion: inspiring people to challenge our gendered ideas of success and failure, and to be the lesson in action. You can read written pieces, listen to podcast conversations, and check out TEDx talks and interviews with Jeff over at HigherUnlearning.com, an online space exploring how limiting ideas of masculinity impact us all in everyday life.