Jeff shares lessons from navigating COVID-19 pandemic that fellow cis-hetero guys can apply to our everyday interactions with women and non-binary folks online and in-person. (This is an edited version of Jeff’s two-part series which originally appeared on the Sex With Dr. Jess’s Blog. Check out Part One and Part Two!)
Guess which three-word phrase makes up the first words in a series of questions I was asked more in 2020: The Year of Coronavirus than any year before. Think about it for a minute, we’ll come back to it.
Speaking of the pandemic and the ‘false infodemic’ spread of misinformation and disinformation, we all have questions about what tomorrow holds for us. As we continue to adapt and change 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 ongoing stages of physical distancing and social 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 needing 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 back to when we first cautiously ventured out to a grocery or hardware store as things carefully opened back up in early 2020. An entirely different experience from the many times we casually strolled into the same store: lost in thought, or solely focused on what you needed to pick up. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic era, many of us developed a heightened state of awareness of who is near us, drifting too close, or who we would 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 begin to understand what it’s like for people who aren’t fellow bros and dudes walking around at any time of day or night, vigilant or even hyper-aware of their surroundings because they have to be. I once heard Ravyn Wngz, a Trans Afro-Indigenous woman in Toronto, describe just leaving her home as a revolutionary act.
Think about how we sometimes might feel self-permitted into a women’s personal space or simply allowed to interact more intimately, 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 at your side, or 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, it’s not always a sexual or romantic thing?!’ I hear you, I’ve done it before too. I’m more mindful of it now though, and try to avoid doing it because it’s a welcomed 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 tightly-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 as 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 – such as women – 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?
Feeling yourself get defensive from reading all that? Maybe even reaching for the ‘close window’ button? Keep reading. The way we handle moments like these define us. With something hard to hear, we can either get defensive, check out, or we can sit with it and 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 a lot more time with the people we’re isolated with explains a lot of them. Many of these questions are a result of our work, friendship, or dating interactions not happening in-person as often or at all (such as dinner after a movie, or sitting together at a sports event, concert, or in the lunchroom). Many of our interactions have been condensed down to words shared through text messages, phone calls and video chats. So, our true nature can surface real quick, and for some of us guys it doesn’t take long until we say something upsetting or 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 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… woah woah no, not literally! To be clear, I’m talking about men with dicks sending someone pictures of their dick 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 guys 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 “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.
Dealing with us guys can be like navigating the degrees of being potentially exposed to a virus. Just like how you don’t know if someone you’ve just met has COVID-19, someone getting to know us 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 gender-diverse people wear as ‘Emotional PPE.’
Layers of Emotional PPE
Many men (myself included) are considering, or trying to navigate, dating during a pandemic: maneuvering uncharted waters in meeting people they are attracted to, and possibly build romantic or sexual connection. Complicated at best in more familiar times, but now?
*takes off his face shield to wipe his forehead*
Some of us men tend to complain how cold or ‘stand-offish’ people can be when trying to meet them at a bar, or when we match with them online. Rather than fixating on ‘techniques’ to persuade someone to lower their defensive layers of protection (or devaluing the person for having them up), we can instead be more mindful around why their guard is up in the first place. Women, for example, might put on the emotional equivalent of a face mask, a N95 mask, a face shield, goggles and gloves just to prepare against the spread of harmful attitudes and behaviour they will encounter signing into a dating app. Proceeding with optimism, or willing to give it one last try, they are layered up in ‘Emotional PPE’ due to a justifiable lack of trust, and a whack of bad experiences you might never get to hear about.
Let’s look at one random example that is all too familiar. Say a man virtually strolls into a woman’s DM’s for an initial conversation on a dating app:
That contained actual comments a friend of mine got from a man early into a DM exchange. A slightly extreme example, but sadly far from an extremely rare one. Forget Instagram, even just being on LinkedIn can mean trying to avoid hidden DM landmines, trying to determine if men messaging to meet for coffee have hidden intentions. Talk to people you know who are single and dating men about their experiences. Talk to women and non-binary folks about what it’s like commuting on transit, or just walking around everyday. If they are open to sharing, just listen. Some men will tell women to develop a ‘thicker skin’ or to “stop being so sensitive” regarding such exposures to infectious hurt or harm, but will then go into fight, flight or freeze mode at the slightest suggestion men be invited into accountability for spreading comments and behaviour like this.
The Spread We Can Help Stop
These are the symptoms of our infected ideas of manhood which we super-spread from generation to generation as men. Some of us have had increased exposure to it, and it shows up in our everyday interactions, even when it comes to something as simple as wearing a mask for our collective protection.
I think we can all relate to wanting the freedom to do everyday things again. Unchecked freedom, however, does not free you from consequences, and increases the risk of spread and unwanted exposure of harm and hurt throughout our community. For instance, some men do not want to wear a mask because we fear admitting to any kind of vulnerability that diminishes what we perceive as displayed ‘strength.’ Some men will not mask up to help protect people they know and don’t know, nor model wearing masks and physical distancing, which ultimately protects us all in the long run. These men will not wear a mask because the infection we carry as men is the belief that being perceived as weak is worse than death itself.
Women want freedom – online or in-person – to do their thing without worrying about exposure to harmful, infected attitudes like the kind that actress Milana Vayntrub had to deal with. Videos of an AT&T commercial featuring Milana had the comment sections bombarded with numerous gross and demeaning comments about her. Perhaps the extreme unwanted attention was partly due to her playing a retail customer service employee: a person at work that might provide the closest to real-life interaction some men will get with a woman they find attractive, and with whom they confuse polite and attentive service with sexual interest or desire in them.
In response, Milana offered unearned grace when she took to Instagram Live to have conversations with men who help men find antidotes to harmful ways of being a man (like the folks at A Call to Men) inspiring healthier paths towards manhood.
Like so many women on the front lines of the pandemic: Milana is yet another example of women who are willing to show up – at the risk of their own ‘Emotional PPE’ being compromised – in order to help us dudes and bros overcome infected behaviours and attitudes that not only harm people of other genders, but hurt men as well.
Think about when you have had to consider who you let into your pandemic bubble. Who is trustworthy and responsible enough to not put your partner, children, family, or loved ones at risk? Think about how you can be the kind of person others would allow into their emotional bubble. Are you someone whose actions and impact build and earn trust? When we want others to let us in, we can instead focus on peeling through our own layers and continuously do our own inner emotional work inside our bubble.
Want an example of what that can look like? Here is a fantastic two minute clip of a dude being very real, and opening up about what he’s going through. Kier of ‘Kier and Them’ gives us a refreshingly honest take on how he’s wrestling with not having the words to describe what he’s navigating.
Sometimes we as men layer up to hide from what we are trying to avoid: hard truths and deep emotional inner work. Whether you like it or not, people of other genders might get layered up in their ‘Emotional PPE’ in advance of a conversation or an interaction with us, So rather than get defensive, or strategize ways to ‘make them’ take off their layers of Emotional PPE and let us in, focus on the kind of energy and environment we create around ourselves, within our own bubble that inspires trust to let us in.
I know, men are always hearing that we need to ‘get it together’, but when it comes to that hard inner work, you don’t have to do it alone. Let’s get it, together.
No shortcuts. When we focus on carrying ourselves in a way that is mindful, compassionate and present, it will build trust and comfort giving someone the freedom or choice to slowly let us in their ‘bubble’ and not have to layer up around us. They might need to keep the face shield on for a while emotionally, don’t take it personally, but let’s take our responsibility to create a welcoming and infection-free environment very personally. People like Milana are willing to still show up for us everyday in spaces full of infected displays of manhood because they ultimately believe in men and our ability to grow and do better. Being a better man is not about being better than everyone else, it’s about being better than our yesterdays.
They deserve better, we deserve better.
Let’s slow the spread of hate, and build layers of trust and faith in us as men. Right now, that’s the kind of community spread we need.
About jeff perera
Since 2008 Jeff perera has spoken to tens of thousands of people of all genders across North America about healthy versus harmful ideas of Manhood, and how we as men can Be the Lesson in Action.