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Coronavirus Safety Runs Into a Stubborn Barrier: Masculinity

On Tuesday, and not for the first time, Joseph R. Biden Jr. described President Trump’s reluctant attitude toward wearing masks as “macho.”

Tomi Lahren, a conservative commentator and Fox Nation host, countered that Mr. Biden “might as well carry a purse with that mask.”

They were among the most direct comments yet that have tied stereotypes about acting and appearing manly to the basic precautions that doctors, epidemiologists and other health experts recommend to prevent infection by the highly contagious and deadly coronavirus.

The theme has been there since the beginning of the pandemic. Some experts who study masculinity and public health say the perception that wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines are unmanly has carried a destructive cost. The virus has infected more men than women and killed far more of them.

The experts say the best public health practices have collided with several of the social demands men in many cultures are pressured to follow to assert their masculinity: displaying strength instead of weakness, showing a willingness to take risks, hiding their fear, appearing to be in control.

Men’s resistance to showing weakness — and their tendency to take risks — was demonstrated by scientists long before Covid-19. Studies have shown men are less likely than women to wear seatbelts and helmets, or to get flu shots. They’re more likely to speed or drive drunk. They are less likely to seek out medical care.

Some initial research indicates a similar pattern is playing out with the coronavirus. Surveys have found that women are more likely than men to wear masks in the United States. And recent polls have found men give higher marks to President Trump than women on his handling of the pandemic.

“To admit you’re threatened is to appear weak, so you have to have this bravado,” said Peter Glick, a professor of social sciences at Lawrence University. If you wear a mask, he said, “the underlying message is: ‘I’m afraid of catching this disease.’”

This is not a new problem for those who work in public health messaging. Stacey Hust, an associate professor of communication at Washington State University, said prevention campaigns around sexual assault often try to appeal to masculine ideals, making better behaviors “worthy of the alpha male.”

It tends to be more difficult to reach those who identify strongly with traditional masculine characteristics. As an example, the more someone identifies with those masculine traits, the less likely that person will be to use condoms during sex, she said.

“I think that translates really clearly into why some men choose not to wear masks,” she said. “It’s really about not wanting to show weakness or fear, not wanting to show any vulnerability.”

Mr. Biden, who has modeled wearing masks and adhering to social distancing guidelines, has consistently criticized Mr. Trump for his approach to his personal coronavirus precautions. In May, he called Mr. Trump “falsely masculine” for his refusal to wear a mask, and