“I received phone calls and emails like this I am going to read to you. Warning: it has some terrible language in it, but I'm going to read it verbatim”:
“You filthy cock suckers inverting right to being wrong...I hope Trump declares martial law sooner rather than later…to start rounding up whiny little faggots like yourself at 4:00 in the morning in windowless vans”.
Ronald F. Levant reads aloud one of several hate mail messages he received in early 2019. “Isn't it incredible that people would write something like that to a person that he has never met?”, he says after finishing reading. “And I say ‘he’ because I am sure it is a man”.
A former president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and now professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Akron in Ohio, Levant was in the team who drafted the first-ever guidelines to help psychologists who treat men and boys, calling some traditionally masculine behavior harmful for men’s mental health.
“Though men benefit from patriarchy, they are also impinged upon by patriarchy”, these guidelines read.
“They are 3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide, and their life expectancy is 4.9 years shorter than women’s. Boys are far more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder than girls, and they face harsher punishments in school - especially boys of color.”
The email Levant received is proof of the strong reactions to the new guidelines: some men saw them as a declaration of war.
People who sent him these kinds of emails, he suggests, are probably those who, in their forties, still “feel ashamed of having backed down from a fight in junior high school”. Levant says he has encountered such people during his practice as a psychologist.
And this is not something he has seen only as a mental health professional.
He says that as the son of a World War II veteran he knows exactly what it is like to grow up in a home where one is taught to be “a tough guy.”
“I am an older man, I was raised in the 1940s and 1950s, I certainly got the message that you don’t cry”.
All societies have widely accepted ideas of what masculine behavior is, with pressure to conform to these norms.
In the late 1970s, the American sociologist Robert Brannon summed up the prevailing ideas of what the ideal man should be: the opposite of the feminine, in control of his emotions, a breadwinner, and enjoying aggressive and daring activities.
With such ideas, dating back centuries, still retaining a strong hold, the controversy over the APA guidelines did not end there.
Later last year, during the Super Bowl, the most important sporting live event in the United States, the manufacturer of shaving accessories Gillette aired a commercial that also prompted furious reactions.
The ad showed men sexually harassing women and fathers turning a blind eye to young boys fighting. It argued that sexist and bullying behaviour could no longer be tolerated on the grounds that “boys will be boys”.
With this commercial, the company previously known for its macho advertising signed up to the #MeToo movement, a tipping point for reshaping ideas about masculinity, according to gender scholars.
And experts say the coronavirus and the effects of lockdown create an opportunity for a similar seismic shift in society’s expectations of men.
Redefining ‘post-COVID manliness’
As schools are reopening in Europe, despite fears of a second wave of COVID-19, some students do not want to go back to the ways things were.
During lockdown, they had an enforced break from the day-to-day locker room banter, where being “one of the boys” required them to constantly appear tough, dominant and heterosexual at all costs.
Nine-year-old Juan, from Madrid, is one of the children who has felt protected in the isolation of his home as Spanish schools have been closed for more than half a year.
His parents told the Spanish newspaper El País about the daily bullying he suffered from his classmates before the COVID-19 crisis.
In a favourite game, they would shout "Whoever touches him is infected!" and Juan (not his real name) always had to be the virus while his classmates isolated or attacked him.
"It's going to be difficult to manage the return to school of [children who have been bullied]. They're going to argue that they're better off at home than anywhere else”, said school counselor Ariadna Montilla.
The pandemic gave boys distance from the bullying teen culture that is often a major part of school dynamics.
This change affected not only children but their fathers, too, as some came into much closer contact with their families, juggling home-schooling sessions and domestic chores for the first time.
Michael Kehler, masculinities research professor at the University of Calgary, says he hopes COVID-19 could be a key moment that provokes a worldwide conversation on masculinity, just like “these historical moments: the Gillette commercial and the hashtag #MeToo”.
Identity changes and loss of jobs and incomes have created an environment where conventional masculine norms are being challenged.
A lot of men are reportedly coming forward saying “I need help” - especially when facing more uncertainty for the future. They are also worried about their wellbeing, as COVID-19 is striking men harder than women.
Opinions are split among psychologists and sociologists on whether the pandemic will create lasting change and a new “post-COVID manliness,” however.
One thing experts agree upon is that big crises bring big changes.
Marta Segarra, a Spanish academic and author of a book called “New Masculinities,” even draws a comparison with World War II, when “as men were sent to the front, women had to occupy places that they did not occupy before - being for example bus drivers or qualified workers.”
For Australian sociologist Michael Flood, the effect of the pandemic is similar to the HIV-AIDS crisis in Africa, which “interrupted many men's ability to be the breadwinners.”
According to Flood, COVID-19 has created more awareness of the need for communities to work together and appreciation of those who care for others.
For boys around the world, being away from school during lockdown posed tremendous challenges.
At the same time, it “relieved a certain kind of social pressure they felt to perform, because they're in a more private space” and they learnt to be more emotional and more connected - even in a virtual setting, says Peggy Orenstein, author of 2020’s “Boys and Sex”.
Their anxieties have also become more visible to their parents.
While it is still not clear whether boys will keep this newfound emotional openness once they return to school, Kehler argues that “this is an opportunity for parents to say: ‘You don't need to do that anymore. You don't have to act cool, because we accept you as you are’”.
Letting boys see that they can “give up certain rules of being aggressive or dominant”, continues Kehler, will be “a way to disrupt all those ways of being a boy that schools supported and made legitimate”.
“The boys' peers are the most ruthless policers of gender norms”, adds professor Levant.
“When you go to elementary school, the other boys will go after you if you are not sufficiently masculine. So I could see that not being in contact with them might have an effect on children”.
“If we allow schools to go back to ‘boys being boys’ then I would suggest we've lost a powerful opportunity to change youth culture, and also to inform about what it means to be a boy in COVID times”, continues Kehler.
Minority of men causing most harm
“I am not a woman, so I don’t have bad days”, said Russian President Vladimir Putin during an interview with US filmmaker Oliver Stone.
But the truth about masculinity is that most adult men just “do not conform nor endorse masculinity norms. And the main reason for this is that, in acting, masculinity is hard”, says psychology professor Levant, author of “The Tough Standard: The Hard Truths About Masculinity and Violence.”
The Kremlin often shares images of Putin doing everything to show that he is “a true man of action” and the task seems exhausting. He rides a horse bare-chested, drives trucks and tanks, flies planes and a hang glider, cruises around on a three-wheeled motorbike, takes the controls of a snowmobile, pilots a speedboat dressed in camouflage…
“It is hard work to be unemotional and dominant and aggressive, 24/7, 365 days per year. And most adult men who have a relationship, an occupation, maybe children, maybe a mortgage, just don't have time for that nonsense”, says Levant.
“Most adult men kind of say: ‘I'm not the most masculine guy in the world, and that's OK. Those guys don't contribute to the correlation between masculinity and harmful outcomes’”.
There is a small minority of men, however, “who feel very ashamed of themselves for not conforming to masculinity norms”, says Levant. That is where the trouble arises.
A national survey in Australia found out that the degree to which men support stereotypical ideas about what it means to be a man is the key factor in whether they engage in physical violence, sexual harassment and online bullying - around 20 times more important than other variables.
It might not be just a coincidence that women-led nations such as Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan and Finland have been praised for a more successful pandemic response, while nations led by alpha-male politicians, keen to show they are “strong” and “decisive” leaders, have fared much worse.
In these pandemic times, some men have responded to the perceived loss of traditional male power with a violent backlash.
The United Nations has warned of a shadow pandemic, with domestic violence - particularly against women and girls - on the increase in several countries during lockdown.
Despite more men dying of COVID-19, studies have found that it is mainly men who refuse to wear masks and other personal protective equipment - a trend also seen in previous epidemics.
Russian strongman Putin is shown holding meetings without a face mask, even if elaborate preparations behind the scenes ensure he is not in contact with anyone infected.
This harmful idea that men should not seem to care about their personal safety probably takes root in teenage years.
According to Italian secondary school teacher, Dario Gasparo, shortlisted for the 2017 Global Teacher Prize, “the same kids who did not attend online classes were those speeding on electric scooters and refusing to wear masks”.
New man or wolf in sheep’s clothing?
Segarra, author and director of the Gender Study research center at the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique-CNRS, says she does not believe COVID-19 has profoundly changed attitudes.
“People who already had a more equal share of duties at home, for example, continued to do this and even had more opportunities to look after kids,” she says, while for others with more traditional ideas about men’s role, COVID-19 did not change much.
There is still strong resistance to change, she says, since “losing privileges is costly” for men in positions of power.
“All the big changes in the history of masculinity have been pushed by women,” she argues.
One Spanish newspaper writes that the “man of the future” could be more feminist, emotional and ready to do tasks that have been assigned to women for centuries.
But it warns of an alternative: that a “new man” will emerge who is "a wolf in sheep's clothing", metrosexual in appearance but inside unchanged, with no emotional growth or strong desire to change society and women’s place in it.
Change is not a given during the social upheaval of the pandemic, even for younger men and boys, psychologists say.
Despite social distancing, “the bullying, the harassment, the surveillance of whether your body is muscular and whether you can be like one of the boys or not, is not necessarily going to change”, argues Kehler.
“That kind of bullying and harassment doesn't need close contact, you can be bullied two metres apart”.
Communication is crucial to changing attitudes, says Gary Barker, founder and CEO of Promundo, a global alliance that promotes gender equality by engaging men and boys.
“We should shy away from the use of the ‘toxic masculinity’ expression because many men get defensive around that, and think they are bad, just because they are men,” he says, suggesting there are better ways to spark debate.
“So we'd rather ask ‘What do you think healthy masculinity is about?’, ‘What do you think are the good things that men can do?”