A group of friends wear masks while sitting in a park. (The Canadian Press)

Sexologist likens face mask debate to condom debate: What can we learn from it?

Society’s approach to condom usage since the 1980s can be applied to face masks today, one expert says

Jill McDevitt watched the conversation about face masks evolve over the last couple of months and realized it looked familiar.

This isn’t the first time public health officials have needed to convince people to wear something they didn’t want to wear in an effort to slow the spread of a serious virus, she says.

As a sexologist, McDevitt hopes the lessons from society’s approach to condom usage since the 1980s can be applied to face masks today.

“I was hearing about people getting very angry at others not wearing masks and it reminded me a lot of the conversation with not wanting to wear condoms,” said McDevitt, a San Diego-based sexuality educator, wellness coach and University of Waterloo graduate.

“Health organizations years ago were getting very angry and shame-based with the way they tried to make people use condoms. But we have gotten better at delivering the message in an effective manner over the last 40 years.

“So we’ve already done this work. We’ve already learned these lessons.”

ALSO READ: Should non-medical masks be mandatory in Canada?

McDevitt posted a widely shared list on her Facebook page last week highlighting ways to help convince people to wear face masks.

Among them was avoiding guilt-based methods, like shaming people online when they don’t wear masks in public; making sure face masks are accessible; and educating people on the risks of not wearing them.

But the biggest positive change, McDevitt says, needs to be making sure leaders and public health officials are on the same page with their messaging.

“We’ve all heard: wear the condom, wear the condom. But with masks, at first it was ‘don’t wear a mask,’ and now it’s ‘wear a mask,’ and every place has different policies,” she said.

“But as far as what happens on an individual level, I think normalizing it, learning how to have the tough conversations with people in our lives who don’t want to wear masks — not shaming people. I think those things are in our control.”

Hilary Bergsieker, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo, agrees that messaging needs to be consistent in order to get people to comply. She said some non-mask wearers in Canada may be dealing with a lack of trust in public officials who stressed early in the pandemic that masks weren’t effective but have since changed their tune.

Some of those people won’t have a choice anymore though. Cities like Toronto and Ottawa have bylaws taking effect Tuesday for face coverings in enclosed public spaces.

Other Canadian cities or provinces have also implemented face-covering rules in various settings. Quebec recently extended its face-mask rule province-wide on all public transit, coming into effect mid-July.

Canada’s public health officials say a non-medical mask or face covering can reduce the spread of a person’s own infectious respiratory droplets. This matches the advice of other health agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, which say face coverings help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in public settings, especially when physical distancing is not possible to maintain.

Despite the medical advice, Bergsieker says there are numerous reasons why people take issue with mask-wearing mandates.

Social media has shown us plenty of examples, like a video shared on Twitter of a woman screaming at a 7-11 employee in Texas after being asked to wear a mask in the store. Last week a Toronto woman posted a video of herself refusing to wear a mask in a hospital.

“Some of it is ideological. Whenever you tell people to do something you can engender a psychological state called reactance, which is basically this resistance to having freedom curtailed,” Bergsieker said. “As soon as somebody says ‘do this’ that makes you automatically at some level not want to do this.

“That’s particularly true if there are inconveniences and minor costs associated with the behaviour in question.”

Bergsieker says mask-wearing mandates will be effective — especially “if they have teeth” in the form of a fine or citation. People will comply with laws, she added, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be “psychologically convinced” the behaviour is necessary.

Harris Ali, a sociology professor at York University, says changing peoples’ behaviour takes time. But it can be done.

He likened mask-wearing to seatbelts, pointing to initial skepticism from citizens when provinces began enacting those laws too.

“At first everyone was like, ‘Oh, I don’t like this, this feels uncomfortable.’ And now we’re so used to it that we actually feel uncomfortable not wearing the seatbelt,” he said. “So slowly, gradually, there was a transformation in our thoughts.

“Right now it could be that people are feeling uncomfortable wearing masks, but you become more comfortable as it becomes more prevalent and it loses its novelty, and therefore it’s stigma.”

But how do we get to that point?

Ali says one way is in seeing the leaders, politicians and celebrities we respect and admire — “whoever the influential people in the society are” — wearing masks.

Bergsieker agrees role models can be effective in changing peoples’ attitudes. And like McDevitt, she doesn’t believe online shaming to be a strong influencer.

In fact, it can have the opposite effect.

“Online shaming can motivate people only if there’s a sense that the people whose opinion you value are going to see what you’ve done and disapprove,” Bergsieker said. “So if people who are refusing to wear masks think that their peers, the audience they care about, will actually think they’re being bold or brave or standing up for their principles, then public shaming like that will backfire.”

McDevitt says people need to be honest about the realities of COVID-19 when trying to convince others to wear face masks, but not rely on a fear-based approach.

She recalled a video she was shown in the 1980s that insinuated anyone who had sex would die by contracting HIV.

“We can talk about (COVID) like, ‘hey, this is a deadly virus,’ but when we’re honest about the whole thing, people are more apt to listen,” she said. ”A whole generation of people in the ’80s were told ’you’re gonna get AIDS and die if you have sex,’ and when that didn’t happen they stopped believing anything sex educators said for a while.”

McDevitt also says we need to allow for adaptations for those who can’t wear masks.

Things like face shields might be a suitable solution for an asthmatic, just as those with latex allergies have other options for condoms now.

“Whenever you’re just like: ‘you’re a jerk, wear a mask,’ we’re missing opportunities to have conversations,” she said.

“But of course there is also a flagrant disregard for others that has been common (among) some people who don’t want to wear masks, and that comes from a lack of empathy in a lot of spaces. … So I think the whole conversation is missing a lot of compassion.”

Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press

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