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

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

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A woman wears a face mask and shield to curb the spread of COVID-19 while walking in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
57 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health region

Thirty people in the region are in hospital, 16 of whom are in intensive care

New business owner Kalina Whitelaw of Miner's Mud started selling coffee and fresh=baked goods in Fernie this weekend. (Scott Tibballs / The Free Press)
Bob Keating was CBC’s Kootenays correspondent for 21 years. He retired last month to start a podcasting company. Photo: Tyler Harper
The voice of the Kootenays: CBC correspondent Bob Keating retires

Keating had reported out of Nelson since 2000

A vial of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is shown at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. The White House says it is making plans to share up to 60 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
65 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

The total number of cases in the region is now at 11,075 since the pandemic began

Teck's Elkview operations seen from Sparwood. (Scott Tibballs / The Free Press)
Teck profits up, coal sales to China a priority

The company is continuing to see increased interest in Elk Valley coal from China

Jose Marchand prepares Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination doses at a mobile clinic for members of First Nations and their partners, in Montreal, Friday, April 30, 2021. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is coming under fire after contradicting the advice Canadians have been receiving for weeks to take the first vaccine against COVID-19 that they’re offered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Trudeau says he is glad he got AstraZeneca, vaccines are only way out of pandemic

‘The most important thing is to get vaccinated with the first vaccine offered to you’

A man who allegedly spat at and yelled racial slurs at an Asian family was arrested for hate-motivated assault Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
Arrest made after man spits, yells anti-Asian racial slurs at Victoria mom and kids

The man was arrested for hate-motivated assault near Quadra Elementary School Tuesday

A lady wears a vaccinated sticker after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canada may find it challenging to reach herd immunity from COVID-19, experts say

Level of immunity among the population changes with the variants, especially the more transmissible strains

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dip in COVID-19 cases with 572 newly announced in B.C.

No new deaths have been reported but hospitalized patients are up to 481, with 161 being treated in intensive care

Solar panels on a parking garage at the University of B.C. will be used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter captured to supply a vehicle filling station. (UBC video)
UBC parkade project to use solar energy for hydrogen vehicles

Demonstration project gets $5.6M in low-carbon fuel credits

FILE – A student arrives at school as teachers dressed in red participate in a solidarity march to raise awareness about cases of COVID-19 at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. ‘should be able to’ offer 1st dose of COVID vaccine to kids 12+ by end of June: Henry

Health Canada authorized the vaccine for younger teens this morning

A woman in the Harrison Mills area was attacked by a cougar on Tuesday, May 4. B.C. Conservation Officers killed two male cougars in the area; the attack was determined to be predatory in nature. (File photo)
2 cougars killed following attack on woman in Agassiz area

Attack victim remains in hospital in stable condition

Most Read