The gender politics of social distancing

Social Distancing © Russ Alison Loar on flickr.com

One of the last events to take place in Folkestone before social-distancing restrictions were introduced to prevent the spread of Covid-19 was the Take Up Space Festival. The latest in a series of extravagnazas held in the town every March to mark International Women’s Day, it encouraged those who attended to think about what it means for women to take up space in the world.

At the time, few could have known how prescient the theme would turn out to be. Only a handful of days later, all of us – women and men alike – would be required to pay careful attention to the space we occupy in order to keep our (2m) distance from one another.

When I listened to prime minister Boris Johnson announcing the start of the UK lockdown on 23 March, many thoughts went through my mind. One of them was to do with safety. I wondered how it might feel for me to go out exercising in much quieter streets. As has already been highlighted by those campaigning to allow abuse victims to leave their houses and seek help during the lockdown, the restrictions had potentially devastating implications for some of society’s most vulnerable women. Might they also affect the safety of women generally?

In practice, this hasn’t been an issue for me. At the times I run – usually first thing or in the middle of the day – there are always a fair number of other runners and walkers out. I have not felt threatened; if anything, the requirement for people to keep their distance has made me less likely to question the motivations of those I encounter.

What has been interesting, however, has been observing the new etiquette that seems to be springing up around keeping 2m apart, particularly concerning who gives way to whom. I have only my non-scientific, personal observations to consider, but the impression I have is as follows: if the person approaching me is a woman, she is marginally (although by no means universally) more likely to make efforts to give me space than the men I pass.

I’m not sure of the reasons for this. It could be that women – socialised as we are to be good girls – are in general more compliant with restrictions or perhaps more given to worrying about catching coronavirus. It may be that patriarchal mores have embedded an expectation in the heads of some of the men I encounter that I ought to make space for them. Or it could be that, having been conditioned to defer to men, I subconsciously exhibit a readiness to give way in these situations.

From what I have observed, this gender divide around social distancing is relatively slight. I have seen plenty of examples of women striding aggressively close to other people and numerous instances of men stepping aside to accommodate me.

Indeed, the most striking behavioural distinction I have encountered so far has been dictated not by gender but by whether those I meet on the sea front are walking alone or in a couple. Almost without exception, those in company do not step aside on the narrow walkway to allow someone to pass 2m from them – so much so that, wherever possible, I have taken to running out onto the shingle whenever I see a pair of people approaching, even though there would be space for us to pass safely on the walkway if they were to walk in single file.

I don’t think this selfishness is deliberate in most cases. Rather, it displays a human trait: when our attention is focused on a companion, we have less capacity to consider those around us or to remember regulations, regardless of our gender.

Published by Ann Morgan

I'm a UK-based author, editor and Royal Literary Fund fellow. My first book, 'Reading the World' (UK title) or 'The World Between Two Covers' (as it's known in the US), was inspired by my 2012 journey through a book from every country, which I recorded on ayearofreadingtheworld.com. My next two books are novels, 'Beside Myself' (Bloomsbury, 2016) and 'Crossing Over' (Audible, 2019).

18 thoughts on “The gender politics of social distancing

  1. I live in a suburb of Houston, TX. Unfortunately, most are not taking this virus seriously (at least not yet). When I take my children for bike rides I see a lot of other people out and about. On one hand, it is refreshing to see others since we are cooped up inside all day. I’ve lived in my neighborhood for 4 years and haven’t ever seen many of my neighbors before.

    What I am noticing is that instead of keeping 6 feet away from each other, people have just begun wearing masks. I no longer take my kids to the grocery store with me. But when I do go, people will shop as if everything is normal, not making room to keep 6 feet apart. Because, I’m assuming, they feel like they are unlikely to get the virus with the mask on.

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    1. It’s a good question. As I runner, I tend to think it’s my responsibility to avoid walkers in the first instance, although I have seen some people complaining about runners zipping by too close. In practice, it can be tricky if you’re running beside a wall facing an oncoming walker who seems resolved to stick to the centre of the path!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree, I see it as somewhat analogous to driving: I run round walkers, as walkers are making decisions about space (unconsciously!) much more slowly. I think hills matter too: downhill drivers are expected to give way to uphill drivers on narrow hill roads, a rule I now consciously apply on narrow stairs. 😀

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  2. I experienced the quandary of two males walking down a narrow sidewalk while I was walking the dog after sunset. The leash was longish and the dog was busy smelling something. The men did not slow down, so I became somewhat panicked. I found a driveway to duck into while explaining to the dog what we had to do (as per usual). The men made no efforts to indicate that social distancing was a “thing” for us to do. They walked by. Again, on another night, a male suddenly appeared out from an apartment complex, and I needed to instantly come up with a decision. After that, I only go down that street facing the line of traffic so I can go onto the bicycle path when passing other pedestrians.

    However, those were the only two cases, and we are all on a learning curve.

    Stay safe, everyone.

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  3. Thanks for this and other stimulating responses to the unusual situation we’re all in. I’m a little confused as to the logical progression of this piece. Your heading and opening indicate that you intend to write about gender, yet you conclude with an observation which turns on whether someone is alone or in company, acknowledging that gender is here irrelevant. In between, your thoughts about the behaviour of some men you happen to have encountered in one English town – notwithstanding your concessions that these are ‘non-scientific’ and ‘personal’, that the differences are ‘relatively slight’ and that you have also collected ‘numerous’ counter-examples – seem to me a slightly odd prompt to remind us of what are some extremely important concerns about gender politics. I don’t want in the slightest to downplay the damage done by misdirected socialization, of patriarchal mores, or the conditioned submissiveness of women – I just don’t see the relevance of them to this piece.

    I am a man who does his best to abide by the rules of social distancing, and I think I’m generally as successful as can be hoped with two rampant children to control. I could show you a dozen other men who do likewise – your husband among them. But I wouldn’t want anybody to advance a theory of the greater capacity of men to promote the government’s advice than women on the basis of this small sample; I’d prefer any generalizations to be made on more secure logical premises.

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    1. Thanks Andrew. Interesting points. I don’t think I am trying to advance any particular theory, rather to record my own impressions of how my thoughts shifts over this strange time. The mission of this blog is to be an open journal, documenting perspective and experience. There will be things I get wrong, things I change my mind about and unfinished thoughts that I haven’t really yet found my way to a conclusion about, much in the vein of this piece. It’s certainly not meant as an attack on individual men (as you say, there are plenty of good eggs out there). And I don’t think it does suggest that men have greater capacity to promote the government’s advice. Rather, it’s a reflection on how we experience space in a time when our relationship to it has shifted and the role gender might play in that, even on a subconscious level.

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    2. Thinking further on this, perhaps the conclusion I was feeling my way towards is that I, as a privileged, educated, white woman experience relatively mildly imbalances that have been thrown into fresh relief by the new rules on distance. Other women in other demographics may have more marked experiences but not being one of them, or having access to data about what’s going on in this area at the moment, I can’t presume to say. Thanks for helping me get there!

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  4. Hi, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Social distancing restriction started earlier here in the Philippines. By the way, I am new blogger and I hope you can support me by visiting and leaving your footprint on my blog. Appreciate it much.

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  5. interesting read. On my walk with my two dogs at my nearby park in Manchester UK, There were two separate women with prams walking toward me. I always allow those to pass me as my Dogs are very friendly and not everyone likes dogs. So I step to one side and the next thing I knew, an older male walking behind me in the same direction as me continues to walk on past me. Forcing the women to manoeuvre their children in prams into the side of the pathway.

    I am a natural people watcher but will certainly be picking up on more after reading this. Thanks!

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