The discipline of Gender Studies continues to be frequently synonymous with Women’s Studies. This is particularly regrettable in the context of Gender and Health, because health is one domain of life in which the otherwise ubiquitous female disadvantage is blunted. Indeed, when it comes to health and (especially) survival, men do worse than women in most parts of the world. Overall life expectancy as well as death rates from the most common causes of death favor women. Moreover, in many places, the gender gap has been widening. In recent times, higher levels of Covid mortality and opioid related mortality in men are good examples of the worsening gaps.
While some part of this male-female difference may reflect biological factors, an important part is attributable to differences in lifestyles, by which we mean the practices of daily life. These practices include the disproportionate male engagement in risky occupations like mining and the military, the disproportionate propensity for men to engage in risky behaviors like fast driving (without seat belts too) and alcohol abuse, and the disproportionate tendency of men to avoid or postpone care for health problems.
All these tendencies may be clubbed under the umbrella of higher levels of risk-taking by men than by women. While such risk taking may be partly inherent to being male, it is also a human response to socially imbibed norms about masculinity and femininity. These norms about what it means to be a man are difficult to challenge; they are especially difficult to challenge by men who are seen to ‘fail’ in some way in living up to the idealized norms; indeed, these marginalized males may have to work harder to prove their manliness credentials. Thus, for example, gay men are more likely than heterosexual men to practice unprotected sex, prisoners are more likely than free men to get into brawls and to leave untreated the wounds that result, and young rural men are more likely to carelessly use dangerous farm machinery.
Are all such risky behaviors unavoidable? Not when they arise from consciously chosen bad practices like smoking or alcohol abuse or delayed medical care. One can, as many men’s health magazines now routinely do, play up the more authentic masculinity of less risky behavior. Better still, one could or should, at least in the longer term, deemphasize the value of masculinity norms. Spreading the word on the usefulness of supposedly effeminate traits like safety, empathy, vulnerability and caution is a worthwhile objective for better gender relations as well as men’s health.
On the other hand, men engaging in more risky occupations like mining, fishing and fighting wars are less often driven by conscious choice than by circumstances. Here the policy intervention might be to improve work place safety for jobs that must be done in the current world, and to work globally towards removing the need for work that serves nobody’s interest – I would put warfare at the top of the second list.
Where does one place extreme ‘adventure’ sports within the category of avoidable risky behaviors? Once again, men tend to dominate this set numerically, although women are beginning to catch up. Should one ban some of these highly dangerous fun activities or to at least reduce the dangers they bring with them?
In many cases that would defeat the very point of engaging in them. The sense of personal control is undoubtedly an important part of the thrill of wingsuit flying and Himalayan mountain climbing. However, so is the sense of unpredictability, the possibility that something can go terribly wrong and that each successful mission is a triumph over that possibility. The thrill of such dangerous unpredictability is even more stark in the Japanese love of the blowfish or fugu; until some decades ago, and some would say even now, you were taking the chance of a sudden, rapid and fatal poisoning if you ate it and it was the knowledge of this probability that added to its taste. As a popular Japanese proverb puts it, ‘Those who eat fugu soup are stupid. Those who don't eat fugu soup are also stupid’.
This form of risky behavior, where the pleasure lies in the risk itself, contributes to the male disadvantage in health and survival and it is not clear what kinds of policy handles can be devised for it. Perhaps there is not even a need to address this taste for extreme adventure; to modify another common proverb, ‘man does not live for bread alone’!