Late last month, the self-help coach Jordan Maurice Bowditch posted a comedically wide-eyed photo of himself on Instagram and Facebook with a caption announcing that he had “survived” covid-19. “The week I likely got it, I connected with upwards of 100 people (and somewhere in there was unknowingly exposed).” During that week, Bowditch explained, he “played basketball several times,” “hosted a Christmas shindig,” and attended “two men’s group initiation experiences where we sweat profusely, breathed all over each other and were authenticAF with one another.” He added that he “hugged dozens” of people, many he “didn’t even know,” and that he has “ZERO regrets.”
To Bowditch, who goes by “conscious.bro” on Instagram, public health guidelines around the pandemic had gone too far. “Human connection is not dangerous and doesn’t warrant tyrannical restriction,” he wrote. “I choose dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.”
The post included several more images documenting the men’s groups, including a photo of 18 men hanging out shoulder-to-shoulder indoors with no masks on. James Van Der Beek of Dawson’s Creek fame was in attendance, as were several prominent figures from what Bowditch calls the “personal development” scene in Austin, Texas. This scene is comprised of coaches and entertainers oriented around traditional subjects of self-help, or what some prefer to call “human optimization.” That includes everything from physical fitness to spiritual enlightenment. Men’s work, which often focuses on the idea of journeying from boy to man, is a key component, and it often involves intimate, in-person masculine initiation rituals.
A few months after initial shelter-in-place orders, Bowditch and others began to bristle at being isolated from their community. This realm of masculine self-help, which emphasizes the importance of connection for men, collided with a pandemic that requires distance in the interest of public health. Many within the community have now drifted from the early rigors of lockdown, resuming in-person group events, with some emphasizing the idea that “brotherhood is healing.”
“There is culture of consent in my community,” Bowditch told me in an interview. “We have an agreement and understanding and way of living that is autonomy, sovereignty, trust.” He added, “We’re not living in fear.” Of course, that consent does not extend to the wider world, where Bowditch’s post swiftly sparked outrage from commenters who noted that hospitals are approaching max capacity, healthcare workers are at the breaking point, and hundreds of thousands of people have died, in part because of the ripple effect of mass gatherings.
There is plenty about the contemporary men’s work scene that seems encouraging and inspires empathy: It’s a community of men actively seeking meaning and connection. There are visible attempts at envisioning more expansive ideas around masculinity and relationships between men. Contrary to the traditional manosphere, the loose-knit collection of online communities explicitly defined by antifeminism, the social media sphere of men’s work is filled with figures who frequently express loving, egalitarian attitudes toward women.
And yet much of the scene relies on traditional, mythic, and even pre-historic notions of masculinity, as well as gender essentialism, heteronormativity, and cultural appropriation. It’s also a landscape frequently dotted with “alternative facts,” mistrust of the mainstream media, and re-posts of anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. All too often, this realm slides right into the same conspiratorial, dispossessed mindset that defines the traditional, red-pilled manosphere, which experts have labeled a recruiting ground for extremism.
More broadly, the sphere of self-help, which emphasizes personal improvement and advancement, is an unfortunate model juxtaposed with a public health crisis requiring global collective action. Bowditch noted in his Instagram post that he was not surprised that his was a “very mild” experience with covid, adding, “I take care of myself and treat my body like a sacred temple.” He told me, “We are extremely healthy, so that probably influences our first-hand experience,” Bowditch said. “The rest of the world… that is maybe not a value of theirs.”
During the week when Bowditch suspects he contracted covid, he tells me he, among other things, held an outdoor Christmas party with roughly 40 people at his house and hosted two men’s work events with a total of 30 participants. Neither masks nor social distancing were involved. While Bowditch acknowledges that masks may mitigate covid’s spread, he goes without them in group situations because, he believes, masks have “a big impact on authentic connection.” (Research shows that masks do mitigate transmission and experts consider it a “profoundly important pillar of pandemic control.”) One of the indoor, mask-less men’s gatherings that week involved chanting, emotional sharing, ice baths, “gnarly” breathing exercises, and “right-of-passage vibes.” A couple days later, Bowditch and his fiancée flew to Ohio to visit family, where he started experiencing symptoms and was notified that a guest at his Christmas party had tested positive for covid.
Bowditch and his fiancée both tested positive and isolated from his family, spent a few days driving home to Austin, and notified those with whom they had been in close contact. Many, but not all, of those people got tested, he says, especially those who were planning to see family for the holidays. (CDC guidelines recommend quarantining for 14 days after close contact with someone who has tested positive, regardless of a negative test.) He knows of three people in his community, other than himself, who tested positive in this period. No one from the two men’s groups received a positive test result, Bowditch says. “To be fair, not everybody got tested,” he added.
Bowditch says that he quarantined for the recommended 10 days post-symptom onset, although the blog Conspirituality, which covers “faux-progressive wellness utopianism,” noted that during this period, Bowditch shared an Instagram story in which he and his fiancée walked their dogs down the street without masks while joking about spreading covid “like Christmas cheer.” Bowditch emphasizes that he was joking and that there was “no one anywhere near us.”
Critics of Bowditch’s Instagram post, which he has since taken down, cited an obvious critique: Regardless of whether his community consented to the risk of close contact, chains of transmission are complicated, especially with large groups of people. Take, for example, the small wedding in Maine, where guests declined to wear masks, and which resulted in at least 177 covid cases, several hospitalizations, and the death of seven people, none of whom attended the event itself. And, of course, the people who shared a plane ride with Bowditch and his fiancée did not consent to his decision to see upwards of 100 people in the week before flying.
But the critique has also tapped into issues of gender, race, and privilege: As an Instagram commenter remarked on Bowditch’s post on New Year’s Eve, “I think we’ve reached the quota on white entitlement in 2020 and this post puts it right over the edge.” In a Facebook video posted Saturday, Bowditch acknowledged critics who have called him, in his words, a “white, cis, privileged male,” before saying, “I am white and I have some level of privilege, okay, cool. And I’m a guy, I’m a man, yeah, and I’m not gonna fucking apologize for those things.”
This approach to covid is common within the community, locally and otherwise: men have been gathering regularly in Austin in a similar fashion, and in October the leading men’s work group Sacred Sons held an in-person outdoor gathering with 150 men in San Diego. At the time, the group wrote in an Instagram story that participants initially showed up “wearing the masks that so many of us have grown accustomed to hiding in” but “made the conscious choice to remove them and show each other the courage it takes to be vulnerable.”
Here, the metaphorical “masks” of socialized masculine invulnerability were conflated with the literal masks that help prevent transmission of a deadly virus. Masculine communion, on the other hand, is cast as protection: On a recent podcast episode, Sacred Sons co-founder Adam Jackson, said, “We have a saying: Brotherhood is the medicine, connection is the cure.” He added of the recent hundred-man-plus gathering, “Some could say this is potentially irresponsible, but what happened is the men who knew they needed the work, they showed up,” he said. “No one got sick, nothing like that was even in that space. It was almost like it didn’t exist in that space, we had created this portal out there.”
This approach didn’t suddenly emerge from such magical thinking around immunity. At the beginning of the pandemic, Bowditch says that he and his community followed public health guidelines. As the months went on, though, he observed that the people he knew who got sick with covid managed to recover. “In our immediate squad… everybody was having a relatively mild experience,” he said. Bowditch saw this anecdotal reality as a “red flag,” because it contrasted starkly with the “doom and gloom” that he saw in the media. Meanwhile, the social media feeds within his community exhibit everything from light skepticism to conspiracy theories around covid, masks, and, now, vaccines.
Take the comedian JP Sears, an outspoken covid skeptic and mask antagonist, who is reportedly collaborating with the director of the debunked covid conspiracy film Plandemic. In early December, Sears shared a satirical video critiquing media narratives around covid, and in which Bowditch appears and delivers the line, “Bravery is refusing to get together with my friends and family that I love.”
It isn’t just brotherhood that is seen as a protectant, but also the dedicated rigors of personal development, particularly living a “healthy” lifestyle, as Bowditch put it. Certainly, it’s true that severe covid outcomes are associated with, but by no means restricted to, underlying medical conditions, including obesity and diabetes—which are also linked in turn with systemic inequality. Self-help, however, is built on making the systemic personal. As Matthew Remski of the Conspirituality blog, powerfully noted on Twitter, “Wellness influencers parasitize the neoliberal decay of the commons. In the absence of even the possibility of social welfare, brands are built on the triumph of individual.”
In some ways, the story told in Bowditch’s social media posts is somewhat unremarkable: Across the country, in the midst of the “dark winter” predicted by experts, we’re seeing the fallout of fatigue in response to ongoing public health measures required by a woefully mishandled pandemic that is currently surging alongside devastatingly weakened and ineffective public health messaging. All of us are making individual risk assessments and compromises, plenty of which feel deeply unlivable, and with little public support. Some are making these decisions against the backdrop of accelerating conspiracy theories. As many have already observed, the pandemic has dramatically highlighted the failures of neoliberalism. In this particular context, it also underscores some of the shortcomings in re-imaginings of masculinity and brotherhood—or, you could say, it highlights how much “men’s work” is left.