April is Testicular Cancer Awareness Month, and we’re grabbing it right by the balls. Every day for the entire month, we will be publishing a new story aimed at getting men to better consider — and cherish — their family jewels in hopes of helping prevent a diagnosis that, if caught early enough, shouldn’t prove fatal. Read everything here.
Early in the 1969 outlaw classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, we see Cassidy in a typical bind: His own crew, tired of their leader’s long absences and flights of fancy, has chosen a new man to head the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.
The clever but cocky Cassidy is both bemused and annoyed by this development. He didn’t really mean it when he said anyone could challenge him to lead the gang, but steely eyed Harvey Logan, the gang’s pick, is convinced they must duel either with pistols or knives to determine the rightful leader.
Cassidy doesn’t want to fight, even waving away a knife when it’s offered to him. “No, no. Not yet. Not until me and Harvey get the rules straightened out,” he says, walking toward Logan.
“Rules? In a knife fight? There are no rules!” the shirtless Logan exclaims, holding the blade outstretched to his side.
Wordlessly, Cassidy takes three more steps and launches a soccer kick into Logan’s groin, sending the much larger man crumbling to the ground.
“Well, if there ain’t gonna be any rules, let’s get the fight started!” Cassidy quips while trying to hide a grin.
In so many ways, the venerable nut shot is codified as one of man’s most powerful attacks, levied against a distinctly vulnerable target. Everyone with a set of balls can recall feeling a groin shot that brought them to their knees and left their world spinning. It is the great universal truth: No matter whether you’re a 6-foot-5 bodybuilder or a scrawny preadolescent, getting struck in the sack is an existential sort of pain.
There are countless examples of the ball strike being used as a signature move, like in Jackie Chan’s 1979 romp Fearless Hyena or the 1993 video game Mortal Kombat II, in which a nut punch can freeze a fighter in place. We’ve also seen ball-busting gags used for endless comedic effect, whether it’s in Austin Powers or literally any piece of Jackass content ever made (one could argue that the entire Jackass kingdom was built upon the humble nut shot).
But despite all this, there are some tricky social politics around the act of a man hitting another man in the balls outside of the context of fiction and pranks. When is it actually acceptable, and why do we have so much baggage about the fairness of taking another man down by targeting their jewels?
It’s more confusing than you might think. Consider the context of sports: Nut shots are technically illegal in football and basketball, and any person who tries to use such an attack to their advantage is usually mocked by fans and observers as being a dirty player. Infamously, Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul’s legacy is littered with embarrassing nut shots — he started doing it in college and got suspended for it, then never stopped — which you might assume would have a lasting negative impact on his image.
And yet, the people who have been on the receiving end of Paul’s brutal ball assaults don’t always fault him for taking what some call a cowardly step. Indeed, college basketball victim Julius Hodge once laughed that Paul’s dedication to the nut shot was a testament to his drive and desire to win by seeking out every advantage possible, even if it left him groaning on the hardwood back in 2005.
“I was a little bit pissed at the moment, but the dude is such a competitor … and I know NC State fans are gonna kill me for saying this, but there was a part of me that I respected the ‘I would do anything it takes to win’ side of it. I mean, you have to love that,” Hodge said in 2020.
Paul’s attitude is probably better fit for literal warfare, in which the male sack has long been a special target for those willing to end a fight as quickly as possible. There are historical examples of kings and pharaohs castrating enemies to end bloodlines and humiliate foes, as well as combat tactics specifically designed for groin damage.
In his seminal text Flower of Battle, 14th-century knight and fencing master Fiore dei Liberi depicts a swordsman kicking his opponent in the nuts in the midst of grappling blades in close range. Hundreds of years later, with the advent of muskets and other early firearms, soldiers were taught to aim for the pelvis as a way to inflict the most damage possible. During World War II, in an attempt to improve the aim of their shooters, the Finnish fighting forces used a battle cry of “tulta munille,” which roughly translates to “shoot at their balls!”
The targeting of balls hasn’t ended with modern warfare, either. A 1992 U.S. Army field manual for self-defense mentions groin attacks no less than 30 times, including strikes made with the butt of a rifle, a bayonet, hammer fist, knees, kicks and knives. Beyond hand-to-hand combat, there were rumors that Jihadi snipers during the Iraq War aimed at the groin in order to inflict maximum damage; this war also saw the rise of Kevlar groin protectors, designed to help stop shrapnel from explosive devices hidden along roads.
In other words, anyone who knows anything about inflicting pain is intimately familiar with nut shots. It’s no wonder why they’re so emphasized in self-defense classes. Indeed, there’s nothing better than a swift fist to the balls to let you escape from a headlock, or to end a drunken fistfight you don’t want to be a part of.
But oddly, it’s in civilian fighting that we also see the rise of a particular kind of morality around the fairness of a nut strike. Ever since the development of Marquess of Queensberry rules in 1867 that serve as the foundation of modern boxing, hitting “below the belt” has been illegal in almost all sanctioned fighting events. There were surely some iteration of “no ball hitting allowed” in other, more ancient forms of recreational combat, but it’s at this juncture that we see a clear form of ethics about a groin strike being too singularly powerful and damaging, even in the context of two men throwing hands to knock each other out.
This is the inherent stupidity of men brawling over pride and ego: Beating the shit out of each other is okay, but not if you’re willing to use a physiological cheat code to get the edge.
Such a mentality goes back far, too: The Old Testament’s Book of Deuteronomy, in chapter 25, observes that “if two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.”
That seems like somewhat of an overreaction to a well-intended act, but such is the nature of masculine obsession with proving self-worth through violence — deliberately avoiding a nut strike in a consensual brawl is supposed to say something about your values. And perhaps the crux is how threatened we are by the vulnerability of our balls.
As Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College, observed to MEL in 2018 about unwritten “no below-the-belt” rules: “One possible explanation is that when a guy goes down, he’s revealing not just his own weakness, but male weakness. It threatens the mythology of male strength and invulnerability: Men are stronger than women, and there’s nothing about them that’s weak or vulnerable. I’d argue that if we were to point this out on a regular basis, it would be very threatening to the whole idea of masculinity.”
There’s an easy fix to this: Just train yourself like a Shaolin monk so that you’re impenetrable to groin strikes, at least those that come via leg or fist. But given that 99 percent of humanity is incapable of such feats of will, it’s likely that our cultural debate over when a nut shot is ever “fair” will just rage on. Is it cruel and cowardly to drop, say, a douchey frat guy with a kick to the balls, or simply the funniest finishing move one can muster, a la Jackie Chan? Is it a dishonorable tactic in a schoolyard one-on-one fight, or the easiest way to shut a bully up?
There are no simple answers, but here’s the best I’ve got: If you’re trying to stay alive, go for the nut shot. If you’re trying to prove something, avoid the nut shot. And if the point you’re trying to prove is that you can win no matter the odds and judgment of anyone else — i.e., the Chris Paul Theory of Ball Busting — then definitely go for it. It sure worked out for Butch Cassidy, anyway.