I spent the first day of spring semester freshman year of high school icing my testicles in the infirmary. A nut-punching game called “smacking fire” had spread across my New England boarding school like jock itch, bringing dozens of prepsters to their knees in its wake. The rules were simple: One was deemed “tappable” if the tapper flashed an upside-down “OK” sign below the belt and got you to look, resulting in a swift and friendly flick to the groin.
The irrefutably immature competition has mostly been relegated to elementary school, junior high and high school — before boys outgrow such tomfoolery — though instances of the game occasionally crop up in workplaces, the military and on professional fields of play.
While the closeted adolescent Mary in me welcomed the invitation to explore my friend’s genitalia — however briefly — the game’s existence always confused me. Was it an ape-brained attempt to dominate other men? Frightened boys yearning to connect? Homoerotic masochism? All of the above?
On a quest for answers, I spent the last couple of days speaking with urologists, Reddit trolls, psychologists, sociologists and fellow sack-whacking alums to see what I could find out.
1) Throughout time and across cultures, adolescent men have tested their tolerance for pain in myriad ways. The Maasai of East Africa, for example, perform ritual circumcision without anesthetic. The Sambias of Papua New Guinea shove sticks up kids’ noses. Brazilian Satere-Mawéan boys must wear gloves woven with bullet ants for 10 minutes without making a sound. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., a modern-day test of adolescent male strength seems to be “sack whacking” — the slapping, tapping, punching, crushing, kicking, elbowing, twisting or backhanding of a victim’s testicles for maximum discomfort. (Also known as bag tag, bell flick, cup check, nut check, Nut tag and roshambo.)
2) Roshambo originates from one of the earliest episodes (“Mecha-Streisand”) of South Park. In particular, Cartman’s twist on rock-paper-scissors to determine ownership of an arrowhead stone involves both players kicking each other in the nuts until one falls (which generally means the first person to go is guaranteed to win the game). In a later episode, the gang is seen playing Roshambo amongst each other after watching rich kids playing polo.
3) Sack whackers do eventually get what’s coming to them. After my friend Dan Madonia was bag tagged by an older bully in high school, he reflexively punched the kid in the face, breaking his nose. “My testicles flung into my body, and I knelt quickly to cup my balls. Then I rabbit punched him in the nose. Blood everywhere. Security brought me to the principal’s office, and after hearing the whole story, they arrested the kid for third-degree assault: reckless endangerment.”
4) “My pledge class started it,” claims Redditor Tortuga_Fiesta. “We even made rules like ‘no whack backs after dark.’ We were considered ‘the pledge class of sack taps.’”
5) “It was a school-wide practice in the halls of Evergreen Middle School between class,” explains Josh, now 23, who speaks to me via Skype. “At lunch, at recess, basically anytime you were at school, you needed to have your head on a swivel.”
6) Redditor Nintendogma says he and his friends sack checked out of solidarity. “It’s humor at the expense of one of our own,” he explains, “and Jackass was our inspiration.”
7) Medically speaking, urologist Jamin Brahmbhatt tells me most of the time sack-whacking victims will be okay since the spongy testes can absorb most impact without serious damage. But a rare injury — i.e., “testicular rupture” — does occur when the ball receives a direct sustained blow, which causes blood to leak into the scrotum, requiring immediate surgery.
8) That’s precisely what happened in the eye-watering case of 14-year-old David Gibbons, who was sack wacked between classes at Crosby Ironton High School in Minnesota in 2010. It was after midnight when Gibbons’ mother finally awoke to anguished moans and took him to the hospital where his right testicle was promptly amputated by pediatric urologist Scott Wheeler. “This ‘game’ has gotten way out-of-control,” Wheeler told a local TV station, noting that he performed “three to four surgeries a year” on boys with ruptured testicles resulting from “sack-tapping” games.
9) On an infamous Judge Judy episode, parents sue another boy’s parents for damages after rupturing their son’s testicle.
10) Fraternal bonds form alongside the scar tissue explains Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College. That’s because, she tells me, sack whacking celebrates a vulnerability all men share. “It’s a way to say, ‘I’m familiar with you,’” she explains. “You’re teasing him, but also showing him that you know where his buttons are and how hard you can push them without actually hurting him. It’s like a trust-building exercise because the other person learns you’d never actually hurt them. You wouldn’t sack tap a stranger. You wouldn’t even sack tap an acquaintance. You only sack tap your buddies, right? Or maybe close co-workers.”
11) The latter is most certainly true for BigDickMcWilly, a 45-year-old Midwestern factory worker. “We spend more time sack whacking each other than doing our actual job!” he admits. “The boss is a shit jockey, and we’re all a bunch of juvenile ass clowns. It’s sad, we really should just grow up. We get mildly hurt just about every day.”
12) In BigDickMcWilly’s defense, sack whacks are hilarious EVERY. FUCKING. TIME. Or as Ron Howard explains in Peter Gerstenzang’s “A Brief History of Movie Characters Getting Whacked in the Balls,” “The knee-jerk laughter all boils down to the undeniable hilarity of underscoring the vulnerability all males share. That, no matter how cool or badass or brilliant they are up to that moment of abject pain and humiliation, when a lucky or vicious shot to the gonads doubles him over, it tickles funny bones everywhere.”
13) Three of the best cinematic examples (in no particular order, and ironically, none of which were directed by Howard):
14) Harry Knowles, founder of Ain’t It Cool News and pioneer of online geek culture, says the “kicked in the nuts” gag was actually born in the Mouse House. “It’s pretty much because of Walt Disney,” he explains. “Check out the early film era and watch those Mickey Mouse cartoons, and you’ll see loads of injury-to-groin humor. It’s the physical humor of choice, and it’s rampant. It happened to Donald Duck; it happened to Goofy. You see Mickey come into contact with a picket fence and get hit in the groin — repeatedly. And people in the 1930s would laugh their butts off.”
15) Perhaps Disney’s obsession with cock-and-ball torture explains its prevalence across multiple generations of Americans. A November 2009 study conducted by an Indianapolis TV station, for example, found that 40 percent of nurses in middle schools were aware of students engaging in sack whacking; for high school nurses, that number rose to 80 percent. “It’s a snowball effect,” explains pediatric urologist Wheeler. “A kid sees it on the internet. His little brother sees him doing it and does it at his school. I have boys in elementary, junior high and high school coming in with these injuries.” Girls can even play too!
16) Sack whacking has long been a staple of professional sports. Case in point: Joe Ingles was fined $15,000 for hitting Steven Adams of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the nuts; Kobe “accidentally” tapped former Olympic teammate Andre Iguodala; Pau Gasol scooped the Thunder’s Serge Ibaka’s balls; Jeff Francoeur backhanded third base coach Eddie Rodriguez after sliding in for a triple; Kevin Garnett cup checked Suns forward Channing Frye; and in arguably the most famous instance of nut-tapping on the field of play, former NFL official Ben Dreith offered a vague but understandable explanation of a grievous personal foul committed during a 1986 Bills-Jets game.
17) Dale cringes when he recalls sack whacking in his Denver suburb as a teen, because he says, it’s embarrassing to be dropped to the ground by the flick of another guy’s wrist. Guarding your sack at all times was a must. “There were also ‘psych-out’ taps like when someone was peeing in a bush. The natural reaction is to protect the sack, and as a result, the guy peed all over himself. Classic.”
18) Sack-whacking injuries can lay dormant for years warns Redditor SixtyMetreMud, who always chalked the game up to “non-serious pain for fun kinda shit, like spraying deodorant on someone’s arm at close range to burn them.” Years later, however, in his early 20s — prime testicular cancer age — SixtyMetreMud freaked out when he felt a small bump on his left testicle. A doctor diagnosed him with a spermatocele cyst that he explained could be caused by a sharp blow to the testicle. “As soon as he said that, I immediately knew what caused it.”
19) In fairness, for every man I spoke with who had intimate knowledge of sack whacking, two had never heard of it. Those responses ranged from “I don’t know what kind of men you hang around, but a good majority of us don’t playfully smack each other’s balls,” to “This doesn’t sound like journalism to me” to “Any man who touches my balls had better be prepared for the most intense love making he’s ever experienced.”
20) Peter F. Murphy, professor emeritus at Murray State University and author Studs, Tools and the Family Jewels: Metaphors Men Live By, suggests the whole sack-whacking phenomenon is far more layered than we think. “What about violence against men?” he wonders. “Why are we targeting genitals as confirmation of caring about another man?” We can’t actually feel another man’s testicles, Murphy notes, since that would be far too gay. So instead, we strike to demonstrate affection. “That’s a troubling assertion for me,” he says. “Like, ‘I beat up my wife because I love her.’
“This behavior needs to be read in the larger context of masculinity being threatened. Why isn’t the game about hugging? Because that’s not an acceptable masculine behavior like violence or aggression. I think men are running scared. Why is it that the only way men can demonstrate the legitimacy of their masculinity is by violence against other men? We do it over and over and over again. We go to war, we play violent sports and we hit each other in the balls for the fun. It’s not just ironic, it’s tragic.”