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Why Men Have an Unspoken Pact Never to Kick Each Other in the Balls

It’s not just because it’s a cheap shot

Hitting below the belt (i.e., punching or kicking someone in the balls) is illegal in boxing, football, taekwondo, karate, mixed martial arts and Greco-Roman wrestling. You’ll occasionally see it in professional wrestling, but only administered by “heels,” and only as a last-ditch effort when they know there’s no other way to win.

Even the Bible weighed in on the matter, per Deuteronomy 25:11–12:

When men fight with one another, and the wife of the one approaches to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him, and puts out her hand and seizes his genitals, you shall sever her hand; you shall have no compassion.

But why?

After all, to cite MMA as example, you can punch an opponent in the face, kick them in the head and/or choke the life out of them. The balls, though — those delicate flowers — cannot be punched, kicked or choked (unless you’re masturbating). They are, it seems, completely off-limits.

There’s an obvious reason for this: It really fucking hurts to get kicked in the balls. That’s because a man’s groin has essentially zero protection when compared to other parts of the body; testicles, in particular, are vulnerable because there is no muscle tissue and bone protecting them.

But Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College, thinks rules prohibiting nut shots serve to protect men’s egos as well as their balls. “When a man hits below the belt, he is revealing to everyone present that masculinity is a fiction,” she wrote in a 2015 Pacific Standard article. In late July, she wrote a follow-up blog post in the Society Pages, a website for sociologists, about the response she’s received — mostly from young men — in the two years since writing the essay.

I recently spoke with Wade about how “sack taps” are ways of demonstrating male friendship; why women are expected to ignore the fact that any sack tap, kick or punch is Kryptonite to men; and how exposing it could eventually lead to war.

Why don’t we see men kicking each other in the balls more often?
Allowing groin attacks in professional boxing and MMA would make for short fights — or ones where everyone just goes around protecting their balls. Also, when men are actually fighting one another — in the street, in bars, etc. — there seems to be an accepted “no-below-the-belt” truce. 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.

It does happen in the WWE, but it’s always the villain hitting below the belt. What does this imply about men — that only the worst of the worst among us would steep to that level and break the code?
Why is it a code to begin with? How has it become so bad to do that? Another place you do see ball-kicking is in humor. But the humor is all about exposing the taboo of doing things you’re not supposed to do. In both of these examples, there’s a strong idea that this is really, really wrong.

You suggest it’s also about celebrating a shared vulnerability all men have…
Yeah, like it’s some big secret to keep.

How so?
The code amongst men is to not expose each other’s weakness. When a man is hurt in this way, it reveals male vulnerability. Not his specific vulnerability, but every man’s vulnerability. That’s part of why, in the hierarchy of masculinity, men are stigmatized when they don’t live up to expected masculine traits. It reveals that masculine superiority isn’t natural. There are many ways in which men get in trouble for doing so — whether it’s because they’re physically weak; they have nerdy interests; they think of women as equals; or they’re uninterested in dominating women sexually.

A Facebook friend of mine said, “Most men just don’t want to touch another man’s balls, even with their foot.” Do you think that justification holds water?
This is one of the things that’s been so interesting about this experience. Men responding to my essay in the comment threads would come up with any other justification than the one I argued. “Oh, no, no,” they’d write, “it can’t possibly be that. There must be some other reason.”

They often debated strategy, arguing that men don’t kick each other in the balls because it’s a difficult blow to land or would escalate the fight. To me, the homophobic justification is silly. Perhaps there are a few men out there who are so terrified of other men’s sexuality that they would never kick them in the balls, but it doesn’t seem to be one of the more global reasons.

My friends and I used to “slap each other’s fire” all the time in high school, which seems like it would go against the homophobic argument, too.
Yes, that reminds me of an analysis from Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond who argues that “shit talking” between men is really just a bonding activity — a way of showing other men that you know them so well that you can uniquely piss them off. You know where their buttons are, where their soft spots are — and exactly how hard you can poke them before you hurt their feelings. They think, You should feel known by me, and I can demonstrate this to you by finding your soft spots and pointing it out but not hurting you.

The “slapping fire” game is similarly a way of saying, “I know you, we’re in this together, and I can flick your balls just hard enough to remind you without actually hurting you.”

Beyond the “That can’t be possible…” response, what other reactions did you get to the first article?
First of all, people don’t usually bother to email me at all. If I get reactions to my writing, it’s on Twitter and in the comments section. So just the fact that people have been emailing me at all is pretty interesting. And those emails have never stopped, which means there are men all over America who are Googling stuff about getting kicked in the balls. It’s something that’s bothering them, so the emails keep coming.

Interestingly, as opposed to the comments and tweets, the private emails all agree with me. They all say something like, “I’d never say this to someone else, but I think you’re right about this.”

You note that right around puberty, young men embark on a lifetime of “proving that they aren’t weak,” which seems like a daunting task.
There’s a lot of research showing that kids become the most rigid about gender around 6 years old. But they’re not quite old enough to understand it with any kind of nuance. Around puberty, though, it all becomes sexualized. Amongst men, you see jockeying or masculine superiority, which in some ways is about who dominates women better.

Most men can probably identify on some level that none of this is fair — not to them or to the women in their lives — but they just can’t shake it. There’s lots of research that men do all kinds of things to compensate for this, many of which are bad for them. For example, they’re more likely to smoke and less likely to go to the doctor and wear seat belts. Men don’t even like to wear sunscreen. There’s literature on this. Men are like, “Sunscreen is lotion, and lotion is girly. I don’t need to protect myself; I’m a man.” Then they get skin cancer. All because they don’t want to look vulnerable.

Like many others, you find something very Trumpian about all this. How so?
Trump is a good example of someone who’s completely absorbed with this idea of looking strong. Any sign of weakness is a huge crisis for him. Think about the transcripts of his conversations with the Mexican and Australian presidents, which The Washington Post recently released. He says things like, “If you don’t do what I say, I’m going to look weak. I’m going to look like a dope.”

He’s fearful that if the president of Mexico says, “There’s no fucking way that I’m paying for that stupid wall,” it makes him look like an ineffective leader. He writes in his book Art of the Deal, “When someone hits me, I hit back twice as hard.” What’s that going to look like when another country attacks us?

Is he essentially proposing to the Mexican president the same agreement men have made to each other — to avoid hitting each other in the balls to not make each other look bad?
That’s exactly the deal he’s trying to make. He said, “I know you’re not going to pay for this wall, just don’t say you’re not going to pay for it.”

Is it not absurd how this ridiculous topic can sort of blossom up into this serious thing?! Like I said, I just wrote it to throw it out there because I thought it was an interesting idea. But the responses have made me feel like I really hit on something. I really struck a nerve on this one.