In Greco-Roman wrestling, boxing, and mixed martial arts, there is a rule that you never hit “below the belt.” The area of biggest concern is the testicles. As the Ultimate Fighting Championship rules specify, “groin attacks of any kind” are a foul. This is probably because groin attacks might make for short fights or ones where everyone just goes around protecting their balls. In any case, the skills being tested are of a different kind. But, even aside from that, this seems like a good idea and very civilized. I do not advocate for testicle kicking, not groin attacks of any kind, for what it’s worth.
I do think it’s somewhat odd, though, that men who fight each other outside of controlled conditions—men in street fights, bar brawls, and parking lot scuffles—also usually avoid hitting below the belt. These fights aren’t about training or skill, like those between professional athletes, they’re real attempts to do some damage out of anger or defensiveness. So, why no hits to the balls?
The question was posed by a woman on Yahoo! Answers: “If you dislike each other enough to want them to get hurt,” she asked, “why not do the worst?”
The answers, admittedly unscientific, were interesting. One of the common responses involved the idea that not hitting below the belt was “an unspoken rule.” Maybe it’s the Golden Rule—do onto others as you would have them do unto you—and some men mentioned that, but others suggested that it was a rule specific to manhood. It’s a “cheap shot,” said one. A “low blow,” said another.
But why? Why do men agree not to kick each other in the balls? Why is that part of the code?
I think it’s because it serves to protect men’s egos as well as men’s balls.
What would street fights between guys look like—or professional fights for that matter—if one could go below the belt? For one, there’d be a lot more collapsing. Two, a lot more writhing in pain. Three, a lot less getting up. All in all, it would add up to less time looking powerful and more time looking pitiful. And it would send a clear message that men’s bodies are vulnerable.
Not hitting below the belt, then, protects the idea that men’s bodies are fighting machines. It protects masculinity, the very idea that men are big and strong, pain- and impact-resistant, impenetrable like an edifice. So not hitting below the belt doesn’t just protect individual men from pain, it protects our ideas about masculinity.
When a man hits below the belt, he is revealing to everyone present that masculinity is a fiction. That’s why one guy said: “For ‘alpha male’ fights, nut shots are just wrong.” Alpha male fights are about figuring out which male is alpha, while preserving the idea that the alpha male is a thing that matters.
This is why men are quick to criticize other men who break the code. One of the best ways to control men is to threaten to kick them out of the man club. “If a guy kicks another guy in the balls on purpose during a fight,” one replied to the question on Yahoo, “he will forever be banished from manhood.” Another said: “Winning like this means that you cannot beat up the other guy by ‘real’ fighting.” It’s a matter of one’s own reputation: “A man who kicks another man in the balls,” said a third, “immediately loses all manliness and respect.”
So, men generally agree to pretend that the balls just aren’t there. The effect is that we tend to forget just how vulnerable men are to the right attack and continue to think of women as naturally more fragile.
I still don’t want anyone to get kicked in the balls, though, just to be clear.
Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.