A hand spraying a sack filled with two moldy oranges
What is all of this sudden zhuzhing of and attention to their testicles really doing for men?Photograph: Alex Wallbaum

My Balls-Out Quest to Achieve the Perfect Scrotum

A new breed of self-care companies has a salve for fragile masculinity: lavender- and tapioca-scented deodorants and moisturizers for the nutsack.

I could say it started when I turned 33—my Jesus year, the year I vowed to transcend anxiety and exhaustion and do my most important work, the year I would emerge from my cave of pandemic isolation and early parenthood and couples therapy as the second coming of myself. But I am a millennial, not a messiah. The truth is that my search for rebirth began a few months later, with a Slack message about ball deodorant.

“Just been emailed asking if we’d like to review this—am trying not to be offended,” a fellow WIRED editor wrote in a group channel. A Chicago-based company called Ballsy had developed a pH-balanced scrotal deodorizer made with lavender, aloe vera, green tea, and chamomile. “Your pits aren’t the only place that need deodorant,” a line of ad copy said. Beneath it was a photo of a 2-ounce black bottle, boldly labeled Sack Spray against a background of subtle undulating lines. I squinted, unable to tell whether I was looking at a topographical map or an extreme close-up of a nutsack.

This article appears in the June 2023 issue. Subscribe to WIRED.Photograph: Dan Winters

My more enlightened colleagues either reacted with the “face vomiting” emoji or ignored the matter entirely. Nothing new here, just the self-care machine trying to expand its reach from women to men. My response was different. I hovered my cursor over the “face with raised eyebrow” emoji. I am the director of fact-checking at a national journalistic outlet, supposedly the chief skeptic in a workplace of skeptics. I wondered: Was Sack Spray for real? Could it truly keep the “funk off your junk” and “improve your daily comfort, confidence, and skin health”? I Googled “ball deodorant.”

Sack Spray, it turns out, is no prank product. It is part of a Silicon Valley–imagineered and venture-capital-funded explosion of scrotal potions (scrotions?) over the past half-decade or so. Testicles today can be sprayed, spritzed, scrubbed, and smeared with—to name just a few—ToppCock Silver Gel, Swamp-Stop Ball Spray, Beast Blue Ball Powder, Ballgasmic Sack Wash, Super Fresh Man Parts, Comfy Boys Chocolate Intimate Deodorant, Below the Belt Fresh and Dry Balls, Derm Dude Happy Sack Nut Love, and Tame the Beast Nutt Butter Extreme. The olfactory options are endless: arrowroot, oats, bourbon, birchwood, cedarwood, sandalwood, smoke, leather, moss, bergamot orange, tapioca, patchouli, black pepper. The tyranny of choice in ball sprays is second only to the tyranny of choosing which ball spray guides to read. Men’s magazines and grooming blogs have spawned a veritable Subsack.

You don’t need to consult even one board-certified dermatologist (which is what a fact-checker would do) to know that scrotions serve no medical purpose. But that hasn't stopped millions of men from self-prescribing them. I watched a 15-minute review of Sack Spray by a product-testing YouTuber named Tom Kiker, who said, “You want a promotion? You got a big interview to go to? Spray this on your goddamn nuts. Guaranteed more money.” I scrolled through the 5,000 Amazon reviews for Ballsy’s cucumber-scented Ball Wash, some three-quarters of which gave it five stars. (Typical exaltations: “My son likes it,” “My girlfriend loves this.”) Same story with the ecstatic connoisseurs of Happy Nuts Comfort Cream. (“Does the job so well my wife started using it too!”)

I, like most men (or so I once thought, like a numb nut), typically cogitated on my cojones for no more than a few seconds a year—when my doctor checked them for a hernia or if they intercepted a projectile. I rarely even thought about being a man, or what my role as one should be. That started to shift. I’d become a parent. I’d moved to New York and told myself I would become more financially secure. And after being disembodied on a screen for two pandemic years, I was more aware of having a body, which was feeling less like a man’s and more like mush.

What, I wondered, was all this sudden zhuzhing of and attention to their testicles really doing for men? For reasons strictly professional, I told myself, I ordered a suite of scrotions and started calling their makers and users.

Journalists have a term for the paragraph that appears early in a story to tee up what it’s about. We call it a “nut graf.” As I waited for my orders to arrive, I wondered what my nut graf would say. Maybe I would write something smart about 21st-century male anxieties and evolving gender norms, or the movement to detoxify masculinity (in this case, literally). Maybe I would quote something from a cultural history of the penis or a recent Brookings Institution report. Maybe I would prove my coworker’s theory, borrowed from the German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han, that this was an extension of how “modern aesthetics don’t tolerate any bit of ugliness” and render all surfaces smooth and frictionless (iPhones, Teslas, TikTok, Skims, Pina Pro table lamps, Midjourney AI drawings, scrotums). Maybe I would have a line about how sack sprays offer temporary relief from modern manhood itself. And maybe I would admit there was something in them for me.

“Men feeling ashamed at the way that their balls smell? It hurts my heart,” says Cathy Reisenwitz, who writes the Substack Sex and the State.

Photograph: Alex Wallbaum

When I told my wife what would soon be arriving in the mail, she said, “‘Oh hi, guys, it’s beauty standards, we’ve been waiting for you!’” Which was a nice way of saying that women have been expected to spend their money on this shit for eons.

As deodorants first caught on in the 1910s, marketers peddled the idea that women who didn’t use them would be cast out of polite society (a society in which, notably, they couldn’t vote). Chloé Cooper Jones, a philosophy professor and the author of Easy Beauty, told me that around the same time, and for decades thereafter, vaginal douches were touted “as a necessary hygienic thing, to keep clean, acceptable, and to be courteous to a male partner.” Women have long lived under the capitalist, misogynist edict, she added, that they shouldn’t “smell like a woman, that nothing about women is supposed to be natural.”

That doesn’t mean that men have always been free to be their natural selves. Before the Great Depression, most men considered it unmanly, or “sissified,” to mask their natural musk—but then ads began warning them that unleashing their stench in the workplace would threaten their livelihoods. Men today spend $500 on serums to smooth wrinkles, $30,000 on liposuction to have a fake six-pack permanently etched onto their torso, $75,000 on excruciating leg-lengthening surgery to gain 6 inches. In a recent Bloomberg Businessweek profile, Bryan Johnson, a 45-year-old software entrepreneur, detailed his plans to spend some $2 million this year experimenting with anti-aging techniques. Johnson reportedly wants “the brain, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, tendons, teeth, skin, hair, bladder, penis, and rectum of an 18-year-old.” Good for him.

A company called Manscaped is the top dog in the groin upkeep business, raking in some $300 million in sales a year and, until last summer, in talks to go public via a special purpose acquisition company—a sack SPAC. Manscaped, a company that tweets things like “trimming your ballsack is main character energy,” has a stated mission to “move men forward on a global scale and spark a movement to unlock men’s confidence, allowing them to lead their best lives.” Paul Tran, who founded the company in 2016, told me he did it out of “sheer frustration” with the lack of proper tools to trim himself. In addition to its flagship product, the Lawn Mower, the company offers various formulations for testicular upkeep—the Crop Cleanser; Crop Preserver; Crop Exfoliator; Crop Gel; Crop Reviver; and Crop Mop Ball, Butt, and Body Wipes.

It took Manscaped and its competitors a lot of trial and error to find their target demographic. “Women had grown to be really comfortable talking about their hygiene behaviors with each other,” Tran says. Men, he suspected, had developed similar behaviors, “but were too embarrassed to talk about it.” The company “started with the scientific approach,” he says. “‘Hey, you should do this because it’s a damp area, which is more prone to bacteria growth.’ Men didn’t care.” Things began to take off when the company arrived at a cheeky tone, full of innuendo—ads depicting testicles as grenades, billiard balls, or an anthropomorphized office desk shrub. Manscaped was the official urinal sponsor at the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium for two seasons and is the official grooming partner of both the Testicular Cancer Society and … Ball State University. Pete Davidson, America’s most boinked bachelor, is the current face of the company.

As of late 2022, Manscaped also had an army of more than 6,000 influencers—2,000 of them women—including drag queens, UFC fighters, models, sports and comedy podcasters, and dating coaches. One TikTok dating coach with half a million followers had this to say while she brandished the Crop Preserver and Crop Reviver: “It’s 2022, not 1970. Shag rugs are out. I’m done sifting through forests.” Jose Zuniga, an alpha-male YouTuber with 6 million subscribers, slips sponsored content from Manscaped into his guides to help men stop being “losers” and “simps.” “We’re hooking up dudes globally, bro,” he says.

Most manscapers tend to be men in their thirties, but the sack spray community spans 13-year-olds to octogenarians. There are long-haul truckers seeking relief from chafing along a mid-July drive down I-80. There are trans men seeking relief after gender confirmation surgery. Beau Hayhoe, a 31-year-old style writer in Brooklyn (and coauthor of a Gear Moose guide to the 12 Best Ball Deodorants), says he manscapes to “look good, feel good,” and “play good.” The Spray, from Meridian, he says, adds “the finishing touches of confidence.” I found other superusers in the replies to Manscaped’s tweets. Minty, 41, who works the help desk at a breathalyzer and ankle-monitor manufacturer in Colorado, says he uses a scrotion primarily as part of his calming bedtime routine. “Personally I don’t smell that bad,” he said, but by applying a ball deodorant every night, he goes to bed “more than fresh.” Marcus, a 25-year-old real estate agent’s assistant and Twitch streamer in South Carolina, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 19. A couple years ago, after a long stay in the hospital, he “wanted to get really clean.” He uses his Lawn Mower every two weeks and wipes his testicles with a Crop Mop after every shower. “It makes me feel healthier,” he says. “I want kids someday, and in order to have kids you have to be healthy in all areas, especially that area.”

I was beginning to understand the appeal of sack sprays, but their deeper meaning was still eluding me. When I wrote to David Friedman, the author of A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis, hoping for some guidance, he declined by writing, “I’m no longer a working ‘Dick Guy.’ I’ve renounced my ‘professional’ status and have happily returned to being an amateur.” I was filled with envy.

By the size of the package, I thought it was new sneakers for my toddler until I saw that familiar nutsack pattern. The outside of the box encouraged (warned?) me to #LIVEBALLSOUT. Inside was Ballsy’s Sack Pack ($45), one tallboy-sized bottle, a little black spritzer bottle, and a tiny tin that together pledged “to help you achieve a flawless sack.” But there were, unthinkably, no instructions on the order in which to use them.

I hopped in the shower and lathered in some Ball Wash, a black gloop with charcoal and lavender oil. It left my skin feeling claggy. Once dry, I splotched on a pinch of the “ocean and air”-scented Nut Rub cologne. Strangely thick and smudgy, and I smelled like a middle school dance. Finally, Sack Spray. There were instructions: “Spray 1 to 2 pumps to your groin after a workout, shower, or whenever you could use a refresh.” (Whenever.) No amount of mental rehearsal would have prepared me for the total mind-body break that occurred while hearing the petite kkssh kkssh and feeling the yelpingly cold, tickly mist.

A few days later, Manscaped’s Performance Package 4.0 ($140) arrived. The box had no copy, save the brand’s logo: an upside-down heart in which the triangular part is stylized as a diamond and the two semicircles as, yes, a veiny nutsack. (Marcelo Kertész, Manscaped’s chief marketing officer and formerly the creative director of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s first Brazilian presidential campaign, told me that the testes represent “literally where we all came from.”) Inside, hiding the products, was a placard in gold serifed font: “The modern man is a man who takes care of himself. Manscaping isn’t just for life’s special occasions. It’s a requirement for optimal health, superior hygiene, and healthy self-esteem.” Nestled underneath were the Lawn Mower 4.0 trimmer, ball deodorant, a hydrating ball toner, and a nose hair trimmer. As Tran, the founder, told the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2021, Manscaped views the groin “as the entryway to the rest of the male body.”

I used all the products in one go. The whole project took half an hour. The Mower’s slick blade shaved so close I was suddenly prepubescent again. I felt maybe a little cleaner, and definitely a lot sillier. When I presented the results to my wife, she stared, quizzically, the same way she looked at my parents’ dachshund when the groomer got a little carried away. “Your balls smell insane,” she said.

Her reaction reminded me of something Cathy Reisenwitz, who writes the Substack Sex and the State, told me. “How you smell is a really important part of sex and being attracted to someone. If you don't like the way their balls smell, find somebody whose ball-smell you like.” She went on: “Men feeling ashamed at the way that their balls smell? It hurts my heart.”

“Sack sprays are douches for dudes. Or, like my wife said, ‘Goop for the gonads.’ But that’s not all they are.”

Photograph: Alex Wallbaum

A few weeks into my experiments, two packages arrived: a tube of Super Fresh Man Parts ball lotion and a copy of Richard Reeves’ Of Boys and Men: Why The Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It. It’s a thoroughly sobering account of what Reeves calls the “male malaise.” Boys today are dropping out of high school at almost twice the rate of girls. They represent only 40 percent of college graduates. The typical American man earned less in 2019, adjusted for inflation, than he did in 1979. A fifth of fathers don’t live with their children. Men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women. “It is not that men have fewer opportunities. It is that they’re not taking them,” Reeves writes. He thinks people tend to assume that individual men are at fault for failing to thrive, when the crisis of masculinity really arises from structural changes—the education system disadvantages boys, the labor market has “shifted away from traditionally male jobs.”

Millions of men are adrift, withdrawn, confused, enraged, and susceptible to messages that they stink—culturally, psychologically, and bodily. On the extreme end, they hear Tucker Carlson touting “testicle tanning” as a “bromeopathic” therapy to bolster testosterone; Jordan Peterson barking at them to “toughen up, you weasel”; and Andrew Tate, the nunchuck-wielding internet misogynist, telling them only “soy boys” eat sushi. (Tate is currently under investigation on charges of rape and human trafficking in Romania, accusations he denies.) On the more mundane end, men get ads for sack sprays, all of which bear an implicit message: You stink because you’re a man. So yeah, it’s vaginal douches for dudes. Or, like my wife said, “Goop for the gonads.” But that’s not all they are, and that’s not all they’ve been for me.

Masculinity—as Phil Christman put that squirrelly word best—has always been “an abstract rage to protect,” an ingrained idea that “one must train and prepare for eventualities one has no reason to anticipate, must keep one’s dwelling and grooming spartan in case of emergencies,” often at the expense of taking care of oneself. In my early thirties, emerging back into a post-Covid world with a family, that rage suddenly burned hot. At the same time, I also wanted to obliterate my masculinity, which felt like an obstacle to the kind of curiosity, vulnerability, and whimsy that would make me a better parent, partner, and person. The purveyors of sack sprays cleverly allow men to choose both, deftly framing the vulnerability of self-care as a way to enhance masculinity.

I maintained a daily ball routine for about two months. Then one morning in the shower, I rinsed away some Ball Wash and looked down. After all this cleansing, toning, exfoliating, buffing, and moisturizing, I saw the exact same sack I’d always had, and it hit me: The sack can’t be hacked. Nor should it.

The ballsack’s essential, inescapable ugliness is its beauty. A bizarre, asymmetrical, nubby, loose pouch of veins and folds, precariously and ridiculously hanging between the legs—yes, a gross thing to look at. But loose for climate control, to shrink and expand! And asymmetrical for shock absorption! One theory of why the human sack is distended outside the abdomen is because we move unevenly; the family jewels migrated outward so that all the pressure changes from our herky-jerky behavior wouldn’t expel sperm and exterminate the gene pool. We gallop. We sprint. We take leaps. We extend beyond ourselves, ergo the sack. And the ugly sack protects the stuff of life, all future leaps, all future beauty.

I stepped out of the shower, resurrected.

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