Why grabbing your balls for cancer is just a fistful of nothing

Cancer Inc. is upon us, as it always is in October—the phenomenon that Barbara Ehrenreich referred to as “cancerland” in her famous 2001 essay on the subject drowns us in a sea of pink breast cancer “awareness,” charity buckets, runs for the cure, co-branded products, and so much more. With Cancer, Inc. comes the robust debate over whether anything really is acceptable for a cause; a more critical question might be whether we need “awareness” at this point, instead of concrete education and action.

But as the new #FeelingNuts campaign illustrates, women (most breast cancer awareness campaigns are specifically aimed at cisgender women, who are most likely to develop breast cancer) aren’t the only ones being caught up in the tidal wave.

The #FeelingNuts campaign recommends that men check for testicular cancer, stressing that it’s a young man’s disease and men shouldn’t assume they’re exempt because of their age. That said, there’s a disconnect between the meme and the stated mission of the campaign. In a viral challenge, men are being invited to post images of themselves as they grope their crotches, an “awareness” campaign reminiscent of the endless “post your bra color for breast cancer awareness” or “buy branded Yoplait for breast cancer” memes that invade the world every October.

Like other “awareness” campaigns, though, #FeelingNuts feels intensely shallow and unproductive. It’s a bunch of pictures of men taking pictures of themselves holding their balls; hardly groundbreaking in terms of public health or social awareness. Pop over to their brightly colored, poppy website and you’ll see a collection of celebrities, cheeky videos, and more. One thing you won’t see prominently featured on the main page or in the site’s promotional vids: A quick guide to, well, feeling your nuts. You’ll have to click through for that information.

This mimics many other campaigns that ostensibly raise awareness about cancer. The problem here is not that people don’t know about cancer and need to be made aware of it (not bloody likely, in a landscape where they’re oversaturated in cause marketing), but rather that they don’t know what kind of action they need to take. Most people caught up in Cancer, Inc. don’t know how to check themselves for the cancers discussed and aren’t familiar with ongoing medical recommendations in terms of the frequency of self-screenings and preventative screenings like mammograms.

They also don’t know where their funds go when they plop some pennies in a jar at the grocery store register or buy a co-branded product. Ironically, many breast cancer “awareness” products themselves contain carcinogens.

Notably, both testicular cancer and breast cancer have been subjected in recent years to highly sexualized awareness and advertising campaigns, but the issue has been approached radically differently. Here’s a breast cancer “awareness” video reminding the viewer that as long as everyone else is checking out her breasts, she might as well do the same:

Not included: Instructions on how to perform a breast self-exam.

Contrast with this highly sexualized testicular cancer awareness video featuring Rachel Stevens and a bowl of fruit. While it’s most definitely exploitative, you can’t fault Stevens: She at least demonstrates how to correctly perform a self-exam, and discusses why it’s important. It’s a one-two punch (forgive me) of awareness and education.

In another video, the cheeky Male Cancer Awareness Campaign features another sexy model, this time with a model of testicles that she uses to demonstrate a self-exam. Sadly, the video lacks the humor of the Rachel Stevens video, thanks to the transphobia implied in the moment where she pulls her balls from her underoos.

Canadian organization Rethink Breast Cancer has a similarly cheeky, sexualized, and informative video on breast cancer self-exams for a general audience of ladies who love hot men. Turnabout might seem to be fair play here, with a level up; it’s not just promoting a breast self-check reminder app, but actually showing women how to perform self-exams, which makes it a rarity among breast cancer promotionals:

What’s intriguing about the contrast between these “awareness” and education videos produced in Australia, the U.K., and Canada, respectively, is how different they are from U.S. advertising, which is accompanied by a tide of pink and an essential commercialization of cancer. Few videos on breast cancer awareness in the U.S. provide self-check information or information on prevention and support for patients; instead, they’re all about awareness.

It can be safely concluded that we live in an environment where we are aware of the existence of cancer and where we are particularly acutely aware of the existence of cancers of the genitals and reproductive tracts, along with breast cancer (thanks to the association of breasts with sexuality). It’s notable that so many resources are sunk into producing sexy videos about a limited number of cancers, rather than cancer as a whole, and that few of these resources contain valuable information for patients as well as those seeking to prevent cancer.

This is a reflection of the larger problem with Cancer, Inc., which has really found a home on the Internet. Thanks to viral videos, hashtags, and the rapid spread of memes, making something go around the world in just a few minutes is but the work of a single astute marketer; and it can become a viral, enduring meme in just hours or days.

Behind campaigns like #FeelingNuts and the threatening “if you don’t check them, I will” breast cancer campaign comes a certain sense of limitation; sure, we’ll tell you cancer exists, but we won’t tell you what to do about it. The barrage of breast cancer-related products in particular—including a huge array of objects that reduce women to their breasts, and their breasts to public property (“save the boobies!”)—serves as an indicator that cancer isn’t the problem: It’s what’s lost because of cancer that’s the problem.

Catching testicular cancer early can help prevent metastasis and radically improve patient outcomes. That alone is reason enough to educate men about how to examine themselves, and to make them aware that the condition arises in young men, not just older adults, a common perception among some communities. But focusing overmuch on the idea of protecting the “family jewels” reinforces the message that losing a testicle makes someone less of a man; not for nothing is the word “emasculated” accompanied by so many negative perceptions.

Notably, for men in these videos, the thought of losing a testicle to cancer isn’t terrible and frightening because of the risk of cancer, but because it involves losing a ball and thus their sense of self. Such campaigns don’t offer support and affirmation for survivors through public awareness, thus reinforcing the idea that losing a testicle equates to a loss in status. In breast cancer awareness campaigns, however, the perspective flips; needing a lumpectomy or mastectomy will make you less sexually attractive and will be a tragedy for the people around you, oh, and it might mean that you have a dangerous and potentially lethal disease.

The insistence on framing cancer education around sexual attractiveness and self-worth dangerously reinforces harmful social stereotypes for men and women alike. A man post-testicular cancer is still, demonstrably, a man; losing a testicle doesn’t detract from his innate masculinity. Likewise, a woman who loses a breast to cancer is still a woman; and it’s striking indeed that the Internet wants to tell her that she’s less of a human being after breast cancer because men won’t find her attractive.

Notably, when Angelina Jolie revealed that she had opted for a preventative double mastectomy and breast reconstruction because she carries a BRCA mutation, the reaction across the majority of the Internet wasn’t one of discussion about breast cancer awareness, prevention, and education. Instead, it was the sigh of a million deflated penises at the thought that a modern-day sex idol had “mutilated herself” for such petty reasons as wanting to prevent the ravages of a fatal disease.

Message received: Men should get to #FeelingNuts to stay masculine, and women should grope for the cause so men will continue to find them attractive.

Photo via Bob Wassell/Flickr (CC BY-N.D. 2.0)

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.