Bogus trend smorgasbord: sack-tapping, vodka eyeballing, and "little girl" parties.

Media criticism.
June 3 2010 5:41 PM

Bogus Trend Smorgasbord

Sack tapping, vodka eyeballing, and "little girl" parties.

Lunch line.
Bogus trend smorgasbord

For as long as he's toted his swaying nut sack, the human male has expressed extraordinary interest in his package's condition—and in the condition of his brothers' packages. Our cousin the chimpanzee takes this testicular interest to a primal extreme, says science journalist Jon Cohen, who has observed lower-status chimps in the wild grooming the gonads of higher-status chimps.

So the hot news broken late last month that a teen-age boy in Minnesota got carried away while playing the dominance game called "sack-tapping" and punched his 14-year-old acquaintance so hard that he had to have a damaged testicle removed should surprise nobody. For a sampler of sack-tapping coverage based on that incident, here's the May 28 report from the Minnesota NBC affiliate KARE-TV, the ABC News piece from May 28, the May 29 Times of India item on the scrotal punch, the June 2 blog item from the Los Angeles Times, and a June 3 dispatch from MSNBC.com. Back in January (if the YouTube time stamp is a guide), Judge Judy adjudicated a case of teen-on-teen sack-tapping that sent the punched to the doctor.

Is sack-tapping a trend? Yes, says ABC News: "The trend isn't restricted to Minnesota. A search on YouTube reveals hundreds of videos of young boys, teens, and even members of the U.S. Navy, catching a friend (or enemy) unaware with a quick punch or slap to the genitals." The Los Angeles Times calls the practice "the latest dangerous craze." MSNBC.com, consulting a poll of urologists that it commissioned, reports that "more teen boys are being treated after cringe-worthy attacks in which they're slapped or punched in the groin."

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How new is sack-tapping? I remember taking shots to my crown jewels when I was a 1960s teenager better than I recall delivering them, but that's probably because intense pain fixes an incident into memory better than aggression does.

But we don't have to rely on my adolescence for evidence that playful ball-busting isn't breaking news. For instance, 12 years ago, in the first season of South Park(Episode 112, Feb. 18, 1998), Cartman urged Pip to play "Roshambo" with him. "I'll kick you in the nuts as hard as I can, then you kick me square in the nuts as hard as you can," said Cartman. To "Roshambo" entered the Online Slang Dictionary on Jan. 15, 1999, defined as "to get flicked in the testicles; usually causing extreme pain." A definition for "sack tap" appeared on the site on Sept. 27, 2002. "Nut tag" has been listed in the Urban Dictionary since Feb. 27, 2003.

MSNBC.com makes the greatest effort to show that sack-tapping is an out-of-control growing and dangerous trend. It reports a Consumer Product Safety Commission estimate that 8,000 males between 10 and 20 were treated for "pubic region injuries in the nation's emergency rooms last year." Those numbers were up from 7,300 in 2008 and 5,500 in 2007, according to MSNBC.com. (Both of those numbers are estimates, one would assume.)

Then MSNBC.com states, "Most of those injuries were caused during sports or by accidents involving bicycles or skateboards, a review of cases reveals." But if the cases under review are only estimates, how can MSNBC.com know what percentage were sports or wheel injuries? Likewise, when MSNBC.com goes on to claim that a "growing number" of pubic-region injury cases were caused by sack-tapping, why doesn't it show its calculations to prove that growth or indicate the period over which that number has grown?

The survey that MSNBC.com so proudly cites was conducted by the Truth on Call service, which asked 100 urologists whether they had seen any "sack-tapping" injuries among teens in the past year. Of the 100 urologists polled, 30 had seen such injuries. How reliable is such a survey in which the respondents self-select and are paidto answer questions related to their practices? If MSNBC.com really wanted to prove that sack-tapping injuries were on the rise, shouldn't it have asked the urologists whether those injuries were on the rise? (I failed to find any discussion of this dangerous craze in PubMed, the National Institutes of Health database of biomedical literature.)

Is sack-tapping a new and growing trend? I say, balls, and move on to the next bogus trend, "vodka eyeballing." This topic entered the media conversation on May 15 in a London Daily Mail piece describing the practice as "the latest drinking craze to sweep through Britain's universities." (Wanna know how to vodka eyeball? Pry eyelids apart and pour shot of vodka into your glazzies. You can guess how it feels.)

The Daily Mail claims that the trend started in the United States, "where it is a popular nightclub trick performed by waitresses for tips in resorts such as Las Vegas." How popular is the nightclub trick? So popular that the phase "vodka eyeballing" first appeared in Nexis in response to the Daily Mail article. The Daily Mail piece makes no effort to collate the U.K. anecdotes it's collected into anything that would approach a trend or a craze, and it undercuts its own assertion that vodka eyeballing originated in the United States by pointing to its depiction in the 2000 British film Kevin and Perry Go Large.

How many vodka eyeballers does the Daily Mail interview? One. How many people—other than the eyeballer interviewed—tell the Daily Mail they've witnessed vodka eyeballing? Again, one. The paper reports, "Another woman I spoke to this week recalled seeing her former boss … 'drinking' vodka through his eye at an advertising party."

Gawker took the vodka eyeballing trend down on May 16 with a brief swipe, noting that the primary evidence that eyeballing is trending is the depictions of it on YouTube. Yet news organizations continue to peddle the Daily Mail's nonsense—Washington Examiner, May 25; WCBS-TV, May 27; Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, May 30; Toronto Sunvia CHealth, May 31; and others.

As you can imagine, vodka eyeballing is hugely dangerous. Only a moron should consume his beverages in such a manner—or read articles about it.

The final entry in our bogus trend smorgasbord is served by our friends in the Great White North. In late May, newspapers in Vancouver, Chilliwack, and Toronto warned readers to be on the lookout for "little girl" parties in which sexual predators invite middle-school girls to parties, get them drunk, and then deflower them.

Even though the Royal Canadian Mounted Police helped sound the original alarm, there appears to be no evidence that a little-girl party has ever taken place. The Saskatoon Star Phoenix put the record straight on May 29, reporting, "Chilliwack RCMP spokeswoman Const. Tracy Wolbeck said police do not know of any students who have participated in such parties or any occasions when these parties actually occurred."

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Shameless plug for a friend: Be the first to preorder Jon Cohen's Almost Chimpanzee: Searching for What Makes Us Human, in Rainforests, Labs, Sanctuaries, and Zoos. Thanks to all the bogus trendspotters, too numerous to mention, who goaded me into cooking this smorgasbord. Keep sending those bogus spottings to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and watch my Twitter feed for my home-grown bogusity. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.