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Balls. Nuts. Nads. Bollocks. Stones. Cojones. Whatever you wanna call them, this week we’re talking about testicles.

Though they’re often treated as an afterthought in comparison to the pleasure primacy of the penis, I think they deserve a bit more credit. Giving some love to a partner’s balls can be excellent foreplay or the X-factor that takes a blow job from mediocre to mind-blowing. And while they may seem humble from the outside, physiologically the testicles are quite complex, quietly carrying out a number of processes that impact sexual function — not to mention the survival of humans as a species.

Anatomically, the testicles are made up of the testes (gonads where sperm cells are produced) and the epididymis (a structure made of tightly coiled tubes where sperm cells mature which sits on the exterior of the testes). Together, they function to produce and store sperm with a big assist from the scrotum, the fleshy pouch that encases and protects them.

Now that we’re all on the same page about what balls actually are, here are a few facts you might not know about them.

  1. They have a built-in temperature control system. If you’ve ever wondered why such a sensitive part of the body is dangling precariously outside of it rather than safely tucked away, this is your answer. Sperm cells are quite fragile, finicky little things. To survive, they need an alkaline environment, lots of time to mature, and — most importantly for our purposes here — a thermostat set to 1-2º Celsius lower than normal body temperature. The muscles of the scrotum work hard to regulate the temperature of the testicles by continually adjusting how close or far away they hang from the body. When it’s cold, they cuddle up, and when it’s hot, they hang low, but when you wear skinny jeans and there’s nowhere to go, things get a little dicey. That’s why tight pants have been shown to have a (temporary) negative impact on sperm count. Hipsters, beware.

  2. Speaking of the scrotum... If you’ve ever interacted with testicles — whether yours or someone else’s — you’ve probably noticed a separation, sometimes even visible as a line of slightly different skin pigment, up the middle of the scrotum separating the testes. That’s where the skin would have split to form the outer labia of a vulva if different hormone signals had been received during fetal development (basically, if that person’s biological blueprint called for a clitoris and ovaries rather than a penis and testes). Although our genitals might look and function differently, all humans have essentially the same base parts — they’re just smushed together in different ways depending on genetics and hormones.

  3. Blue balls is a recognized medical condition. The sensation of pain, heaviness, or discomfort that is sometimes experienced after having an erection without orgasm actually has a fancy medical name: epididymal hypertension. From what I hear it’s no fun, but from a health perspective it’s also not a big deal — gradually the increased blood volume and pressure in the genitals will subside even without orgasm, providing relief. Real as the discomfort may be, it’s never an excuse to pressure someone into helping you have an orgasm when they don’t want to (looking at you, high school ex-boyfriends).

  4. There’s more than meets the eye. Although the average testicle is only about four centimeters long, there’s a lot going on in there. Uncoiled, the epididymis resting on each testis (the singular form of testes) is about 20 feet long. It takes newly formed sperm about 64 days to reach maturity, much of which is spent moseying through the twists and turns of the epididymis. (Imagine what a bummer it must be to go all that way only to end up in a Kleenex.)

  5. Balls and boobs have something in common. Just like it’s normal for a person’s breasts to be different sizes, asymmetrical testicles are also common. It’s also normal for one testicle to hang lower than the other to help facilitate walking and other movement. Besides, if you spent literally all of your time with just one other dude, you’d probably want some space, too.

  6. Being familiar with your balls can come in handy. Testicular cancer is fairly rare (about 1 in 250 US men will be diagnosed in their lifetime), and the medical literature is mixed on whether regular testicular self-exams have an impact on cancer mortality. But being familiar with your normal baseline — that is, what your testicles usually feel like — can make it easier to notice when something is new or off. If you notice an unusual bump or irregularity on your or your partner’s testicles, it’s a good idea to discuss it with a healthcare provider who can evaluate whether it’s something to worry about. If you’re interested, more specific instructions for testicular self-exams can be found from the Testicular Cancer Society and other reputable sources online.

Kaylee Wolfe is a sexuality educator, advocate for survivors of sexual and relationship violence, clinic escort, and birth doula. She thinks you should get tested.

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