An American Girl in Italy – Ruth Orkin, 1951
For anyone who has grown up around Italians, the “crotch-grab” was a daily occurrance. It could mean anything from “I don’t care” to “what do I know?”. Why do they do it? Juliet Lapidos tells us that Italian men grab their crotches to ward off bad luck.
It’s the seat of fertility. The crotch grab goes back at least to the pre-Christian Roman era and is closely associated with another superstition called the “evil eye”—the belief that a covetous person can harm you, your children, or your possessions by gazing at you. Cultural anthropologists conjecture that men would try to block such pernicious beams by shielding their genitals, thus protecting their most valued asset: the future fruit of their loins. Over the centuries, the practice shifted. Men covered their generative organs not only to defend against direct malevolence but also in the presence of anything ominous, like a funeral procession.
These days, an Italian man might also grab his crotch in risky situations, like a high-stakes poker game. In such cases, the grab isn’t a defense mechanism against bad luck but rather a way to generate good luck. Once again, this practice relates to the folk belief that the phallus is auspicious because it’s the source of masculinity and reproduction.