"I was in college when I saw my first tickle fetish video, pretty much by accident, and it was so arousing I nearly had a heart attack," Reddit user Tickles Clown recently told me.
I'll be honest, I wasn't totally surprised to learn there are porn sites dedicated to tickling. There are also countless online discussion forums, banks of hentai tickle illustrations, and getting paid to be tickled on camera is not unheard of. The fetish is about to become more public on February 27 when HBO releases their new documentary, Tickled, which uncovers a disturbing underground ring of "competitive endurance tickling." So yeah, you you can safely add tickling to the list of childhood joys the internet has tainted.
Some of the greatest minds in history, including Aristotle, Charles Darwin, and Galileo, have attempted to explain why tickling straddles the line between pleasure and pain, and why the sensation cannot be self-induced. It's a great mystery of the human body that remains largely unanswered by modern psychology. But when you consider what the act of tickling consists of—a power struggle in which a tickler attempts to force a ticklee into submission through fits of laughter—it's easier to understand the fetish side of the mystery. I reached out to a tickle fetishist and a tickle porn site operator to learn exactly what it is about feathers stroking armpits that gets some people off.
Psychologists have defined two different forms of tickling. The first, knismesis, accounts for tickling that involves light touching to induce an itching sensation and is not associated with laughter. The second, gargalesis, involves repeated, harder touching to sensitive areas to elicit laughter. Gargalesis is the form of tickling in question when talking about fetish because, in most cases, it is impossible to self-induce. Some fetishists and online medical dictionaries now refer to a third term, knismolagnia, which specifically denotes arousal from tickling.
Tickles Clown, a fetishist I met via the r/tickling subreddit, explained how his world changed when he first discovered the existence of tickle porn, "It was like lightning had struck an erupting volcano. I was like, 'Why didn't I ever think to look this up?'" However, he notes that tickle porn was not always as easy to access as it is today with dedicated fetish sites and countless amateur producers, "Nowadays there's pages and pages [of tickle porn] between Pornhub and everywhere else, but in the mid-2000's you didn't have many options."
Tickles Clown also indulges in tickling outside of porn, often "with strippers and camgirls," and put the appeal of tickling in pretty simple terms, "Bondage or no bondage, clothes or no clothes, it's all a marvelous, erotic game." When asked to elaborate, he continued, "The lack of control on the ticklee's part plays into the arousal one hundred percent. It IS the arousal. The fact that you can touch them, and their body just responds to it whether they want it to or not, is a brilliant form of dominance."
Having watched through a few tickle fetish videos, it seems to be a combination of other fetishes wrapped into one and there's a lot of variation within the subgenre of tickle porn. It comes down to the gender of those involved, the number of ticklers, what they're wearing, and the toys they use, be it fingers, feathers, vibrators, or vacuum cleaners. Categorically, it all exists somewhere between massage session roleplay and full-on BDSM.
Office Mike, who owns and operates the website ticklecrazy.com among various other porn pages, explained, "It's a lot of BDSM, domination, submission, there's a lot of different things going on within tickling. What people are most into on my site is typically female-on-male tickling, which is exactly what it sounds like. There are a bunch of contexts, like where the girl tickles the guy and ends up in a hand job or sex, but more often than not it's the guy tied up and is tickled by a couple of girls."
Likening tickling to BDSM may seem like a stretch at first, but tickle play can be taken to extremes. Tickles Clown acknowledged such possibilities but noted that it's not really part of the fetish for him. "I generally tend to keep it playful and not 'torturous,' at least not to the point where the girl is peeing herself or crying tears of pain," he told VICE. "Touching a girl in her vulnerable spots, especially when she's naked, and especially when she can't fight you, and watching her have a natural, involuntary reaction to that touch is the sexiest thing ever."
"There's a lot of that struggle aspect that feeds into the fetish," Mike said. While the act of tickling itself is not particularly weird or shocking on its own, "the actual play can be really alarming, and I think that's what arouses people. You'd be surprised how quickly it becomes shocking and taboo with tickling and the execution of the play."
If you're someone who hates fingers squirming on the underside of your feet with a fiery passion, getting tied down to a bed and tickled at length is a special kind of hell. Office Mike told VICE, "The sensory input is so overwhelming that it becomes a form of torture, like Chinese water torture. Something that should seem innocuous is done to extremes to become rather unpleasant." Tickling has been used as a legitimate form of torture by ancient Chinese dynasties and even during the Nazi regime. According to the book The A to Z of Punishment and Torture, gargalesis is not only an effective torture tool, but it was favored because it's a rare form of abuse that leaves no sign of having taken place.
If you want to see the extent to which tickling can turn into a nightmare, HBO's upcoming Tickled documentary has no shortage of shocking moments. The film follows journalist David Farrier as he exposes Jane O'Brien Media, an organization responsible for exploitative "tickle cells" across the United States operating under the guise of "endurance tickling" videos. The documentary puts into perspective how, like any other fetish, tickling is innocent and fun until it's abused to the point of criminal activity.
However, both Tickles Clown and Office Mike stress that for the vast majority of tickle fetishists is no more harmful than someone who has a foot fetish. "It's no weirder than being obsessed with feet, which is way more common and extremely odd to me," Tickles Clown told VICE. 'It's not violent or scatological in the way a lot of BDSM is. I look at [tickling] as just yet another strange, superfluous, biological peccadillo that's cropped up as humans have evolved. Last I heard, they're not even certain what the evolutionary benefit of tickling is, or why we evolved to be ticklish."
Mike suggests, like most fetishes, it's easy for the media to portray knismolagnia as deviant behavior, but that's not what he sees when dealing with independent porn producers. "There's not a lot of murder and intrigue behind the scenes. I deal with a lot of husbands and wives, and they are just regular people."
Despite the bondage, torture affiliations, and underground tickle cells, tickling is still rather harmless compared to some other fetishes out there, and perhaps a more common turn-on than you might think. "We all partake in fetish activity in our love life," Mike told VICE. "It's often subtle, but for example you give someone a foot massage, or you get into a tickle fight, these are very common things in relationships that are often used as foreplay. It becomes a fetish with you articulate that particular activity into its own formal ritual."
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