I replied to a Craigslist ad saying I'd be paid $150 to let some guys film me being tickled. My current work situation was nearing an end, and rent was coming up, so naturally, as an overeducated and underemployed twentysomething in a big city, I cast my net in the "gigs" section. No nudity would be required of me, and I'd be in and out within the span of an hour! Worrying you'd be murdered by people off the internet was so 2000. How could I pass up an opportunity like this?
These pornographers own and operate two subscription fetish sites. One is a male-on-male tickling site. The other is a bunch of shirtless guys blowing and popping bubble gum bubbles. Because we're in LA, these enterprises were, of course, established as a means of funding the dark comedy screenplay they co-wrote.
I arrived at a corporate Burbank hotel on a Saturday morning. The innocence of the pee-wee soccer tournament teams milling about the lobby did nothing to put me at ease.
Drawing upon years of being that white guy that just doesn't look like he belongs in this scene, I galvanized my resolve to go into the shoot as the straight guy who is just so damn comfortable with his own sexual identity/orientation/whatever that a couple of dudes gettin' their tickle on wouldn't even be a thing, man. To a liberal, aware-of-his-own-privilege male such as myself, the worst outcome of this whole arrangement wouldn't be if I somehow found myself enjoying the proceedings resulting in some soul-searching afterward, but rather that my lack of arousal and interest could somehow be misconstrued as homophobic or sex-negative.
Upon entering the hotel room, I was greeted by two cheery guys: Josh and Brian. Josh looked like a swarthy skater boy who might've actually been a bit intimidating if it weren't for his lip ring and gentle eyes. Brian had a more clean-cut look with a nondescript button-up and cargo shorts. They offered me bottled water or an energy drink as we began the paperwork. I signed my release and pored over the hand-written list of pseudonyms I'd be choosing from.
"Some of those names are weird. We just jotted them down in the car," Josh half-apologised.
There were some interesting options on the list such as Reinier, Luca, and Tripp.
"What are the douchiest names you have? I want my name to be really douchey."
We settled on "Chase."
Josh explained the shooting schedule to me. We'd be doing five five-minute takes with resting periods between. We'd have to get moving, though, as they had another ticklee coming in just over an hour. I went to the bathroom and changed into the pair of shorts I'd brought. I'd chosen a pair with one of the shorter inseams in my collection. In for a penny, in for a pound.
I stood motionless in the bathroom for a few beats with the sink running so it sounded like I was washing my hands or doing something. Would my parents and friends look at me differently after this? Why didn't I bring longer shorts? Vanity? My legs aren't even in their best shape right now. Surely we'll have a US President in the next 30 years that has done something just like this, right?
Now clad only in said shorts, I made the ten-foot trek to set and fell back onto the bed. Fortunately, my shackles were soft and loose, purely for effect. I'd be able to slip my hands out at any point if need be. If they were really going to murder me at this point, I'd have to shrug my shoulders and magnanimously concede.
"We've got the breaks scheduled," reminded Josh, "but if you ever feel uncomfortable for any reason, just let us know and we can unstrap you early."
Their bedside manners were starting to assuage my baseline fears.
Josh sat at the foot of the bed while Brian adjusted the lighting and cameras. While most tickle fetish sites had the usual variety of shots, these two innovators' calling card was a picture-in-picture of my contorting face during the abuse, courtesy of a GoPro they'd mounted above the headboard.
The first scene consisted of Josh tickling my socked feet. He started in with his hands and really just went for it right out of the gate. When I'd initially replied to the Craigslist ad, I'd ranked my own ticklishness at "about a seven." In my childhood, I'd always been brought to tears by tickles and squeezes on my ribs and just above the kneecap. There hadn't been many memorable instances of being tickled in my adult life, but I figured the same latent weak spots would still be there. It turns out they weren't.
To make matters worse, for someone whose livelihood was contingent upon tickling others, Josh sucked at it. There was no finesse to his tickle game, no buildup or romance. I can't be the only one that enjoys the prelude of a tickle. Gentle touches at first, the hint of more to come. Finally, unexpectedly, the main attack arrives and the victim has already been so weakened through the prior psychological warfare that he crumbles into a convulsing mess within seconds. Josh, however, came in like a bruiser and basically finger-punched the bottom of my feet before raking his nails across the underside of my arch. Sensing my unaffectedness, he yanked off my socks and started this routine again.
Fear of murder was beginning to morph into fear of a poor performance.
Now, I knew I'd have to be hamming my acting up a bit, but I thought my role would be more along the lines of "leaning in" to the laughs, rather than just pulling them out of my ass. Josh had moved on to a feather now, and his technique had not improved. Rather than use this feather the way that you, I, or any normal person who has watched a Tom and Jerry cartoon would, Josh decided the best course of action would be to saw between my toes with the barbs. And this wasn't luxuriously soft goose down. It was a scratchy fucking Shakespearean quill. So when he began using the pointy feather end to scrawl a missive to the king on the bottom of my foot, I finally had to pipe up.
"Yeah, that's not really doing anything for me."
"OK, well... You're going to need to be a lot louder than you are right now," Brian said.
"I know. I'm trying. I'm still warming up. Still have to find it."
His tone softened. "Hey, man. It's OK. A lot of guys just need to adjust to the whole 'strangers tickling me' aspect of this. So just try to be vocal with your laughs. You can fake them if you need to. Maybe even a little begging. Our subscribers love that."
We began the next round. Josh, seated at my side, leaning over my legs, began to dig his fingers into my knees and thighs. He'd somehow gotten stronger. Surely, I'd have bruises the next day.
I flashed back to my parents tickling me as a kid. They'd sing this two-line song to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" while gently swirling a finger around my kneecap.
"Tickle tickle on the knee / If you laugh / You don't love me!"
Hitting the word "me" at the end would turn that nonchalant knee graze into a two-hand assault that would all but have me pissing my pants. The possible damaging effects of those lyrics aside, this reliably laugh-inducing ritual was apparently the standard to which I held all future tickles, and Josh wasn't even coming close.
I was forcing out some "heh, heh, hehheh" sounds when an exasperated Brian looked up from the camera, glanced at Josh, then spoke to me.
"Listen. We might have to prorate this. I don't know how much of this we're going to be able to use."
Fuck that. I pulled my hands out of my cuffs and sat up. "Well, first off, I'm REALLY trying here. Do you want me to give you more feedback on what works for me? Secondly, shouldn't you have the potential for an occasional dud built into your operating costs?"
"What did you put as your ticklishness level?"
"I said a seven, but I think that's in the same way people rate their own attractiveness. Nobody wants to say too high or too low. So we all just guesstimate somewhere around there. And you can't actually tell me how I feel about my own levels of ticklishness."
Sensing that the conversation was going to devolve into an argument on contract law, Josh wisely chimed in. "You're right. And clearly, no matter what, we're still going to give you the $150 that we promised."
"So should we begin the next scene then? Don't you have another guy coming soon?" I asked as I lay back down and threaded my hands back into the harnesses.
From fear to performance anxiety to feeling completely in control.
Round three started with Josh sitting on my stomach and giving my ribs the deep tissue massage he called "tickling." Angry that they'd tried to pull some sketchy shit, as well as determined to pick up this gauntlet they'd laid before me, I started squirming around like Linda Blair and laughing in what I considered a believable fashion. "Huh. No. Huh. [Pant.] Huh. Hnnng. Huhhuhhuh."
After five minutes of this, they cut for break and Brian asked me "Was that real or were you faking it?"
"100 percent fake. I felt nothing."
"Wow!" he exclaimed, smiling for the first time since we'd begun filming. "That was so believable! This'll be great! Just keep doing that."
Josh returned to my feet and sprayed them with some sort of oil. The lubrication did not add to my sensation in any way, but I maintained the ruse and kept belting out the stuttery laughs. He began to work the bottom of my foot with a hair brush. The firm bristles, while not tickly, did seem to scratch a literal itch I didn't know I'd had. I'm sure the porn stars that fake their way through a day on set occasionally stumble into a position that they can derive a little bit of pleasure from too. So I kicked back and enjoyed this mini victory for as long as Josh would allow it before returning to closing my eyes and thinking of England.
For their pièce de résistance, the boys would be double-teaming me. Josh stayed at my feet while Brian sat on my stomach for a crack at chest and ribs.
"I apparently suck at tickling," he warned. "Josh is the good one, so you'll probably just have to continue to fake it."
They slated and began their frenetic barrage. Josh did his usual Hulk-hands thing, while newcomer Brian daintily touched my chest and recoiled over and over like an indecisive praying mantis. I confidently chewed the scenery again, having convinced myself that I was only one in the room who knew what he was doing. There was no crescendo. Just like that, their timer sounded, and that was a wrap.
I changed back into my clothes, and Brian handed me $150 in cash, plus $7 for parking. We all shook hands, and after assuring me that they ended up getting enough usable footage, we all were ready for me to get out of the hotel room.
I can't fully wrap my mind around this fetish. My hunch would be that it stems from a deep-seated desire in some gay men to be in a hangout situation with a hetero friend, then a little horseplay starts up, then some tickling, then clothes are off and Whoops, how'd we end up fucking? I guess, for some guys, this lust makes a full stop right at the tickle stage and nothing further is required. It's not my fetish, so it's really not for me to know.
But what I do know is that on the day of my shoot, I walked back to my car to find that parking was $10.
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