Why Are We Ticklish—and Why Do Some People Think It's Hot?
Editor's note: Sources for this article requested their full names not be used.
As children, we were all probably visited by the "Tickle Monster." It's a tale as old as time: squirming, red-faced kids convulsed with uncontrollable laughter—and sometimes uncontrollable bladders. But for some people, this silly kid's ritual morphed into something much more adult, such as a kink or a fetish.
If you want to take all the fun out of tickling, we can start with the scientific names for it: knismesis and gargalesis, terms coined in the late 1800s by a pair of psychologists named G. Stanley Hall and Arthur Alliń.
- Knismesis describes light, feather-like tickling, the sort that might make your skin itch when something brushes gently against you.
- Gargalesis may sound more familiar. It's the harder, more deliberate tickling of the Tickle Monster variety and is usually what people with a fetish for tickling enjoy.
Responding as we do to gargalesis appears to be common to most of our primate relatives, but some researchers suggest that even some non-primates experience something akin to human laughter when they're tickled. For instance, several studies have looked at the phenomenon of rats making a high-pitched, chirping noise when researchers tickle them and suggest it's a kind of laughter. (No word as of yet on where you can apply for a job as an entry-level rat-tickler.)
Despite how universal it appears, tickling in humans and nonhuman primates still remains something of a mystery. Some studies suggest tickling produces a type of laughter distinguishable from regular laughter at something humorous or mocking. Hearing tickling laughter also appears to activate a different part of our brains than hearing other types of laughter.
Some theories suggest that our typical response to tickling is a defensive reaction to protect vulnerable parts of the body and show submission to stronger foes. Other research theorizes the smiling that comes with being tickled—even as we try to squirm away from the tickler—indicates a mixed signal rooted in social bonding: Our bodies are screaming, "I can't stand this!" while our laughing faces tell a different story, "This is awesome!" thus, encouraging them to continue.
Wait, you did say tickling fetish?
If you're curious about the fork in the road where the childhood game of tickling turns into an adult kink, we're here.
Hundreds of websites are devoted to tickling, both sexual and nonsexual. On Pornhub alone, there are thousands of videos about general tickling and thousands more specifically about foot tickling. The subreddit r/tickling boasts nearly 30,000 members, and there are a ton of DeviantArt posts on tickling, often NSFW (so be warned).
Like other fetishes, tickling for pleasure may or may not include explicit sexuality, depending on the person.
That's not the only aspect open to individual interpretation within the tickling community. You can also find people of all ages, all genders and all sexual orientations who are ticklees or ticklers—called "-lees" and "-lers" in community jargon. For some people, it's about a sexual response, but for others, it just feels good to tickle and/or be tickled.
"I'm in the middle," said Kaitlyn, a 40-year-old ticklee who works at a clothing store in Arizona. "Tickling can be sexual and nonsexual for me, but I'd still call it a fetish. I love the sensation and having another completely dominate me. I love being powerless and tied up and teased. It's all so exhilarating."
There's also a strong bondage component to tickling: The first category to come up in searches for tickling is often someone immobilized with their feet exposed. Both -lers and -lees frequently say they enjoy the sensation of being helplessly tied up while being tickled or tickling someone else who is similarly bound and can't escape.
"The bondage is what makes it for me," explained Morgan, a 19-year-old -lee. "The feeling of being helpless and completely at mercy is very, very hot to me. I'm a fan of bondage in general. The tickling aspect is a little more complicated to describe. When I'm being tickled, it feels like I have even less control over myself. I start to spasm and squirm around. I try my hardest to twist and turn, but I can't."
Back to childhood
It's always tricky to try to parse why a person has a certain sexual proclivity. As is often the case with sex, our big brains are far too complex for us to offer up simple cause-and-effect explanations. But one common thread among many people in the tickling community is a deeper fascination they took in the innocent fun of childhood tickling.
"It all started as a little kid," said Alex, an 18-year-old student from Brazil who is both a -lee and a -ler. "I was at my aunt's house and playing with my cousin. Eventually, we started to tickle each other as a punishment for whoever lost in the video game we were playing. I was enjoying every second of it, even enough to lose on purpose. The next week, I searched for tickling on YouTube and started to watch all the videos I could find."
Tickling between consenting adults is, of course, just as legitimate a sex act as any other. But perhaps what makes the tickling fetish so fascinating is that it's so often a non-kink kink. In other words, many people who get off on tickling don't need actual sex to get off.
"A lot of people in this kink, myself included, see sex, naked bodies and penetration as a secondary thing," Alex added. "For many of us, tickling, in its many forms, is what really turns us on. It doesn't matter if the ticklee is clothed or not. It only matters if their ticklish spot is exposed."
If you're going to engage in some tickling play, have fun and make sure you have the consent of your partner. As always, when exploring a new kink, set boundaries and agree on a safe word before you begin, which is especially important for those of us who quickly get overwhelmed when the Tickle Monster comes calling.