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Tickle fetishists say their kink is no laughing matter

The first time Dave felt turned on by tickling — or at least, the first time he can remember — he was just 12 years old, attending the local Renaissance fair with his family.

Onstage, two knights in armor sentenced a woman to the stocks for some sort of salacious activity (Dave doesn’t recall what it was) and locked her up.

“They tickled her lightly, maybe for 30 seconds. For me, I just felt something. I couldn’t explain it — I just knew it was weird,” recalls Dave, now 28, who splits his time between a government job and studying for a master’s in forensic science in his home state of Oklahoma. (Dave, like all interviewees in this article, asked Input to withhold his last name.) “It was around the time I started puberty, but they don’t teach you about fetishes in school.”

Although tickle fetishes weren’t on Dave’s sex-ed curriculum, he did have access to the internet. He quickly discovered tickling pornography, followed by tickling erotica. He was hooked.

“A lot of people in the BDSM scene perceive tickling as kind of childish and stupid.”

“When the tickling takes hold, there’s a complete loss of control and an organic reaction,” says Dave, who describes himself as a “tickler,” as opposed to a “ticklee.” “Their whole body is squirming and flailing and all this other stuff, and there’s nothing they can really do. It’s really fun to see. Especially when ticklers come up with really intricate bondage setups to hold people in place. I also find female laughter sexy.”

Dave has traveled to Colorado, Texas, Louisiana, and Kansas to meet up with partners — sometimes staying to conduct tickle “scenes” with them over a period of several days. “Whenever you negotiate a tickle scene, you ask someone if they like an aggressive or soft style, what you’ll use to tickle someone with — fingernails, tongues, hairbrushes — and how they’re going to be restrained,” says Dave, whose tickle scenes have involved bondage setups with anywhere between four and 20 points of restraint.

Dave was certain when he heard about the BDSM side of TikTok — or KinkTok, as members call it — that he’d find some like-minded people to discuss tickling with, or at least some influencers who were into the kink. Unfortunately, that was not the case. “I saw one TikTok a few days ago that was a little bit sad. It said, ‘I know some of you have tickle fetishes, but if you try to tickle me, I’ll punch you,’” says Dave. “Most of the people on TikTok have pretty negative reactions to it.”

Dave is one of many tickle fetishists who feels excluded by TikTok. The social media app has seen a surge in BDSM-related content through hashtags like #kinktok — which has attracted more than 11 billion views — but tickling is largely absent from the discourse. And when it is mentioned, it’s often the butt of jokes:

Tickle fetishists say the situation on TikTok mirrors the exclusion they face in IRL BDSM settings and further entrenches their status as outcasts within the BDSM world. “Every subculture has a community within it that is seen as atypical, and it gets made fun of. That’s what tickling is in BDSM,” says Jay, a 33-year-old hospital administrator and tickler from North Carolina.

“A lot of people in the BDSM scene perceive tickling as kind of childish and stupid,” Jay adds. “Ticklers are very sensitive about how they’re perceived. A lot of people try to downplay the sexual aspect of tickling and won’t be upfront about what they’re into” because they’re embarrassed.

Generally speaking, tickling content isn’t seen as “hardcore” enough. “People probably don’t want to incorporate it into their page because it comes off as a joke compared to ‘normal’ BDSM TikToks, which are very sexual in nature,” says Emily, a 23-year-old technical writer from Washington, D.C. who describes herself as a “switch” who both gives and receives tickles.

“When I do see tickling content on TikTok, it’s not taken seriously,” Emily says. “Creators only speak about it to make fun of it, like, ‘Who would actually be into this?’ or ‘Who would have this fetish?’ It hasn’t been great.”

Kink-shaming

While in the past, tickle fetishists have been happy to go their own way, the explosion of BDSM into mainstream consciousness via TikTok — and their exclusion from that trend — has started to become too much to bear.

“I dislike the more violent kinks, but I think it’s fair to have them well-represented and well-received,” Emily says. “They don’t feel the same about us — they claim they don’t kink-shame, but they do. It’s unfair.”

Emily has IRL experience with how damaging these attitudes can be. “I grew up pretty conservative to start with, so I didn't have a great outlook on sex. That’s probably why it took me a while to get into any kink scene at all. But once I realized people looked down on tickling, I tried to engage in the ones that were more ‘normal’ instead,” she says.

Emily says her early BDSM experiences were ruined by this mindset, as she engaged in play she was uncomfortable with to fit in with others. It left her feeling dirty and sucked the enjoyment out of sex. She doesn’t want that to happen to younger tickling enthusiasts, who could be influenced by TikTok.

“I’m still struggling with internalized kink shaming — and what I see on TikTok definitely plays a part in that.”

“I think it could discourage a lot of people from even trying it if it seems like this big, massive taboo thing that nobody else is into,” she says. “I’m still struggling with internalized kink-shaming — and what I see on TikTok definitely plays a part in that.”

Dave agrees that being the subject of jokes could be damaging for people who are going through a tickling awakening, like the one he had at his local Renaissance fair almost two decades ago. “When you’re first starting out, you want to try things, but you don’t want to be an outcast,” he says. “If they don’t get to explore it because they’re afraid or shamed, that’s really bad, because it’s part of themselves. They’ll feel like they have to hide — and they shouldn’t have to.”

Those who are into tickling wish TikTok’s BDSM creators would take the time to research their fetish and spread the word about it. “I think creators should ask themselves, Who else could I be representing, outside of my own kinks or kinks that are mainstream? Emily says.

Dave thinks such an approach would help draw more people into the world of BDSM at large. “When people are coming in, lots of them want to try stuff, but they don’t want pain,” he says. “I think if there were more resources to learn about it, tickling would be a really good go-to for that.”

Failing all else, he just wants the BDSM community to lay off the jokes. “If they’re not going to try tickling, they shouldn’t talk about it at all — especially in a negative context,” Dave says. “The BDSM community is supposed to be a tolerant community. If people really believe in that, they should be tolerant of a kink like tickling.”

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