Tickling – Good Clean Fun – Or Abuse?

Probably everyone in America has been tickled and/or has tickled someone else in his or her lifetime. And we may have a range of emotions attached to the experience, from very good to very bad.

Why do we do it? Do people like it or hate it? Like many things in life, tickling can be used for either benefit or harm.

So we know that people always laugh when tickled, and that laughter is good for us. Studies have shown that laughing increases blood flow and immune response; lowers blood pressure, risk of heart disease, depression, anger, anxiety, and stress; and induces relaxation and sleep.

Yet laughing is simply not funny when it happens in the context of abusive tickling. But wait a minute–can tickling really be called abuse? Some children beg to be tickled, and since children don’t request things they hate, they must enjoy it! Certainly they like the attention, the physical contact, and the pleasurable sensations associated with laughter.

But there’s a dark side to tickling. The problem stems from the fact that laughter is generally a sign of pleasure, so it is assumed that the person being tickled is having an outrageously good time of it. But the laughter resulting from being tickled is a reflex, and the person being tickled cannot stop. While some people may be ignorant of the fact that their victim doesn’t like it, others know and don’t care. Consider these comments I found on a question-and-answer site (I’ve changed some wording to protect the identity of the posters):

“The tickler has hijacked your body and you are powerless.”

“Excessive, forceful tickling for a prolonged period is a malicious act with intent to torture.”

“I honestly believed that [this adult] was very jealous of me and was trying to kill me.”

Some stated that they were tickled until they cried, vomited, choked, and/or wet their pants. It’s also noteworthy that in my research for this article, the first few results that came up for “tickle abuse” were for, shall we say, adult-oriented websites!

Tickling actually has been used as a form of torture in history. Both the Han Dynasty in China and ancient Rome used this practice, one of the benefits being that it left no mark on the victim! There are anecdotal reports of people being driven insane by being tickled, and of laughing unto death by heart attack, aneurysm, or some other pre-existing weakened condition. It cannot be stated unequivocally whether or not it’s possible to be tickled to death.

If tickling is so awful, why do we laugh? The answer includes these factors:

1. nerve stimulation (an innate reflex)

2. trust (we laugh only when the tickler is someone we know)

3. surprise (we can’t tickle ourselves)

Beyond these, it seems science doesn’t know for sure why we laugh when tickled. So what kind of sense are we to make of the tickling phenomenon?

Here’s what I see:

In modern America, tickling is usually done in the context of a friendly or loving relationship–parent/child, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc. So it would seem that it is usually intended as a bonding experience, and the resulting laughter confirms that it’s a pleasurable experience. It is also often done by a perpetrator who is bigger and stronger, or sometimes in pairs or groups of ticklers who “gang up” on the victim, which changes the picture somewhat.

Once the victim is laughing so hard as to be unable to catch his or her breath, the victim cannot signal “stop.”

Here’s how to avoid being a “tickle abuser”:

1. Observe if the person being tickled is still smiling at the end of the tickling session–or if he is angry, sullen, embarrassed, and/or in pain.

2. Ask the person before or after–not during–a tickling session if she really enjoys it. Don’t take “yes” at face value. Read the body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. She may be saying yes just to please you, or as a result of social pressure. (“Don’t be such a spoilsport.”) Pre-arrange a “stop” signal.

3. Ask yourself if you’re willing to submit to a role reversal. Now, this isn’t fair if the person you’re tickling is much smaller–a child or a girlfriend, say–so you’ll need to be willing to submit to a “team” of ticklers or a substitute tickler. Keep in mind that the other person may be more ticklish than you, so even this isn’t a definitive test of the appropriateness of the tickling.

Finally, you should consider that your victim’s experience with tickling may carry over into later relationships. Your child may resent you, and you may not know why. He may grow up to be bigger than you and find ways to retaliate. She may have a hard time trusting male partners, fearing that they may turn out to be abusive ticklers.

Abusive tickling is not funny. Make sure your motives and methods are pure before giving in to the urge to tickle someone.