There are two kinds of tickling. Knismesis is a light, gentle touch that makes your skin tingle or twitch. Knismesis often happens accidentally and rarely makes you laugh. It may actually itch more than tickle. Gargalesis is the aggressive, intentional tickling that sends people into fits of laughter.
According to expert Marina Davila-Ross, a professor at Britain’s University of Portsmouth, tickling requires unpredictability — it must be unexpected to work. This is why it’s effectively impossible to tickle yourself. Why are we ticklish? Some scientists say tickling developed as a way for parents to bond with children, and humans aren’t the only animals that do it. Rats enjoy tickling, as do our closest relatives — chimps, bonobos, and gorillas.
Although extreme tickling — sometimes called “tickle torture” — is a popular consensual BDSM practice today, it has a dark history. In ancient China, tickle torture was reserved for nobility, since it leaves no visible mark, and it was also used to interrogate prisoners in ancient Rome. In Heinz Heger’s book The Men With The Pink Triangle, the author recounts a horrifying story from a gay survivor of a Nazi concentration camp about the torture of a fellow gay man which resulted in his death — torture than involved extreme tickling. The modern tickle fetish scene got global attention with the controversial 2016 documentary Tickled.
Tickling falls somewhere between pleasure and pain, making it ideal for all kinds of sex play, from innocuous, playful dallying to hardcore S&M. Want to tickle your partner? Here’s how.
My name is Alexander Cheves, and I am known by friends in the kink and leather community as Beastly. I am a sex-positive writer and blogger. The views in this slideshow do not reflect those of The Advocate and are based solely off of my own experiences. Like everything I write, the intent of this piece is to break down the stigmas surrounding the sex lives of gay men.
Those who are sensitive to frank discussions about sex are invited to click elsewhere, but consider this: If you are outraged by content that address sex openly and honestly, I invite you to examine this outrage and ask yourself whether it should instead be directed at those who oppress us by policing our sexuality.
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Skilled ticklers rarely need to find someone’s “spot.” Most people are ticklish in the same places. People are generally most ticklish on the bottoms of the feet because of all the nerve endings there. We are also often very ticklish under the arms, in the armpits, along the rib cage, at our primary joints (elbows and knees), in the ear and neck area, and sometimes in the groin area. Our “weak spots,” places where we are generally most vulnerable in combat — knees, neck, and belly area — are usually where we are most ticklish.
An interesting note on tickling: Most scientists agree that tickling will not be pleasurable between two animals that do not have some predefined relationship. Simply put, you won’t experience much of a ticklish sensation if it’s attempted by a stranger — it will simply feel like assault and will be very uncomfortable. Also, many experts say tickling requires a positive, light-hearted mood. Have you ever tried to tickle someone when they’re angry? I don’t recommend it.
Most people first experience tickling from hands and fingers. Your hands are the greatest erotic tool in your arsenal — your fingers are capable of delivering pain, pleasure, and everything in between.
Hand/finger tickling generally works better for upper-body tickling (under arm, armpit, ribs, side, neck, shoulders, and so on).
Once, when I was very little, I was wrestling an older boy who was pretending to be a vampire. He managed to pin me down and said “I got you vight vhere I vant you! I’m going to suck your blood!” When his mouth was on my neck, I squirmed and tried to pull away, and it was one of my earliest memories of arousal. I had no words for the feeling, but I kept pestering him to play vampire again long after he was tired and we were finished.
Today, I’m very turned on by breath on my neck and earlobe area. It’s a major tickle spot for me. Both sides are very ticklish, but in a good way. Delicate finger touches, licking, sucking, and gentle biting in that area makes me laugh and squirm, and I never want to stop.
Many people find small, blunt, brush-like objects like back-scratchers and even hairbrushes and combs to be very ticklish, along with small rod-like objects like q-tips and pencils. Be careful with any kind of object that can puncture the skin — never use a sharpened pencil and never poke too hard. These objects work better on lower-body tickling, particularly on soles of feet.
Find a hairbrush with rubbery bristles, the kind with small balls on the tips and that fan outward (scratchy bristles made of horsehair and other materials won’t work as effectively). Apply baby oil to the soles of the feet and rub the bristles up and down.
Many devoted ticklers find electric toothbrushes to be very effective — for both lower body and upper body tickling. But don’t use your nice toothbrush — the one with a built-in brushing timer and charging dock on your bathroom counter. You don’t want to reuse a toothbrush that’s been used to explore the ticklishness of your partner’s body — unless, you know, you’re into that.
Feathers are the most classic, old-school tickling tool. You can find real and fake feathers of various style cheaply online. Large, soft feathers like ostrich and peacock feathers cover more skin area and are more effective when softly dragged or brushed over the chest and sides.
Stiff, smaller feathers generally are more effective at the tip, which you can flick over tickling zones. Feathers rarely elicit the strongest reactions, even when you brush them over feet, the backs of knees, inner thighs, and other hyper-tickling body areas. Brushing a stiff, smaller feather over or under the toes (or running one back and forth between them) might not put your partner in fits of laughter, but it’ll get them good and warmed up for what’s to come.
Running teeth gently on skin without biting hard — nibbling, some might say — can be very arousing, and very ticklish. I love using teeth on nipples, tugging them and gently biting them, and tickling them with my tongue. You can do this on other parts of the body too, but never bite too hard.
If you’re trying to make a hickey — what many people think of as a love bite — remember to first ask your partner if it’s OK for you to potentially leave a mark. Also, there’s no guarantee that you will leave one — not everyone’s skin works that way. Repeat sucking in the same area will be painful, so if after thirty seconds it’s not working, give up.
If they’re OK with a mark, never use teeth to create a hickey. Sucking in on the skin between your teeth is too harsh and will hurt. Make an “o” with your lips and gently suck for around thirty seconds — or, better yet, suck for ten seconds and take breaks to kiss, then keep sucking in the same area. The point is to break the capillaries of blood just under the skin to leave a small, brownish-purple bruise.
I’m not a big fan of hickeys myself. Giving someone a hickey without their consent is very presumptive and inconsiderate, but some people like displaying visible signs of passion. Always ask.
These are also called pinwheels, and you can find them at any fetish shop, or online. These are small handheld rods, usually made of stainless steel, with a spinning wheel at the tip. The wheel is covered in sharp pins that rotate as the wheel is rolled over the skin. It was designed by Robert Wartenburg in the 19th century to test nerve reactions — they were rolled over patients’ skin to test their sensitivity. Although the sharp tips are not as small as needles, they are legitimately sharp, so be careful and do not apply any pressure. When rolled gently back and forth over the skin, these can cause an odd, discomforting, and extremely ticklish sensation.
Try it on the ribs and sides, ideally when your partner is hogtied. Be careful to go slow and remove it if they’re squirming too much, as they can accidentally hurt themselves on the sharp pins.
When people talk about vibrators, they generally mean phallic-shaped sex toys that may or may not be sculpted to resemble a penis and are battery-powered with various vibration strengths and settings. Vibrators designed explicitly for vaginal use may have attachments that stimulate the clitoris, and some vibrators are made for vaginal and anal stimulation simultaneously.
While these vibrators are awesome and have been pleasing people of all genders for generations, there are more options out there. I’ve used and worked with vibrating anal bullets, vibrating butt plugs, vibrating balls on a string, vibrating probes, and various vibration toys that combine vibration with other features like mechanized rotation, hand-pump inflation, and more. If you like extreme tickling (and extreme ass play), spend some extra money to buy vibrating insertables (toys made to go inside the anus or vagina) with fairly strong vibration settings — it’s worth it. Some sex toys have such high-powered vibe that they can be painful and make a great BDSM tool. Vibration feels like a massage on the skin and can be very effective as a tickling tool.
When placed on the skin and in the groin area, many people find vibration toys to be very ticklish. In a video I directed last year, a male submissive was tied down to a bed. The other performer ran a vibrating butt plug over his abdomen, ribs, and groin area before inserting it. The sensation made the performer laugh and moan uncontrollably.
Placing an ice cube on your partner’s skin and running it over their body can be insanely stimulating and very ticklish, especially if you add the power of your mouth. Put the ice cube in your lips and run it over their rib cage, armpits, and down their abdomen. Their heat of their holes — vagina or ass — will melt it, but not before delivering a shock of sudden cold. Let that be your destination and arrive there before it melts.
In most adult novelty stores, you’ll find basic kink 101 gear — cheap riding crops with a cluster of pink artificial feathers at the tip, faux leather blindfolds, basic ball gags, and so on. While I generally recommend avoiding these baubles and buying quality gear that lasts, there’s something to said of cheap feathers — they’re very ticklish. Or use your classic grey feather duster, ideally paired with a sexy French maid outfit.
You’ve heard of people putting peanut butter on their private parts and letting their pet dogs lick it off. In ancient Rome, interrogation prisoners had their feet dipped in salt water and then licked clean by a goat — a sensation which is apparently very ticklish until it becomes painful.
Involving animals in any sexual activity always raises ethical questions. Animal rights activists argue that animals cannot give consent to human sex acts, but many agree that as long as animals are not harmed or put in danger, it’s hard to see this as the worst a horny human can do. That said, many interspecies sex acts can be very harmful and psychologically damaging to animals involved. It’s best to not involve your pet, even if their ticklish wet tongue has you wondering how it’d feel somewhere else. Moreover, most U.S. states have banned sex with animals, so be careful not to cross over into any illegal activity.
You can find many tickle fetish stories on the internet about people getting covered in ants. Formicophilia is a a form of zoophilia (paraphilias, or fetishes, involving animals). People with formicophilia often enjoy bugs and other small insects crawling and nibbling on them, and the desired effect is often to be tickled, or to force someone else to experience this tickling as a form of sadism.
“E-stim” is shorthand for electrical stimulation. This is the practice of using low-voltage electricity to stimulate the skin. E-stim ranges from a mild, gentle tingle to hard, painful jolts. The currents emanate from an electrically charged object — a butt plug, skin electrode, cock ring, violet wand, or some device that touches the body — and quivers the layers of skin nearby, which can feel like a gentle massage on a low setting.
Many people find E-stim to be very ticklish. Inner thighs, butt, and feet can be very responsive to E-stim. Note: Never play with E-stim anywhere near the “heart line,” which is an imaginary line drawn between the nipples and around the chest and back.
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When you add bondage and gagging, tickling becomes a form of sadism, and fits great in a BDSM scene. It doesn’t leave a mark, and submissives recover quickly, but it does make someone helpless. If you’re into piss, try tickle play, as aggressive, sustained tickling often makes people pee.
Since we don’t know what causes our ticklish nature, it’s hard to know why some people don’t experience it. We do know that there are mental tricks to combat the sensation of being tickled, and some are better at it than others.
Being tickled can feel very cathartic, but some are extremely annoyed and angered by it. While it’s not impossible, it is harder to tickle someone who’s angry. Changing your mood or simply getting frustrated may actually reduce how much you feel the tickling sensation. It sounds cliche, but “mind over matter” is how people seem to not feel anything. They choose not to be ticklish and learn to diminish their natural response.