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Tickle torture is a term used to mean the use of tickling to abuse, dominate, harass, humiliate, or interrogate an individual. While laughter is popularly thought of as a pleasure response, in tickle torture, the one being tickled may laugh despite whether or not they find the experience pleasant. In a tickling situation, laughter can indicate a panic reflex rather than a pleasure response. Tickle torture may be a consensual activity or one that is forced, depending on the circumstances. In a consensual form, tickle torture may be part of a mutually fulfilling, physically-intimate act between partners. However, forced tickle torture can cause real physical and mental distress in a victim, which is why it has been used as an interrogation method or to simply show dominance over another person.
Chinese tickle torture is an ancient form of torture practiced by the Chinese, in particular the courts of the Han Dynasty. Chinese tickle torture was a punishment for nobility since it left no marks and a victim could recover relatively easily and quickly.
Another example of tickle torture was used in ancient Rome, where a person’s feet were dipped in a salt solution, and a goat was brought in to lick the solution off. This type of tickle torture would only start as tickling, eventually becoming extremely painful.
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Josef Kohout, a man persecuted in the Flossenbürg concentration camp during World War II, witnessed Nazi prison guards perform tickle torture on a fellow inmate, followed by various other tortures which resulted in his death. This incident is described in Heinz Heger's book The Men With The Pink Triangle: "The first game that the SS sergeant and his men played was to tickle their victim with goose feathers, on the soles of his feet, between his legs, in the armpits, and on other parts of his naked body. At first the prisoner forced himself to keep silent, while his eyes twitched in fear and torment from one SS man to the other. Then he could not restrain himself and finally he broke out in a high-pitched laughter that very soon turned into a cry of pain."
An article in the British Medical Journal about European tortures describes a method of tickle torture in which a goat was compelled to lick the victim's feet because they had been dipped in salt water. Once the goat had licked the salt off, the victim's feet would be dipped in the salt water again and the process would repeat itself. In ancient Japan, those in positions of authority could administer punishments to those convicted of crimes that were beyond the criminal code. This was called shikei, which translates as ‘private punishment.’ One such torture was kusuguri-zeme: "merciless tickling."
In his book Sibling Abuse, Vernon Wiehe published his research findings regarding 150 adults who were abused by their siblings during childhood. Several reported tickling as a type of physical abuse they experienced, and based on these reports it was revealed that abusive tickling is capable of provoking extreme physiological reactions in the victim, such as vomiting, incontinence (losing control of bladder), and losing consciousness due to inability to breathe.
There are a small number of documented instances of tickle torture in the New York Times. They happened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and in these instances restrained victims were tickled upon the bare soles of their feet, apparently against their will and for the pleasure of their tormentors.
There is currently no evidence that tickle torture was ever widespread or was practiced by governments. The very small amount of related documentation discovered thus far originates from England and the United States.
A 1903 article described an immobilized suicidal patient at the Hudson River State Hospital who was tied to a bed for his own safety. While he lay helpless, the patient's toes were tickled by one of the hospital attendants, Frank A. Sanders. "Sanders is said to have confessed that while intoxicated he amused himself by tickling the feet and ribs of Hayes and pulling his nose." Sanders also gave his restrained victim a black eye. Another hospital employee came upon Sanders while he was entertaining himself at his patient's expense, and the criminal was brought before a grand jury.
An 1887 article entitled "England in Old Times" states "Gone, too, are the parish stocks, in which offenders against public morality formerly sat imprisoned, with their legs held fast beneath a heavy wooden yoke, while sundry small but fiendish boys improved the occasion by deliberately pulling off their shoes and tickling the soles of their defenseless feet."
In 1872, the beating of a man's bare feet was described in an article entitled "Terrible Punishments: The Russian Knout and Turkish Bastinado: How the Punishments are Inflicted". The author, while explaining the intense pain caused by whipping, writes "I have heard men cry out in agony...but I never heard such heart-rending sounds as those from the poor bastinadoed wretch before me. Such is the bastinado. And of the intensiveness of the agony which its infliction produces, one has only to think of the congeries or plexus of delicate nerves which have their terminus in the feet. Even tickling the soles of the feet has often produced death; what then must be the excruciating pain when cruel violence is done to those most sensitive members?"
Other uses and meanings
The term tickle torture can apply to many different situations that do not include the aforementioned acts of either sexual gratification or malicious torture.
Tickle torture can be an extended act of tickling where the recipient of the tickling would view it as a long time or tickling of an intense nature. This can be due to the length of time they are tickled, the intensity of the tickling or the areas that are being tickled. This can simply be a 30-second tickle applied to the victim's bare feet, which can seem like a much longer time if the victim's feet are very ticklish. While the palm of the hand is far more sensitive to touch, other commonly ticklish areas include the armpits, sides of the torso, neck, knee, midriff, navel, and the ribs. Many people consider the soles of their feet the most ticklish, due to the many nerve endings located there: this explains why tickling one's feet against their will is the most common example of "tickle torture".
"Tickle torture" may also have other uses, including the act of tickling a person as a practical joke, or even an interrogation method. This may not be extreme tickling, but could include prolonged tickling upon a sensitive area until the victim has released the required information. In the former case, it could be used as a way of "pranking" a person, as the act of being tickled can produce many sounds and sensations that could be viewed as being embarrassing to the victim. In this way, the tickling can continue to the point where a certain reaction is revealed.
This method of "pranking" could also incorporate the use of physical restraint or restraint using materials. This would be done to leave a desired area of the body bare and vulnerable to the tickling, in a way that the victim would not be able to remove this area from the tickling, and would have to simply endure. This can also be seen as "punishment" or "payback" as the tickler could be using the tickling as retribution from a previous tickling experience or "prank".
In the world of sexual fetishism, tickle torture is an activity between consenting partners. A torture session usually begins with one partner allowing the other to tie them up in a position that lays bare parts of the body particularly that are sensitive to tickling. Though many parts of the human body are deemed ticklish, tickle torture is commonly associated with the tickling of the bare feet or armpits.
The bondage methods of the tickling usually follows the same basic methods. The object of the bondage is to render the victim unable to remove themselves from the tickling, as well as rendering the tickling areas of the victim vulnerable. The victim is usually bound in a sitting or lying position rather than a standing one as to expose the soles of the feet which are often among the areas upon which tickling is inflicted.
The restraint of the arms above the head will leave the upper body and underarms susceptible to the tickling.
This enables the torturer to use whatever they want, e.g. fingers, tongue, beard, feathers, brush, pine cones, salt sticks, electric toothbrush or a vacuum cleaner.
In VeggieTales's Esther... The Girl Who Became Queen, King Xerxes disposes of criminals by banishing them to the Island of Perpetual Tickling, to which Death, wielding a scythe-sized feather, escorts them. Thus, tickle torture serves here as a family-friendly depiction of capital punishment.
The TV series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had a recurring character named Don Turtelli whose main form of torture was to take a feather to the soles of the feet of his captives.
Tickle torture has become the subject of many fetish/sexual publications. These fictional writings can portray a fantasy of a desirable character, often a celebrity, being restrained and interrogated. These stories are not always sexual, although they are mostly the object of sexual fantasies and dreams. Because of the fantasy element of the plot, the characters are often magical or the circumstances are completely imaginative.
In one of the light novels of the Naruto Secret Chronicle series, the shinobi Sai uses tickle torture on an ANBU member he was interrogating, as the man had been taught to withstand traditional torture. The action succeeded in them finding the location of their comrade, Sakura Haruno.
- Carol Yoon (June 3, 1997). "Anatomy of a Tickle Is Serious Business at the Research Lab". New York Times
- Irene Thompson (March 2008). "A to Z of Punishment and Torture". Book Guild Publishing: 183. ISBN 978-1-84624-203-8
- Heger, Heinz. The Men With the Pink Triangle. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1980.
- Yamey, Gavin (2001). "Torture: European Instruments of Torture and Capital Punishment from the Middle Ages to Present". British Medical Journal. 323 (7308): 346. doi:10.1136/bmj.323.7308.346.
- Schreiber, Mark. The Dark Side: Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals. Japan: Kodansha International, 2001. Page 71
- Wiehe, Vernon. Sibling Abuse: Hidden Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Trauma. New York: Lexington Books, 1990.
- "Treated Patient Brutally". New York Times. September 6, 1903.
- Ker, David (November 13, 1887). "England in Old Times". New York Times.
- L.G.C. (April 14, 1872). "Terrible Punishments: The Russian Knout and Turkish Bastinado: How the Punishments are Inflicted". New York Times.
- Harris, Christine R. (1999). "The mystery of ticklish laughter". American Scientist. 87: 344. doi:10.1511/1999.4.344. Retrieved 2008-11-09.