Tickling or Torture: What It Teaches Us About Consent

By Alyssa Bluhm

I have a vivid memory of being tickled when I was about five years old. My dad and my uncle tickled me to the floor, sandwiching me between the wall and the dining room table. While my uncle tickled me, my dad pretended to pull Cheerios out of my bellybutton and strawberries out of my strawberry-blonde hair, slurping them up like a delicious bowl of cereal. That was one of my dad’s favorite jokes when I was young, and it’s still a fond memory. Mostly.

I also remember that, as the tickling continued, my laughter turned to tears of pain, that my ribs felt close to cracking with every gasping breath, that I felt cornered and helpless, and that nothing I did would get them to stop.

I was a pretty cute kid, and a shy one, too. I learned early on that laughter was a go-to safe reaction for uncomfortable situations, and the fact that I was always giggling around people who made me nervous only endeared them to me, usually in a way that led me to being tickled a lot. That nervous laughter, coupled with the reflexive laughter that tickling invokes, always seemed to be more important than my requests that the tickling stop.

I was ignored so many times when I said “stop” to an offending tickler that as I grew up, I slowly grew to realize that regardless of what I said or did, their actions on my body wouldn’t stop. I began to internalize the idea that I had no power over my body. And while there are hundreds of ways our society tells women and girls that they don’t own their bodies, for me, it was tickling that made me believe saying “no” would never stop anyone from hurting me.

Learning Not to Say No

The issue of consent is currently a hot topic in the realm of sexual assault, especially on college campuses. This dialogue largely revolves around teaching young men that no means no, essentially in an effort to re-parent young adult men after they’ve spent a lifetime having learned the opposite. But this re-education wouldn’t be necessary if all children were raised with clearer ideas of what their rights are to their own bodies and to the bodies of others.

Paige Lucas-Stannard, a feminist parenting writer, said tickling is among the worst ways in which parents teach their children that consent doesn’t matter. Tickling in itself is harmless, but ignoring a child’s request for the tickling to stop is where the idea of consent erodes.

“I think the important thing is that the minute your kid says no, you stop—even if you know they’re kidding,” she said. “Teach them that ‘no’ means the other person will stop. They’ll learn both that their no matters, and that if someone says no to them, that they should immediately listen.” If a child really wants the tickling to continue, she says, they’ll indicate it.

Another way Lucas-Stannard says parents subvert the consent of their children is by forcing them to show affection when they don’t want to. This means teaching children that the polite and proper way to greet a family member is with a hug or a kiss—even if that level of affection makes the child uncomfortable.

“Ordering children to kiss or hug an adult they don’t want to touch teaches them to use their body to please you or someone else in authority or, really, anyone,” Katia Hetter, CNN parenting writer, said.

If a child has to hug or kiss a family member to be polite, that means they should also accept the advances of sexual predators, lest they come off as rude, right? Often called politeness conditioning, this behavior is reinforced more in women and girls, who are raised to be kind and docile peacekeepers. You’ve probably heard it before: urges from your parents to be a “nice young lady” or a “good Catholic girl.” Congrats, you’ve been politely conditioned.

Tickling as a Mating Ritual

The threat of being tickled doesn’t go away with age, either. Tickling pervades the dating world as a popular and easy method of flirting. But as much as tickling is a catalyst for both familial and intimate relationships, it also makes it easier to disregard boundaries and consent in potentially harmful ways.

It’s interesting to note that while boys and girls are both essentially socialized to understand that consent doesn’t matter when it comes to tickling, it’s usually men who grow to perpetuate the cycle of undermining consent, and women who are the ones whose consent is still ignored. By the time girls are old enough to date, they’ve become well-oiled peacekeeping machines. In the dating world, politeness conditioning is as useful to girls and women as a false door: instead of offering an escape from abusive men, it leaves us vulnerable to them.

Let me paint you a picture: You’re a teenager, sitting on a musty couch next to a guy you’re crushing on in his parents’ basement. You’re watching a movie, but neither of you are actually watching it. The awkward teenage sexual tension is so thick, you don’t know whether your palms are sweating from nerves or lack of breathing. And then it happens,the worst first move he could make: He starts to tickle you.

You probably have this scene memorized; it’s unfortunately all too common. For most men who think tickling a woman is a good way to win her over, their hope is that this will turn into kissing and then some. And if she isn’t interested, it’s easy to pretend that the tickling was just a friendly gesture. But it’s not that simple for women—when the idea that you don’t have a right to your own body has been drilled into your head enough over time, it’s easy for your defenses to dissolve as soon as the tickling starts.

I’ve found myself in this same situation on more than one occasion. By the time I was a teenager, consent seemed to be permanently tickled out of my system. It was so bad that when a guy I wasn’t very interested in started tickling—and later, touching—me in his parents’ basement,  I literally asked him to just kiss me already. He was acting so desperate, it felt rude not to. I didn’t want him to kiss me, but it never occurred to me that I had the right to tell him to stop touching me.

Almost a decade later, I still struggle with how to define this experience: Did I sexually assault myself? Am I even allowed to call it that? I guess it wasn’t that bad. But then why did I consent to something that I didn’t want—or was that truly consent at all?

In this Reddit thread, men were asked about their thoughts and motivations behind tickling women. “It’s an excuse to touch a girl you’re interested in, it makes her laugh, it puts her in a vulnerable position where you have control and give her ‘mercy’ by stopping, it also can be a way to get her to build trust in you,” wrote the user showmethebiggirls.

“I only do it as a tease/punishment. Like if she does some outrageous behavior, I’ll tickle the crap out of her. It’s definitely a flirtation move,” wrote leftajar.

A few commenters mention how non-threatening or innocent tickling is intended to be—as if it doesn’t matter how uncomfortable it makes some women feel.

In a separate thread, men were asked the reverse: Do they like being tickled? The responses were overwhelmingly negative. “I HATE being tickled, if you want to start a fight then try to tickle me,” wrote showmethebiggirls (the same “mercy” tickler as above).

“Honestly, I don’t like being tickled, yet I tickle a lot. A little bit of tickling is good fun but if you try to pin me down I’m going to lose my shit,” wrote kcamrn.

It’s disturbing to hear what a power trip it can be for some men to tickle women, and that other men can be hypocritical when it comes to having a woman tickle away their control over their own bodies. But tickling is just one small stick in the fire of the larger problem of men undermining a woman’s right to her own body, and women’s shouts for body autonomy being stifled before they even open their mouths.

Even Tickling Needs a Safe Space

Tickling alone is relatively harmless, but for girls and women, it can be a gateway to overriding their consent. And the reality is that women of all ages should not have their consent ignored, no matter the activity.

I spent a long time not understanding my boundaries, not believing they mattered, and falling prey to men who didn’t, either. It wasn’t until I met my current boyfriend that I learned what a healthy relationship truly is. When we first started dating, we shook hands on a pact that we would never tickle each other—and if we did accidentally tickle the other, we would stop immediately. We both have different reasons for not wanting to be tickled, but we both respect each other’s wishes; we wouldn’t have an equal and healthy relationship otherwise.

Of course, it’s okay to like being tickled. But for everyone who is still trying to navigate the boundaries of consent and what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to touching another person, it helps to have a roadmap. And while I’m no expert, there are some universal truths to tickling and physical boundaries that aren’t talked about enough:

  1. Anyone who doesn’t listen when you say no is not worth your time. No matter how cute or funny they are. You deserve to be heard.

  2. No means no, even if you’re laughing when you say it.

  3. Tickling and other forms of touch are only okay if both people like it.

  4. If you don’t like being tickled or touched in a certain way, you probably shouldn’t do it to other people, too. Think of showmethebiggirls. You are better than showmethebiggirls.

  5. If you recognize that tickling or any other behavior is a trigger or unpleasant to you, let your partner know to avoid these activities, or establish a safe word.

  6. Your body belongs to you. No one can change that.

(For more personal rights read Everyday Feminism’s list)

These truths apply to men as much as women, too—if a man doesn’t recognize where a woman’s boundaries are, it sometimes doesn’t matter how much she stands up for herself.

Tickling isn’t as trivial as might sound—it can be a slippery slope on the way to breaking down boundaries and losing consent. I’ll probably struggle with overriding my own politeness conditioning for the rest of my life, and I’m still furious that I was taken advantage of before recognizing it as one of my vulnerabilities. But surrounding myself with people who not only respect but support my voice and my boundaries has been so conducive to healing from my experiences. Now whenever I laugh and say no at the same time, I know I’m being heard.

Alyssa BluhmAlyssa Bluhm cannot control her Virgo and has overwatered many plants to death because of it. She lives in Minneapolis, where you have a good chance of running into her at any given donut shop.

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