Is Tickling Gay?

Tickled HBO

It’s called “Competitive Endurance Tickling” but it’s not a co-ed sport. The guys seen doing it on video are jock types: young, physically fit, straight-acting. Yet when one straddles the other and goes for the undercurve of his pecs or his hairy armpits, his supple waist or the tender bottom of his feet, their body contact is more intimate than in individual competition. And in group competition, when several guys pounce on one, tickling all his vulnerable areas, the closeness and evident warmth appears, despite being clothed, to be strangely orgiastic.

Hot, right? But none of that seems of particular interest to David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, co-directors of the documentary Tickled. Farrier narrates this exploration into “Competitive Endurance Tickling” yet zips past its sexual aspects to track down the mysterious founder of several vast tickling websites. As Farrier exposes the nefarious exploitation and harassment of the men involved (they endure the owner’s oddly homophobic anonymous threats), his indifference to the “sport’s” sensual aspect—particularly its gay implications—seems, well, freakish.

But Tickled is not a counter-intuitive documentary. It is all too typical of the reportorial lapses that currently ruin journalism, especially in the Internet age. Farrier introduces himself as an Australian newscaster. “I’ve made a career out of looking at the weird and bizarre side of life,” he says showing clips interviewing Justin Bieber and other newsmakers. Still, he leaves what’s most interesting about the underground fetish in Tickled untouched.

David Damato, the Long Island-based entrepreneur who briefly served jail time for fraud yet still operates his lucrative business, is revealed to have a sexually ambiguous background, as well as a history of being bullied as an adolescent misfit. Hmm? Ignoring what drew Damato to tickling seems as prudish as avoiding homoeroticism. Chris Pontius, Johnny Knoxville and the boys of Jackass would surely take this movie where it needs to go.

The number of ticking sites on the Web (some employing a female dominatrix) indicates that there is a strong gay component—despite one remorseful participant named JT testifying that most contestants are “athletes, MMA guys, a body-builder and a couple of actors, completely normal people.”

Richard Ivey, a professed tickling agent, brings recruitment above ground. In one demonstration, a model with artfully-groomed rust-colored body fur gets handcuffed and, when tickled, he writhes exquisitely, his torso lifts off the table and his tight fuzzy abs buckle. How gay is that?

One former tickling athlete and ex-MMA fighter named Jordan Schillaci is Knoxvillian himself. Schillaci provides the film’s most serious segment when he gives Farrier a tour of his Muskegon, Michigan hometown—one of the hubs of tickling recruitment—and points out the connections between poverty and sexual and athletic exploitation. (“Asians and redheads are premium” he notes.) Still, Farrier and Reeve stick to sex phobic moralizing: “It’s about one person’s twistedness and how far that can go.” Tickled is frustrating, a blue-balls documentary.

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