Matthew Goldin

Tender Violations


ISSUE 28 | TRAUMA AND LAUGHTER | MAY 2013

The victim is usually restrained in some manner, or, if the porno has a storyline, offers some justification for being tickled. “I’m so cheerless,” he or she might say. “I lost my job.” Or: “My dog was just run over by a cargo truck.” His or her interlocutor then responds with a playful little dig to the ribs, “Oh, cheer up!” The sadsack might giggle for a moment, but immediately returns to his or her state of dejection, “Please, I’m really not in the mood… I want to mourn for my puppy, and perhaps report the license plate number of that cargo truck.” But, having elicited a single giggle from the sadsack, the interlocutor is encouraged to continue tickling. And each subsequent giggle serves as further proof that the sadsack is “getting off” on the whole thing, despite his or her protestations of “No!”

This is the typical trajectory of a tickle torture porno, a fetish that embraces every sexual orientation. There are videos of men tickling women, men tickling men, women tickling women, women tickling men, orgiastic group tickles, and even, for the more cybernetically-inclined among us, machine-tickling—to name only a few examples. As one might imagine, the autoerotic never enters the picture, as it is impossible to tickle oneself. The pleasure of the genre lies in the complex relationship between the tickler and the tickled, not in sexual gratification per se. For many people, the most important part of a typical porno is the “money shot,” the culmination of all that empty sex—the height of pleasure. But in tickle porn, the locus of pleasure is the sustainment, not the release. In Adam Philips’s words, “the tickling narrative, unlike the sexual narrative, has no climax. It has to stop, or the real humiliation begins.” Tickling threatens to become a kind of rape, albeit one that disavows its sexual dimension.

In middle school, despite being an avid consumer of rape porn, I hated seeing my similarly repressed male classmates tickling our female friends. I understood the appeal. The girls would squeal and squirm; a shirt might ride up. And the boys, with their sticky hands only a few inches from the forbidden territories, could grope with impunity—because it wasn’t sexual. No, the girls didn’t like it. But the reaction that the tickling elicited—laughter—inevitably thwarted any attempt at self-defense or “serious” protestation. Perhaps my contempt for these antics derived from a feeling that my rape fetish was in a sense more straightforward: a violation of innocence, not a violation by means of innocence. And truly, my passion for rape porn was an innocent one. If the girl gave consent midway through, it would ruin the masturbatory experience for me, because it would imply that the whole time she and her ostensible rapist were merely playing some tawdry game.

Watching Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film, Straw Dogs, is a discomfiting experience. Intellectual astrophysicist Dustin Hoffman and his wife, played by Susan George, rent a house in her hometown so that he can work on his research in peace. Meanwhile, the locals, who resent the perceived intruders, bombard them with hostile little acts to which the young couple can only respond with a kind of patronizing politeness. The centerpiece of the film is a rape scene in which Susan George’s ex-lover confronts her alone in the house, comes on to her, and then forcibly rapes her. Part of the discomfort of watching the scene is that her reaction is so equivocal. The rape is clearly a horrible trauma, and she never vacillates with regard to her own lack of consent, but it is obvious that she derives a certain pleasure from the experience (perhaps as a comeuppance to her impotent husband, or perhaps by virtue of the nature of sex itself—the film doesn’t offer a simple explanation). But whatever the case, the pleasure she experiences doesn’t mitigate the horror of the event. Rather, it intensifies it.

While remaking the film in 2011, director Rod Lurie claimed that he intended to handle the rape scene in a way that would “get cheers from feminists.” In his remake, the rape is portrayed as an indisputably negative experience. The remake, in its moral simplicity, fails to take into account the ambiguities amidst the relations between pleasure and pain, consent and dissent. In the original, she’s not happy to be raped. The horror of the situation isn’t lessened by her enjoyment of it, but rather increased, because the violation occurs on another level—not just her body and her civil liberties—but her soul. Divided within herself, she hates something she enjoys and is forced to enjoy something she hates.

Tickling, which is essentially asexual rape, can only exist in such a grey area, flirting with and violating consent in the same gesture. One might simplify the whole thing: to undermine consent is to tickle. It is for this reason that tickling elicits such variable reactions, depending upon context and the people involved. If a stranger started tickling me on the metro, I doubt I’d laugh at all; I’d be horrified, and react with instinctive violence. But when a friend tickles me, there is an assumption that it is okay—there exists always a fragment of consent that they can hold onto, play with, and potentially abuse. But tickling can actually be far more pernicious inside of this trust zone than outside of it, since if it comes from within, one is denied recourse to resistance. If my mother or father started tickling me at this moment, I’d in some ways find it far more inappropriate than the stranger on the metro, but I’d have to give consent, given the nature of our relationships, but I wouldn’t want to. It would be a violation written in the language of intimacy.

While the exact function of tickling, or of laughter for that matter, has yet to be discovered (what arrogance to think such a thing is merely awaiting scientific discovery, as if the world were a kind of a code to which we don’t yet have all the keys!), there is nonetheless a growing body of scientific evidence which indicates a relationship between tickling and pain. Surprisingly, the parts of the body most sensitive to tickling aren’t the places with the greatest sensitivity to touch in general. Rather, they’re the parts of the body which would be most vulnerable in hand-to-hand combat. This fact has suggested to some that tickling is a mechanism that teaches us how to defend ourselves. To tickle someone is to flirt with, to feign violence. And thus the helplessness of the victim: unable to fight, I laugh.

It’s also interesting to note that the nerves associated with the tickle reaction are the same as those associated with bodily pain. The tickle reaction is merely a kind of surprise at the absence of an expected pain, a kind of relief. Tickling tricks the body with pain’s likeness. Could this, in some way, be the most basic kind of joke? Humor and tickling have laughter in common, but it’s possible that in spirit too they share the same essential mechanism: the failure of an expectation to be realized. In telling any joke, one begins by establishing the set-up (an expectation of where the joke is going), as if pulling a slingshot back, and releases it with the punchline, which is merely a foiling of expectations, a switch in direction. And we laugh at our surprise and relief, which in this instance signify the same thing. We laugh because we experience the pain and shock in a magic circle where these feelings are defanged, deprived of weight or significance, but experienced nonetheless.

A joke won’t work on someone who doesn’t have the expectations that the punchline aims to undermine. Thus, it might be argued that those who have the strongest senses of humor are people with strong expectations, or people who take things seriously, or, most likely, people with a habit of anticipation, a well-developed foresight. To expect nothing, to attribute significance to nothing, precludes the possibility of tripping on those expectations. How can one be deflated without being full of hot air? Thus, I make a very rash claim: that those who don’t take anything seriously, far from being the most humorous, are in fact quite serious people, being immune to surprise.

I make this claim to shed light on my own inability to be tickled. Though the majority of people claim to dislike being tickled, this is the very group that, in one study, displays the most signs of “joy” and “happiness” while ostensibly suffering through the ordeal. One imagines that these extremely ticklish people experience the expectation of pain more acutely than others do. I have never dreaded being tickled; in fact I relish the idea. But I am also one of those with the dubious blessing of not being ticklish. I attribute this to my desire for the experience, which, ironically, precludes its possibility. In expecting a pleasure whose mother is the expectation of pain, one is left with neither pleasure nor pain, but just empty sensation. Just as skipping to the punchline nullifies the joke’s effect, fully consenting to an experience of violation—which by its very nature upsets the boundaries that consenting establishes—makes the desired experience impossible.

What, then, of Susan George’s rape in Straw Dogs? The whole ordeal is a cruel joke, and the punchline is her “pleasure.” But having never consented to enjoy, having never consented to hearing the joke, the pleasure she experiences is a traumatic infringement, like someone cracking a joke during a funeral speech. By itself, pain is insufficient to create a real trauma, just as pleasure isn’t enough to make one laugh. If laughter is an expression of surprise when the threat of pain is undermined, trauma occurs when pleasure itself is sabotaged. Pain, after all, is an impersonal, anonymous feeling—it makes you into anybody. But pleasure, that essentially private and masturbatory function, is wholly one’s own. To subvert a person’s ability to experience pleasure is thus tantamount to stealing that person’s name.

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