Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Meaning of Tickling

Learning about others through tickling involves the meanings we attribute to it.

Key points

  • Tickling often begins as childhood play but can take on different meanings as we grow into adulthood.
  • For example, tickling can be harmless, fun and playful, sexual, unwanted, or even a reminder of previous trauma.
  • Understanding what tickling means to ourselves and to others can help build intimacy and strengthen relationships.

The mere mention of the word “tickle” can elicit a variety of reactions. For one person, tickling can represent play, while it can be the source of a sexual response for another, and for some, it has a negative connotation associated with everything from discomfort to a response to past trauma.

In all cases, as one cannot tickle themselves, tickling, even the threat of tickling, is a social occurrence exemplifying complex social relationships involving the tickler and the person being tickled. Tickling is not a mere somatic reflex; it holds certain, sometimes profound, psychological reactions for individuals, which are embedded in meaning-making.

Provine (2012) surveyed 421 males and females on the subject of tickling. The motive for tickling given by most respondents was to “show affection.” The second-most reason was to “get attention.” Provine’s survey respondents rated being tickled as “moderately pleasant.” On a pleasure scale (1-10), the respondents enjoyed being the tickler (5.9), only slightly more than the one being tickled (5.0).

In a 2005 study involving facial expressions in response to tickling, Harris and Alvarado asked the 84 participants about their reaction to tickling. In the open-ended question, “Do you enjoy being tickled?” 32 percent of the respondents answered “yes,” 36 percent answered “no,” and 32 percent fell into the “mixed/neutral” category.

When it comes to tickling, there seems to be a division between those who do not understand why someone does not like being tickled and the other side questioning why anyone would ever want to be tickled. Then there are those who send mixed messages, when being tickled, by screaming, struggling, and writhing to break free from their tickler only to return shortly for more of the same. To understand the rationale behind tickling and being tickled, we have to consider the meanings individuals ascribe to the act of tickling.

Olya Kobruse/Pexels
Source: Olya Kobruse/Pexels

Tickling as play

Conceptualizing tickling as an act of play would explain why someone would fight to escape being tickled only to return for more. Provine’s respondents using tickling to show and get affection explains the return for more tickling and reinforces the idea of tickling as play. It originates in childhood. Children are often tickled by parents and other children in gameplay. Any resulting discomfort or anxiety is part of the game. The children break free, run off, and return for more.

This gameplay can transfer to adult social relationships, where the meaning of tickling as play is solidified in social engagement with select others. Tickling is perceived as fun, harmless, and friendly—without consequence. It is, thereby, a part of agreed-upon social interaction.

Tickling as pleasure

Tickling can also carry more intimate meaning when tickling is sexualized. Knismophilia (tickling fetish) involves those who possess a sexual desire involving tickling and/or derive sexual pleasure from tickling or being tickled. The pleasure of tickling exists on a spectrum, anything from light tickling (blowing on the skin or barely grazing the skin with fingers or any number of inanimate objects, such as feathers or brushes) to heavy tickling (wherein the tickling is more vigorous with heavier pressure applied to the sensitive areas of the body, and the ticklee may have their movements constrained).

Tickling is a common activity in BDSM communities where sensation play and bondage are involved in the erotic tickling experience. “Tickle torture” is also a desired endeavor wherein the submissive is physically constrained and mercilessly tickled without much reprieve. Because of the voracity of the tickling, the ticklee often loses control and is unable to speak; therefore non-verbal safe hand signals are necessary in addition to verbalized safe words.

Tickling can increase the level of pleasure in a sexual encounter in both a physiological sense with the release of endorphins that come with tickling and laughter and the socio-sexual endeavors to which tickling contributes. For some, it is an activity that wears away initial shyness or self-consciousness and sets a playful setting to the sexual environment. It may further promote bonding. It can be part of the seduction process. For others, it is the somatic and behavioral manifestation of sexual desire. And for some, tickling represents a means to an end, in that they require tickling for an orgasm response.

One study participant of mine claimed that touching her foot would sexually arouse her, but tickling the sole of that foot would send her into hysterics and readily produce an orgasm. There is a noted crossover between tickling fetishism and other fetishes, such as foot fetishism (podophilia) and armpit fetishism (maschalagnia), where such sensitive areas of the body are commonly ticklish. The sexual desire to tickle is an act that corresponds to the desired body part.

Tickling as an unwelcome activity

Not everyone enjoys tickling, nor is tickling a harmless practice for some. In fact, some individuals absolutely hate and/or fear it. As previously noted in the Harris and Alvarado study (2005), over one-third of their study participants (36 percent) responded that they did not enjoy being tickled. These individuals often do not like the feeling of being tickled, much less the loss of control, anxiety, and difficulty catching a breath that can accompany tickling.

Provine (2012) reported that some respondents in his study sent mixed messages or made concessions when it came to their disclosure that they did not enjoy being tickled. One 23-year-old, female participant claimed she never liked being tickled, but “with a boyfriend in bed is OK” (p. 168). This sentiment was echoed by another respondent who said she was only fine with tickling “when my boyfriend tickles me, anytime, any place” (ibid).

In other cases, the intense dislike of being tickled can correspond with what is perceived as past trauma. Caroline, a 50-year-old respondent in a recent study of mine, detailed her aversion to being tickled by anyone in any manner. She attributed her tickling anxiety to the actions of her brother:

And the tickling. Oh my God! I didn’t trust him because he would pin me down and tickle me and pin my arms down. I couldn’t breathe! To this day, I cannot be tickled, even playful, sexual tickling. I hate the zap. I don’t want to be poked in the sides. I don’t want someone holding my foot and tickling me. It’s from when he held me down, and I couldn’t breathe. I panic just thinking about it. I feel panicked right now just talking about it. (Wahl, 2020, p. 122)

Tickling may just be an unpleasant experience that some wish to avoid at all costs. In such cases, as Caroline’s, unlike BDSM play, discomfort or pain does not shift to pleasure. Any tickling, even the mention or threat of tickling, triggers an anxious response to past perceived trauma. Triggers such as these involve even deeper exploration.

What tickling tells us about ourselves

The meanings ascribed to tickling reveal much about our socio-sexual selves. Those meanings also serve to deconstruct and better understand the complications of our sexual relationships. The subject of tickling does not simply come down to a matter of who does and who does not like to be tickled.

Tickling inhabits our cultural meanings, role-taking, and sexual sociability. There is a lived process to tickling that shifts from childhood play to a myriad of adult manifestations, spanning from playful attention-seeking to sexual pleasure. Why we tickle and/or enjoy being tickled is rooted in both physiological and psychological origins that can reveal much about desire, behavior, and social or sexual selfhood as a whole.

Facebook image: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock


Harris, C.R., & Alvarado N. (2005). Facial expression, smile types, and self-report during humor, tickle, and pain. Cognition and Emotion, 19(5), 655-669.

Provine, R.R. (2012). Curious behavior: Yawning, laughing, hiccuping, and beyond. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Wahl, D.W. (2020). Speaking through the silence: Narratives, interaction, and the construction of sexual selves. Iowa State University. Proquest Publishing.

More from David W. Wahl Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today