Was Tickling Used as a Form of Torture?

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Key Takeaways:

  • Tickling has historically been used as torture in various cultures to punish, humiliate, dominate, and interrogate.
  • Ancient China, Rome, and medieval Europe saw tickle torture used on criminals and political enemies.
  • The goal was to inflict suffering and extract information without leaving physical evidence of torture.
  • Modern tickle torture continues for similar goals of punishment, abuse, and interrogation.
  • Consensual tickling between partners brings pleasure, but nonconsensual tickling can cause real distress.

Tickling can seem like a harmless, playful act. But behind the laughter it provokes lies a complex physical and psychological response. In fact, tickling has a long history of being used as a torturous act to deliberately inflict suffering on others.

This article will take a deep dive into the use of tickling as a form of torture. It will analyze historical examples of how and why tickle torture was employed in various cultures. The psychological impact and physical effects of nonconsensual tickling will also be examined. Finally, the article will compare playful, consensual tickling with nonconsensual tickling used for torture or abuse.

Understanding tickle torture provides insight into this abusive manipulation of a sensitive physical response. Knowledge of its history and methods can help identify and prevent its potential use today. After reading this article, you’ll have a thorough understanding of tickling’s distressing role across centuries of human civilization.

Ancient and Medieval Tickle Torture

Tickle torture has existed for millennia as a way to punish, humiliate, and exert dominance over others. Several prominent historical examples shed light on this disturbing practice.

Tickling as Punishment in Ancient China

During China’s Han Dynasty over 2,000 years ago, one documented form of torture was the tickling of the victim’s armpits with a feather. This technique was used on nobility and commoners alike. The goal was to cause discomfort and extract confessions from suspected criminals or traitors.

Tickling left no visible injuries or scars on the victim’s body compared to other torture methods. It allowed their tormentors to inflict suffering while avoiding detection. This made it an insidiously effective interrogation and punishment technique.

Tickling of the Feet in Ancient Rome

The Roman politician and philosopher Cicero recorded an ancient torture method called scaphism. The victim had their naked feet coated in a salt mixture to exacerbate sensitivity. Their feet were then tickled with feathers.

Another variation involved having a goat lick the salt off the victim’s feet, providing the same ticklish torment. This torturous tickling could last for days until the victim confessed or died.

Medieval European Tickle Torture

During medieval times in Europe, tickle torture was used as punishment for heretics, criminals, and witches. The goal was often to extract a confession without leaving lasting marks as evidence of physical abuse.

The Malleus Maleficarum, a 1486 guidebook on witch hunting, recommends feather tickling as a way to identify witches who had made pacts with the devil. Places where the victim didn’t laugh were considered marks of the devil. This pseudoscientific guide led to the tickle torture of many women accused of witchcraft.

Psychological Manipulation and Abuse

In all its various forms throughout history, tickle torture represents a psychological manipulation meant to break the victim’s will. The inability to control one’s laughter creates a feeling of helplessness. The tickling can rapidly become agonizing, despite not leaving physical scars.

Having power over when and how to tickle someone gave historical torturers complete dominance over their victims. They could maintain tickle torture for hours or days on end to psychologically and physically exhaust the victim into cooperation or false confession.

How Tickling Can Become Torture

Tickling between consenting partners can be a playful experience that fosters intimacy. So how can it become a tool for torture and abuse? The line crosses when the tickling is nonconsensual and distressing for the victim.

Loss of Control

One core component that turns tickling into torture is the loss of control. Beingtickled against one’s will triggers panic, adrenaline, and futile attempts to make it stop. Victims describe it as an unbearably horrible experience without escape.

Laughter during tickling is an involuntary reflex, not an expression of pleasure. The inability to control one’s laughter and body movements contributes to the distress.

Psychological Impact

Tickle torture combines physical discomfort with psychological harm. The victim feels dehumanized by the inability to stop their torturer from manipulating their body against their wishes. It can be traumatizing and intensely frightening.

Being forced to laugh conveys a message that their suffering is harmless or comical. This compounds the psychological damage as victims feel deep distress but are told their reactions are invalid.


When done non-stop, the constant tactile stimulation and involuntary laughing quickly exhaust the victim. They may beg and bargain for the tickling to stop as the sensations become agonizing and overwhelming. Prolonged tickling can result in vertigo, passing out, loss of control over the bladder or bowels, and vomiting.

This exhaustion combined with a lack of control facilitates breaking down the victim’s resistance. Ancient torturers leveraged this to extract confessions without having to resort to more visible methods of torture.

No Evidence of Physical Abuse

Unlike caning, whipping, or beatings, tickle torture does not leave scars or bruises. This makes it an insidious interrogation technique as the victim recovers quickly with no proof they were tortured. Their red and swollen skin returns to normal within hours.

Abusive partners can also use nonconsensual tickling to inflict psychological torment with no evidence that could get them charged with domestic abuse. Some victims of long-term tickle torture describe it as worse than being beaten.

Modern Instances of Tickle Torture

While no longer widely practiced, there are disturbing modern examples demonstrating that tickle torture is still used for interrogation, punishment, and abuse.

Forced Interrogations and False Confessions

In the late 1900s, American police departments taught tickling as an interrogation technique at training academies. Multiple reported cases exist of tickling used during police questioning to extract forced confessions from suspects or witnesses. Lower courts initially ruled this practice legal before higher courts overturned those rulings.

Abuse of Prisoners During War

Tickle torture has reportedly been used in recent decades to abuse prisoners during wartime. Victim accounts from the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990’s described being restrained and tickled brutally on the soles of their feet.

More recently, details have emerged of tickle torture used at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. military prisons on terrorism suspects.

Ongoing Domestic Abuse

Some abusive partners use tickling as a way to control and psychologically harm their spouse or partner. Victims describe being pinned down and tickled until they can barely breathe, even when begging their abuser to stop. Prolonged tickling becomes intensely painful and frightening.

Unfortunately, this nonconsensual tickling typically happens behind closed doors with no evidence that could be used in court. Victims have few ways to make others take this form of abuse seriously.

Key Differences Between Playful and Torturous Tickling

Mutually enjoyable tickling between partners is very different from forced tickling used as torture. But what exactly distinguishes harmless tickling from unbearable torment?


Playful tickling relies on continuous consent from both people. Partners communicate boundaries and have a safe way to clearly withdraw consent if needed. In tickle torture, consent is entirely disregarded.

Freedom to Stop

Playful tickling allows either person to call an immediate stop to the activity. The tickled partner can easily escape the sensations. Tickle torture entraps victims against their will.


Playful tickling involves mutual trust between partners. No one is scared that the tickling may go too far or become overwhelming. Tickle torture completely violates trust to inflict suffering.

Power Dynamics

Playful tickling happens between equals with shared power over the situation. Tickle torture represents an extreme power imbalance where the victim has no control.

Intent to Cause Harm

Playful tickling aims to foster intimacy and provide mutual enjoyment. Tickle torture’s intent is to damage, humiliate, dominate, and break the victim’s will.


While tickling may seem like child’s play, its use as an interrogation, punishment and abuse tactic has a documented history spanning over two millennia. The inability to control one’s movements or laughter, exhaustion, and lack of physical evidence made it a stealthy way for authorities and abusers to inflict torment on victims. Tickle torture continues today, even if it lacks broad social acceptability.

The line between play and torture comes down to consent, intent to cause harm, and a power imbalance designed to coerce victims against their will. Mutually fulfilling tickling between partners provides intimacy and pleasure very distinct from manipulated tickling meant to damage. Understanding these key differences helps identify warning signs of abuse versus harmless fun. With this knowledge, individuals and society can hopefully guard against allowing abusive tickling to be quietly perpetrated behind the scenes.

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