Down the rabbit hole

Dr Emma L. Turley reviews 'Tickled', directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve.

When I tell people I research unconventional sexualities as part of my work, I’m often greeted with curiosity and intrigue. It seems everybody is interested in sex, particularly other people’s erotic lives, and the things they get up to behind closed doors – or, as in this case, in front of video cameras. It is this offer of an exploration of the little-known fetish of tickling that initially piques the interest of viewers in this documentary, aptly entitled Tickled.

The film starts with a New Zealander reporter, David Farrier, stumbling on a website advertising for ‘elite male athletes’ to take part in a ‘competitive endurance tickling’ event in return for cash. Farrier is a journalist on the lookout for humorous and playful pop culture stories, so this sounds right up his street. Farrier contacts the website’s promoters, Jane O’Brien Media, requesting a light-hearted interview about the unusual subject. This is where events begin to take a sinister turn. The response received is disproportionate to say the least: multiple emails containing homophobic abuse and threats of extreme legal action. This homophobia is at odds with the overtly homoerotic nature of the tickling videos produced by the company, as attractive young men dressed in sports gear straddle a topless man who is shackled to a bed by his arms and legs.

Instead of dropping the story, Farrier recruits co-director Dylan Reeve to investigate Jane O’Brien Media. What proceeds is a chilling story about power, abuse and wealth. With the backdrop of escalating legal and personal threats against the filmmakers and their families, Farrier and Reeve begin to unpick the story. After encountering an initial wall of silence, they manage to interview a couple of the participants in the tickling videos. They had been paid handsomely for participation, but it’s what happens after the videos have been made which is shocking. The effects are profound, and the impact Jane O’Brien Media has on their lives is astonishing.

The common theme is that the men are all vulnerable in some way; poor, underage, or students, and it begins to become clear that Jane O’Brien Media enjoys exerting destructive power and control over these men. This is very different from what goes on in the BDSM and fetish communities, where consent is central to activities, and power is eroticised and exchanged by all individuals involved, rather than exerted.

The difference between legitimate BDSM and fetish versus Jane O’Brien’s actions is beautifully illustrated when Farrier and Reeve head to Orlando to interview Richard Ivey, a producer of tickling videos who has a fetish for doing the tickling. On the surface, the events that take place on film are virtually the same as in the Jane O’Brien Media tickling videos. However, it is apparent that the intent is completely different. Ivey is open and transparent, and articulates the eroticism of ‘tickle torture’ eloquently. And although it is clear the actor finds the scenario somewhat odd, he is happy to participate and consents enthusiastically. Ivey speaks at length about his fetish and films. Could it be that Jane O’Brien Media are doing something else: deriving pleasure from the exploitation and harassment of young men?

The documentary continues with sinister twists and turns as the filmmakers slowly uncover what and who is behind Jane O’Brien Media, climaxing in a tense final confrontation. What begins in the guise of a Louis Theroux Weird Weekend becomes a trip down the rabbit hole into a world of extreme wealth, and the power it can afford. My lasting impression of the documentary was of the unwavering determination and bravery of the filmmakers to confront the powerful forces behind Jane O’Brien Media, and to expose the exploitation that gave them such a thrill. I’m sure the peculiar and sinister occurrences that pepper this documentary won’t stop at the release of this film, and I am intrigued to see how the next chapter of this story unfolds.

- On general release. Reviewed by Dr Emma L. Turley who is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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