Documentary Sunday

Tickled

Every week Megan Condis and a group of friends get together for Documentary Sunday, a chance to dive into the weird, the wacky, the hilarious and the heartbreaking corners of our culture.  This column chronicles all of the must-watch documentary films available for streaming.

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This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #90. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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What is Competitive Endurance Tickling? If you said, “That’s not a thing” then you have the same whip-smart journalistic instincts as David Farrier, a New Zealand entertainment reporter who got curious when he noticed online ads calling for fit, athletic young men to be filmed participating in the supposed new extreme sport. Tickled chronicles Farrier’s attempt to get in touch with the creators of CET and follows as a lighthearted human interest story transforms into a nightmare.

Farrier begins by getting in touch with “Jane O’Brien Media,” the company behind the online ads and is shocked when a representative from the company responds with a flood of invective and homophobic rhetoric. Rather than dissuading him from investigating further, this deluge of harassment motivates Farrier to track down former CET participants, each of which is living in their own private hell.

You see, as you might have guessed, the tickling videos are a bizarre form of porn being created at the request of a private collector, with Jane O’Brien Media serving as a front to recruit new participants. So-called “producers” or “casting agents” specifically targeted amateur athletes like low-ranked mixed martial artists, body builders or soccer and rugby players struggling to make it onto a farm team.  These were young men who often found themselves in tough spots financially, who were always looking to fund their training for a few more months and were already somewhat accustomed to using their bodies as their currency, though not necessarily in this particular way.

Unfortunately for them, their mysterious benefactor seemed to get just as much pleasure from blackmailing former participants as watching tickle fights. Much like Farrier himself, CET “athletes” reported being barraged with mountains of emails, phone calls, and threatening letters. Some spoke about getting fired from jobs after their employer received a letter with a video attached. Others described friends and family members being added to the toxic mailing list. In other words, the entire enterprise is basically an extortionist revenge porn ring, and its leaders are counting on the fact that the general public will blame the victim (“if you didn’t want your dirty pictures to be out there in the public eye then you shouldn’t have taken them in the first place!”) instead of the abuser. Watching the film, one gets the sense that these “punishments” are just an extension of the sexual sadism being serviced in the videos. Someone is getting off on torturing these young men IRL.

In a sense, Tickled serves as a timely reminder that female celebrities aren’t the only ones who are in danger of having their lives ruined by an unscrupulous Internet troll. Farrier’s film (and the 20-min “Where Are They Now?”-style follow-up now airing on HBO) shines a spotlight on a new kind of crime, one that the American justice system is just now gearing up to take on.

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Megan Condis is an Assistant Professor of English at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her book project, Playing Politics: Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Game of Masculinity in Online Culture, is under contract with the University of Iowa Press.

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