This month, HBO airs Tickled, a documentary about what the filmmakers call “the world’s strangest sport” — competitive endurance tickling. Made by New Zealand journalist David Farrier, the film tells the story of a mysterious figure behind so-called tickling “competitions” and hundreds (if not thousands) of online videos that feature young, handsome straight men being tied up and tickled.
The participants are paid thousands of dollars for their work, but often end up harassed and having their lives ruined by the producer, whom they never actually meet in person. One such participant had his football career thwarted after he asked for his video — which was understood to be private — to be taken down from YouTube. Another was framed for committing cyberattacks against the White House.
Over the course of filming, the documentarians discovered that David D’Amato, a former assistant principal, has been paying for these videos since the ’90s. Back then he solicited videos under the female pseudonym Terri Tickle. And that’s how I knew him.
Before social media, we avid computer nerds used listservs to share interests, argue politics, and make new friends on the internet. It was all done through email — no separate websites or apps.
The summer before I left for college, a listserv I was on shared a message from a woman who called herself “Terri Tickle.” She was looking to lay down hundreds of dollars for videos of young men being “mercilessly, relentlessly tickled.” She insisted there was nothing sexual about the videos, and promised they would never become public, as they were solely for her personal collection.
The email popped up in my inbox during a time when I was desperate for money. I had a job working as a stocker at a grocery store, but I hadn’t been saving for college. I blew through my paychecks in fits of impulsivity. My parents weren’t much help either, but they did try — when I was young, my dad bought bonds that we kept in our freezer for years, certain they would provide some help with college. Turned out we probably lost money from the electricity used to freeze the worthless paper for so long.
Terri Tickle’s email made me curious. Even if she said they weren’t about sex, they were definitely about sex. But who wants to watch dudes get tickled?
I went to Terri’s website, which looked like a fancy GeoCities fanpage, as it was the ’90s. Spotting her email address, I convinced myself that it wouldn’t hurt to reach out. I wrote a short email, adding a link to the website of my band the Ninja Boners, because it included my high school yearbook picture. (Yes, I had a band called the Ninja Boners.)
The reply came right away — she was interested. Really interested. Like lots-of-exclamation-points-and-capital-letters interested. She specifically didn’t want anything from my friend Jed, who also had his picture on our band’s site, but she definitely wanted videos of me, as soon as possible.
She offered to send money right away, and asked for my home address. Someone wants to send me cash in the mail? I thought. Sure, here’s where I live. (Obviously, in hindsight, a stupid idea.) And the money came — about $80 if I remember correctly, all 20s.
I did not see a problem with this arrangement.
Having invested in me, she started asking for the video; not harassing, just checking in. We built a bit of a rapport. I would always promise to send something, but I was having trouble convincing my girlfriend to make the video with me, I said. (The truth was I never asked her and didn’t want to.)
In the meantime, a week into our correspondence, Terri offered a temporary compromise: she’d pay $100 for audio of me being tickled. What a deal! So, with a cheap Radio Shack microphone, I recorded myself laughing hysterically and sent off the files. The cash came in a FedEx envelope a few days later.
(Years later, my mother found those audio files on the computer and asked me what they were. I said I didn’t know. She told me “they were really creepy.”)
One day, Terri sent an email telling me to expect a present. That weekend, a FedEx envelope showed up with about a quarter-ounce of weed inside. Frankly, I was more shocked by how easy it was to send weed in the mail than the action itself.
I never got around to recording a tickling video. In truth, making the video never crossed my mind. Why would I want something like that floating around when she’s already sending me money?
Terri must’ve figured out my plan because, one evening, I turned on my computer and found my inbox overwhelmed with new messages. There were thousands of unread emails that had nothing but robot-speak inside. And they kept coming. After deleting a bunch, I located the note from Terri telling me that she was angry. I was being punished for taking too long, and I had better make that video right away or the harassment would continue.
An avalanche of emails wasn’t scary to me, but I did take this person’s money and wanted to keep my promise. I’m an Eagle Scout for Chrissakes! So I wrote back to Terri and told her I was on it. Then I called my girlfriend Annette.
After hearing my story, she sounded like a disappointed mom, letting out a few heavy sighs before asking, “What were you thinking?”
But she did have the right advice. “Just don’t do anything,” she said. “Don’t even write back.”
And that’s what I did. I called my internet provider and had my email shut off. After that, the harassment stopped. There was nothing Terri could do to me any more, and thankfully I didn’t have much of a digital identity that she could stalk. Weeks later, I moved away to college, happy to have avoided making a ridiculous tickling video.
About a month or two into my first semester, I received an email from Terri. It said something to the effect of “Just wanted to show that I can always find you.”
I’m sure I was supposed to feel scared. But I just deleted Terri’s note and moved on.
I was lucky to escape unscathed from Terri’s/D’Amato’s wrath. As Tickled documents, his revenge trips typically don’t end after a few emails. D’Amato’s former “talent” agent David Starr not only faced online harassment, but received a barrage of physical hate mail mocking the fact that his brother had died. Some of those letters were sent to Starr’s elderly mother. And the filmmakers behind Tickled have experienced D’Amato’s wrath, as well; they’ve been threatened with lawsuits before, during and after the documentary was made, and there’s a new site dedicated to attacking them (it looks about as high-tech as the old Terri Tickle site).
Despite all of this, the documentary shows that D’Amato, who died suddenly this month, avoided serious punishment. Even after he was arrested and charged by the FBI in 2001, he only had to spend three months in jail. The only son of a successful Wall Street lawyer, D’Amato was wealthy and well-educated, and became a lawyer himself.
But I didn’t write this story to dump on D’Amato. I want to impart an important lesson, which is this: Good decisions are rarely made in desperation. The more you need money, the more susceptible you become to scams and other harmful situations. The last thing you need after making a stupid mistake is to make more stupid mistakes. So if you find yourself desperate for cash and the easiest option requires you to exploit yourself, strongly consider the alternative. Take it from me: the tough times are only temporary, and permanent embarrassment is no laughing matter.
Want to learn more about the dark and twisted world of tickling? Listen to this episode of The Cooler podcast:
CORRECTION: This story originally reported that D’Amato’s punishment in 2001 was limited to a few months in a halfway house. Hal Karp, who originally reported on this story after D’Amato’s arrest, pointed out that he spent the first three months in jail and another two in a halfway house.