This month, A Beautiful Perspective is exploring touch in all its forms and contexts. Click here to read more stories from the TOUCH Issue.
A whisper in your ear. The crinkling of paper. The scratch of a pen. The squish of slime. The crunching of cornflakes. A soft breath passing over a microphone like a hazy breeze.
The world of ASMR videos, short for autonomous sensory meridian response, is vast and a little strange for the uninitiated. The videos are structured around “triggers,” auditory or visual stimuli, such as a person speaking softly or turning the pages of a book. One of the most popular YouTube creators, ASMR Darling, has two videos built around some of the most effective triggers. Sitting in front of the camera, she creates ambient noise by swiping the microphone with a makeup brush, pouring water into a jar or pulling tape off a roll. If that sounds dull, consider that the videos have more than 25 million views apiece, and ASMR Darling’s total catalogue has been viewed roughly 377 million times as of this writing.
Though the details and methods vary widely, in general, ASMR is the creation of sound effects intended to evoke tingling sensations in the listener. Some videos feature roleplays to add narrative interest. Some are explicitly designed to help you sleep. Others aim to make you cringe or laugh. The trend has grown so massive that brands like Ikea and KFC have used ASMR to market everything from patterned bed sheets to crispy chicken.
“I think people like ASMR because it’s an instantaneous sensation of relaxation,” explains Tingting, a popular ASMR artist on Youtube whose videos regularly register hundreds of thousands of views. “It might not give you a strong sensation, but it can definitely help you relax and sleep just like a white noise machine can.”
It can also be a startlingly intimate experience, as though the person is addressing you directly. Scottish Murmurs ASMR, whose real name is Lauren, says that “ASMR videos can make the viewer feel as though someone is right there, they can almost imagine the touch, and this brings a great sense of relaxation and comfort.”
It may be this imagined touch that has caused confusion about whether or not ASMR can be sexual. Some fans of ASMR say that the videos make them feel orgasmic, but many artists deny that their work is meant to arouse. This fraught connection to pleasure, coupled with confusion around the mechanisms of ASMR, has pulled the practice reluctantly into debates around online sex work and enforcement.
“People sometimes assume ASMR is some strange/weird fetish where people ‘whisper’ in your ears, but it is far from this,” Lauren said. “ASMR is not intended to be remotely sexual.”
In March, Congress passed new legislation tackling online sex trafficking. The bill, called SESTA/FOSTA, makes it possible to hold publishing platforms responsible for their content and liable for illegal activity in their personals and classified sections. It also set up a pathway for victims to sue digital marketplaces for facilitating trafficking.
While it seems few ASMR creators make an actual living from their videos, many have set up Patreon accounts to solicit funding or utilize other avenues for donations. More popular artists sell merchandise including shirts, mugs and other products to fans, typically receiving payment via PayPal.
Earlier this fall, PayPal permanently banned the accounts of several female ASMR artists and froze their funds for 180 days. Lauren and many other ASMR artists claim internet trolls on 8chan weaponized the panic over online sex trafficking and the crackdown generated by SESTA/FOSTA in order to target and mass-report women who create ASMR videos. PayPal denies that online harassers played a role in their decisions.
“PayPal has no policy against autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) related content that does not otherwise violate PayPal’s Acceptable Use policy,” Bernadette Green, a PayPal spokesperson, said in a statement to A Beautiful Perspective. “PayPal’s account reviews and potential action are based solely on compliance with our long-standing policy and not external factors. The account limitations referenced are not related to an 8Chan campaign.”
Pushed further on the question of what, precisely, these users were banned for, Green reiterated: “[W]e’re unable to provide specific account information about the cases, per company policy.”
When PayPal banned Lauren’s account, she says the company first claimed she was flagged for receiving a payment from a banned country, though that was untrue. “It was then cited [that] the reason was ‘brand image,’” she explained, adding that her account was restored weeks later after the media picked up on the story. She assumes PayPal’s Brand Image department doesn’t understand ASMR or “the help it provides to the wider community who suffer from anxiety, stress, depression, insomnia and have put it in the same category as other banned groups.”
A Beautiful Perspective agreed to withhold Lauren’s last name as she keeps her “YouTube channel and personal life completely separate,” in order to “avoid any issues … that could jeopardize my current employment.”
“I think it is interesting,” she added, “none of the male ASMR creators were targeted.”
While most ASMR artists claim they are not providing any sexual service, Dr. Laura McGuire, a sexuality educator and board member for the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), says it can simultaneously be true that some people do have a sexual response to it.
“If somebody does find something erotic in it, there’s no shame in that,” she said. “But I think [the ASMR artists] have a very valid point in saying they don’t intend this in a sexual way. I work a lot with the kink community, and anything can be a fetish. But for the majority of [the artists], it is not a part of their intention, so it’s unfair to make that connection.”
“Someone who has sex for money is providing a sexual service even if they insist that they’re not; meanwhile, a ballet dancer who performs in Swan Lake is not providing a sexual service, even if someone in the audience finds ballet arousing.”
While McGuire understands why artists wouldn’t want to be included in something that comes with so much baggage and stigma, denying any connection seems to reinforce the ideology of SESTA/FOSTA, that there’s something inherently wrong about sex work.
“To take this and say it’s sexual is fascinating in one sense because we’re really broadening the definition of sex, which I typically advocate for,” McGuire says. “But to say that if anything feels good, it’s sexual, where do we stop with that? And that goes to erotophobia, the fear of sex, which we have in this culture. There’s the paranoia that if something is sexual, it’s bad and we must be protected from it.”
Alexandra Levy, an attorney at the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center and a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, similarly suggests authorial intent and audience experience can muddy the waters: “To give two examples: someone who has sex for money is providing a sexual service even if they insist that they’re not; meanwhile, a ballet dancer who performs in Swan Lake is not providing a sexual service, even if someone in the audience finds ballet arousing.” However, Levy notes that if ASMR consumers fall into both camps, it’s more difficult for creators to credibly claim that they definitely do not provide a sexual service.
“So what?” she continues. “My personal view is that what people use ASMR for is their business, and that banning content (whether as a platform, like Twitter, or payment processor, like PayPal) just because it has sexual resonance for some people is regressive and idiotic. The way to change this is to put pressure (as consumers) on platforms to adopt better policies.”
Jenny Heineman, a sociology instructor at the University of Nebraska who has been involved with SWOP, agrees and adds that the ways these stigmas and their associated policies (which are “not only antiquated and dangerous, but nonsensical”) play out are resolutely nonpartisan. “There is no lack of ‘feminists’ who oppose the rights of both sex workers and trans folx[sic] (SWERFs and TERFs) and likewise, so-called progressive women’s organizations across the nation have celebrated the crackdown on sex work (which really isn’t a crackdown, it’s just displacement),” she said.
She draws a direct line between the Trump administration and what’s happening in regards to anything perceived as sexual in our society—ASMR included. All fascist regimes, she said, “have a hyper focus on gender and sexuality and conflate socially constructed ideas of sexual purity with social purity. Larger issues surrounding online sex work and the punitive policies aimed at eradicating it are undeniably the tech equivalent of ‘cleaning up the streets’ in service to bullshit notions of social purity.”
The controversy over ASMR plays into established if misguided narratives about sex work. “I think the biggest issue that we’re educating on right now is that there’s a belief that sex work and trafficking are the same thing,” McGuire says. These companies, politicians and others “think that in any kind of sexual work, the person is being abused. But they’re not related at all—one is about control, and one is about pleasure and consenting adults making a decision.”
This issue is at the core of SESTA/FOSTA, which aimed to halt trafficking but has had ancillary impacts on all sex workers, who use the internet not only to advertise their services but also to vet clients, communicate with each other and avoid the dangers of pimps and street-walking. “That being taken away,” McGuire says, “has put people in grave danger. People weren’t understanding how these systems actually work, and how this would hurt and cause more physical and emotional harm for people who were not trafficked but were involved in sex work.”
ASMR artists are aware they’re being pulled into a larger conversation around online sex work. “If you don’t know what ASMR is and just browse around the internet, you might see certain videos that are a bit risky,” Tingting admits. “ASMR is so big and has so many categories within it, you really have to do a lot of research to truly understand it.”
Online, you can tingle the back of someone’s neck without touching them, you can offer gratification with the squeeze of a lime or the satisfying smash of packing peanuts. Is it fair to call these things sex work and police them as such? Or, does the punitive reaction to the genre say more about lasting hangups regarding sexuality and sex work? How ASMR is viewed and regulated may be just one symptom of a society that is still struggling to shake old stereotypes and develop a more nuanced view of sex work in the digital era.