Using a mannequin with a microphone in each ear, ASMR creator Semide captures what it sounds and feels like to be touched in videos that explore a variety of settings and scenarios. Recreating an eye exam, for instance, Semide softly asks the viewer about their medical history; she crinkles nitrile gloves as she inspects you closely, maintaining eye contact with the camera throughout. Semide, who makes medical roleplay videos as SemideCoco on YouTube, says the process is a personal experience, even when she’s only working with equipment—and for her viewers, it’s personal too. “Even though they’re just interacting with a screen, they feel as though they’re interacting with me…and [they’re] falling asleep to my voice,” Semide tells Bitch. “They know my voice and my image in a very intimate way.”
ASMR (Autonomous sensory meridian response) is a euphoric, tingling sensation of relaxation that occurs in response to various stimuli. Over the past decade, the ASMR community has grown from a handful of anonymous forum discussions to an industry with millions of ASMR viewers and videos, many aimed at imitating closeness. But intimacy is subjective and algorithms are fickle. Exploring this new mode of intimacy, comfort, and care, ASMRtists have run into issues with sexual-content guidelines on platforms that severely limit both audience and income. On YouTube, creators might upload a video for relaxation and sleep—not sex—only to find that YouTube demonetized or age-restricted it, stifling growth and reducing the dollars they earn from advertising revenue. Corrina Rachel, a member of the massage-oriented channel ASMR Psychetruth, documented the initial impact of these YouTube policies in 2017, claiming that the platform age-restricted 62 videos in just one day. Rachel said that Psychetruth had to completely transform their approach: They avoid sounds that they think the algorithm will deem sexually explicit and post on other platforms to diversify their income streams. “If I use a little peacock feather to tickle someone’s back, it’ll get the video flagged,” Rachel says. “So we’re like, okay, we can only do that on Patreon.”
During the pandemic, many people have turned to ASMR and other digital spaces to fill a vacuum of physical touch and to tap into a new realm of financial potential amid social isolation and joblessness. But while some do not identify the intimacy they pursue online as sexual, and others do not associate their online sexual activities with sex work, creators have confronted platform policies—initially designed to censor and surveil sex workers—that also impact them. Last year, Twitch demonetized a popular female streamer in the “hot tub meta,” where bikini-clad creators streamed from a hot tub and received major backlash. The streaming service ultimately clarified that, while the platform prohibits sexually suggestive and explicit content, it does not prohibit “being found to be sexy.” Meanwhile, video-conferencing companies have similarly tried curbing virtual sex through antipornography policies. Predictably, these restrictions most impact marginalized communities. “It has been like a canary in the coal mine situation for the sex-worker community that has been really loud about the harms that are coming out of these sorts of ideas of content moderation, surveillance technologies, and algorithmic bias—far before they were even going to touch anyone who doesn’t identify as a sex worker,” says Gabriella Garcia, the cofounder of Decoding Stigma, a working group that centers sex workers in technology and design spaces. “[This also includes] anyone that might just be expressing themselves in ways that could be sexualized but are not necessarily sexual.”
These instances aren’t simply errors in policy enforcement; they are data points in the overall sexual sanitization of the internet, which has intensified following FOSTA-SESTA, the 2018 bill that makes platforms liable for their users’ content. According to a study by sex-worker collective Hacking//Hustling, it “encourages platforms to contribute to the silencing and speech chilling of survivors, sex workers, and sex working surivors through erasing sex workers from the Internet.” In deciding which creators to target, companies reinforce politics of bias and respectability, says Bardot Smith, a researcher who presented on algorithmic warfare at a Hacking//Hustling event. “The kind of mainstream, attractive, younger white woman is going to bring a lot of eyes, and [the companies are] aware of that,” Smith says. “So they tolerate that on their platform, and they give maybe the most leniency to people that coincide with that model.”
Sex workers have pointed out how influencers and celebrities get away with co-opting sex-worker aesthetics on TikTok and Instagram without getting deplatformed or shadow banned. This discriminatory and contradictory enforcement is partially aided by vague sexual-content guidelines that reveal these platforms’ anxieties about sex work, says Bo Ruberg, a game studies scholar who researches these policies on Twitch. “I think that’s where a lot of the nervousness comes from—streaming and webcam modeling are very, very close,” Ruberg says. “That closeness then requires platforms and streamers to work extra hard to try and distance themselves from it.”
Against this backdrop, contextualizing ASMR, whose most popular creators are predominantly white women, and its journey into the mainstream is complicated. During the recent spotlight on the genre, ASMRtists have repeatedly been asked whether their videos (and the physical sensation of “tingles”) are sexual. Media scholar Joceline Andersen observes that this question has largely been met with “emphatic denial” from the ASMR community. “And so I tried to understand—why is there this conscious defining against porn or against sexual intimacy?” Andersen says. “Why is that so important when we’re talking about physical experiences that relax us, that make us feel good?” Andersen adds that promoting and maintaining a predominant association with relaxation has allowed ASMR to become more normalized among audiences—and big companies have noticed. While platforms continue to target sex workers as a financial and legal liability, advertisers, brands, and wellness apps have cashed in on ASMR (featuring videos with celebs like Cardi B and Zoë Kravitz) as a way to promote products and capitalize on a market of users attentive to sound.
“It has been like a canary in the coal mine situation for the sex-worker community that has been really loud about the harms that are coming out of these sorts of ideas of content moderation.”
This disavowal of sex has created a divide over the role of sensuality in ASMR. NSFW ASMR is relegated to its own subreddit, and some in the ASMR community bemoan “cam girls” oversexualizing the genre. Ricky Odriosla, who makes erotic and 18+ ASMR videos (on OnlyFans and Patreon) as well as nonerotic ASMR content (on YouTube), believes that this effort from creators to distance the genre from sex “alienates” ASMRtists like him. On YouTube, where he shares boyfriend roleplay videos, Odriosla hit sexual-content restrictions. His videos were not sexual or sensual, he says, but were “cute, romantic, [and] friendly.” YouTube demonetized his entire channel in December 2019, curbing his reach. “So I put my pride aside and [said] if I want to keep this going and keep this growing, I need to private a lot of these videos,” says Odriosla. He removed more than 30 videos before applying for monetization, including the first video to hit 1 million views. His channel was remonetized in August 2021.
Ruberg has seen a similar boundary between streamers and webcam models arise on Twitch. For some, holding this barrier offers a way to resist the oversexualization of their work. But in using it to argue for legitimacy, Ruberg believes these efforts imply that expressing sexuality online is illegitimate. The researcher sees value in challenging this thinking. “Blurring between the two recognizes that there’s always something intimate about putting a camera in your house and connecting with other people,” they say. “The kind of work we do on camera via the internet—it is an intimate sort of work. And that’s not bad.”