A slim white woman with blonde hair leans close to the camera, holding your gaze for a moment before whispering in your right ear.
“Hey,” she says, breathily, before swooping to the other ear. “It’s me.”
She spends the next 20 minutes painstakingly tapping on a series of objects, rasping the microphone with makeup brushes, and narrating, all in a low whisper picked up by a high-end microphone. Her goal is to give the listener the “tingles”—a reaction known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)—a sensation that’s difficult to describe, though you’ll know it when you feel it. For some people, the sensation of having their hair played with, the sound of a crinkling bag of crisps, the rasp of the pages of a book being turned, or a whispering voice provokes a tingling that starts on the head and moves down their backs. Some describe it as a chill, others as a sense of slowly spreading heat.
For so-called “tingleheads,” ASMR is a pleasant, dreamy sensation that helps them relax, get to sleep, or cope with the stresses of life. Some think of it not just as sensual but also sexual, an issue that has touched off considerable debate within the world of ASMR. Outsiders think it’s just plain weird, but if you search for “ASMR” on YouTube, there are several content creators, known as ASMRtists, who can trigger the sensation. All ASMRtists are not created equal, though: It’s very much a white woman’s world, with very few male creators and creators of color. There isn’t a coordinated effort to address the monochromatic nature of ASMRtists, but ASMR’s race problem is just the tip of a surprisingly deep iceberg. This is a complex online culture filled with creators and the people who watch, obsess, and, in some cases, harass them.
Tracking the history of the tingles
The research for ASMR is relatively new and not yet expansive, but shows that ASMR is definitely real. In 2015, researchers Emma L. Barratt and Nick J. Davis explored ASMR in nearly 500 participants, including men, women, and nonbinary people. Many of their participants also experienced synaesthesia, suggesting that the tingles could be associated with other sensory phenomena—like hearing in color, or seeing in sound. In 2016, researchers looked at how the brains of people who experience ASMR function, observing that though the sample was small, people who experience ASMR may be wired differently. Researchers have also studied personality traits among tingleheads, searching for reasons why some people experience this distinctive sensation.
While people have been getting the tingles for centuries—with ASMR content creator Ilse, a.k.a. TheWaterwhispers, telling Bitch that she first noticed the sensation in childhood when her grandmother used to whisper stories to her—it became an online phenomenon 10 years ago, when a user on SteadyHealth started a thread called “Weird sensation feels good.” The 21-year-old’s thread was promptly flooded with responses from users reporting a similar sensation, and it spilled over into a second thread of people sharing experiences.
That seems to have been the tipping point for ASMR, though the term hadn’t been invented yet. One person suggested “Attention Induced Head Orgasm,” and shortly thereafter, WhisperingLife launched what Ilse says was the first channel dedicated to “whisper videos.” The channel, which has just over 6,000 subscribers, hasn’t been updated in nine months, but it’s filled with what one might think of “classic” whispering videos — a soothing woman’s voice murmuring, often about nothing in particular, while doing simple things like doodling.
In 2009, variations on the terminology started popping up, such as “Attention Induced Euphoria,” which was officially replaced in 2010 by “ASMR.” Jennifer Allen coined the phrase because she wanted a term that was “objective” and “comfortable” for people to use while talking about the tingles. Facebook groups, websites, and reddit threads dedicated to ASMR then began to abound, followed by a proliferation of ASMRtists creating whisper videos and branching out into role playing, manipulating objects, and designing videos to trigger the response.
Emma—known as WhispersRedASMR on YouTube—is a popular ASMRtist who makes a range of videos, from “tingle baskets” featuring collections of items that make intriguing noises when tapped, brushed, shaken, or crinkled, to videos exploring holistic health and spirituality. She tells Bitch that she started making ASMR videos to “give back” to the community, a sentiment echoed by Dmitri of MassageASMR, one of the few prominent male ASMRtists on YouTube.
The hostile side of ASMR
The ASMR community, however, isn’t always loving. “Once I started opening up social media accounts, especially for my ASMR persona, guys would send me penis pictures,” Ilse says.
“I don’t have too much of a problem,” says Dmitri, AKA MassageASMR, “because I’m male, I’m old, and I’ve seen it all before.” Emma notes she’s also a “bit older” than the youthful ASMR cohort and doesn’t experience the same type of harassment. But both observe harassment, with Dmitri commenting that: “There’s harassment and bullying. The comments can be quite negative.”
Browsing YouTube comments, and those on Reddit threads about ASMRtists, reveals the usual assortment of internet harassment, but also a great deal of body snark and slut shaming about “cleavage thumbnail bitches” and “camel toe.” Ilse comments, for example, that she constantly gets rude comments about her nails. Maria—Gentle Whispering ASMR on YouTube—-says she gets marriage proposals and elaborate descriptions of dream dates, something Ilse experiences as well. Maria is also targeted for harassment because of her Russian accent.
Commenters will complain about how ASMRtists dress or do their hair and makeup, says Ilse, and sometimes content creators even snipe at each other for oversexualizing their art form. Sometimes that harassment gets elaborate. In 2013, content creator Heather Feather ASMR wrote about imposter accounts being used to “discredit your character.”
Meanwhile, some complain that “drama” in the ASMR community is on the rise. Prominent YouTuber ASMR Darling found herself in the middle of controversy when her channel became the unwitting stage for an argument with her boyfriend. In the aftermath of a pair of now-deleted videos, commenters expressed concern and a desire to intervene in what they perceived as an abusive relationship, mirroring an experience Ilse had in 2016, when she opened up about difficulties in her relationship and felt hounded by commenters. “People told me what to do, and started to become really mean and harsh,” she says. She uploaded a second video asking commenters to stop, and lost 4,000 subscribers and racked up hostile, snarky comments on Reddit. “I came more and more to the conclusion that I became the puppet of the audience,” Ilse says, speaking to the sense of ownership among her followers who still bring the incident up.
YouTube offers few options for content creators struggling with harassment: It’s possible to ban users, but in a world where accounts are free and easy to create, a determined harasser can simply make a new one. Content creators can establish a “blacklist” of forbidden words and phrases, but Emma notes that creative commenters can get around it. For example, if you blacklist “fuck,” commenters can still use “f&ck.” It’s not possible to remove specific offending comments, though they can be flagged.
With ASMR turning into a business—many content creators monetize, and have to maintain relationships with viewers and the community—harassment can also spill onto Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms. It can also wind up in inboxes. While there is a private Facebook group for content creators to support each other, it’s heavily focused on discussions about removing stolen content.
Among ASMRtists who have been on the scene for a while, a common theme starts emerging: Maria, for example, says that harassment is simply part of being online, while Ilse and Dmitri both speak to the need to ignore harassment and focus on your own work. “There are so many people that talk trash that I try to stay away,” she says. “Don’t feed the trolls” is the only recourse in an era when trolls are growing ever more aggressive, and more sophisticated.
A hot debate over sensuality
When ASMR comes up, “Isn’t that some kind of weird sex thing?” isn’t far behind, perhaps because it was originally described as a “brain orgasm” or “braingasm.” Arguments over ASMR and sexuality have created strong divides, especially among perplexed outsiders. “I can’t help but perceive the videos as sexual anyway,” remarks one Reddit commenter who also says they don’t experience ASMR. “It’s pretty much just a weird fetish,” says another. In another conversation about ASMR and sexuality, Reddit commenter kdoodlethug cut to the heart of the issue: “There is the unfortunate side-effect that people will assume ASMR is strictly a sexual thing, but that doesn’t mean sexualized ASMR isn’t legitimate.”
Some ASMRtists, like SweetWhispers Sensual ASMR, actually make purposefully sensual and sexual videos, recognizing that for some people, the tingles do have a sexual component or are associated with a sexual experience. Ilse notes that depending on when and how people discover an ASMR response, it could become inadvertently sexualized; as for instance if you don’t experience ASMR until you’re a teenager and a partner is whispering in your ear, triggering an ASMR response while also stirring up sexual excitement.
“It’s growing and changing and progressing and evolving,” Maria says. She recognizes that sensual ASMR channels exist, but she doesn’t view it as a sexual sensation. “I’m one of those people who gets ASMR sensation when I watch small children play, or do puzzles, and I would never ever say it’s in any way a sexual feeling.” Context matters, argues Maria, who comments that ASMR in a setting with sexual elements could become a sexual stimulus. But others, like Emma, say they find it relaxing rather than sexual at all.
The debate over whether ASMR is sexual also feeds the abuse of female creators on a platform that isn’t exactly known for being kind and respectful. Women are already treated as sexually available at all times in essentially any setting, and YouTube content creators are particularly vulnerable as they put their faces and voices on the internet. With ASMR occupying a strange sexual/not sexual space, the women of ASMR can become simultaneous objects of sexualized commentary and debate over whether they’re making ASMR too sexy—as is often the case for women, there is no way to win. Their status as public figures/sex objects can turn them into targets for aggressive sexual harassment.
Some people who experience the sensation complain about “cam girls” spoiling the purity of ASMR. They argue that sexualizing it, or acknowledging that some people experience the sensation as a sexual stimulus, makes ASMR into something people have to “justify.” Slut-shaming also appears in YouTube comments criticizing ASMRtists for having visible breasts or wearing makeup. The comment section is littered with racism and misogyny, while sexualized comments, fetish requests, and rape jokes about ASMRtists are quite common.
The line between the tingles and sexual arousal isn’t as clear as some wish it could be—but the desire to separate it is understandable. But whenever sex enters the equation, things can get snarly, particularly when many ASMR viewers are men. Maria says that she feels the need to “look groomed and nice and approachable and attractive in a certain way” because she’s been criticized about her appearance.
“Fact: Pretty girls get more subs. Lots more,” as one Reddit commenter puts it.
The future of ASMR is bright, with this highly specific niche of the internet growing all the time. But without tools to combat harassment, and in a climate where creators like Ilse are punished for trying to draw boundaries, ASMRtists will continue to periodically disappear for no reason, provoking “where did she go?” threads on Reddit. “Whenever a content creator deletes their channel, that’s kind of big news in a small community, that this person who has been doing this had to delete because they’re being harassed ” says Dmitri.
The community struggles with a collective agreement to keep ASMR a neutral political and social space. Without that critical engagement though, the lack of diversity in the ASMR community will continue to go unremarked and unaddressed, and so too will the harassment that creates a barrier to entry to, and peaceful enjoyment of Tingletown.