A screenshot from a Hungry Lips video, one of the more controversial ASMR channels around. Image via Youtube
“If you’re going to deep-throat phallic objects and play with your tits, make a damn Chaturbate rather than come onto YouTube and represent the ASMR community like this,” rails Aaron, a YouTube commenter. This isn’t just a rogue troll, but one of many ASMR video viewers who are angered by the erotic subculture emerging within the community. It isn’t relaxing, they say, and take to comments sections to let everyone know.
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It’s the name given to a well-documented (though not very well-understood) phenomenon in which some people get pleasurable tingles in response to certain stimuli. The stimuli can be tactile, auditory, visual, olfactory, or just anything that works. There are thousands of videos over YouTube where viewers get their tingle on to carefully curated visuals: people slowly brushing hair, folding towels, or some other vanilla activity. But like everything else on the internet, ASMR is now a type of porn, which has purists—who have always claimed to anyone who will listen that their hobby is not a fetish—up in arms.
One particular channel, attracts more critics than most. HungryLips videos all seem to begin with an introduction to the host’s new outfits—”I just got this at Victoria’s Secret. So cute”—accompanied with some hair twirling, whispering, and gentle stroking of her décolletage. The lighting is soft, her ringlets and lipstick the epitome of femininity, and despite being intensely sensual, nothing NSFW happens next. HungryLips has a different website and Patreon account for that.
A quick sweep of YouTube shows that the ASMR community is divided on the issue of eroticism. One particularly irate HungryLips commentator points out that ASMR artists spend “countless hours making quality videos” only to get harassed as a result of other channels’ content. Others accept that more erotic videos are a natural progression of the genre and enjoy—or avoid if it doesn’t appeal to them. YouTube user CheekyNinja reasons that there is nothing “ugly or indecent” about sensual ASMR, and that even people who don’t like to admit it find ASMR arousing.
One such person who isn’t fazed one way or the other is Robin, an ASMR viewer from England. He told me he uses ASMR as a form of pain management. “I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. It affects all my body systems and I am in chronic pain,” he explained. “I’ve tried many types of relaxation exercises and ASMR and mindfulness are the only two which work.” This is not unusual, as ASMR has been proven to be effective for anxiety, pain management, and insomnia. Robin told me that he has only recently discovered the “erotic ASMR” community, and he finds the videos produce the same response as the more mundane ones. “I don’t really give a damn if the video is there as clickbait to a camgirl website, or porn,” he said. “What I care about is that it is reducing my stress and anxiety levels, my heart rate and blood pressure.”
The ASMR community is relatively new and as such it is still developing. Rolf Osterberg, a Swedish ASMR video creator, compares the erotic subgenre of ASMR to other types of videos (or “triggers,” as they are known as within the community) that divide viewers. “I mean, we have everything from vampire roleplay to hairdressers and brain examinations Why not have erotic videos too?” He has a point. The list of videos that viewers use to trigger their ASMR is enormous, and if you apply rule 34 (“If it exists, there is a porn of it”) it doesn’t seem at all surprising that the ASMR community has incorporated porn. CheekyNinja takes the view that “there are a lot of different types of ASMR, and this is just one of them. If I could give it a name, I’d call it gentleman’s ASMR, or ASMR for gentlemen.”
For the most part the more well-known, long-time, non-erotic video creators have stayed quiet on the matter, avoiding getting involved with the wars going on in the comments sections. One channel, ASMRpsychetruth created a parody video titled “Vegan Hungry Lips” which was met with a mixed response from viewers. The anti-erotic camp found it funny; many others found it childish.
I spoke to Hailey, who joined the community in 2011. Her channel, “WhisperingRose” has over 99,000 subscribers, and she is seen as one of the more “famous” content creators within the community. “ASMR is such a personal experience, and there’s no dictator telling us definitively what it “is” or “isn’t,” she explained. “It all comes down to personal preferences and as long as it causes the relaxing feeling, nobody can really say anything. It makes it more of an art, and you can’t create ‘wrong’ art.”
Hailey told me that since her channel began, she has been objectified sexually by viewers, “simply for being a large-busted woman.” She has received “catcalls, threats, and lewd comments” even when she only films from the neck up. For her, the arrival of sexual ASMR hasn’t done anything to curb that, or to boost it.
When I asked her about the growing divide within the community, Hailey was hopeful about the future. “People are smarter than we give them credit for,” she believes. “Those who are searching for ASMR will find ASMR, and those who are searching for porn will find porn. The best we can do is hope that everyone finds exactly what they’re really looking for.”