Enough of the Dirty Talk: Why Dismissing ASMR as Porn Isn't Helping Anyone

By Ava Szajna-Hopgood on at

If you’ve ever found something strangely compelling, or realised you’ve drifted into a zombie-like trance while someone has been describing something to you, you might have been experiencing Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR.

It’s got millions of people glued to their YouTube feed, intent on finding out more about their specific triggers for this elusive feeling. The common denominators (Bob Ross, personal attention, acrylic nails on keyboards, crinkling of paper and long, endless ramblings about towel folding) don’t lie: people are hooked.

As awareness around ASMR grows, it’s also getting more misunderstood. The first research paper on ASMR was finally published in the Peer J journal at the end of March. Nick Davis, a psychology lecturer at Swansea University, and Emma Barratt, a graduate student there, looked to begin plotting the basic parameters of the ASMR experience. They questioned almost 500 volunteers who claimed to experience the sensation and asked them when and why they tried to trigger ASMR and what they actually felt during the experience. Overwhelmingly, the respondents said that ASMR was not something they did for sexual stimulation. In fact, 98 per cent of the respondents said they sought out ASMR media to relax, and 82 per cent said they did it to help them sleep. Only five per cent claimed they watched the videos for sexual stimulation, and 84 per cent of participants disagreed with this.

ASMR: The Internet's Latest Scarlet Letter

And yet, in an April episode of Trews titled Is ASMR just female porn? Russell Brand wades in, asking if there is “any truth behind its cathartic qualities or whether it is just the latest softcore porn for women”. Watching him trying to make head or tail of ASMR is great viewing, especially for people who do experience it and are all-too familiar with the “BUT IT’S SEXY?!!” reaction from non-experiencers. But Brand still fails to offer a constructive alternative to just shouting “PORN” at a screen every time someone starts whispering.

Is ASMR about to become the Scarlet Letter of our shared internet consciousness, increasingly refracted, notorious for its ambiguity, harder to be discuss with every new, lewd, upload? It’s time we started taking whatever strange beast ASMR is seriously.

The ASMR YouTube community is a strange one. On the surface it’s close-ups of women presenting videos titled ‘gentle feathers up in your ears’, men promising ‘10 hours of tapping, crinkle and trigger sounds, no talking’ or cleaning their cameras, plus bonus rambling, for 30 minutes. But beneath that, it’s a grassroots movement desperate for acceptance.

Ten years ago no-one had a name for it. Back then you’d be hard pressed to find anything online about that tingly ‘braingasm’ feeling people had begun mentioning on forums. It’s recognition is believed to have started online with the wonderfully-Web 2.0 title of ‘Weird Sensation Feels Good’, followed by a number of accidentally ASMR-triggering videos on YouTube between 2007 and 2009. Finally, in February 2010, a surge in web activity around the ASMR group on Facebook led to the community largely adopting ASMR as a shorthand for the huge amount of triggers and responses they’d experienced.

It took me a long time to find out I experience ASMR. As a child I would feel those ‘brain tingles’ about once a year. Usually it would be from a teacher or a friend taking extra time to explain something to me, and I remember there was one really clever guy in my class I’d always ask to explain things over and over. As he showed me how to do long division I’d sit there with tie-dye bursts of feel-good emotion happening all over my head. I’d bliss out, trying to cling on to a feeling I couldn’t quite grasp. Everything around me would fade out and I’d just want to hear that certain patient, calm, measured, focused tone for hours on end. No wonder I needed his help so much, I didn’t hear a word he said, just his voice.

That intense state of calm isn’t like anything else. Not porn, not sex, not yoga, not meditation and certainly not mindfulness. It ain’t that. It’s more. ASMR in its raw form isn’t a turn-on. It’s attention, it’s empathy, it’s focus.

Pre-internet, this meant many, maybe thousands, (maybe millions - we don’t know) of people were left wondering why they had something weird going on in their head. The general consensus as to why it stayed secret for so long seems to be largely the same: as a child, you’d believe everyone else felt it and never mentioned because it was embarrassing, or no-one apart from you felt it, in which case it was something very embarrassing.

"Whispers and a Black Background"

“When I first discovered the community it wasn’t even the ASMR community- the term itself wasn’t there back in 2009 or 2010, the [YouTube] videos were just whispers and a black background.”

That’s Maria, from Baltimore, Maryland. Known as GentleWhispering on YouTube (yep, that's her whispering in the video up top), she has over 421,000 subscribers and views into the hundreds of millions, making her one of ASMR’s most watched faces.

“Someone eventually added sounds and personal attention, and it’s growing at an incredible rate. At this point the whole community is only about five years old, but it seems like we definitely have more lines blurred. The more people we get, the more different responses we seem to get too.”

Maria’s videos are the ones a lot of people find first, her very soft, barely audible whisper sending thousands, if not millions of people to sleep. She speaks about the community using ‘we’ instead of ‘I’, and is obviously keen for this place, this formerly secretive corner of the internet, to gain some proper recognition.


The problem is that while there is now a term for this (albeit a non-scientific, ham-fisted neoligism which piles on jargon to something no-one really knows how to talk about), the ASMR videos themselves are pretty easy to re-appropriate. And that’s what’s happening now, as word of one of the internet’s strangest niches spreads. True ASMR experiences are about as far from the notion of watching porn as it is possible to get. Attempting to understand it through our framework and vocabulary for sex or even drugs is to misunderstand it: whatever lies behind that ASMR definition isn’t going to be easily pinned down.

I ask Maria what it’s like to see the numbers of erotic or so-called adult ASMR channels creeping in as media attention increases.

“We don’t really have the power to say what is right and what is wrong, so we can just be accepting,” Maria explains.

“Maybe once we have more medical research or a straight-forward categorisation of what is and what is not ASMR at all, then we can actually have the right to completely separate it from one or the other. With erotic ASMR YouTube channels, all we want [the presenters] to do is just say this is erotic ASMR, and a part of it you like to work with. And that’s fine because we can’t say no to you. We don’t try to promote that side, but we can’t be in denial. We have to talk about it openly.”

ASMR videos perform the real reason a lot of people started to turn to YouTube for their kicks -- they are triggers, mimicking the feelings of ASMR, so people can tune in whenever they like. There’s parallels to porn here, but for anyone that’s tried introducing ASMR to a friend or, god forbid, a family member, you’ll know it’s tricky to explain without using the vocabulary porn has taught us. It makes something that could possibly get someone you care about to sleep better at night that bit harder to bring up. For people who experience insomnia, anxiety or depression, ASMR triggers can aid with calming nerves or just focusing the listener on getting through the day. There’s still a huge gap in scientific explanation to back up the results, but many users say they are able to sleep better or placate anxious thoughts.

Which is certainly something WhispersRedASMR, or Emma, as I know her, found. A UK-based ASMR YouTuber, Emma started her channel purely as a means of connecting with more experiencers: “I just wanted to join in and meet people and people could get to know me. And it just took off from there. When it got to 10,000 subscribers, that’s when I realised people enjoyed watching me.”

Defining the ASMR Experience

The various channels and types of videos both Emma and Maria put up are mind-boggling, and the days of a black background and low whispers are long gone. The ASMR accounts with the biggest followings work on everything from role plays to guided relaxation, personal attention and triggers, to videos that seem to aid mirror synesthesia (where the synesthete feels exactly what they’re seeing happen to another person). I ask Emma how she thinks YouTube is changing the ASMR experience as we know it:

“Connecting with people all over the world is just a really important thing. It’s not just the tingles, it’s something you can find yourself in and learn about yourself, and be more fulfilled within yourself. You’re connected with like-minded people and are comforted from the videos themselves.

“It’s comforting, it’s friendly -- it’s ‘come to my house and have a cup of tea’ or like going for a massage or a facial. It’s personal attention. Why can’t people understand that? I think some people can, and they are capable of doing it, they’re just closed to it.”

So while it’s not surprising ASMR is generating plenty of raised eyebrows and lewd side-eye in mainstream culture, maybe we all need to stop being so uptight. After talking to Emma for over an hour about ASMR’s perception in the media, I mention that I hope conversations like that get easier.

For Emma, for the people behind their YouTube channels, there’s more to it than that:
“My main thing is that I just want people to know as much as possible how not sexual it is. And for me, that means a lot.

“You don’t want the viewers to feel bad about what they’re doing. Why should you hide away in your bedroom, watching a video, because you’re scared about what people might think? The more we talk about it in a sexual way, the more people are going to think that. And why would we want that, because it makes our viewers feel uncomfortable. I don’t want anyone to have to defend me.”

Take some time immersed in the weird world of ASMR, and you start to hear the same thing again and again: people need this. They need this new kind of virtual intimacy- of having their hair stroked or a cranial nerve examined or an understanding voice because they don’t get it IRL. Do people reach for an ASMR video when there are other people around? Or is it when you’re home alone, craving something a few Likes on Facebook won’t fix, a few orange-boxed hearts on Instagram won’t quell?

The language we’ve used to begin talking about ASMR, our framework for describing this, does come remarkably close to how we deal with porn, but it’s not the same, and it’s not accurate enough. It’s something quite ulterior to the sexual -- it’s empathy. And if these videos are becoming stranger, further away than the Bob Ross of our childhood tingles, then you have to look at what on earth we’ve started to crave, and the fact that maybe ASMR can fill a gap porn and meditation can’t: of one human attempting to understand another.