Scrolling through YouTube, you might stumble across a video of a girl pretending to give you a haircut at the “spa”. Whispering into the microphone, her aim is to give you “tingles”, a relaxing sensation associated with ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response).
In the comments of this video, one person asks if, next time, she could wear “pigtails” and make a video with “mouth sounds close to the mic”. In fact, they’ve left the same comment on several of her videos, each time asking “how soon can this be uploaded?” and “when are you going to fulfil my request?” The commenter claims this will help her get more views and subscribers. The YouTuber is eight years old.
On other ASMR accounts, children of a similar age are being asked to whisper pseudo-sexual phrases such as “calm in my mouth”, or to act out explicit hand gestures. It’s not solely children who are being targeted; most reports come from women between the ages of 18 to 30, who make up the majority of ASMR artists on YouTube. They are all targets of what is known as “fetish mining”.
According to YouTuber Rebecca Flint, AKA Beckii Cruel – who has been making YouTube videos since 2007 and now has over 115,000 subscribers – fetish mining involves “soliciting fetish content from somebody without them knowing the true purpose and without their informed consent”.
In 2019, Beckii uploaded a video sharing her own experience with fetish mining, saying it “thrives and delights in the knowledge that it preys on unassuming strangers”.
Condemning fetish mining is not intended to demonise those who have unconventional sexual desires – it’s more that there are several platforms where age-appropriate fetish requests can be fulfilled in respectful and consensual ways. Some ASMR artists on YouTube have accounts on OnlyFans and Patreon, with content tailored towards a mature audience. Fetish miners, on the other hand, prey on naivety. And while, in recent years, YouTube has tried to disable the comment section under videos featuring children in particular, several accounts remain unprotected.
Lilliana De, 27, who goes by the account name Lily Whispers ASMR, recently uploaded a video explaining that fetish mining has become a widespread problem within the ASMR community. She tells me fetish miners seem to enjoy “preying on ASMR artists’ particular eagerness to please the audience” and their desire to connect with subscribers.
“There is a sexual arousal component,” she says. “People are getting off on the idea that these people are fulfilling requests unknowingly. That is what makes it so exploitative and scary.”
Lily Whispers has been creating ASMR videos on YouTube since 2013 and has over 300,000 subscribers on the platform. “It's always something really specific, like, ‘Hey, can you tap on something black with red nail polish?’ or ‘Can you wear a T-shirt in the next video and pour water on yourself?’” she says of the requests. “A lot of people ignore that because they want to please their audience.”
While there is no explicit mention of fetish mining in the YouTube Community Guidelines, the website does prohibit any “content featuring non-consensual sex acts, unwanted sexualisation or anything that graphically sexualises or degrades an individual”. They encourage users to report any content that violates this policy, which – depending on the severity of the comment – might result in account termination. But as fetish mining purposefully looks innocuous, it can be difficult to make a proper case against the commenter.
Asher Flynn, an expert in criminology at Monash University, agrees that the subtlety of fetish mining can make things difficult from an online protection standpoint. “This is why legislating against this type of abusive behaviour can be so difficult,” she explains, “and why tech platforms – like YouTube – may have ineffective policies to respond.”
When it comes to children uploading ASMR YouTube videos – which is much more common than you'd think – Lilliana De says many creators use their parents’ accounts or lie about their age, meaning that comment sections are still on display. “YouTube is not asking for your ID when you sign up and make an account, so it poses an added risk.” She says she has witnessed several attempts at fetish mining child ASMR artists, as well as “straight-up sexual requests”, such as asking for “kissing sounds or ear eating”.
“It'‘s just completely inappropriate,” she says. “You should not be asking a child to make that kind of content.”
Dr Rachel O’Connell, founder and CEO of the child age verification and parental consent provider Trust Elevate, says that tackling “fetish mining” is a difficult but essential task: “Children have a right to a safe online environment, and companies have a duty of care towards children. However, because of the way the attention economy is structured, machine-learning algorithms are basically facilitating and accentuating these risks.”
In other words, data-driven YouTube algorithms are directing fetish miners to the kind of people they fantasise about.
“We need a more equitable social contract between companies and families,” says Dr O’Connell. “By leveraging technology more intelligently, we can cut down the amount of data-driven harms.”
Julia Von Weiler, the executive director of Innocence In Danger, a global organisation working to protect children against sexual abuse, says fetish mining may well just be the tip of the iceberg, and that deeper investigation could reveal much more sinister acts of exploitation.
“Children are especially vulnerable and need support to find their way within the digital realms,” she adds. “Using them to satisfy some emotional or physical need – regardless of whether it’s sexual or non-sexual – violates their boundaries.”
VICE contacted YouTube for comment but is yet to receive a response.