This is my first time speaking to Lily Whispers, but she isn't unfamiliar. We communicate over email, but I read her responses in the delicate Pittsburgh tones I'm used to from her ASMR videos – which are subscribed to by over 170,000 people.
Little is know about ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response), because not a huge amount of research has been conducted on it. But what we do know is that for those who experience the sensation, certain audio and visual stimuli – whispering voices, white noise, fingers scratching a surface – can generate a tingling feeling in the head, neck or other parts of the body. A whole YouTube community now exists to provide those triggers in video form, and Lily Whispers is one of the big names in the game.
The videos are known to reduce stress, alleviate anxiety and aid sleep – and yet the concept of ASMR remains an awkward topic of conversation, sometimes even misconceived as being synonymous with sexual pleasure. I spoke to Lily about her YouTube journey and stamping down on the stigma.
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VICE: For people who don’t quite get it, what other therapeutic process would you compare ASMR to?
Lily Whispers: I would compare it to experiences where you are pampered – where it's all about you, the individual. ASMR is intimate in the sense that you don't sit around and watch ASMR videos with your friends. It's easy to feel overlooked and overwhelmed so escaping to watch an ASMR video where you are the subject is really comforting.
What is your personal experience with the misconception that ASMR videos have sexual connotations?
You know, people sexualise everything these days. Did you know there's literally a community that gets turned on by being covered in insects? So naturally, we're more of a target since we're creating a relaxing, intimate environment for our viewers. For instance, when my sorority found out I was making videos they freaked! They thought I was whispering "dirty things" to a camera. Our society doesn't do enough soul-searching. We don't listen and we don't research. We're impressionable, and many members of my sorority were sheep; one girl got freaked out and thought it was sexual, and the other girls joined in. I think that's the same thing that happens here – one person sees it as sexual and then everyone's like, "Whoa, ASMR is a sexual fetish, beware!" When it's not true, and 90 percent of true ASMR content creators work very hard to minimise the sexual stigma attached to ASMR. Unfortunately, there is a rising community of "ASMR erotica". Like I said before, people will sexualise literally anything.
How did ASMR impact your personal life?
When I felt misunderstood and ostracised after my university found out about my YouTube channel, I was very fragile and even withdrew for the remainder of the semester because of it. My friend Julia was the only person I truly confided in about my channel, and she would give me pep talks day after day, telling me to push through and that I was helping so many people. Even today, when I get a weird stalker-ish message that messes me up, she's the first one I go to, and there is so much value in being able to have someone to go to about these things. Unfortunately, it is a touchy subject for me. A couple of months ago I was getting harassed by these girls and their first stab at me was: "Omg, go whisper on YouTube," and I was like, "Grrrrreat." My ASMR channel definitely inhibited my dating life, that's for sure. I've been ghosted because of it and broken up with because some guy thought it was too weird to wrap his head around. That's why, when I met my now-boyfriend, one of the first things I told him was "I make ASMR videos," and had to explain what it was. I learned hiding behind it made it seem like some big secret that I was ashamed of.
How did you really begin to own what you do?
The beginning of senior year, a peer of mine wrote an article and centred it around how much money I was making from my channel. In my head I was like, "Awesome, if something so stupid as money is going to get people off my back for my YouTube channel, so be it." I obviously don't make ASMR videos for the money, although it is a secondary source of income for me and helps with college loans and whatnot. It is truly fulfilling to help people, and getting the kind emails and messages I do is really humbling.
Your videos "ASMR Helping You With Your Eating Disorder" and "ASMR Helping You With Your Depression" both address two very fragile subjects.
I went to a Big 10 school, and I think maybe one in five girls I knew had an eating disorder or body image issues. I, myself, struggled with depression, and I've had friends who have as well. To prepare for those videos I just put myself in those moments again – the difficult conversation with my best friend when I noticed her purging, or my other friend who was contemplating suicide. Many viewers thought it to be "trivialising", and I understand that – everyone is entitled to their opinion. However, I created the content without that intention.
What's your stance on ASMR being considered a form of therapy, in relation to tackling issues like depression or eating disorders?
I'm not a professional. I think ASMR attempts to scratch the surface of being a form of therapy, especially since we live in a society centred around "instant gratification", and it's a heck of a lot easier to watch a YouTube video than it is to schedule an appointment with a psychologist. I personally do not agree with ASMR being a form of therapy, though, just because I feel unequipped to deal with a lot of issues, whereas an actual professional is.
What do you think the future holds for ASMR, in terms of technology and its reputation?
I've got so many emails from people streamlining ASMR. They wanna make a radio station, they wanna make an app, they wanna make a website where you pay a fee and subscribe to watch ASMR videos. Half of these people just found out about ASMR and aren't even creators – they’re just people with dollar signs in their eyes, looking to get rich. That's heartbreaking to me. I think its reputation will continue to grow and transform as it has already. Even today, more and more ASMR videos are teetering between being VR entertainment and a relaxing ASMR video. It's so awesome to see! I think as more science about ASMR comes out, it'll determine a lot of things.
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