In YouTube creator GentleWhispering's most recent video, she emerges from behind a curtain clad in a flight attendant uniform. As she goes through the motions of directing you, the passenger, to the nearest exits, a soft spoken recording plays overhead. This plane's destination? Sleep.
YouTubers like GentleWhispering identify with a feeling called ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. Described by those in the business as "tingles", this pleasant, cloudy feeling occurs towards the back of your skull and is reported to be an involuntary reaction to soothing sounds such as light tapping, crinkling, and whispering. ASMR, while not a scientifically recognized phenomenon, isn't universal. Like a widow's peak, you have it or you don't, but judging by the view count on GentleWhispering's most popular video, at least 11 million people do.
In these videos, the 'ASMRtist', as he or she (but most often, she) is called, will perform these gentle and, frankly, mundane tasks for anywhere from ten minutes to two hours. Two hours of a pretty woman stroking, whispering and gazing at the camera, but the endgame is relaxation. It's not sexual.
If you find this hard to believe, you're not alone. Just a quick skim through the comments section on any one of these videos, and you'll find statements ranging from sexually curious: "I don't mean to be rude or prevy [sic] or anything of that sort but sometimes when I watch ASMR videos on this channel I get sexually aroused probably because I'm 13 lol" to straight to the point: "MY BALLS TINGLE". Then, there's the earnest requests: "Do a video with your boobs. Gently caress them while whispering sweet nothings into each microphone." These are often met with disgust, with long-time viewers claiming that these kind of comments give traditional ASMR a bad name.
That's where ASMRotica comes in.
"Several months ago, through ASMR groups and forums, I started to notice an emerging demand for erotic ASMR," explained Laila, who goes by Laila Love ASMR on YouTube. I had sent a few emails out to ASMR creators who publicly brand themselves as catering to the more sensual side of the genre. I wanted to know just what this subgenre was, and how it carved its place inside this community. What I found was, despite adamant insistence to the contrary, once these videos starting hitting subscription boxes, viewers ate it up. "After uploading my first video, I was seriously overwhelmed with all the attention that it got," Laila continued. "Several videos and several hundred subscriptions later, my channel just kind of blew up and I've been doing it ever since. It's been a lot of fun."
My goal is to make my viewers feel relaxed, appreciated, and like someone cares about fulfilling all of their needs
If you're wondering what an erotic ASMR video looks like, picture a watered-down version of your late-night Google search-which is kind of how creator Juicy Peach arrived on the scene. "My interest in offering more vanilla recordings was driven by mails I would receive from my erotica listeners explaining that whilst my voice aroused them, they also found it incredibly soothing." These "more vanilla recordings" are in contrast to her previous work: explicit audio recordings posted on YouTube with titles such as 'Sweet Morning Fuck' and 'Your Dirty Office Slut'. Now, her videos aren't as up front, with titles such as 'In Bed With Juicy Peach: Sunrise' and 'Sensual Whispers and Feather Kisses ASMR'. Juicy Peach trades the orgasm for the 'Post Orgasmic Bliss', while Laila does something similar, frequently role-playing a caring girlfriend who just wants to help you get to sleep.
While both Laila and Juicy Peach came to their work with different backgrounds, their common denominator is an interesting one: their services were specifically sought out, particularly by men.
"I only learned about ASMR late last year, when I received an email from a gentleman who has a successful following for his ASMR channel on YouTube," Juicy Peach told me over email. "He said he found my work did a beautiful job of balancing the sensual whilst using ASMR techniques in my erotic audios. I had not heard of it before and began to do a bit of research. And it was true that certain words, inflections and mouth effects I was doing naturally fell into the realm of ASMR. The more I researched, the more intrigued I became."
The reasoning for this might come down to biology. On Russell Brand's YouTube series "The Trews," he dedicated an entire episode to ASMR, unpacking the feeling, and asking his viewers if this was something akin to female porn. His claim from the start is that he doesn't "have the emotional facility, or sophistication, to accept it for what it is". He reasons that most men likely feel aroused by ASMR because they've "been so highly trained to respond to those signals". The gist of the nine minute video is this: ASMR is a female phenomenon that men are unable to digest in the way it was intended. When it comes to traditional ASMR, every view, take or comment comes with the same question: is this sexual? Should I be turned on? ASMRotica makes it easy: yes.
But accepting this only opens up the room to more questions. On places like Tumblr, full-on porn appears on your dashboard whether or not you've asked for it, so when you do go looking for it, you don't have to go very far. Even the real thing is becoming easier to get on short notice. The app Tinder is most effective for determining two things: who is near, and who is willing. So what's missing? Why are male viewers turning to fully clothed, albeit suggestive, women on video when they could obtain the full monty by simply swiping right?
Most straight men can't give another man a compliment without, verbally or internally, tacking on a "no homo".
While Juicy Peach and Laila were emailed separately, they almost finish each other's sentences when they answer that question. "In my humble opinion, I think it truly boils down to a sense of intimacy," says Juicy Peach. "Porn can be incredibly cold, even if it's visually stimulating."
"Mainstream porn is generally just about sex," Laila wrote. "Straight to the point, PIV (or P In Whatever) fucking. It's strictly carnal. Erotic ASMR is more than that. Erotic ASMR is very personal. It's about having someone take care of you, have someone spoil you."
"When I create an ASMR audio, it's meant to be listened to with your eyes closed, in your bedroom or a quiet place that allows me to draw you in and take you away with me for a bit," adds Juicy Peach. "Creating an intimate world for us to escape into. I've learned that the need for a connection, for that intimacy is just as powerful as the desire to watch porn but on a different level."
"In a lot of my videos, my goal is to make my viewers feel relaxed, appreciated, and like someone cares about fulfilling all of their needs," Laila echoes. "I want them to feel comfortable and relaxed as much as I want them to be turned on, and there's an intimacy in that. I think even people who don't experience ASMR can see the appeal."
Whether or not the ASMR community knows it, this divide in the genre can be traced directly to performative gender and gender expectations. It would seem to me that traditional ASMR, as Brand suggested, is a purely female activity because, for women, intimacy isn't a strictly sexual language. Most of the activities role-played in traditional ASMR are things women have been experiencing platonically since birth. Hair braiding, scalp massage, even basic cuddling are things that close female friends frequently participate in without second thought. Most straight men can't give another man a compliment without, verbally or internally, tacking on a "no homo" to erase any idea that it's anything other than friendly. Men aren't given the privilege of touch unless it precedes fucking, anything else is not only emasculating, it borders on uncomfortable.
So they can get a hook up at the touch of a button, so what? If a male is seeking solely that feeling of intimacy, they turn to ASMR, a community that traditionally turns on them at the first sign of a boner. But ASMRotica welcomes them with open arms. I'd say with open legs, but both women are adamant that the services they're providing aren't sex work. For Juicy Peach, the reasoning is simple: "It's not work. The day it becomes work is the day I will know I need to stop."
Laila agrees, saying erotic ASMR "isn't any more sex work than what Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus, or whatever other musician/actor/entertainer does on screen."
No, these women, and their contemporaries, are providing a different service entirely. Not the orgasm, but the pillow talk. Not the morning-after, but the smiles exchanged the night before. "One of the biggest surprises in all of this is the connection you feel with your listeners," Juicy Peach confesses. "The feedback, the mails, the support and even the need for what I do. It's stunning to me! In the most beautiful way." Sweet dreams.