What is ASMR?

Jason H. McCleary–Bradshaw

Assoc. Farm Life Contributor

YouTube’s multimillion-dollar ASMR videos are ad-friendly sex work.

This is a question that took over the internet as teens licking their microphones blanketed YouTube in recent years. The weirdos who made such videos have garnered millions of views, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and global attention.

Supposedly the most popular ASMR video is a Korean Mukbang video called ASMR Rainbow Crepe Cake, Edible Spoon, Macaron, Nerds Rope Jelly (available here: youtu.be/ZwXE7A-KLjw). This video, uploaded by “Jane ASMR 제인,” has over 235 Million views, and Jane’s channel has over 1,200 videos, each averaging around 10 million views. Jane’s (제인’s) channel is three years old, started in 2019, and has made an estimated $20 Million dollars, in 3 years.

Apparently, mukbang videos are Korean ‘food videos,’ of watching models eat lavish meals. Mukbang videos are the most popular form of ASMR video, with several tens of billions of views (undoubtedly the result of hundreds of millions of ASMR-fans watching and rewatching the same content to reach that figure, since it is impossible to think that even 1 billion people even use YouTube that regularly). With 14 Million subscribers, Jane ASMR is one of the top ten most popular YouTubers around.

But there is another genre of ASMR videos, aside from mukbang. It is what is called sound and visual ASMR, and there are two separate branches of this as well. There is a dirty branch of ASMR filled with small-time and independent sex workers who are the subject of this article, each one able to make several hundred thousand dollars on YouTube (not porn sites) in just a matter of months.

The other is the clean side of ASMR, where a small number of content-makers such as “Gibi ASMR,” “ASMR Darling,” “Maria GentleWhispering,” and “ASMR Ppomo” suck up the all the oxygen — about five YouTube channels make up the vast majority of all the, quote-and-quote, “mainstream ASMR” views, and YouTube is the only platform ASMR appears on.

Many of the “ASMRotica” makers got their start on YouTube making “mainstream” or “clean” ASMR, before going over to the dark side and making “mouth sounds videos,” “girlfriend roleplays,” and opening OnlyFans accounts. Now, there is an ASMR filter on several porn sites, mostly videos scraped off of YouTube, Twitch.tv, Patreon, or OnlyFans, created by these fallen angels of YouTube sex work.

The kicker? Jane ASMR, Gibi ASMR, ASMR Darling, and many of the porn starlets are all between the ages 19 and 21, yet each rake in millions upon millions of dollars on a regular basis (!), just a few short years after starting their YouTube / OnlyFans channels! Most of them never appear nude, but verbally imply suggestive content with risqué (but not explicitly pornographic) videos. At the end of the day, even the “clean” ASMR crowd of 19-year-old girls on YouTube are still millionaire camgirls, so-called “E-girls;” So is ASMR the new goldmine of virtual phone sex?

The concept as has been come to be known as ASMR is a YouTube phenomena that started out as a meme. Well, you could say it started as a “community” of people who secretly liked when other people whispered up-close in their ears, and thought the sensation of scratching towels felt nice.

This might not sound particularly unique, or warranting of a concept or title like “ASMR,” but the purpose of ASMR YouTube videos became to elicit the same “tingling” response through the videos that people felt doing these small daily gestures of rubbing something or liking someone’s company.

ASMR became a term for those of the “Tingles Community,” posting videos online of rubbing fabrics, jingling metal trinkets, and listening to someone whisper over the sounds of ocean waves.

After reaching a wider audience, it then became a “challenge” or sorts. ASMR videos were watched and distributed among people so they could see if they felt the fabled ‘tingles’ the ASMR-watchers kept hearing about. From the point of being a challenge to the common and uninformed viewer, ASMR just became a meme.

And like all memes on YouTube, it became a content farm. ASMR videos are (or were somewhat at the time) based on sound, much like a music video is, but using sounds of the world or the filmer instead of the instruments or vocals. Because it is to a degree sound-based, and intended to be watched all the way through for the purpose of merely seeing what will come next, the viewer is trapped in a view-loop on this kind of content.

ASMR does not confer any kind of information; it is an experiential kind of content. Essentially, that means that it keeps people in their seats longer, and keeps them watching, or listening, longer as well.

The way Google rates content on YouTube is by the number of user engagements. Videos that have more views, more likes, more comments under them, have more ads, have a high ratio of viewers clicking on (or especially purchasing from) those ads, and the faster viewers discover and watch a video after posting will be deemed by Google’s “YouTube Algorithm” as being more important and something people want to see.

From here, Google promotes the video by having a YouTube employee manually curate the video to the YouTube Front Page and adding it into the infamous Recommended Videos list. Google does this because their goal is to sell ad-space on YouTube; Getting hot content to users as quickly as possible keeps people using YouTube more often, and keeps them using longer every time they log on. That means more time to see ads, and more people seeing those ads.

That pool of trained and captive viewers is immensely attractive to advertisers, because by tracking the number of people who are sent their ads at any given time and measuring them against sales figures, they know that the more people see an ad is directly related to higher profits. Because advertising budgets are made by weighing the millions of dollars of costs for ads against the projected bump in revenue, the more people watching YouTube, uninterrupted, for long periods of time give Google the ability to sell a product which companies and corporations are willing to pay more and more for.

So, Google tracks how long each particular video is being watched, and it is in their commercial interest (for the time-being) to push videos being watched longer to the top. That means videos that convey very little information while enticing the viewer to watch from beginning to end: Mindless entertainment.

Because ASMR videos became a meme, spreading like a virus to millions of people around the world who were curious about the whole “tingles challenge” thing — and because ASMR videos are usually between 30 minutes and 1 hour long, and people watch them all the way through — the weird, little subsection of the internet suddenly became very valuable.

People may not have been watching the ASMR videos, just as people don’t really watch music videos, but all Google cares about is that they keep the tab open and the ads play; They can sell those figures back to their advertisers.

It is important to consider that while Google creates consumer products of its own, it makes the majority of its money aggregating, mining, and selling personal data on people around the world — a process that would fall under the professional and corporate services department. That’s how Google’s five biggest components, Google Search, YouTube, Gmail, Android OS, and Chrome, are free, while Google is a multibillion dollar company. Everything you search, watch, or send is catalogued and monetised for Google’s, and their client companies’, benefit.

Because of the way YouTube’s business model worked, rather than let ASMR run its course for what it is and probably die out as an odd and somewhat pointless niche, Google very much benefitted if ASMR, and things like it, stayed alive. This is probably the reason that Google is the only major search engine that has not taken a significant stance on banning pornographic sites from registering in its search results. If people are searching and watching for long periods of time, regardless of what it is or why, companies can profit. In the Attention Economy of the Digital Age, average clicks or visits, average time on-site, and how much that content reveals about the user, are the only things that really matter to the ones selling ad-space.

This is where a problem comes in. Say that YouTube is a tower on a plot of land, and YouTube “Content Creators” are a billboard at the top of that tower, and companies can pay to put commercials and branding on that billboard.

So-called influencers on social media have no influence or power at all. Google and Facebook, the owners of YouTube and Instagram, have ALL the influence, and they allow those who call themselves influencers (mostly women, a.k.a. “VSCO girls”) to use their platform because they draw in the views and spark the user engagement that the host company benefits from. Google and Facebook cultivate an environment for those “influencers,” but the ‘influence’ is wholly endowed upon them by the owners of the sites (who could take it away at any moment).

While the company owns the tower may not care what someone puts up on the billboard as long as it attracts attention, the company that would pay to use that billboard cares a lot about the kind of attention the billboard gets and what kind of neighbourhood the tower itself is in. Google is just interested in how many raw views and how many ‘high-quality’ viewers — ie. people who are likely to watch start-to-finish, personally engage, and then buy things — are on their site. Content creators just care about how many raw views they get and how much money they get from monetising ads. Advertisers however care a great deal about what kind of content their ads appear on, who is going to be watching their ads, and what kind of ecosystem Google is running.

As a somewhat reputable company, Google (and YouTube) can attract big names in the ad-space market. Other multibillion dollar corporations in areas like tech, media, and soft drinks. But that reputation relies upon Google’s ability to manage both its user base, and its content creators, and not just extract views and personal data from them.

When ASMR became the next big thing in the past half-decade, it attracted a lot of attention, and a lot of mimics. And because no mimicry is truly pure, that lead to a lot of mutations — all of which were competing to use the same, money-making “ASMR” banner.

In many interviews of the biggest ASMR channels on YouTube, all except about three of them say they started an ASMR channel because they “found” ASMR (ie: ‘Google or the meme culture pushed it to them’) and they though it was “something I could do” (ie: ‘it looked like cheap, easy money’).

Much like the streaming boom revolutionised gaming, ASMR became the new streaming — now for people who were no good at video games and had no interesting commentary or personality to offer their audience.

ASMR mutated from a niche collection of small and modest videos about sounds into a veritable gold rush of internet bums seeking a get-rich-quick scheme. The ASMR title became a catch-all term, meaning essentially nothing but for the individual channel using the term. It no longer appealed to sounds, or even “tingles.”

Videos with titles like “ASMR for People Who Don’t Get Tingles,” or “100 Triggers for Tingle Immunity,” or “ASMR to Help You Game, Study, or Sleep,” or “Visual ASMR in 4K” started to appear.

One would think, that if the sole purpose of ASMR is to impart a tingly sensation to the viewer, then listening to a video in the background with absolutely no intent to feel said tingles would not qualify as ASMR.

On several ASMR videos (probably the majority of them), if the screen is turned off and the audio is left to stand alone, they are not pleasant to listen to. The audio quality is jagged, disjointed, bland, and unprofessional. What the women of ASMR are really selling is the visual component, not the auditory. But that goes against the very fundamental premise of ASMR, which is supposed to be a painstakingly auditory experience. Most “ASMR” videos have nothing to do with sound, as much as staring at a woman’s heavily made-up face, or a woman’s pale bony fingers, or a set of breasts for 30 minutes on end.

ASMR culture is so self-consuming, that there is a special kind of microphone, that may not have been exactly ‘meant’ for ASMR videos, but is the most popular among them (besides the Blue Yeti pod microphones that cost $100 on Amazon). They are called 3-Dio microphones, and their market appeal is having two plush plastic covers over the mics in the shape of ears, so the simulated acts can look and “feel” more realistic. In many videos, the YouTuber is wearing headphones to hear the sounds of their recording in real time. In one instance, under this wide and wild category of “ASMR,” a woman was watching the image of herself in her camera’s viewfinder, while listening to herself lick her own ears through her 3-Dio microphone. There is something auto-fellatiary in that. . . even if she was making those videos to send to others — nameless, faceless people over the internet (but at least they’re not earless).

And where the gamer boom became a haven of geeky men building a haven for themselves, and ironically exploiting a geeky male fanbase for views and clout, the ASMR boom became a space solely for young women to again exploit a male viewership and fanbase as a new kind of streaming; or exclusively cater to an all-female fanbase as a new type of vlogging template.

Because ASMR makes for high-margin videos made with minimal effort or content, most of the copycats who jumped on the bandwagon to make ASMR were not enthusiasts for the genre (if you could call it that), and really didn’t care what it was. They didn’t care what made a burger a burger, they just wanted a restaurant.

Because the original iteration of ASMR was focused on delicacy and attention to detail, as well as shyness and an awkward energy, it made sense that the original viewer base was largely women and introverted ‘artsy’ types. As a by-product of that, most of the original people inspired to create ASMR were also women. While men were present since the beginning, the utter lack of masculine energy made YouTube ASMR a bit of a ‘by women, for women’ kind of thing.

When ASMR went viral and blew up, men started watching — mostly drawn in by the feminine energy of the content and the femininity of the creators — but they did not join in. It is not a manly thing to be delicate, or whisper or blow on people, or delight in the supposed minute pleasures of things.

The other group that started watching was, naturally, women. Some jumped into what they thought was a receptive platform for women and were genuinely interested in the quality of sound editing and simulated touch, called tingles, but they were a severe minority. As one might expect, the majority of women watched, but had no interest in creating. And a large number of women saw ASMR as their ticket to a big name.

It was startling how fast a vlogger, or a cosplayer, or any random person could get tens of thousands of subscribers simply because they listed ASMR in their channel name and video titles — even if the videos had nothing to do with ASMR. Google was heavily pushing ASMR as a cash cow, and the meme was taking on a life of its own. But of course, this only applied to women.

ASMR had an inherent sexism baked in, an exact reverse of the gaming cult. It had a male userbase who wanted only to find female vloggers to look at and fawn over; and it had a female userbase who wanted only to find female vloggers to sympathise and engage with on a familiar level. There was no place for men in ASMR.

As an offshoot of the sexism problem, ASMR also started to have a severe racism problem. To become an ‘ASMR-tist,’ there was almost an unspoken rule that one had to be a pale, otherwise attractive, female YouTuber. And so, in search of easy money, thousands of them began to populate the web.

This lack of any content or diversity of choice, along with an easily imitatable premise, large male viewership — and new, broadly unregulated, definition of what ASMR would become — made it extremely popular to the porn industry. The multimillion to multibillion dollar porn industry had been looking for a way to infect its way across the firewall, from its hardcore pornography on porn sites based in California and Florida — which advertisers would, mostly, never use — to the impressionable and relative innocence of YouTube and Instagram.

To stamp the pests out, Facebook bans the use of nudity on Instagram, and Google either age-gates or strikes down suggestive content on YouTube. ASMR was a new grey area, for porn producers to engage with Google on their own territory, armed with a new kind of softcore porn, that proliferated in the wild west of the ASMR boom.

ASMR, again, went from focusing on tingles, vlogs, and mass-consumption content (coining terms like “tingle immunity”), to embracing a salacious tone. Instead of ‘towel rubbing,’ more videos were focused on ‘ear licking,’ where a woman would videotape herself licking a microphone up-close and post it to YouTube, claiming there was no sexual component to the video. Full-blown porn stars and prostitutes started to make the migration over to YouTube, to be a part of the new gold rush; presumably it was much easier to lick a microphone on camera than to have sex on camera. And why not do both?

YouTube proliferating the new kind of ASMR became an opportunity for sex workers, and other utterly vapid creators, to build a quick and lucrative following with no talent and with no effort. The top ASMR videos on YouTube went from, “Let Me Give You Tingles,” to, “Let Me Pretend to Lick You Through the Screen.” This is where Google started to apply its anti-porn hammer to ASMR, very much upsetting the ASMR producers who did not view themselves as sexual and had already set up for themselves a comfortable arrangement.

It is not truly to be said that all ASMR creators lack talent and do not create something of value. Some do put effort and work into their videos. It is to be said however that there is nothing inherently valuable or intriguing about ASMR itself, especially after the name has become so warped from what it at first meant — and continues to gain a wider range of different meanings.

The vast majority of ASMR channels on YouTube do not add anything to the concept of “ASMR,” and certainly do not give much back to their viewer in return for the attention they receive.

It seemed as if — if you were a young, pallid, female, and to at least some degree attractive — you could buy yourself a ring light, a Yeti microphone, and record yourself on your phone, and become a YouTube sensation. Those higher up the ladder may have had greenscreens, or fancy sets set in their apartment, or elaborate dress-up and make-up, but the routine was the same. ASMR had become a racist, sexist, and ageist outlet for pseudo softcore porn.

The backlash against ASMR created a rift in “The ASMR Community” (a loose term for the young women of North America and Europe who makes these videos on YouTube and have a significant following or a Silver / Gold Play Button from Google), between the established channels and this new era of whisper videos. All the wanted attention had become unwanted attention.

The established channels, who had already collaborated with the YouTube outreach arm to an extent, claimed the issue was not the flood of new girls whom they had to compete for views with, as they admitted that the more people making or watching ASMR was all the better for them, as the big channels, but the response that flood of unscrupulous girls creating “ASMR-otica” was prompting from YouTube, and the change those women represented for what it meant to be in ASMR.

Advertisers do not want to put their ads on a shoddy billboard in a rough neighbourhood. That is why, despite the lesser viewing numbers, they advertise on Google or the New York Times, instead of porn sites. Advertisers began to notice that flood of porn into ASMR was not converting ASMR into porn, but exposing that it always was a type of porn to begin with.

In defence of ASMR, or at least in defence of themselves not being compared to prostitutes, many of the young female YouTubers and vloggers posted lengthy videos to their subscribers where they conceded that “ASMR can seem weird,” and “ASMR is certainly intimate,” but drew the line at contrasting intimacy with eroticism.

The failure of their argument distancing ASMR from porn on the basis of intimacy, is that the business model of porn is to sell intimacy. That’s why it was so easy for porn stars to convert into ASMRtists, and start mixing in their erotica and ASMRotica. These young woman also failed to address the fact that they — as teenage, pale, effeminate, and affluent YouTubers — were displacing the “original” ASMR community, of older, more adult women, enthusiasts, and generally more normal people, who held the dirty secret of liking ASMR. It’s a possibility ASMR could have been different to porn, if it had focused on the sounds instead of the visuals, and focused on the so-called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.

After reading some articles on the ‘study’ and suggestions on what such an “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response” is, it seems overwhelmingly convinced that such a thing doesn’t really exist, and has no scientific value whatsoever. At it’s most basic explanation, removing all the sell that the writers put into it, ASMR in these analysis articles is the fact that watching a person touch a camera can trigger a feeling in the viewer of being touched, even if watching from a screen, as if the viewers face were in place instead of the camera. That phenomena is real, and it is much simpler, and better grouped with, other optical illusions than given its own term of “ASMR.”

Women who make ASMR have even appeared on the news to make their argument about how they should be able to keep their money, without falling into the stigma of other — lesser — kinds of sex work.

In the United Kingdom, one woman appeared on morning television where she was challenged by the host who asked her if ASMR was sexual or not, because with the close-up interactions to camera, large and exclusively-female content base, and the employ of things like roleplays, it seemed pretty sexual. Her response could be summed up as, ‘Because I am doing it, and I am not a prostitute, it is not sexual; And people need to leave women alone to do nice and pleasant things.’ The typical responses these women give walk the impossible line on the fence, of trying to one the one hand validate women for going into sex work, while also trying distance themselves from sex work because it would be beneath them.

Interviews were also given in the United States, where the ASMR women were again challenged, or at least questioned, about the sexual component of their content. It should be said that some of these hosts were male, some were female, some were heterosexual, some were homosexual. In some cases, it also came off as it the male hosts had an axe to grind by bringing in a woman younger than themselves to probe her on her sexuality, which made for an inescapably awkward mood in the room. But these women should ask one question: If everyone thinks ASMR looks sexual, and much of ASMR is becoming more and more sexual through the growth of the ASMR porn market, is ASMR sexual?

Should it take an international media campaign to convince people if what’s happening is, in fact, normal? Why are the people mostly defending ASMR only the women who profit from it themselves? Could it be, that ASMR is indeed problematic or sexual, but these ASMR women rationalise what they are doing to themselves, and externalise the problem by calling their critics perverted and misunderstanding their content, instead admitting that by making their videos they are jumping into a perverted space?

To say seeing sex in ASMR is sexist, because it suggests that anything a woman does is inherently sexual, misses the mark in criticisms of ASMR. For starters, normal vloggers do not have their sexuality questioned in the same way ASMR vloggers do, and the majority of vloggers are also women. To suggest that people focus on ASMR — or porn — because it is a way for women to make lots of money both openly admits the sexual component and fails to admit that the women don’t make the majority of that money, the company with a holding interest, like Google in this case, do. And these companies are run by old men, not the young women they plaster to the front pages of their sites.

Watching an ASMR video of a woman rubbing a camera lens, or of a person brushing a microphone, in order to experience a simulated feeling of someone actually touching your face or brushing your ears is a necessarily intimate experience, and overwhelmingly sexual experience, because we only touch each other tenderly and longingly when we are having sex. Maybe it’s a societal thing; Maybe it should change; Maybe it shouldn’t; Nonetheless, it is the truth about how people interact.

For these ASMR women to say they don’t make porn and complain about how Google is oppressing them by demonetising their platform because advertisers don’t like their videos before whispering into a microphone to simulate the act of pillow talk into their audience’s ears, is not so distant from the ASMR-porn market than they may like to believe. The damage to the ASMR world was done, a victim of its own success in many ways, but it did not disappear.

For those who made sexual content on YouTube under titles like, “ASMR Ear Licking,” “ASMR Mouth Sounds,” “ASMR Lens Licking,” “ASMR Intimate Whispers,” “ASMR Massage,” “ASMR Girlfriend Roleplay” — they pivoted their market from the overtly sexual, to the suggestive, focusing more on “ASMR for Sleep” or “ASMR Roleplay” or “ASMR Personal Attention” or “ASMR Clothing Hauls,” which were not only more vague and generic titles, but achieved pretty much the same effect in the end.

By making videos focused more on “sleep” than relaxation — fully aware of the association sleep has, as an activity for after sex — and making videos of girls twirling in skimpy clothing that clearly had a sexual component, but could be said to be ostensibly about the fashion element, ASMR porn on YouTube pivoted into a new realm, a new genre of vlog. It also created a new market: People could develop an addiction to ASMR, where they felt they needed to use the videos to sleep every night, or felt they needed to watch ASMR to pick out their new make-up routine or clothing style. And many of the vlogger ASMR-makers did start to fill that space, because it created an artificial need, and a new kind of demand.

At the same time, removing the words “licking” and “girlfriend” from “mouth sound” and “roleplay” videos, while continuing to put out the same content, was an additional layer of cover. “Sucking on Bananas ASMR” became “Licking Ice Cream ASMR,” to add a layer of deniability for the inevitable content strike.

YouTubers who did not want to be labelled in the same category as the suggestive ASMR channels, and who didn’t want to be demonetised by Google, put an complete nix on those kinds of videos, no longer making the now-taboo mouth sounds, or clothing haul content — or still making it, but in a censored and sterile form.

While there has been such a great controversy over sex and ASMR, Sexual-based content has never done as well as the Vlogging-based ASMR content. Vlog ASMR is even bigger than the original, Sound-based ASMR. And after Sleep ASMR absorbed much of the erotic ASMR field, Vlog and Sleep ASMR became the two largest areas, at least by views.

The reason Vlog ASMR and Sleep ASMR overtook ASMR Porn and Tingles ASMR is because only horny men (and, especially, horny lesbians) watch ASMR porn; No one but the fanatics really watch ‘real’ ASMR. Men, women, and casual viewers from across the Internet watch ‘ASMR Vlogs’ or ‘ASMR for Sleep.’ Of course, the “ASMR” in the title is just tacked on for the sake of branding, yet it defines these new genres of YouTube nonetheless, as a subset of vlogs and long-form content.

Now that ASMR has ‘sold its soul’ to become mainstream, anyone can watch ASMR. Sleep ASMR and Vlog ASMR are also the highest prone to get their viewers hooked, because their viewers feel the need to watch the next “ASMR Makeup Tutorial,” or think that ASMR will soothe their social anxiety or stress disorder, or they might think they need to log-on to YouTube every night in order to go to sleep.

Of course, looking at a computer screen while motionless in your room is one of the single worst things a person could do for their sleep, their social life, or their state of mind. But YouTube is about views, not truth — and certainly not wellbeing.

ASMR erotica was never profitable, not for YouTube or their advertisers, and not for those who brought it to YouTube. Porn is terrible for advertising because hormonal people are not interesting in buying things; They have only one thing on their mind at that particular time.

While erotic ASMR never really worked as an ad-generator, that does not mean it will disappear. YouTube-brand ASMR was a very effective method to produce softcore porn, especially for webcammers. A single woman, typically young, typically pale, running a one-woman production in her spare room while flaunting her attractiveness (wearing fancy makeup and elaborate clothes) to a receptive audience — if it worked for the Vlogger ASMR sphere on YouTube, it will continue to work for the women who webcam for money.

All ASMR is based on, as the ASMR bigshots say themselves, intimacy. All sexual gratification is also based in intimacy. To put it another way: All sex is intimacy, but not all intimacy is sex; All ASMR is intimacy, but not all intimacy is ASMR. (All ducks are birds, but not all birds are ducks.) While intimacy is not the same as either sex or ASMR, being a bigger concept on the whole than either, ASMR and porn are forever going to be in the same tent.

YouTube ASMR will always be a place for low-budget female exposure, even if the form it takes continually evolves over time. Since the exodus of advertisers, ASMR content creators have turned to new avenues to continue their revenue streams. Some have migrated to Twitch, and simply stream “ASMR” content to their fans in return for donations (and that sounds a lot like webcamming. . .).

Others have turned to the site Patreon, the infamous haven for anyone who is saying something too disagreeable for YouTube to monetise, but not so disagreeable that they could be taken down in a place of free, acceptable speech.

Hand-in-hand with Patreon, the more risqué part of YouTube (and Instagram) have turned to a site called OnlyFans, a scourge which deserves unique and individual attention, but was the internet’s answer to combining the porn subscription model of a model’s porn site with the air of exclusivity and fear-of-missing-out people experience from sites like Instagram and Snapchat. People buy OnlyFans because its the place your friend’s mom might be doing porn, because she’d fancy herself too ‘classy’ for another site, while somehow deluding herself that OnlyFans is closer to Instagram than just another the full-fledged porn site (and it is just another webcam / porn site).

YouTube and Instagram are forever engaged in the battle, and balancing act, of swatting down porn while at the same time promoting suggestive content which advertisers don’t really consider porn, because it drives traffic to their sites. While YouTube may consider ASMR suggestive, it keeps ASMR on its site because millions of people watch it every single day.

Google manages to keep ASMR traffic running through its site while keeping advertisers satisfied in the knowledge that their ads will never appear on such smut by leaving the videos up and demonetising them.

Google thinks the videos are popular and harmless enough to leave up and benefit their platform, and Google still boosts ASMR videos by pushing them into people’s suggestions. It’s really the worst of both worlds, because Google recognises there is a fundamental problem with that type of content, hence demonetising it, yet they are still fully willing to exploit it, while not paying the content makers. Even if Google hates porn (which they — all five of their employees — probably don’t), they should at least ban it entirely, or pay the women making it. The middle-of-the-row attitude of condemning it while continuing to profit from it, albeit a bit more indirectly nowadays, is objectionable and dishonest behaviour all around.

The women who never viewed themselves as purveying in sexual content have pivoted by finding their own advertisers, through video sponsorships, a common tactic on YouTube’s insecure and turbulent management landscape.

ASMR may have reached the point where it is widespread, but it is not mainstream. It can never be mainstream, not without a serious change in the world’s entire culture about what is appropriate conduct. There is a perception that ASMR is still just for perverts and weirdos.

In the current times, stroking people through a screen and whispering into a mic for a living, because “I saw other women doing it online and thought it was strange but something I could do, and give my personal spin on” — as one ASMR producer with several hundred thousand followers has said — will always be one of the lowest forms of content available.

The women who profit from ASMR make their complaints about the reality of what they are doing, but unconvincingly so. The world has already caught on. ASMR is regularly demonetised on Google, banned outright in China, and listed as a porn category on dozens if not hundreds of shady websites.

What ASMR really is these days is a fad, but not so much a gateway drug to porn as an easy side deal for the aspiring ‘porn artist.’ Still, that coincidence cannot be denied; The porn industry is justly interested in the ASMR market, because it draws from the same source. ASMR is not useful for people, but that point is true for the vast majority on online content feigning under the guise of the “entertainment” or “editorial” headers.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who “watches” ASMR videos. Maybe they’ve seen one, probably by accident, and they certainly don’t talk about it. Yet ASMR is huge on YouTube, underground sites on the Web, and even Twitter. It looks like it has penetrated the internet culture, from the point of view of someone locked in the tunnel vision of social-media-suggested content, but it has not penetrated the popular culture — even if Cardi B also has made an ASMR video.

Cardi B is a good example of the grey line between ASMR and porn, as Cardi B, along with many other women who are popular and make ASMR, has worked as an escort or a stripper in the past. More conservative celebrities have not jumped in the ASMR pool just yet.

There is nothing wrong with porn, but ASMR needs to be honest about it, and admit that it is not so innocent, or inclusive, or indeed healthy. For instance, in the small number of years ASMR has been a public thing, a number of women who made it have gone into hiding or have died — two traits unfortunately not uncommon with prostitutes.

Sometimes women who fashion themselves more-so as using ASMR as a gateway to becoming successful sex workers catch the tailwinds of the YouTube ASMR craze and use that momentum to bypass Google’s system altogether:

There have also been a more than a few women who made sexual ASMR videos, got blown up over a matter of days by Google listing their out-of-nowhere video on the YouTube frontpage, the one video went viral, and rather than use those millions of views to build a long-lasting YouTube career (isn’t that supposed to be the dream?) they immediately set all their YouTube videos to private, age-restricted, or unlisted — directing their new subscribers to a now-exclusive Patreon account and started making porn outright.

Just like the allure for an “Instagram Influencer” with a dimming spotlight to make the jump to OnlyFans, these girls are swept away by the potential all that attention could have for them. For women who are just as dirty as their viewers, that might work out, but that isn’t always the case.

This is just another example of how YouTube, Google, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, OnlyFans — THEY are the true influencers, and the sultry women who drive a large portion of their sites are a commodity to them. The tech companies very consciously choose who wins or fails, and these companies are not the friend of these women, or really of anyone.

* * * This article was written in May 2021, before the porn-ban on OnlyFans.com in the summer of 2021, which made national headlines in the U.S., and subsequently this article was written before the OnlyFans reinstatement of pornographic content. It is no surprise that OnlyFans and Instagram and Google exploit pornographic content, then threaten to sell porn out to the big banks, before someone calling their bluff. OnlyFans, before courting Instagrammer teens as a form of alternative income, was started as an adult site by a porn company, and Facebook along with competitors like SnapChat would die off quickly were it not for the promise of seeing current classmates’ or old flames’ 24-hour nudes, or bum pics at the beach. * * *

It is eternally surprising how much money can be made off an isolated and ailing populace — even if it will lead to some collapse far down the road. That goes for health, medical, grocery. . . and tech, even ASMR — the monetising of intimacy — is no better. Think about what kind of person would watch ASMR if they really had everything going well in their life? Would they watch “girlfriend roleplays” if they had a girlfriend? Would they watch “clothing hauls” if they could afford a shopping spree? Would they watch “makeup tutorials” if they felt beautiful? Would they watch “personal attention” videos if they had a friend? Would they watch “flight attendant, or teacher, or secretary, or nurse roleplays” if they had a career of their own? (Again, very similar to the porn industry given the types of professions listed.)

Under several ASMR videos there is usually a tip or a hotline to a women’s health, anxiety, counselling, or suicide hotline. That means the video creator, more than likely a young woman, recognises that something had to go horribly wrong for her viewer to click on her video. Yet she doesn’t judge, she gives the info in the description, gives the viewer content they might like, and collects her cheque. But these women are not so much helping their audiences as mining them for views, and keeping them in a loop or feeling bad, watching YouTube, and feeling bad again.

These women may profit from sorrow, but they probably don’t enjoy that concept. And after all, firefighters profit from fires, even if it is their sole mission in life to never have another fire happen. And what’s the harm of a video, anyway?

Even if the creators create because they view it as harmless, it cannot be denied why certain ASMR creators become famous and others don’t. And the trend for ASMR creators is just getting narrower, younger, and more racist as the genre becomes more pigeonholed by existing prejudice.

There are men who make ASMR, but they are represented in one-in-ten, one-in-one-hundred, kind of numbers. Never to this day has it even been heard of that an elderly man, of any nationality, made a whisper video. And even if one did, they probably wouldn’t last long or go very far. (But you never know. . .)

For their part in this, Google is to blame. Google pushes those videos, and Google is notoriously troublesome in deciding what videos to promote. Google’s trained response is that it gives viewers what they want, and racism is so entrenched in internet culture and real life culture alike, that it will always make its way into Google results. Not only is that a bad response because it is a dodge, not an answer, it is made worse because it is not true.

Anyone who has sat down and seriously analysed what Google does or doesn’t promote can see a clear and purposeful — if blunt — racism on the part of Google the company, Google employees, and Google’s biggest users who generate the majority results Google pulls from. As just one, one, minor, very minor, experiment, go to a Google outlet that cannot be automated, so there is no deniability from Google. Like, say, YouTube’s Twitter handle.

Look through all the posts and start taking note of what the images are, what the implicit message Google is sending is, and what the explicit written text above those images is saying. Next, Google the words “ASMR producer” or “ASMR maker,” and look at the top 10 results — then scroll to the very bottom of the page, click Show More Results, and continue to scroll to the bottom 10 results. Compare the two, and see if you notice or learn something about what Google wants, or doesn’t want, you to see, see first, or see at all. Try this on any Google product that curates media or expresses a company opinion.

Another problem that is prolific in American media, and pretty much all of modern media, is exploitation of adolescents. ASMR is no different, with ASMR creators running massive YouTube channels from the ages of 8, 12, and 13. After researching the average age of the faces behind the biggest ASMR channels on YouTube, that average age is 21 years old, and always going down.

These girls (and their parents who operate their channels since they are technically too young to even be on YouTube at all) know there is a sexual component to what they do, and what draws attention. There is one prominent ASMR channel featuring a 13-year-old who’s mother has been in a fight with YouTube over removal of “suggestive content,” which the mother has objected to by claiming that anything done by someone under the age of 18 cannot be suggestive (a flimsy claim also employed by many TikTok users, and their parents). Of course, that is a lie.

Dressing up a 13-year-old in a bikini and having her “eat sticky honeycombs” on camera may not sound sexual, but, omitting the age of the child in question for a moment, such an act performed by anyone certainly errs on the side of the suggestive, which only makes it more objectionable that it is a child taking part, not less so. And then there is the consideration that these videos are being sold to YouTube viewers for the explicit purpose of profit. Parents profiting off their tween kids on YouTube has to start tripping some kind of alarm somewhere.

As for the 13-year-old herself, in one of her videos — a “flight attendant roleplay” — she utters the statement: “We don’t allow alcohol on the flight because all the boys would try to get with me,” or thereabouts. In another of her videos, she is seen in a skin-tight, leather biker suit exposing her midriff, yet covering the top and bottom.

Her videos have become, like much of ASMR, a meme onto themselves, with people playing GIFs, animated clips, of her content on Twitter and forums such as Reddit. Neither of those scummy sites are places you’d want to see people discussing your thirteen-year-old daughter.

Some of these forums, and even in the comments sections in YouTube, have “countdowns” until the day these child stars become “legal,” upon which day it will become possible for their underground followers to begin posting not only suggestive, but overtly sexual content about them, including making photoshopped nudes and deepfake videos — something that is already a common feature of child TV celebrities and kids of TikTok fame.

Platforms that generate such content should not be left off the hook either; Companies that churn out child stars like Disney and TeenNick have long histories of child exploitation problems, and even some abuse incidents. It is no coincidence that dozens of the “Disney princesses” that grow up in the spotlight have led crash-and-burn lives, and many of the stars from Disney and Nickelodeon have spoken out about what a bad experience they have had. At least two former Disney actresses have openly entered the porn industry in the past decade, perpetuated by sites like OnlyFans, and many more former Nickelodeon / Disney-affiliates (like Josh Peck, Miley Cyrus, and Logan Paul) just flirt around the edge of it.

TikTok is a disgusting site built on melting children’s brains, and is filled with exploitative videos of teens trying to get famous fast — after logging in to TikTok for the first time to check its potential as a media platform, two of the first videos “suggested” through the random stream of videos TikTok content is distributed through were a large, fat woman squeezing her large butt into leggings, and a racist video of four men fighting over one masked woman who was covered head-to-toe in more skin-tight, revealing leggings. Since this was a completely new account on a company phone, and therefore there was no personal data for the app to mine from, that means this is the kind of content the general user is consuming on a regular basis, and TikTok thinks is normal to send to people.

In such a perveance of sexual and suggestive content geared directly towards children, and making use of fame-hungry children themselves, from television, to social media and YouTube, ASMR is not alone, but it is certainly not exempt, since anything even remotely associated with the cheap and suggestive, like ASMR, will attract that crowd.

The elements of sexism and racism in such a narrow and limited space as the, quote, “ASMR Community,” is also immediately apparent. And that is to say nothing of the numerous racist things that often come out of those women’s mouths, or the racist assumptions they make of their target viewer.

Millions of people watching teens webcam from their bedrooms and off their couches while YouTube gives it it’s blessing by boosting the videos while Google cuts the monetisation unless the video makers find a sponsor or open a Patreon, OnlyFans, or Donate button is egregious. It also trains those women, and the audience, to beg for validation on the production side and to pay for affection and gratification on the consumption side.

No one should have to pay for attention, which is why the escort and prostitution markets are so looked down upon, even the phone-sex market (where no one even physically interacts), while at the same time the online dating market is so popular, when in reality there is very little difference between them. For most people, crossing the line of paying for a basic human right and normal human need — close relationships with other people — is a bridge too far. The same applies to making people watch ads or scale paywalls for ASMR content that has the same purpose: Billing people for simulated human contact, and picking the pockets of people who lack real-world human connexions.

It is probably best to be as kind as possible in any assessment of ASMR, since it is a fringe product with a vulnerable community, but the ASMR effect is a detriment to the internet, just as pornography and YouTube itself is. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for it, but it also makes one think fondly about a world where China can just ban it.

Maybe coming down on ASMR, like Google and China have, is just being too harsh on ASMR. Gamers are a sexist community, appealing exclusively to men, and only allowing men to hold authoritative voices in the cult of gaming — just like ASMR — and has an unhealthy trend of encouraging its users to stay indoors and get addicted to its content — just like ASMR. Gamers also have an obsessive and inexplicable infusion of racism into their main content — just like ASMR. Yet gaming is not banned.

And twerking, which is a “simulated sex act” of bouncing a buttocks up and down as quickly as possible, is much more suggestive than the majority of ASMR, yet twerking is everywhere, and has been completely accepted as mainstream. There are even child twerking contests on American television, and many male celebrities have joked about giving it a try (the joke being that no one wants to see it, but only by an attractive woman with a large butt). There is also explicit racist tones about the origin and acceptability myth of twerking in American popular culture. There is a real case to be made that twerking is a worse thing than ASMR, but as part of being in the music business, it is ubiquitous and everywhere.

There may be things similar to ASMR in the problems presented, like gaming, and things probably worse, like the pop music business, but that doesn’t change what ASMR is. There can be three problems at once: Gaming Culture, Perverts in Corporate Music, and the ASMR Community. The existence of one does not negate either of the others. And there is some restriction of gaming and music industries, even if only marginally. ASMR, which is almost a combination of gaming and music do to its streaming format of long-form audio content, would be expected to draw in many of the same problems those platforms have, since it draws its base of revenue and competition for the same audience from them: ASMR is also targeted toward children and teenagers, young outcasts on the internet.

The internet, social media, and cell phones are corrupting the minds of all who use them, and they are increasingly being marketed towards children while conversely beginning to become more brazen in their exploitation of children. The most famous person on the internet, with tens of millions of followers on Twitter, Instagram, and Tiktok, was a 14-year-old girl. She was not a genius, she was not a singer or actor (as many exploited teens in the corporate field are), she was a dancer. She was not even a good dancer; let’s just say there was no chance of her being drafted to the top ballet academie. She was just a 14-year-old that shook her bikini-clad body in a way that was imitable by other 14-year-olds, and caught the attention of those older than 14-years-old.

Some might say that’s perfectly normal and natural and fine, but what is not normal and natural and fine is that she has 50 million plus followers on the internet for doing such a “normal” and “natural” thing. And there is not a chance in the world there is no component of child exploitation, sexism, and racism consistent with her rise in popularity. Consider the fact that teens on TikTok have more clout than teens who go to the Olympics, and you start to realise there is an imbalance, and a problem.

While the women (and, perhaps, girls) who make ASMR might have a love in their hearts they want to express to the world — in return for money — it is impossible to go easy on what they are doing because it isn’t harmless, it isn’t helpful, and it isn’t inconsequential. So long as ASMR is getting millions of daily hits online and is inextricably linked with the topics or sex exploitation, racism, and suicide, it must be constantly considered for reform, censorship, and removal.

Maybe if ASMR goes back to what it originally was, or was never picked up by the general public in the first place, it would be in better tidings.

And if the stray twenty one year old loses her million-dollar platform in the process of cleaning up the web, so be it. The world needs less millionaires — and less webcammers.

. . .

. . .

. . .

The Question: What is ASMR?

The Answer: A problem.

Jason McCleary is a contributor to Rum & Times. His father, Jacob McCleary, is a marketing consultant, and his mother, Tatiana “Tate” Bradshaw, is the daughter of a farmer and housing broker, and worked as an assistant for an agricultural corporate office in Brisbane.

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