This paper explores the intimate performances in “personal attention” ASMR YouTube videos. ASMR — which stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response — is a term coined by the community of Internet users who experience a particular tingling sensation in response to certain auditory, visual, or haptic stimuli. The sensation often originates in the scalp and travels down the spine and is reported to be immensely pleasurable, as well as relaxing. “ASMRtists” now flood YouTube with a steady stream of high definition videos designed to trigger this sensation for viewer-listeners, often through role-play scenarios that incorporate genre-specific techniques to simulate a personalized, intimate, and sensual encounter with the ASMRtist. This essay draws on affect and performance studies to conduct an analysis of these YouTube videos — using specific examples from the ASMRtist Olivia Kissper as case studies — in order to explore how media infrastructures produce the incarnation of sexuality through the process of mediated intimacy. Ultimately, it works towards a radical redefinition of sexuality that is more centered on affect than on bodily gestures, and suggests that through this lens the consumption of ASMR videos can be seen as a sexual practice and the configuration of ASMRtist, viewer-listener, and digital technology can be seen as a sexual relation.
What is ASMR?
Affect and media studies (How images move us)
How ASMR videos perform: Olivia Kissper and intimacy, pleasure, and care
“Why does it feel so good when someone else is touching you?” she asks you, fluttering her fingers up her forearm in demonstration (Kissper, 2014c). The cheerful blond woman smiles brightly. “Is it because of the physical contact itself? Or is there something else going on?” This YouTube celebrity is Olivia Kissper, and she is about to demonstrate 40 different sounds that act as “triggers” for ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. ASMR is a term coined by the community of Internet users who experience a particular tingling sensation in response to certain auditory, visual, or haptic stimuli. The sensation often originates in the scalp and travels down the spine and is reported to be immensely pleasurable, as well as relaxing. “ASMRtists” now flood YouTube with a steady stream of high definition videos designed to trigger this sensation for viewer-listeners by whispering or making other sounds with the mouth, by tapping, crinkling, or scratching various household objects, or through role-play scenarios, which often incorporate some or all of the above aural effects. In answer to Olivia’s question, I suggest that ASMR “feels so good” because the technology affords viewer-listeners the opportunity to access alternative sexualities outside of the dominant Western paradigm.
In contradistinction to my thesis, however, the online ASMR community vehemently asserts that there is nothing sexual about ASMR. In a polemical YouTube video by Russell Brand, he compared these videos to JOI pornography (Jerk-Off Instructions), and declared that ASMR is “just female porn” (Brand, 2015). Although his tongue-in-cheek statements were intended as a critique of how contemporary Western society teaches men and women to respond sexually to different forms of pleasurable stimuli, his prominent comments sparked responses in the ASMR community emphatically declaiming Brand’s implications . The ASMR community also strictly regulates the content posted in their forums, such as on the popular Web site Reddit, where “NSFW ASMR” content persists, but is relegated to its own subreddit . Such instances highlight the moralistic undertones of the rhetorical tensions between “sexual content” (with which ASMRtists, for the most part, do not want to be associated), and “therapeutic content,” seen as a positive attribute, and thus deployed as a strategy for legitimizing the sensuality of ASMR videos through medical discourse. The ASMR community thus draws a critical distinction between sex and therapy, thereby perpetuating the ideology that the two must be mutually exclusive modalities of pleasure.
This paper takes this debate — whether or not ASMR is fundamentally sexual — as its site of inquiry, and draws on affect and performance studies to conduct an analysis of these YouTube videos to explore how media infrastructures produce the incarnation of sexuality through the process of mediated intimacy. After establishing the context of this research through a description of the phenomenon of ASMR and a review of academic conversations pertaining to affect, performance, and media studies, I will demonstrate how the surge in popularity of ASMR videos has provoked public consternation over the genre’s degree of apparent sexuality. I then look to specific examples of videos produced by ASMRtist Olivia Kissper to illustrate how the affective and performative elements of pleasure, intimacy, and care combine to produce what I suggest is a radical mode of sexuality. By looking at specific videos I aim to contribute a meso-level analysis to scholarship about media infrastructures that acknowledges the subversive potential of individual performances (videos) within the performative (iterative) sea of over five million ASMR videos on YouTube. I suggest that examining the practices around ASMR videos can broaden the scope of what we define as sex, because ASMR videos provide a means for people to physically connect with other people via media infrastructures, thus serving as an outlet for people to enjoy those pleasures alongside of what is deemed appropriate in the mainstream. The ASMRtist uses their mouth and hands to create stimulating content for the express purpose of eliciting a pleasurable, physiological response in the viewer-listener’s body through aural and visual media. This embodied, sensuous touch is transmitted to the viewer-listener through a technological assemblage that may include complex configurations of specialized microphones, high-definition cameras, lighting, props, costumes, computer software, telecommunication cables, radio signals, laptops, phones, tablets, headphones, and more. The viewer-listener then experiences an intimacy that is as much entangled with the medium as it is with the ASMRtist . Therefore, rather than engage in debates about whether or not the content of ASMR videos is inherently sexual — a perspective that reifies the sexual commodification of feminized bodies and over-determines perceptual engagement with media technologies — I assert that the consumption and production of ASMR videos is a sexual practice, and that the constellation of ASMRtist, technological assemblage, and viewer-listener constitute a sexual relation .
What is ASMR?
The ASMR community has emerged, evolved, and exploded on YouTube within the last few years, making it a media genre borne of the particular cultural and technological milieu of the twenty-first century. Journalistic coverage of the phenomenon peaked around 2012 , locating the birth of the community on an online message board in 2008 where people began sharing their experiences of having “brain orgasms” in response to certain sounds. Jennifer Allen, a member of the community, established the Web site asmr-research.org (now defunct), and coined the term Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, actions that demonstrate the deliberate efforts of the ASMR community to establish an alliance with scientific research through the use of scientific terminology. YouTube quickly became the de facto platform for sharing videos, where ASMRtists began creating videos designed specifically to induce the tingles for viewer-listeners.
At the time of writing this article, in late 2016, a search for “ASMR” on YouTube returns over 5.5 million videos, a number that continues to grow exponentially. In reviewing the top ASMR performers on YouTube, it is evident that the most successful ASMRtists are young, conventionally attractive, white women. Taking averages of YouTube’s rankings of channels based on relevance, view count, and rating, the top ten ASMRtists are currently, in order of number of most to fewest subscribers, GentleWhispering (Maria), Heather Feather ASMR, ASMRrequests (Ally), MassageASMR (Dmitri), Fairy Char ASMR, Ephemeral Rift, Olivia’s Kissper ASMR, ASMR Massage PsycheTruth (Corrina Rachel), WhispersRed ASMR (Emma), and Cosmic Tingles ASMR (Kayla Suzette) . Of this group, nine out of ten ASMRtists code as white, and eight out of ten code as women. Eight out of ten also appear to be under the age of 35. Many of these performers are American, although ASMRtists with non-Standard American English accents are especially popular. Maria is Russian, Dmitri is Australian, Olivia is Czech, and Emma is British. Maria and Olivia often record videos in both English and their respective native languages.
Looking at the video archives of Maria (YouTube’s most subscribed and most viewed ASMRtist), Ally (who ranks highly in searches for “ASMR,” “ASMR role play,” and “ASMR personal attention,”) and Dmitri (the top-ranking masculine ASMRtist), it is evident that the most common settings for ASMR role-play videos are medical environments, salons and spas, and retail or other customer service settings. Women are also more likely than men to produce role-play and personal attention videos. Thus, although not all ASMR videos involve intimate narrative settings, and although not all ASMRtists are women, the digital spaces of care in ASMR YouTube videos are distinctly gendered, in that they are more likely to be populated by women .
The emergence of ASMR has provoked a great deal of fascination in academia, and academic research on the topic has recently begun to proliferate, mainly divided between psychology and neuroscience, and critical cultural studies. The scientific literature on the topic aims to explain what ASMR is in the body, mainly by comparing it to other similar phenomena, and to show how ASMR may have therapeutic applications (Barratt and Davis, 2015; del Campo and Kehle, 2016; Smith, et al., 2016). De Vos (2016) critiqued such approaches, particularly with regard to sexuality, as exemplary of the contemporary cultural phenomenon of “neurologization.”
Recent research in the field is also beginning to move beyond neurologically-based, therapeutic readings of ASMR to explore it in terms of performance and affect. Ahuja (2013) noted the popularity of clinical role-play scenarios in ASMR videos, and compared them to his own experiences training as a medical doctor, suggesting that there is a pleasurable and healing element in the practice of diagnosis, conceived of as a performance. Ahuja’s emphasis on the common performative elements of both ASMR and medical practice thus straddles the line between the scientific discourse on ASMR and humanistic approaches. Ahuja’s conclusion that “the proximity of two people in an unthreatening space can be an event of immediate synaptic consequence”  aligns with the interests of cultural critics who have written about ASMR and are similarly interested in the elements of intimacy and affect deployed in these videos, including Andersen (2015), Hudelson (2012), and Gallagher (2016).
Andersen (2015) wrote about the “distant intimacy” of ASMR videos, a mode of intimacy that is characterized by a networked community. Like Ahuja, Andersen also noted the popularity of medical scenarios in ASMR videos, and asserted that because such experiences are not typically associated with pleasure in day-to-day life, there is something else at play that renders them pleasurable apart from the “pure” auditory stimulation. She suggested that the performance of care is what makes these sorts of scenarios appealing: “[A] warning about a cavity from a would-be dentist becomes a lullaby when it is welcomed as a paradigm of care within a relaxation exercise” . Andersen’s claims thus demonstrate how the purported therapeutic effects of ASMR videos are as much a result of the videos’ narrative and representational content and context (that stimulate the mind) as their technological materiality (that stimulate the body).
Hudelson (2012), too, noted the importance of performance in ASMR videos: “One hears in these videos, above all, the effort of performance. It is the performance of gender [...] but more generally the performance of interaction, intimacy, and proximity. What every [ASMR] video whispers is ‘Let’s pretend!’” Performance analysis is thus a crucial element in understanding the ASMR phenomenon. And, as Hudelson’s comment indicates, the performativity of gender is particularly important.
Gallagher (2016), however, leaned more heavily on the side of affective critique, and was most interested in how ASMR is a unique amalgam of human and nonhuman bodies, and, as such, creates experiences that are altogether new and uncategorizable by our former standards. He therefore argued that trying to address the question of whether or not AMSR facilitates “real” intimacy is misguided, and further asserted that close readings and interpretive analyses are the wrong methods for approaching this object of study. Gallagher therefore aligns himself with anti-representationalist approaches to media studies that focus on what media do (to our bodies) rather than what they mean. Indeed, many new media studies scholars are now focusing on the emerging field of affect studies in order to practice non-representationalist critique.
Affect and media studies (How images move us)
In their introduction to Networked affect, Hillis, Paasonen, and Petit (2015) highlighted how academic approaches to the study of Internet culture have shifted since the “cyberspace” hype of the 1990s, in which online spaces were seen as circumscribed and divided from the reality of everyday life, and the Internet was understood mainly as a neutral and non-agential tool for the use of communication between humans. Internet researchers now acknowledge the enormous interactivity between humans and machines, and the forms of affectivity that can emerge. Hillis, et al. (2015) have argued that digital networks can both organize and produce affect, sometimes even independently of the humans who create, populate, and utilize them, stressing the importance of bringing affect studies into the field of digital media studies. In the same way that what appears on your Facebook timeline is the result of a combination of algorithmic intervention and human action , Gallagher (2016) has argued that considering algorithmic and human behaviors is integral to understanding the popularity of ASMR, since the sudden emergence of this phenomenon in the public eye was as much (if not more so) the result of data trawling and algorithmic sorting on the part of Google and YouTube, as it was the result of people communicating about it and sharing links. Indeed, the emergence of the ASMR community seems to owe itself to both online platforms that customize and promote content for users such as YouTube, as well as Web forums and the “viral” capabilities of social media sharing and mainstream media coverage.
Central to the rapid spread of the ASMR phenomenon is its powerful impact on viewer-listeners. The power of ASMR to induce “the tingles” comes from the performances of the ASMRtists, as well as the material components of binaural microphones, sound editing software, in-ear headphones, high definition digital video recorders, and of course, the affordances of video-sharing platforms that anyone can use, such as YouTube. Both Gallagher (2016) and Andersen (2015) have highlighted how the sense of intimacy created by these videos is in part due to the fact that they are situated as private spaces within a teeming crowd of Internet users. The videos create a “bubble of solace,” observes Gallagher (2016), in an otherwise overwhelmingly public space. These readings adopt an affective approach to media studies that is interested in the ways in which digital technology makes human bodies feel, act, and move through interaction with other human bodies and media networks.
The application of affect to media studies therefore means shifting attention to the “more than” that exceeds the capacity for representational meaning. To follow Barthes, it is a look toward the punctum — that subjective, resonant detail in an image that reaches out and “pricks” us — rather than the studium, the compositional and objective aspects of an image . Such a shift is grounded in specific materialities of particular bodies, as opposed to an abstract universalizing concept of the body. Such a perspective also informs the work of Sobchack, whose approach to film studies is grounded in materialism and phenomenology. For Sobchack (2004), the specific and the personal, in the context of human/media relations, are important to integrate into scholarly analysis because they can open up understanding more broadly about the intimate connections in which we are always already entangled.
In addition to addressing the role of affect in ASMR, I am also concerned with the closely related lens of performance studies. Looking at performance and considering the role of performativity in ASMR is key to developing a robust and multi-faceted understanding of digital media. As a critical term, I lean on Butler’s (1993) sense of performativity as characterized by citationality. Gender is citational, to follow her seminal argument, in that each iteration of gender is citing, or pointing to, a notion of what that gender is. To be a woman, therefore, is to repeatedly perform particular gestures that reference the ideal notion of what “woman” is. Performativity is repetitive, meaning that the category of woman is a “sedimentation” (Butler, 1993) of the many iterations of woman-ness that have preceded this one and that concurrently circulate in society. Media representations become important vehicles for circulating these citations of gender, and given their elaborate constructions of gender and pleasure, ASMR videos may be analyzed as powerful sites for studying iterative, feminine performativity.
An individual ASMR video may be better understood as a performance, or a deliberate and attentive instance of performativity. In other words, performance acts as a freeze-frame within the iterative loop of performativity, foregrounding its contractedness, and, therefore, enabling a new way of seeing, and perhaps (hopefully!) a new way of seeing how things that are ostensibly natural are really not natural at all (i.e., that the category of “natural” and the category of “woman” are both arbitrary) .
One such way of encountering and making sense of the world differently could be through the sense of touch. As ASMR demonstrates, to touch — especially to touch another human body — is deeply connected with the construction of subjectivity. The many societal rules that regulate who may touch, who may be touched, and how, when, and where to touch, belie the affects of anxiety that permeate this way of encountering the world, to say nothing of the affects of pleasure that characterize sexual contact. This is true, too, in ASMR videos, which seem to subvert social rules and regulations about how and whom to touch by allowing for modes of embodied intimacy that circumvent the strictures of time and place. I suggest that ASMR itself is a performative genre uniquely able to explore affective modes of knowing that can unsettle dominant discourses of sexuality.
To analyze ASMR videos through a performance studies lens is thus to view these videos as performances — as discrete events that affect change in the world — and thus, as also having the potential to participate in a citational sequence of performativity. For instance, these videos perform gender in particular ways, but they also perform other things, such as intimacy. To approach ASMR videos as performances of intimacy is to analyze the ways in which intimacy as a concept is constructed and sustained through a series of everyday performances, and how that construct may be subverted by videos that perform intimacy differently.
I therefore argue that ASMR videos are intimate media, where intimacy emerges between ASMRtist and viewer-listener as well as between humans and machines. To this end, I have focused my analysis on the videos of one particular performer, Olivia Kissper, because her videos and her public statements on ASMR have indicated her interests in questions of intimacy, embodiment, and touch in digital spaces. In addition, her interest in “transpersonal healing” — that is, affecting material change in the bodies of her viewer-listeners through the mediating technology of YouTube — resonates with recent scholarship on bodies and affect. My goal in this paper is to show how the ASMR performances of Olivia Kissper can help to elucidate the broader questions of embodiment, liveness, and presence that are central to conversations in performance studies and affect studies and which also, necessarily, pertain to digital media and Internet technology.
How ASMR videos perform: Olivia Kissper and intimacy, pleasure, and care
In the preceding sections, I described what ASMR videos do, and outlined a set of analytic approaches drawn from performance studies and affect theory that can facilitate an analysis of this phenomenon. Within this analytic framework, discursive points of conflict about the meaning and reality of ASMR, within public and academic discourses are revealing of broader ideological tensions; here, it reveals how power works through implicit regulations about what constitutes “sex” and where, when, and how it may occur. Therefore, I would like to return to the observation that the vocal majority of ASMRtists and their viewer-listeners perceive of this experience as an intensely pleasurable, physiological response that is nonetheless outside the dominant regime of sexuality. By working to reposition ASMR outside of the category of sexual fetish, the community attempts to destigmatize a practice that may otherwise be shunned as deviant or unhealthy sexual behavior. That is to say, the problem at hand is not whether or not ASMR is sexual, but that pervasive definitions of sex pertain to a very narrow set of actions and gestures among a very narrow set of bodies that are bound to a very narrow set of morals. I argue that the consumption of ASMR videos constitutes a sexual practice, and that the connection between the ASMRtist, viewer-listener, and technological assemblage is a sexual relation, if we approach sex itself as an array of embodied practices defined by pleasure, intimacy, and care. In what follows, through close readings of a sample of ASMR videos produced by Olivia Kissper, I hope to show how the elements of intimacy, pleasure, and care are deployed through the performances of the ASMRtist.
I have chosen Olivia’s videos not because they are necessarily representative of the genre as a whole, but because her work exemplifies how ASMR videos facilitate rather than hinder very real experiences of intimacy, pleasure, and care. I have chosen to discuss the videos that have moved me in various ways, and that have therefore, elicited my “uncool [...] enthusiasm” . I do not claim to achieve a universal description of what ASMR is for every body (or, indeed, any body other than my own), but I hope to share rich descriptions of material objects that contain both representational (optic, cerebral) and performative (haptic, embodied) elements. It is also important to note that despite the fact that these videos are not pornographic in the traditional sense, they are explicitly sensual. This is exemplified by the way in which the ASMRtist attempts to evoke the sensation of contact with the viewer-listener. ASMR is triggered not only by sound, but also by touch, and many ASMRtists strive to create perfect illusions of tactile sensation through the expert manipulation of visual and aural components.
These are the kinds of videos that Olivia Kissper (2014b) produces most often, such as “This FEELS SO REAL! Binaural ASMR SCALP MASSAGE with head massager, cicadas & WHISPERING.” The tabloid-headline-esque style of the video’s title exemplifies the common practice of wordy titles for ASMR videos, so that viewer-listeners can tell at a glance if the video contains the specific triggers they are looking for, in this case binaural recording , tactile role-play, and the auditory trigger of whispering.
At the beginning of this video, Olivia asks, “are you ready for the most blissful experience?” then leans in close to whisper directly into your ear: “Are you ready to treat your senses a little bit today?” She speaks very softly and slowly, her voice intonated by her Czech accent. She punctuates her speech with graceful, twirling hand movements, and she shows off her long fingers and perfectly groomed fingernails as she displays a wire head massager and taps on the different materials it is made of in order to display its texture.
As a rule, ASMR videos deliberately engage with texture: if not of objects, then of the voice and the mouth, sibilance and saliva amplified sensuously through binaural recording. ASMR, then, is exemplary of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s claim that, “What [texture and affect] have in common is that at whatever scale they are attended to, both are irreducibly phenomenological” . Here, the pleasurable affect manifests in the phenomenological tingles across the viewer-listener’s skin as Olivia taps her fingers along “your” hairline, runs her fingers through “your” hair, massages “your” scalp with her fingertips, and pushes the arms of the head massager down “your” head. If all goes well, you will feel like Kissper really is touching, stroking, and caressing you, and the experience will trigger the tingles. Performances such as Kissper’s produce the sensation of proximity, and are able to do so specifically through the digital technology that allows for the perfect storm of amplified aural, visual, and haptic stimulation. Here, the ASMRtist’s performance evinces the sensation of proximity and even direct contact with another body. As Hudelson (2012) has described, in ASMR media, “sound is transduced into touch, and the taut membranes of the listener’s headphones become coterminous with his own skin.” The pleasure of these role-play videos derives not only from the physiological response to the mediated contact, but from the “personal attention” trigger as established through the use of second-person address . The demand for this element of intimacy is even growing in porn, according to performer Ela Darling, whose website vrtube.xxx (NSFW) features virtual, one-on-one 3D cam sessions (Tayag, 2015).
Mediated intimacy is at play in all ASMR videos in the sense that they are produced for personal use. The best ASMR videos that use binaural recording techniques must be listened to with headphones, which means that each individual among the hundreds of thousands of consumers of these performances experiences an intimate encounter with the ASMRtist. But that intimacy is even more amplified in role-play scenarios. For example, one of Olivia’s earliest videos, “❀ Whispering, HAIR BRUSHING, Braiding & card reading ASMR ❀” (2013), takes place in a softly lit bedroom, with eye level low enough to suggest that you are sitting on the bed with her. Olivia is dressed casually in a plaid shirt, which is, not incidentally, unbuttoned rather low. She begins the video by addressing you directly as “friend,” and provides some expository dialogue indicating that you are quite good friends who have not seen each other for a long time. She tells you she wants to braid you hair, but before she does that, she wants to
start with acknowledging you because I’ve realized recently that I don’t tell you certain things and I just don’t want to put it off anymore. And I’m gonna whisper it to you, um, because it is really important for me that you really get that, yeah? (Kissper, 2013)
However, despite the platonic relationship established in the expository introduction, the boundary-crossing proximity of Olivia’s neck and hair in your field of vision erotically charges the banal acknowledgements she whispers.
It is clear that the intimacy you experience with Olivia is in multiple ways, and by definition, mediated — it is clear that the hair she is braiding is not yours, that you cannot actually touch the objects she is offering you, and that she would never recognize you if you met her walking down the street — but mediation does not necessarily imply inauthenticity. If intimacy is affective (pleasurable) and phenomenological (tingly), then the distinctions between “real” intimacy and “mediated” intimacy seem to break down. Dominic Pettman has suggested that love itself is a technology, and points to the fact that intimacy is often done better through digital simulation:
s[W]ith the current technology, simultaneous eye-contact is not possible. [...] The video-chatter has the choice of staring at the image of their interlocutor, or straight into the camera, but not both at the same time. [...] In 2012, simulated avatars already have an advantage over other humans on video-chat, since they can better simulate such a vital interactional presence, precisely by better simulating this eye-to-eye event. 
This phenomenon can easily be identified in ASMR role-play videos as well, where Olivia’s mediated eye contact is equally effective and affective. Olivia herself believes this to be true, asserting on her personal Web site that, “Because of our emphatic [sic] human connection and mirror neurons, our brain cannot tell the difference between a face-to-face interaction and online roleplay” (Kissper, n.d.).
The authenticity of the encounter between the ASMRtist and her viewer-listener is paramount in Olivia’s work, especially when it comes to the concept of healing. I believe it is no coincidence that spa treatments and medical exams are the two most popular genres of ASMR role-play: both appeal to the pleasure of being cared for. Indeed, for Olivia, her videos are not just about producing pleasure for her audience, but also about healing them. This has become more evident in her recent videos, which belie her interest in science fiction, Eastern medicine and spirituality, New Age and metaphysical therapies, and what she calls “transpersonal healing.” One of her more unique videos, “FUTURISTIC TINGLES! Binaural ASMR exam and transpersonal healing role play with binaural beats” (Kissper, 2014a), is an exercise in this philosophy. This unique video, replete with computerized special effects, opens with a quote that draws connections between the placebo effect and the role of “caring attention” in healing. You are then led through a complex scenario in which Olivia, as a virtual cyborg healer, examines you through your computer screen, and then leads you through a healing meditation involving trippy visual sequences and binaural beats intended to trigger different, relaxing brain wave states.
This video is quite different from the typical ASMR video in that it is less about stimulating particular senses or simulating particular experiences, and much closer to the abstraction of meditation exercises. Moving away from the more naturalistic settings and simulated environments characteristic of most ASMR videos, its primary focus is on the phenomenological effect on the viewer-listener’s body. The point is not that alternative therapies such as binaural beats and ASMR could be supported by Western research if only the scientists would study them; on the contrary, Olivia’s performances embrace the healing potential of those phenomena that cannot be substantiated by Western research.
But although Olivia advocates for the alternative healing qualities of ASMR, her most popular videos are still about spas and medical offices, not Tai chi, palm reading, or ayahuasca, although she does have videos on all of those topics. This is why, I believe, her “FUTURISTIC TINGLES!” video began with a medical exam: there is pleasure in the intimacy of being cared for by another. Furthermore, I argue that the reason these two scenarios — doctor’s offices and salons — are so much more popular than, say, scenes in which the viewer-listener is ill or tired and being cared for by a lover or a parent, is because we are more likely to already have access to those forms of intimacy in our day-to-day lives. But although our doctors and aestheticians may know our bodies more intimately than most people in our lives, they are still considered strangers, and interactions with them must therefore follow strict protocol, particularly regarding sexual encounters. We may not articulate the pleasures we enjoy at the doctor or the salon because sexuality is understood as necessarily genital, and definitively relegated to specific relationships only. Similar to Anderson’s point that ASMR videos are productive of a “queer intimacy” , this essay shows how ASMR videos exemplify that there are alternative pleasures in these caring intimacies, and that they provide an outlet for enjoying those intimacies alongside of what is deemed appropriate in the mainstream.
Bearing these three components of Olivia’s videos in mind — pleasure, intimacy, and care — I emphasize that ASMR videos produce a combination of physiological and cerebral pleasure via the touch of the ASMRtist. And they really do touch us: the mediation of the digital recording allows the vibrations produced by Olivia’s vocal cords and fingernails to literally penetrate my ear and resonate within my body. In such mediated intimacies, the mediation becomes facilitation, as the streaming video, sound and image enable rather than interfere with our contact with the performer, regardless of where we happen to be in space and time.
Sound plays a central role in facilitating this contact. Pettman (2017) mused on ASMR as an interesting case study to probe the question of why there is no particular erotics of sound in contemporary Western society and how sexuality continues to be dominated by the scopic regime. He was unsurprised by the extremely gendered performances of ASMRtists, drawing on Kaja Silverman’s observations of how the female voice is controlled through representations of the female body. He quipped: “[I]f women’s voices are allowed to circulate uncontrolled, without being represented or tethered to the overcoded female body, then we could be steered into dangerous waters, not only in the sense of women being able to ‘speak for themselves’ but also in a more metaphysical register, disturbing the taxonomies upon which unspoken patriarchy depends” . Pettman thus highlighted the queer potentiality of the sonic pleasures of ASMR while noting the tension with their representational elements in video. This point of tension is of key interest to me, as it shows how ASMR videos — which produce specialized sounds and images — must be analyzed from multiple perspectives, including the symbolic and discursive. Masterman (2016) has similarly argued that noise music facilitates queer becoming. The power of sound is that it is invisible yet agentic, a deeply material force that touches, affects, and transforms bodies. In ASMR, the agentic power of sound is tied to the relationality of machine and human body.
Gallagher (2016) asserted that it is the symbiosis of human and machine interaction that generates experiences, identities, and communities that are heretofore unknown or unknowable. This perspective emphasizes the centrality of relationality to ongoing discussions in affect studies, which is not necessarily opposed to scientific research or empirical data. Barad (2003), Alaimo (2010), and Chen (2012), for example, have all advocated for a world-view that, rather than emphasizing individuality and the singular subject, acknowledges our inherent porosity and the ways in which bodies (both human and otherwise) are always touching and affecting other bodies. Sobchack, too, has argued for a radical materiality that improves ethics and response-ability . Can ASMR, then, facilitate a felt rather than a thought way of knowing how bodies can be truly touched and deeply affected by bodies across spatio-temporal distance? This distance is transcended by the technological medium that produces such affective effects. Such experiences would not be possible without the auditory amplification of microphones and headphones, as well as the algorithmic and social affordances of YouTube as a platform, as both Andersen and Gallagher have highlighted. The intimacy of the ASMR video is not just between the human bodies on alternate sides of the screen, but is also deeply imbricated with the technological medium itself, as Pettman (2013) has shown. I therefore describe the modality of intimacy in ASMR videos as mediated intimacy, a rhetorical move that works to shift emphasis away from a universalizing notion of “the body” and towards the process and practices of embodiment .
Following Foucault (1978), the ASMR community’s vocal proclamations that it is not about sex indicates, on the contrary, that it has everything to do with sex. General skepticism around ASMR’s mere existence is deeply entwined with whether or not it gets categorized as something sexual. ASMR is therefore constantly being forced into confession through psychologization and brain imaging techniques, technologies of making the body speak. ASMR, like female pleasure, is deemed not to exist if it cannot be made visible and controllable through an optic and quantitative regime of scientia sexualis. To follow this line of thinking to the conclusion that ASMR is a sexual practice therefore allows us to reframe the very concept of sex in order to consider what sex does and what it has the potential to do.
Such a reframing of sex attends less to identifying and categorizing the particular choreographies that constitute the practice, and more to analyzing what the practice does, and how it is policed and shaped within a particular cultural and historical milieu. If we can take as a starting point that sex is not always or only about reproduction (as feminist theory has shown), and that it is not always or only about two-bodied, heterosexual, genitally-focused, or orgasmic pleasure (as queer theory has shown), then perhaps we can move towards a more expansive definition. That is to say, perhaps sex can be thought of as any practice that mobilizes bodies (human and otherwise) into pleasurable, intimate, and caring proximity. Such a radical reconceptualization of sex, that resists neoliberal concepts of enclosed bodies and singular subjectivity, shifts emphasis to relationality, a move that emphasizes the imperative for responsibility within networks and ecologies, rather than the moral and the ideological, which are organizational tools of hegemony.
What the current, dominant, Western definitions of sexuality often restrict, as Foucault (1997) asserted, are the socially sanctioned opportunities for certain bodies to touch other bodies and, it follows, the ability to see the benefit of a multiplicity of intimacies. We may not articulate the pleasures we enjoy at the doctor or the salon because sexuality is understood as necessarily genital, and definitively relegated to specific relationships only. ASMR videos exemplify the fact that there are alternative pleasures in these caring intimacies, and provide an outlet for people to enjoy those intimacies alongside of what is deemed appropriate in the mainstream. Put another way, they have the potential to “short-circuit” dominant ideologies about sex by introducing pleasure, intimacy, and care where there is supposed to be only the institutional codes of “law, rule, or habit” . Whereas Foucault was discussing the radical potential of homosexuality, ASMR videos similarly point to the radical potential of formerly marginalized intimacies now proliferating with and through media infrastructures. Pettman also saw this positive potentiality in digital media and asserted that “the new forms of mediation [such as ASMR] point to the emergence of far more complex and subtle forms of intimacy than the anthropocentric, heteronormative versions that continue to dominate the mainstream market” . I conclude then by suggesting that the relationality of the ASMRtist, the viewer-listener, and the technological assemblage is sexual, in the most radical sense of the term, such that it may therefore represent one technique for working toward “the formation of new alliances and the tying together of unforeseen lines of force” . By facilitating the subversion of interdictions on when and how bodies may touch one another, media infrastructures have the potential to help sow the seeds for cultivating alternative, pleasurable, intimate, and caring modes of life.
About the author
Emma Leigh Waldron is a Ph.D. candidate in the performance studies graduate group at the University of California, Davis. She is also co-editor-in-chief of the online journal Analog game studies. Her dissertation project explores how intimacy is performed in the twenty-first century.
E-mail: ewaldron [at] ucdavis [dot] edu
An early draft of this essay was previously published as “Mediated sexuality in ASMR videos” (2015), in Sounding Out! at http://soundstudiesblog.com/2015/12/14/affect-and-sexuality-in-asmr-videos/.
1. See, for example, ASMR Massage PsycheTruth (Corrina Rachel), 2015, “What is ASMR? Is ASMR sexual? The Russell Brand response TOP ASMR triggers,” at www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDmnEPPJutk.
2. The popular ASMR subreddit (http://www.reddit.com/r/asmr/) prohibits “adult content,” a restriction that has sparked the emergence of a parallel subreddit devoted specifically to sharing NSFW (Not Safe For Work) ASMR content (http://www.reddit.com/r/nsfwasmr).
3. The viewer-listener capable of experiencing ASMR, that is. It is important to note that not all people derive pleasure from these videos, and in fact many find them to be creepy or annoying. Furthermore, people who do experience ASMR may respond very differently to different triggers.
4. I want to be clear that my use of the term sexual is a deliberately provocative stance deployed with the intention of unsettling dominant concepts of sexuality, particularly in online spaces. Therefore, when I assert that ASMR is a sexual practice, it is not meant to impose a sexual value onto the ASMRtists as individuals, especially considering how women are already subject to such nonconsensual objectification in virtual spaces every day. Rather, my suggestion relies on a radical redefinition of the very category of “sex” itself, a far-reaching thought experiment to which ASMR can contribute one particular inroad. By suggesting that ASMR is a sexual practice, I aim to broaden the scope of what practices may fall under the rubric of sex, rather than linking ASMR to normative definitions of sex that too frequently rely on patriarchal, racialized, able-bodied concepts of genital-focused orgasmic pleasure. If we entertain the possibility that the consumption of ASMR videos is a sexual practice, it means opening up our understandings of sex to incorporate intimacies that defy geographic co-location and linear temporality; pleasures that stimulate cyborgian bodies of humans and networks alike; and therapies of care that resist neoliberal economies and corporate Western hegemonies of practice. Ultimately, such a radical approach to sex would shift the focus of sex education (both formal and informal) away from techniques of phallic pleasure and methods of reproductive control, and toward more holistic and ethical understandings of relationality — the interactions between bodies — within communities and ecologies at large, particularly within the context of new media infrastructures.
5. See, for example, H. Cheadle, 2012, “ASMR, the good feeling no one can explain,” Vice, at http://www.vice.com/read/asmr-the-good-feeling-no-one-can-explain; M. O’Connell, 2013, “The soft bulletins,” Slate, at http://www.slate.com/articles/life/culturebox/2013/02/asmr_videos_autonomous_sensory_meridian_response_and_whispering_videos_on.html; and J. Beck, 2013, ”How to have a ‘brain orgasm,’” Atlantic, at http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/12/how-to-have-a-brain-orgasm/282356/.
6. These rankings are according to YouTube’s algorithms, and were current as of 15 March 2016.
7. Interestingly, Tony Bomboni (ASMRer) is the only masculine ASMRtist who ranks in the top twenty ASMRtists broadly and in the top ten for “ASMR role play” results. Although I will not be going into his work here, Tony is a notable performer as the only top-ranking ASMRtist who openly codes as queer, and whose work also adheres to the gendered division of labor, as the content of his videos bears more in common with the other women than with the men. For instance, he usually wears makeup and his role-play scenarios are also characterized by the gendered spaces of malls and spas.
8. Ahuja, 2013, p. 450.
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12. This is the revolutionary potential Butler identified in performances of drag: deliberate and attentive instances of gender performativity that spotlight the process of performativity, thus providing an opportunity for awareness that these arbitrary categories are hence open to change (Butler, 2004, p. 214).
13. Marks, 2002, p. xv.
14. The quality of ASMR videos has steadily improved over the last few years, and most successful ASMRtists use high definition binaural microphones. These record from two different “ear” locations, so that when the listener uses headphones, it produces the immersive effect of “3D” sound.
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Received 15 December 2015; accepted 15 December 2016.
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
“This FEELS SO REAL!” Sense and sexuality in ASMR videos
by Emma Leigh Waldron.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 1 - 2 January 2017