Is This Porn? 5 Realities Inside A Strange New Art Form

While browsing YouTube, you'll occasionally run into a strangely popular video of a person, usually a young lady, doing nothing but making soft noises into a microphone. They might be whispering seemingly random conversations, quietly reading, crinkling paper and plastic, eating chips and other crunchy snacks, coloring, or otherwise making soft scratchy sounds.

There are, in fact, about four million of these videos, and their backstory is fascinating. They're intended to trigger a physical reaction in the viewer called ASMR ("autonomous sensory meridian response"), and if you clicked on any of the videos above, you might be feeling it right now. We talked to some experts, including a few ASMR performers, to figure out what the deal is.

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5
ASMR Is Still A Mystery To Science

Is This Porn? 5 Realities Inside A Strange New Art FormGentle Whispering

Since ASMR videos tend to involve attractive young women whispering sweet nothings into the camera, you have to think this is a sex thing, right? We know wank material when we see it, dammit!

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And yes, that's true in some cases. But for most listeners, it's only meant for relaxation, and once you get past the initial fetish vibe, there's some fascinating science behind all of this. The videos are intended to trigger what has been dubbed a "brain orgasm" -- a tingling, relaxing sensation in your skin and down your spine. After a careful analysis, science has thus far concluded, "We're not sure how the hell this works, you guys."

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Emma Barratt, who co-wrote a study on ASMR, explained: "I think there are a few reasons ASMR has been understudied. The first is that because it lacked a name until recently, it's been hard to 'ring fence' on what exactly is and isn't ASMR. If you take the description alone, the tingles might sound like [goosebumps] to someone not capable of ASMR, which means the whole idea gets passed over. Secondly, things that arise through the internet tend to fly under the scientific radar ... "

Is This Porn? 5 Realities Inside A Strange New Art FormGentle Whispering
As does hard research conduced via soft, loving caresses.

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So while most people who watch ASMR videos have experienced unexplained "tingles" their entire lives, it was YouTube -- not a professional diagnosis or a scientific breakthrough -- that provided them with endless options for stimulation and an outlet to discuss the phenomenon that they were previously chalking up to ghosts. Some people even use ASMR to help them sleep or manage their anxiety.

This is more than a passing trend -- one popular ASMR creator, Maria, has over 192 million views on her channel. Who's watching them? We don't really know that either. "At the moment, there's no way of knowing how many people are capable of ASMR. It could be that we all had the ability as children (think toddlers freaking out when they get their hair cut), but some lost it as they grew, while others retained it. Hopefully, at some point in the near future, we'll have a better idea of what exactly brings about ASMR, but for the moment, a lot more research is needed." All we know right now is that it's definitely real. If you don't feel the sensations, show the videos to some friends. We guarantee at least one of them will feel like their nervous system is getting a massage.

Is This Porn? 5 Realities Inside A Strange New Art FormGentle Whispering
No longer are Captain Kirk's pouty lips the most exciting part of seeing a Tribble.

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4
Triggers Are Subjective And Unpredictable

Is This Porn? 5 Realities Inside A Strange New Art FormASMR Requests

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So science is shrugging its shoulders and saying "We dunno. Magic?" But the ASMR creators themselves have accumulated millions of views, so they must have a sense of what makes a video effective, right?

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Sort of? For starters, Maria explained that there's no way to test drive a video, because she can't trigger herself. And if you're heavily involved in creating something, it becomes impossible to judge how a total stranger would react to it. Charlotte (aka ASMRAngel) agrees. "I watch my gaming videos, and they're quite relaxing. But I don't experience ASMR from them. I think it's because it's all very technical -- I don't just watch them, I sit there and pick out the peaks and sounds." Nica Noelle, who makes erotic ASMR videos, adds, "I think it's like brushing your own hair. You don't get tingles from brushing your own hair, but if someone else does it, it feels good."

Is This Porn? 5 Realities Inside A Strange New Art FormASMR Angel
Preparing to violently die by lava is always more relaxing when you're not the one preparing.

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To further complicate matters, nothing works for everyone. "There's a thin line," Nica said. "You'll see that in the comments. 'You were whispering too fast.' And someone else will say, 'Well that worked great for me! If she talked any slower, it wouldn't work.' So it has to be that particular trigger for that person -- it's not a decision you make." Maria agreed that it's a bit of a crapshoot. "We try to think of situations that would trigger us and utilize it as much as we can." She also noted that once you have a following, you can rely on them for feedback, thus marking the first time in history that YouTube comments have been productive.

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But even with help from your fans, what triggers a person is incredibly subjective, and we swear we're not getting into the sex stuff until later. Charlotte's biggest trigger is cleaning, for example. "If someone comes around and dusts my desk, or fluffs cushions or fixes curtains, I'll just sit and watch them do that."

Is This Porn? 5 Realities Inside A Strange New Art FormASMR Angel
And if your thing is the calmest, most subdued It murder clown in history, she's got you covered, too.

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Because ASMR is sensory, artists are constantly looking for new sounds and images to incorporate. Sometimes that means looking ridiculous, as Maria explained. "If I'm [shopping for] clothing, I'll lift it from the hanger and start listening to it. I'm running my hand over it or crinkling it. An assistant will come up to me and say, 'Can I help you?' because I'll be tapping on a box. They're like, 'You like that box?' and I'll be like, 'Yeah, it's fine' and walk away because I get so embarrassed."

Ally (aka ASMR Requests) has the same process. "[My boyfriend] is my production partner, so whenever we're buying props, we're usually together. We were in Walmart trying to find some kitchen tongs. So we were standing there listening to kitchen tongs, clicking them in our ears. People were stopping and looking us up and down. That happens even when I'm not shopping for props. I'll be talking to someone, and I'll find myself fondling items as though it's an ASMR video. Especially if my nails are long, I'll click them against stuff. My family has started to point it out to me."

Is This Porn? 5 Realities Inside A Strange New Art FormASMR Requests
Her family presumably orders a lot of pizza on days when it's her turn to cook.

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3
People Want You To Act Out Their Fetishes

Is This Porn? 5 Realities Inside A Strange New Art FormASMR Angel

Remember how we said that fans offer feedback and ideas? Well, this is still the internet, so you can imagine the direction those often take. "I get fetish requests all the time," says Maria. "'Wear stockings.' 'Show your feet' ... I disregard those. Some of them are weird -- they want to see me do something with blood, and I don't know what I can do with blood!"

Is This Porn? 5 Realities Inside A Strange New Art FormGentle Whispering
"Pretend you work at Foot Locker!"

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There's nothing wrong with being into feet, but asking ASMR creators to act out your fetishes for you is like asking your babysitter to wear a short skirt -- it's not relevant to the service they're offering, and you're going to come across like a creep. Another creator we talked to, Liliana, has received run-of-the-mill fetish requests, like feet shots and Popsicle-eating, mixed in with circus acts. "A lot of requests are like, 'Can you wear a hat and juggle?' I've even gotten emails from people asking if they can have my used socks or used underwear."

To be fair, you know how jugglers are known for the subtle noise they make, so maybe that was an innocent mix-up. Then there's Nica. While her requests are sexual by nature, she draws the line at anything she feels uncomfortable with. "If someone's asking me to pretend there's an incestuous thing going on, [or] with somebody underage ... [I wouldn't do that]. Because there's this nurturing aspect to ASMR, I've gotten emails from guys who say, 'I want you to pretend to be my mommy, and I want to suck on your breasts and be your little baby,' and I thought, 'No, I don't feel comfortable with that'."

Is This Porn? 5 Realities Inside A Strange New Art FormNica Noelle
It's hard to talk softly if a request is making you gag.

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But on that note, it is time to address the elephant in the room. The sex elephant.

2
ASMR Videos Looks Like Porn To The Unfamiliar

Is This Porn? 5 Realities Inside A Strange New Art FormASMR Angel

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As we mentioned, ASMR looks inherently pornographic to the uninitiated. Like maybe it's playing to a fantasy, a hot girl whispering in your ear. The ASMR community insists that's not the case, but good luck trying to convince the rest of the world.

"Our study shows that, typically, people aren't using ASMR for sexual purposes," says Barratt. "The results were pretty overwhelming in that respect. There's a certain frustration about ASMR and sexuality online. Since the most popular videos are produced by attractive females, the community was largely dismissed as a group that simply enjoyed weird softcore porn for a while. This sort of view of ASMR is understandable to someone just stumbling across the most popular videos, but doesn't take into account the millions of views on ASMR videos of vacuum noises, or bizarre/comedic videos."

Is This Porn? 5 Realities Inside A Strange New Art FormEphemeral Rift
This stigma has led to the pineapple wearing a disguise while doing his videos.

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Or as Maria puts it, "The go-to reaction is, 'If she whispers, that means it's porn.' Obviously, your mother used to whisper to you. You wouldn't call that porn. It's a misconception that it's something fetish-y. But it's not. It's more about intimacy ... it's not necessarily sexual."

Porn or not, it's not hard to imagine someone trying to give an autonomous sensory meridian response to their genitals. And since most of our interview subjects keep their videos strictly PG, the "Is this porn or what?" crowd can cause consequences that bleed into their everyday lives. Like when Liliana's sorority discovered her videos and decided they had a pornmonger in their midst:

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"My sophomore year, I was approached by my sorority because they were like, 'We found you saying dirty things to a camera on YouTube,' and I had to meet with them and plead my case and tell them that it wasn't sexual. I was horrified. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I thought I was going to be ridiculed for something I enjoyed doing. My dad came up [to school], he was fuckin' pissed [at my sorority]. People didn't take it well. They would come up to me at parties and whisper, 'Hey, well, I'd talk to you in a normal voice but I like to whisper.' It was bad."

Is This Porn? 5 Realities Inside A Strange New Art FormAntonioGuillem/iStock/Getty Images
Apparently, terrible people are harder to happy-trigger than normal people who mind their own goddamn business.

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One guy she dated didn't react well, either. "We went on a few dates, and then he found out about my YouTube channel, and it was like a switch went off. That was it."

1
Not Everyone Agrees ASMR Should Remain Sex-Free

Is This Porn? 5 Realities Inside A Strange New Art FormNica Noelle

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Nica, who does most of her work in the adult film industry, believes there's room for erotic elements in ASMR. But that's not a popular opinion. "I don't have a relationship to the ASMR community in terms of talking to them and hanging out with them ... I got the feeling there was animosity toward erotic ASMR. There were comments made, things were said ... there's controversy around bringing an erotic element, so I didn't want to push that." Ironically, she feels that the mainstream community, which is unfairly judged as porny, has its own bad stereotypes of actual porn in ASMR.

Is This Porn? 5 Realities Inside A Strange New Art FormNica Noelle
No one outside of George Michael has had to deal with as many careless whispers.

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"I think a lot of people were concerned that the goal [of erotic ASMR] was to make ASMR trashy ... to pollute ASMR with porn principles. I'm trying to do the exact opposite -- I'm trying to bring ASMR principles to POV porn. It's a different state of mind than taking an ASMR video and putting a lot of trash talk over it. People associate porn with a harsh, trashy kind of demeanor, they don't know about the different levels of erotica that are available, and they classify all porn as the same thing."

If you can find a single hobby on the planet that doesn't have a divide between people who want to keep it sex-free and people who want to add it, we'd love to hear about it (and then immediately try to add sex to it, because we are agents of a chaotic world). Nica agrees that ASMR isn't inherently sexual, but she argues that there's also room for her niche. To her, it's like a massage. You're surrounded by candles and soft music while someone rubs your naked body. That would look sexual to someone who's never heard of massages, but most people draw the line at intimate relaxation. But there's always that niche for people who have something else in mind. "Other people do get turned on during a massage, and want to get more," she says. "That's why there are happy endings, right?"

For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Adventures I Had As A Cam Girl With A Niche In Sex Puppets and Racism Makes People Horny: Confessions Of A Real Dominatrix.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel, and check out ASMR YouTube Videos (AKA Soren's Creepy Fetish), and other videos you won't see on the site!

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