The Strange, Subtle Matter of ASMR Erotica

Not long ago, I opened my laptop, dimmed the lights in my room, and clicked play on the YouTube video “ASMR Ear Eating Twins”. To let my imagination drift, I lowered the sound levels and closed my eyes. Doing so, I was told, would help unlock the euphoria I was in search of. For various reasons, I’ve recently taken on a no-sex mandate, the beginning of a months-long exercise in mastering my impulses, but anyone with blood running in their veins knows the body and mind are tenacious: They want what they want. So I brokered a compromise. In the instances when I found myself being made woozy by temptation, when the appetite for another person’s touch became red and palpable, I would seek out an unconventional form of self-pleasure that didn’t involve the physical act of sex. This is how I discovered the strange wonderland of ASMR erotica.

In the video, ASMR Amy—one of the more popular ASMRists, as they are known—role-plays the part of twin sisters. By virtue of skillful editing, we see and hear double, caught in a hypnotic aural trance. In real life, Amy has no real twin, but the imagery is representative of the subgenre’s fixation on sexual fantasies: Satisfaction must be met. It was my very own virtual threesome.

“OK, let’s start” she says with a flirtatious air, whispering into a 3Dio microphone, a binaural recording tool often used by ASMRists (the device, shaped liked two human ears, mimics the way we naturally hear sounds). “Let’s start together.” The effect is a conjuring, a swirl of pleasure masked as relaxation: the wet crackle of a tongue against the ear, the slow sizzle-pop of saliva as it oils the auditory canal. The amplification and performance of these small delights—whispering, tapping, scratching, crinkling, lightly grazing surfaces—are hallmarks of ASMR videos, a phenomenon that first took root in the early 2010s on YouTube and has since reached “cult-like proportions.”

The acronym, short for autonomous sensory meridian response, refers to a physical reaction—tingling, perhaps even goosebumps—people experience from auditory stimuli. It’s been likened to a “brain massage” or a “braingasm,” though many early users were adamant that the experience was not sexual. As the internet gave rise to micro-audiences, YouTube was a natural incubator of the craze, emboldening teens like Makenna Kelly, who came to embody the apotheosis of the genre, and reintroducing the awe of figures like Bob Ross, the American painter who died in 1995.

Before long, ASMR content on YouTube was being hypersexualized, even as creators pushed back. “When the early ASMRtists rejected the implication that their content was sexual in nature, this was an important way for them to assert their boundaries and resist the oversexualization and harassment of women on the internet,” Emma Leigh Waldron, a PhD candidate at the University of California-Davis whose research focuses on performance and intimacy, told me. “It also allowed them to carve out a space for intimacy and pleasure that was not defined by sex. But since both ASMR and sex pertain to intimacy and pleasure, it is unsurprising that now we are seeing the emergence of a subgenre that makes that overlap explicit.”

ASMR Amy, along with ASMR Mads and ASMR Cherry Crush, represents a specific style of creator that has exploited that overlap. What they’re doing is much more erotic in nature; though it’s billed as therapy, sensuality is the selling point—be it eating fruit or something as simple as applying lotion. These are women who fit it into a distinct, fantasy-friendly mold: Doughy-lipped and blonde, they are essentially life-size Barbie dolls. This Instagram ideal feels intentional. ASMR erotica is a gendered space, and much of the explicit ASMR content is posted by white women who fit into roles: the sexy girlfriend, the mistress, the badly behaving nurse, the hot teacher. Underlying these videos is the performance of gender and intimacy. Sexual conventions are optimized for the viewer and feed directly into the tempos of modern image-culture, a domain that has been readjusted by social networks like Instagram and Pinterest, where beauty is the currency of the realm.

There are exceptions. An ASMRtist called Eduardo is popular among both women and gay men. His videos range from all types of role play, including “Naughty boyfriend,” “Shirtless boyfriend,” “Spanish boyfriend,” “Male burglar,” and “Hot Farting Stud With Bloated Gut.” (The strangest role-play video of his I came across was probably “Cursed To Dance In Ballet Outfit In Forest Searching For Witch Pt. 2.”) In these videos, Eduardo, who is bearded and deep-voiced, is often sitting in his bedroom, talking slickly into a black microphone. “You’re just too beautiful with your nice soft skin,” he says in one, before offering a series of kisses, the pucker of each one more potent-sounding and texture-rich than the last.

Even so, these videos force us to reconsider sexual dynamics. “What is most interesting about ASMR—whether erotic or not—is how it has the capacity to challenge heteronormative, ableist conceptions of sex,” Waldron said. She believes the phenomenon is more about feelings—closeness, understanding, pleasure—than bodies and identities. “ASMR erotica specifically is in a unique position where it may either address those questions head-on, or may replicate limiting ideas about sex and sexuality.”

One place that is happening is on Weird Erotic Tensions, or WET, a Soundcloud platform that was created in 2018 by Alexandra Zakharenko and features “sensual podcasts, spoken word, poetry, ASMR, field recordings, and explorations of sonic sexuality.” Where the idea of female desire has become almost weaponized on YouTube, platforms like WET push against this trend; the idea of gender is seemingly nonexistent. Zakharenko, who grew up in Russia but now lives in Berlin, said she sees ASMR as “a borderline between the explicit and submerged erotic, a zone of fantasies and excitement. It’s so much more tempting, intriguing, and intelligent than straight-up porn.”

WET belongs to a particular category of ASMR erotica—the sensuality is abstract, open to experimentation, and less stereotypical of the genre. It seems to be about excavating the sexual from the nonsexual. The mixes fuse a buffet of elements; WET’s most popular upload to date, “Zaumne – Élévation,” is an amalgam of pleasantries: falling rain, rustling leaves, a whispering voice, chimes.

The true appeal of ASMR erotica like WET, content that is more ambiguous in how it identifies, may be that it doesn’t discriminate: All a listener is left with is the seduction of a faceless voice or stray sounds, which greet the ear with an odd but welcoming familiarity and allow for a more sexually creative experience. I certainly found myself drawn to this form; it felt more like approaching a blank canvas—I could go anywhere I wanted. I wasn’t limited by the contours of Amy’s or Eduardo’s make-believe. I was free to make the experience my own. “It leaves a lot of space to complete a story, to imagine and create your own reality,” Zakharenko said. “I love the subtle matter of it.”

As wellness has become more commodified in the last decade, it is easy to see the appeal of ASMR erotica, a space that feels at once restorative and escapist, instructional but just as open to fantasy. Central to audio porn’s continued expansion—with websites like Quinn, which allows amateur porn creators to upload recordings, and Dipsea, an app that produces erotic audio for people of all sexual identities and orientations—is ASMR erotica, crystallizing into a bright, wondrous form. Intimacy is the throughline. Intimacy is also its most radical effect—both the content produced and the platform on which it’s produced not only amplify personal connection (between user and creator) but intensify our overall relationship to technology, and the devices we use to explore our most carnal desires, in ways we are just discovering.

That night in my room, watching and listening to ASMR Amy, I wasn’t quite transported in the way I’d hoped. Still, the illusion sticks. The sensory pleasures spur and excite—a virtual lick to the ear, a kiss to the neck. These videos collapse the emotional distance of a virtual encounter. Amy wanted me to feel as if I was right there with her, even as a laptop screen separated us. I never reached climax, but I felt close.

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