I am watching a video of the outward crevice of a human’s large intestine. The cavity, exposed in the cold light of day, is isolated from the owner’s body; it pulsates to what sounds like wet dog food squishing in the palm of a hand. It is, at turns, grotesque, then abstract, suggestive of the hungry mouth of a carnivorous sea creature. It is what a high-minded curator might call “liminal” in a thesis on the postmodern diaspora as expressed in avant-garde video art. Instead, it appears next to CGI videos demonstrating high-speed penis enlargement on the platform xvideos.com; it is titled: “Butthole Asmr Intense Licking Shivers.”
“Butthole Asmr Intense Licking Shivers” occupies the nebulous category of “ASMR porn,” video and audio media mimicking the soft sounds and gentle embrace of ASMR videos. Video on porn streaming platforms typically make do with the sounds that traditional porn provides (sucking, stroking, lotion) set to far more graphic imagery than you’ll find on YouTube. (Although you can find ASMR “erotica” on YouTube, too–often, a quieter version of phone sex, and it’s been around for at least a few years.)
On the Pornhub network, pornified ASMR produces the mind-bending effect of lulling you to sleep while your eyeballs pop out of your head: if you minimize the tab, an ASMR blowjob sounds like waves lightly lapping against the shore; the eager pumping of an industrial-sized vaginal pump sounds like a turkey baster; even the standard masturbating into a microphone turns female masturbation into something as mundane as doing the dishes. And then just stuff that’s bafflingly out of place in any location on the internet, like a man biting his nails in a ski mask.
Porn loves ASMR, apparently. A Pornhub spokesperson told Gizmodo that ASMR had been searched over three million times on the site over the preceding 30 days; during the 2018 YouTube outage, Pornhub says ASMR searches went up by 200 percent. Common search terms include “asmr hentai,” “lesbian asmr,” “asmr nurse,” and, most popular, “JOI asmr,” which is a crossover between the “Jerking Off Instructions” and ASMR. They definitely fit the mold of porn. And they are undeniably “sensory experiences.”
But porn presents certain limitations. Porn precludes a natural climactic conclusion and flattens everything into a rigid procedural; ASMR is supposed to run in the background for an hour or more. ASMR is quiet. Porn is a tremendous cacophony of human screams in a grind show of fleshy masses flying in all directions. The epitome of ASMR is Bob Ross; the antithesis of porn is Bob Ross. ASMR, necessarily, can not belong next to sidebar ads of high-speed banging and screaming faces. Can porn be ASMR?
It’s still kind of unclear what ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) does to your brain, exactly, but we know that it soothes. The “tingles,” or, “brain tingles” or “brain orgasms,” or, as one study supposes “sound-emotion synaesthesia” start at the back of the neck and work their way down to the shoulders and sometimes the spine; they’re induced by soft tactile sounds, especially, as a Department of Psychology of Swansea University, reports, “crisp sounds, whispering,” and—critically important—“close personal attention.” ASMR performers gaze into the camera with motherly adoration. ASMR researchers describe the effect of ASMR, the “tingles,” similar to the sensation of a hairdresser running her fingers over your scalp while shampooing your hair; the simultaneous visual pairing of, say, flipping through a pamphlet of carpet samples or painting a wooden leaf can induce a “flow state,” the trance of performing repetitive tasks. A University of Sheffield study on ASMR-susceptible subjects, colloquially, “tingleheads,” identified reduced heart rates. What little research exists links ASMR to relieving depression, stress, insomnia, chronic pain; it unquestionably falls under the category of “wellness.”
But there are lots of ingredients in the ASMR formula for porn to borrow. ASMR performers are often beautiful women roleplaying as service industry professionals and spiritual guides like nurses, dentists, mystics, flight attendants, space travel agents, therapists (though unlike porn, they stick to the procedure at hand and dress accordingly). While you’d think porn’s necessary sound effects are somewhat mushier and more moan-y than “crisp,” you’d be surprised. Even without the advantage of professional binaural mics operated by ASMR artists, there are ice cubes to clink, glass toys and dildo boxes to tap, and fantasies to whisper. They naturally begin at the same jumping-off point.
Take this intro to ASMR RELAXING JOI:
“I want you to relax. I want you to let go of the negative thoughts in your mind. Take a deep breath in...I want you to imagine I am scratching your hair.”
And compare it to this quote from “ASMR Cozy Night”:
“I know it’s been a hard day. But it’s okay, right? I think if I just sit with you here for a while, quietly, while you fall asleep, just to keep you company. I’ll brush your hair with my fingers. It’s my favorite thing.”
The distinction is that “Cozy Night” cumulates with undulating ocean waves, while the former does not.
“I think it’s a very interesting niche, and strangely enough not exploited enough,” ASMR Relaxing JOI creator Trish Collins told Gizmodo. “I guess this is why the demand is so high. I hardly ever get bad reviews on my ASMR content, and I’m happy I can help people feel relaxed when they visit adult websites.”
JOI is ready made for ASMR for the obvious reason that it’s a series of gentle instructions given at close proximity to the camera. But Collins, who gets the tingles herself, sees an organic overlap between the spirit of the practices, in that they’re both about “making one feel comfortable and having them spend some time for themselves.” She has mastered the art of self-care, a conduit to put home viewers at ease about body stuff: affirmation that there’s no shame in masturbating alone, in the same way that there’s no shame in feeling a tingling sensation when a hairdresser massages your scalp. Her intimate gaze is what feels like “bedside manner.” No pouting, no posing. She doesn’t look like she’s playing an ASMR character, and if she’s faking it, then she’s the Meryl Streep of Pornhub.
She starts each ASMR JOI with both feet fully planted in ASMR: She whispers, fully clothed, sometimes in French; she taps her fingernails on an incense ash catcher, rubs her palms, draws a powder brush over a dynamic microphone. As her tech and lighting gradually improve over her series, an untrained eye could easily take her for a professional ASMRtist. Were it not for the Pornhub logo overhead, her latest work, “ASMR JOI- The Tarot Game” could be watched in its entirety with earplugs at the office, without so much as a disparaging glance. Aside from a few explicit instructions, it is what it says it is: an ASMR Tarot reading.
“[W]et sounds, stroking sounds, or even vicarious personal attention can be easily included in typical pornography, ideally in an artistic manner,” Collins told Gizmodo. “There are so many possibilities.”
For those numb to the lather, bang, rinse, repeat cycle of traditional theater, she does throw some delightful elements into the mix. They’re really something.
ASMR artists don’t necessarily love the crossover, and some of the most popular YouTubers’ work comes up early in an Pornhub search–some as is, at least one chopped and mangled to manipulate the artist into whispering jerking off instructions. When ASMR Glow, aka Sharon (who asked to be identified by first name only), learned that her work had been posted to xvideos without her permission, she said that she was not only “disgusted” by the idea of people using her image for sexual purposes, but also, the pornification of her work “goes against what I believe my ASMR is for.” Sharon, 25, could be held up as the ideal ASMR guide: she whispers in a vague lilt to her nearly one million YouTube subscribers; she giggles and smiles widely; she gestures her outstretched fingers toward the camera, beckoning; incidentally, she also does make-up tutorials. Her content is the essence of SFW.
Sharon defines ASMR as “something that can fall under the umbrella of intimacy and not sexuality.” She says it’s more “intimacy with oneself, rather than the relationship kind, it’s a moment with yourself where you get taken care of by someone else.”
That’s the gist of what ASMR researchers and community spokespeople have said.
“The ‘R’ in ASMR stands for ‘Response’, so ASMR is a response, not a stimulus, so it can’t cause arousal,” Craig Richard, founder of the website, ASMR University, told Gizmodo. “ASMR is a response when one feels relaxed and safe due to the positive, personal attention from another person. This relaxed feeling of ASMR can be the precursor response to someone having a sexual response, and it can enhance a sexual response–but ASMR and sexual arousal are two different responses.”
So why the one million Pornhub searches? It could just be porn doing its thing, going places it shouldn’t, rummaging through the closets of Disney movies or the White House and playing dress-up. But I don’t think that’s all of it. When Collins tells me she wants me to take a deep breath and shake off the stress of the workday, I really believe she means it.
“I’m not sure that ASMR pornography really tells us anything about ASMR in general,” ASMR researcher Stephen Smith told me via email. “There is pornography related to almost every topic in our society—from parodies of movies or political events to pornographic cartoons. Given its popularity on YouTube, I’d be more surprised if there *wasn’t* ASMR-related pornography.”
But the internet rule “if there’s a thing, there’s a porn for it” naturally holds that the “thing” (be they pterodactyls or Sarah Palin) fits the strictures of porn, just with a different cast of characters. This hits mute on the shock and lurid gimmicky entertainment of porn parody. If it’s not ASMR, it’s a kinder, gentler porn.
Collins doesn’t see it as that complicated. “I think you can be both sleepy and horny to be honest.”