Dev Ritchie vividly remembers the first time she experienced ASMR — a feeling of well-being combined with a tingling sensation in the scalp and down the back of the neck, often experienced in response to sound.
She was sitting in a cafe with a friend, who had told Ritchie she wanted to show her something. Ritchie allowed her companion to place a headphone earbud in each of her ears, closed her eyes, and listened to the barbershop-based ASMR video her friend had discovered. Her whole body tingled. Instantly, she was hooked.
She wasn’t alone. According to ASMR University, there are roughly 500,000 ASMR (an abbreviation of autonomous sensory meridian response) channels and 25 million ASMR videos on YouTube alone, and the hashtag #asmr has attracted more than 460 billion views on TikTok. Creators in the space create sound-based content designed to elicit the sensation of ASMR in viewers, often attracting millions of views in the process. The niche involves the recording of specific sounds — often things like tapping or clicking — in striking detail through the use of microphones.
The ASMR niche has given way to a wide range of vloggers who cater to specific themes, like electronic restoration and even barbershop experiences. Ritchie, who now creates her own ASMR content, occupies one of its most controversial subgenres: a genre whose creators dub it sensual ASMR. Videos in the niche often involve the sounds of sexually charged licking, kissing, and “wet” massages, all amplified by the use of microphones.
Sensual ASMR’s popularity pales in comparison to traditional ASMR — Ritchie’s most viewed video, “HOT Step sister gives you HJ ASMR,” has 1.5 million views, while the most viewed ASMR video on YouTube has 407 million. But its appeal is undeniable. Ritchie alone has attracted more than 70,000 subscribers under the name GanjaGoddess, by releasing clips with titles like “Boob Massage ASMR,” “HOT Teacher PUNISHES You ASMR,” and “Moaning and Dirty Talk ASMR.”
“ASMR videos with audio sexual sounds may be age-restricted or removed from the platform.”
Clearly, there is an audience for the content that Ritchie creates — but YouTube doesn’t see the appeal in her line of work. A year ago, Ritchie received a message that explained her videos had been demonetized due to their sexual nature. Since then, the platform has redoubled its efforts to combat the spread of sensual ASMR. In its September 7th policy change announcement, YouTube stated that it had “strengthened our policies to better identify and action ASMR content that is sexually gratifying,” adding that “ASMR videos with audio sexual sounds may be age-restricted or removed from the platform.” Ritchie, like many other creators in her niche, is worried her videos could all be deleted.
Sensual ASMR videos have an undeniable raunchy component, but raunchiness is also a spectrum — purging anything that might be sexually titillating from YouTube would mean removing all kinds of scenes from mainstream films or television. And many creators argue that they aren’t purely about sex. Former model-turned-ASMR vlogger Elcee Orlova feels that the mantras she utters in her videos — which are usually proclamations of love, care, and affection aimed at those watching her clips — are what keep people coming back for more.
“I get comments like, ‘Thank you for your video. No one has ever told me those things in my entire life,’ and, ‘Watching your videos makes me feel a bit less lonely,’” recounts Orlova, who declined to share her age and location with The Verge for privacy reasons. She has attracted more than 40,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel, ASMR GIRLFRIEND, where she uploads videos with titles like “ASMR Girlfriend Gives You A VERY WET Massage” and “ASMR Girlfriend Measures You and Finds Out Your Size.” “I believe my videos can help [those people] feel cared for,” she adds, “and appreciated for who they are.”
Ritchie has similar feelings about her work. “There’s a lot of people out there, whether they want to admit it or not, that are having a lot of issues with loneliness. I call myself their e-girlfriend,” she says. “I take the time to talk to them, I tell them things, and I care about them. That’s going to make them feel better.”
“There’s a lot of people out there ... that are having a lot of issues with loneliness.”
In the eyes of ASMR creators, the content they offer up isn’t inherently sexually explicit or in violation of YouTube’s policies. It’s all built around the power of suggestion — and is often used to entice prospective clients who might want to view their more X-rated work. “Most of the traction that I get through YouTube, I use to just funnel into OnlyFans. It’s like a billboard that I kind of get paid for. Like: Now that you see what my tongue can do, come watch me do other things with it,” explains Kaitlyn Siragusa, a 28-year-old sensual ASMR content creator and streamer from Texas, who has amassed more than 8 million Twitch and YouTube followers under the name Amouranth. “I don’t know any girls who only do sensual ASMR,” she adds. “They’re always doing harder stuff [on the side].”
The reluctance of ASMR creators to explicitly label their content as sexual is understandable in the context of YouTube’s policies. The platform does not allow sexual content if its primary purpose is sexual gratification, nor any content that involves “the depiction of sexual acts or fetishes that are meant for sexual gratification.” Its policies also clearly state that links to websites that violate those guidelines — like sexually explicit OnlyFans pages, for example — are not allowed. It doesn’t help that ASMR has often been classed as a fetish, although creators in all of its niches vehemently deny that this is the case. Admitting that their ASMR content is designed to be sexually gratifying, or used to promote X-rated content, could mean that creators risk their videos being banned or their accounts being deleted.
How YouTube’s rules should apply to sensual ASMR is up for debate, and YouTube didn’t return a request for comment on the policy before publication. Creators in this space rely on the art of suggestion. Their videos are not visually sexually explicit, and the reality of what’s occurring — whether it be the licking of an ear-shaped microphone or the squelching of off-screen macaroni — is not necessarily sexually gratifying. YouTube’s enforcement of such policies is also blurry. Clips of someone called “Fetish Pixie” spitting in front of a mirror, as well as spitting compilations of TikTokers, are available on the platform — as well as videos that feature women sucking on each other’s toes or women being tickled while tied up BDSM-style. Like sensual ASMR, none of it depicts sex, but it’s widely recognized as sexually charged.
Not everyone feels that YouTube’s regulations are a bad thing. “To be honest with you, I actually support YouTube’s decision regarding ASMR videos that exist solely for sexual arousal, like kissing and licking the microphone,” says Orlova. “If someone wants to enjoy that kind of content, they can easily switch from YouTube to some other sex-related platform and watch the videos there.”
Others blame an increasingly competitive social media ads market, which has come to a grinding halt this year after years of growth. “I think a lot of it’s a rat race now. There’s so many places people can advertise — Facebook, Twitch, Snapchat, YouTube,” says Siragusa. “The advertising market is getting so saturated now from all these different platforms. I think it’s a race to the bottom for who can be the most advertiser-friendly platform that people go to.” But Ritchie thinks that the popularity of ASMR has made it an easy scapegoat for YouTube, which is frequently under pressure to purge the site of non-family-friendly videos.
“The space for nudity and sexual content online is shrinking.”
Dr. Carolina Are, an innovation fellow at Northumbria University’s Center for Digital Citizens and expert in online moderation and the censorship of nudity, points to the influence of FOSTA-SESTA — a US act designed to curb online sex trafficking, making the hosting of sexual content riskier. “The space for nudity and sexual content online is shrinking, and this is massively worrying not just for sexual expression but also education,” she explains. Over-the-top policies from social media giants have already left safe-sex educators struggling to disseminate information and has even led to the development of “algospeak” due to the censorship of words like “lesbian” and “BDSM,” which entrenches the idea that sexuality and fetish are taboo things best left undiscussed. “It feels like an incredibly patronizing, puritan move,” Are continues. “Like platforms are trying to regulate people’s lives and choices.”
Are also warns that YouTube may not make the distinctions Orlova does between sensual and non-sensual ASMR. “It’s going to bleed onto creators that make non-sexual content anyway because this is what happens with these specific policies,” she says. FOSTA-SESTA, for example, has already led to the inadvertent silencing of queer adult comic artists. “This is very worrying because it means platforms can decide which type of content becomes obsolete or wrong at the flick of a switch.”
Companies, it seems, are mostly at that point. Most social media platforms practice stringent policies around sexual content — Instagram’s famed opposition to the female nipple in all of its forms, Tumblr’s porn ban, and OnlyFans’ almost-decision to remove sexual content creators from its platform are just three examples of social media’s sexual sanitation era — and toeing the line between suggestive and unacceptable content becomes harder every month. It’s left creators feeling frustrated. “I just feel like people should be able to enjoy what they want to enjoy,” says Siragusa. “If listening to girls lick and spit on microphones makes them feel less lonely, I don’t see a problem with that.”