“Why does it feel so good when someone else is touching you?” she asks, fluttering her fingers up her forearm in demonstration. 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 viewers, either 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). In answer to Olivia’s question, I suggest that ASMR “feels so good” because the technology affords listener-viewers the opportunity to imagine alternative sexualities outside of the dominant Western paradigm of heterosexual, two-bodied, genital, orgasmic, reproductive intercourse.
However, the online ASMR community vehemently asserts that there is nothing sexual about ASMR. Of course, that is not to say that NSFW ASMR doesn’t have a strong following on Reddit, or that there haven’t been strident debates on the topic (such as the one sparked by comedian Russell Brand earlier this year). But it does mean that the vocal majority of ASMRtists and their listeners perceive this experience as intensely pleasurable, yet outside the regime of sexuality. It seems that positioning ASMR as distinct from sexual fetishes is an effort to destigmatize what may otherwise be viewed as deviant or unhealthy sexual behavior.
The problem at hand, then, is not that ASMR may in fact be sexual, but that pervasive definitions of sexuality pertain to very narrow set of actions and gestures among a very narrow set of bodies and pertaining to a very narrow set of moralistic qualities. I argue that ASMR videos broaden the scope of what we understand as “sexuality” and provide a means for bodies to gain access to certain other bodies in particular ways, and thus serve as an outlet for people to enjoy those (sexual) pleasures alongside of what is deemed appropriate in the mainstream. By analyzing this video phenomenon, specifically through the videos of ASMRtist Olivia Kissper, I consider what is “real” about this mediated intimacy, and how this mediated intimacy can help us to reimagine sexuality.
If ASMR is described by those who experience it as intensely pleasurable and relaxing, and if ASMRtists craft their videos with the deliberate intention of producing this automatic, visceral, pleasurable sensation, then it is indisputable that ASMR is, above all, concerned with the production of pleasure. In this way, it is not difficult to note the parallels between ASMR videos and pornography—another “body genre” (to borrow the term from Linda Williams) that employs genre-specific techniques with the intention of producing an automatic, visceral, pleasurable sensation in the viewer. Bearing this in mind, it should not be overlooked that most of the bodies interacting with the objects in these videos are young, conventionally attractive, white women. As art historian Joceline Andersen notes, ASMR often “relies on the heteronormative gender roles of care” (685). In other words, the popularity of an ASMRtist (with few exceptions) seems to be directly related to her sexual appeal and the degree to which she upholds Western standards of beauty.
Despite the fact that these videos may not be pornographic in the traditional sense, they are certainly sensual, if not sexual. This is exemplified by the way in which these ASMRtists attempt to evoke the sensation of contact with the viewer. 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 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 viewers can tell at a glance if the video contains the specific triggers they are looking for, in this case tactile role-play and the auditory triggers of whispering and binaural recording. The quality of ASMR videos has steadily improved over the last couple of years, and most successful ASMRtists use high definition binaural microphones that record from two different “ear” locations, so that when the listener uses headphones, it produces the immersive effect of “3D” sound.
At the beginning of this video, Olivia asks, “are you ready for the most blissful experience?” then leans in close to whisper: “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 the 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 in Touching Feeling that, “what [texture and affect] have in common is that at whatever scale they are attended to, both are irreducibly phenomenological” (21). Here, the pleasurable affect manifests in the phenomenological tingles across the listener-viewer’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 tines of the wire 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 sound studies scholar Joshua Hudelson 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 (one of the top five most popular ASMR triggers according to a recent survey), as established through the use of second-person address. The demand for this element of intimacy is also growing in porn, according to Ela Darling, whose new website vrtube.xxx (NSFW) features virtual, one-on-one 3D cam sessions.
Mediated intimacy is at play in all ASMR videos, in the sense that they are produced for personal use. ASMR videos that use binaural recording techniques must be listened to with headphones, which means that each individual among the hundreds of thousands of viewers of these performances experiences an intimate encounter with the ASMRtist. But that intimacy is turned up even higher in role-play scenarios, as in one of Olivia’s earliest videos, “❀ Whispering, HAIR BRUSHING, Braiding & card reading ASMR ❀.”
This video takes place in a softly lit bedroom, with eye level low enough to suggest that the viewer-listener is sitting on the bed. Olivia is dressed casually in a plaid shirt, which is, not incidentally, unbuttoned rather low. She begins the video by addressing the viewer-listener directly as “friend,” and providing some expository dialogue indicating that the relationship is one of good friends who have not seen each other for a long time. She tells the viewer-listener she wants to braid her 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?
However, despite the platonic relationship established in the expository introduction, the boundary-crossing proximity of Olivia’s neck and hair in the viewer-listener’s field of vision erotically charges the banal acknowledgements she whispers.
It is clear that the intimacy that I experienced with Olivia is mediated—the hair she is braiding is not my own, for example, I cannot actually touch the objects she offers me, nor would she recognize me if I met her walking down the street—but does mediation necessarily imply inauthenticity? If intimacy is affective (pleasurable) and phenomenological (tingly), then doesn’t my experience with the mediated Olivia count as “real” intimacy? Dominic Pettman has suggested that love itself is a technology in “Love in the Time of Tamagotchi,” and points to the fact that intimacy is often done better through digital simulation:
[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 (110).
Although Pettman provides the example of a digital avatar in a game, I think the same could be said of ASMR videos, and that Olivia’s eye contact is equally effective and affective. Olivia herself believes this to be true, asserting on her personal website 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.”
The authenticity of the encounter between the ASMRtist and her listener-viewer is paramount in Olivia’s work, especially when it comes to the concept of healing. It is no coincidence that spa treatments and medical exams are two of the 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 viewers, but 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,” exemplifies this philosophy. “FUTURISTIC TINGLES!” 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. It is not realistic, nor is it trying to be. But it is still acutely concerned with the phenomenological effect on the listener-viewer’s body.
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. The viewer-listener is then led through a complex scenario in which Olivia, as a virtual cyborg healer, examines them through their computer screen, and then leads them through a healing meditation involving trippy visual sequences and binaural beats intended to trigger different, relaxing brain wave states. While the medical tests conducted in the first half of the video set the scene (and appeal to popular tropes within the ASMR genre at large), the second half is intended to produce actual healing effects within the body, not just simulate them. Olivia’s 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, her 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 reiki, palm reading, or ayahuasca, although she does have videos on all of those topics. The reason these two scenarios—doctor’s offices and salons—are so much more popular than, say, scenes in which the viewer 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 encounter. 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” (697), this essay shows how ASMR videos exemplify that there are alternative pleasures in these caring intimacies, and 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—what interests me about ASMR is that they really do touch us: the mediation of the digital recording allows the vibrations produced by Olivia’s vocal cords and finger nails to literally penetrate my ear and resonate within my body. In this way, the technological mediation of ASMR videos facilitates, rather than hinders, contact between the performer and the viewer-listener, a point that speaks to the appeal of ASMR role-play videos in particular. ASMR refers not just to “the tingles” but to the affective conglomeration of physiological tingles and psychical pleasure and relaxation, as produced by the touch of the ASMRtist. And similarly, as Teresa Brennan suggests in The Transmission of Affect, even my internal chemistry may literally be affected by “body movements and gestures, particularly through the imitation of rhythms (effected by sight, touch, and hearing)” (70). While the sexuality of this resonance is implied by the (problematically) gendered performances of ASMRtists such as Olivia Kissper, I suggest, somewhat provocatively, that ASMR is not just like sex, but is sex.
As “sex” is increasingly acknowledged as referring to a wide range of activities outside of penetrative, heterosexual, genital intercourse, it seems inevitable that its bounds will continue to expand, blur, and reconstitute themselves. Sexuality, therefore, should not be defined by the concrete gestures that constitute “sex” in a given time and place. Rather, sex could be understood as any embodied technique of pleasure, intimacy, and care, while sexuality could refer to an infinite scope of techniques within that category. In this way, by asking what sex does to the body rather than what it means for the subject, we may be able to cast aside sexuality’s moralistic conundrums and better attend to its affective aspects. What the current, dominant, Western definitions of sexuality often restrict, 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. ASMR performances may be one means of transgressing the interdictions on when and how bodies may access one another, sowing the seeds for cultivating alternative, pleasurable, intimate, and caring modes of life.
Image “In the Pink” by Koppenbadger @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.
Emma Leigh Waldron is a Ph.D. student in the Performance Studies Graduate Group at the University of California, Davis and a graduate of the MA Performance Research program at the University of Bristol. She is also Co-Editor-in-Chief at the online journal, Analog Game Studies.
Emma’s research focuses on affective communities that coalesce around intimate performances of touch. She is currently researching the mediated intimacy of ASMR videos on YouTube, and how sex is represented in larp (live-action role-playing games). She is especially interested in how definitions and manifestations of sexuality are negotiated, reified, and transformed through these practices. Her work lies at the intersection of performance studies and media studies, and questions the role of embodiment in sexuality, intimacy, and touch. Her work is informed by feminist theory, queer theory, affect studies, and phenomenology. You can find Emma online at www.emmaleighwaldron.com.
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It is customary that whenever I go to my Nana’s house I turn the car speakers as low as possible. She has super hearing. Sometimes I forget, and the following conversation takes place:
“What’s up Nana Boo?”
“I heard you before you got the house, girl. I told you about playing your music too loud.”
“It wasn’t too loud.”
“I heard you before I saw you.”
“Yes ma’am. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t bring attention to yourself.”
Don’t bring attention to yourself.
Physically this is impossible. I am a black woman over six feet tall. My laugh sounds like an exploding mouse. I squeak loudly and speak quickly when I get excited. I like knock in my trunk and bass in my music. Don’t bring attention to yourself. I frequently heard this warning as a girl and well into my adult life. I rarely take it as a slight on my grandmother’s account – though she is the master of throwing parasol shade. She spoke to me with a quiet urgency in her warning. In the wake of the murders of Jordan Davis, Sandra Bland, and other black lives that vigilantes and mainstream media deemed irrelevant, I understand her warning better from the perspective of sound.
As a loud, squeaky black woman I am especially attuned to how my sonic footprint plays into how I live and if I should die. As a black woman, the bulk of my threat is associated with my loudness. My blackness sonically and culturally codes me as threatening due to the volume of my voice. This is amplified, as a southern black woman. I exist and dare to thrive in a country that historically and socially tries to deflate my agency and urgency. The clarity of my sentiments, the establishment of my frustration, and the worth of my social and cultural interventions are connected to how others hear my voice. It is not what I say but how I say it.
Black women navigate multiple codes of sonic respectability on a daily basis. Their sonic presence is seldom recognized as acceptable by society. Classrooms, homesites, corporate spaces, kitchen tables, and social media require a different tone and volume level in order to gain access and establish one’s credibility. Like other facets of their existence, the way(s) black women are expected to sound in public and private spaces is blurry. What connects these spaces together is a patriarchal and racially condescending paradigm of black women’s believed inferiority. A black women’s successful assimilation into American society is grounded in her ability to master varying degrees of quiet and silence. For black women, any type of disruptive pushback against cultural norms is largely sonic in nature. A grunt, shout, sigh, or sucking teeth instigates some type of resistance. Toning these sonic forms of pushback—basically, silencing themselves—is seen as the way to assimilate into mainstream American society.
In what follows I look at the tape of Sandra Bland’s arrest from this past summer to consider what happens when black women speak up and speak out, when they dare to be heard. As the #SayherName movement attests, black women cannot express sonically major and minor touchstones of black womanhood – joy, pleasure, anger, grief – without being deemed threatening. These sonic expressions force awareness of the complexity of black women’s experiences. In the case of Sandra Bland, I posit that the video of her arrest is not a video of her disrespecting authority but rather shows her sonic response to officer Brian Encinia’s inferred authority as a police officer. I read her loud and open interrogation of Encinia’s actions as an example of what I deem sonic disrespectability: the use of sound and volume to contest oppression in the shape of dictating how black women should or should not act.
The sonic altercation in the video (see full-length version here) sets the stage for Encinia’s physical reprimand of Bland, a college graduate from Prairie View A&M who hailed from Chicago. Bland is not physically threatening—i.e. she emphatically states she’s wearing a maxi dress—but her escalating voice startles and even intimidates Encinia. Bland is angry and frustrated at Encinia’s refusal and to answer her questions about why she was pulled over. Encinia’s responses to Bland’s sonic hostility are telling of his inability to recognize and cope with her anger. In fact, he refuses to answer her questions, and she repeats them over and over again while he barks orders. Encinia states later in the dashboard camera that Bland kicks him and thus forces him to physically restrain her. However, Bland’s vocal assertion of her agency is more jarring than her physical response to Encinia’s misuse of power.
The dashboard camera footage is indicative of their vocal sparring match. Encinia’s voice starts calm and even. He explains to Bland he pulled her over for failure to indicate a lane change. Bland’s responses are initially low and nearly inaudible. However, after Encinia asks Bland if she is “okay,” her responses are much louder. She does not just follow orders but expresses her displeasure in sonic ways, while she stays in the car. His tone shifts when Bland refuses to extinguish her cigarette. Encinia then threatens to pull her out of the car for disobedience. He begins to yell at her. Bland then voices her pleasure in taking Encinia and his complaint to court. “Let’s take this to court. . .I can’t wait! Ooooh I can’t wait!” Bland’s pleasure in taking Encinia to court is an expression of her belief in her own agency. The act of voicing that pleasure is particularly striking because it challenges an understanding of courts and the justice system as hyperwhite and incapable of recognizing her need for justice. Her voice is clear, loud, and recognizably angry.
Her voice crescendos throughout the video, signifying her growing anxiety, tension at the situation, and anger for being under arrest. However, Bland’s voice begins to crack. Her sighs and grunts signify upon her disapproval of Encinia’s treatment of her physical body and rights. Once handcuffed, Bland’s voice is very high-pitched and pained, a sonic signifier of submission and Encinia’s re-affirmation of authority. She then is quiet and a conversation between Encinia and another officer is heard across the footage.
Many critiques of Bland center around her ‘distasteful’ use of language. One critic in particular described the altercation as “an African American woman had too much mouth with the wrong person and at the wrong time.” The assumption in those critiques is that she was not properly angry. Instead of a blind obedience of Enicnia’s inferred authority (read: superiority), she questions him and his inability to justify his actions. Sandra Bland’s sonic dis-respectability (dare I say, ratchet), is a direct pushback against the cultural and social norms of not only rural Southern society but the mainstream American (inferred) belief of southern black folks’ blind respectability of white authority and law enforcement.
Although Bland was a graduate of a southern HBCU, I do not want to assume that Bland possessed the social sensibilities that upheld this unstated social practice of blindly obeying white authority. Her death runs parallel to those of Emmett Till and Mary Turner. The circumstances of Till’s death swirled around his alleged whistling at a white woman – read as a sonic signifier of Till’s black masculine sexuality instead of boyhood – and disregard for white femininity, a protected asset of white men’s authority. Till, from Illinois like Bland, allegedly ignored his cousins’ warnings about the ‘proper protocol’ of interacting with white folks. Mary Turner, a black woman from Valdosta, Georgia, spoke out publicly against the lynching of her husband in 1918. She and her unborn child were also lynched in response to her sonic audacity. Before her death, members of the mob cut open her belly and her unborn baby fell on the ground; it was stomped to death after it gave out a cry. Turner’s voice disrupted white supremacy. Her baby’s lone cry re-emphasized it. Sound grounds much of the racial and gendered violence in the South.
The Southern U.S. emphasizes listening practices as part of social norms and cultural traditions. Listening was an act of survival more so than vocalizing the challenges facing black folks. (Jennifer Stoever’s upcoming book on the sonic color line addresses how advertisements for runaway slaves, for example, mentioned whether they were good listeners, as a way to codify whether they were compliant slaves.). Consider my grandmother’s warning about not bringing attention to myself. In her eyes, by not bringing attention to myself I’m able to remain invisible enough to successfully navigate society’s expectations of my blackness and my womanhood. Silence and listening are tools of survival. Contrarily, Bland’s loud disapproval and emphatic use of curse words registered her blackness and womanhood as threatening. She was coded as less feminine and therefore threatening because of her direct verbal confrontation with Encinia. She was not quiet or polite, especially in the south where quiet is the ultimate and sole form of women’s politeness and respectability. The combination of these multiple representations of black women’s anger invoked Encinia’s hyper-authoritative response to regain control of the situation.
Black folks are increasingly pushing back against “being in their place.” Sandra Bland’s death is rooted in an unnecessarily escalated fear of black women literally speaking their truth to power. In a moment where black women are speaking on multiple wavelengths and levels of volume, it is imperative to single out instances and then implode outdated cultural and social practices of listening.
Featured image:”Sandra Bland is Her Name” by Flickr user Light Brigading, CC BY-NC 2.0
Regina Bradley is a writer, scholar, and researcher of African American Life and Culture. She is a recipient of the Nasir Jones HipHop Fellowship at Harvard University (Spring 2016) and an Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Armstrong State University. Dr. Bradley’s expertise and research interests include hip hop culture, race and the contemporary U.S. South, and sound studies. Dr. Bradley’s current book project, Chronicling Stankonia: Recognizing America’s Hip Hop South (under contract, UNC Press), explores how hip hop (with emphasis on the southern hip hop duo Outkast) and popular culture update conversations about the American South to include the post-Civil Rights era. Also known as Red Clay Scholar, a nod to her Georgia upbringing, Regina maintains a critically acclaimed blog and personal website – http://www.redclayscholar.com. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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