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The Erotics of ASMR

Rachel Elizabeth Fraser

[1]

Holly Herndon’s 2015 track ‘Lonely At the Top’ opens with a gentle crackling sound. After six seconds of this soft, mysterious noise—the closest thing in terms of tempo and timbre is the soft, irregular popping of Rice Krispies fresh into milk—comes a bold swoosh of static. Then you hear a coy, lisping, girlish voice. ‘Hi. Hi. Welcome.’

Herndon is known for her eerie, collaged soundscapes. They patch together the distorted echoes of organic noise—including her own sighs, groans, and murmurs—with the sound-ghosts of digital ephemera: the whir of a computer’s cooling fan, the tap of a keyboard, the pleasant, the satisfying ‘thuck’ of a headphone cable being pulled out of a jack. These familiar elements of background noise are spliced and repurposed into tense, beautiful almost-music. ‘Lonely at the Top’ is different. Rather than playing with aurally unmoored layers and surfaces, this track is anchored in a recognisable social location. ‘Hi. Hi. Welcome’, says the female voice. In the background, you hear the muffled patter of a keyboard. ‘Please don’t worry about being late.’ The voice is slow; heavy and soothing. ‘Clients like you are our top priority.’ You are in a waiting room somewhere expensive; the sounds are those of anonymous, soporific luxury. 

The track is designed to elicit ASMR—longer name: autonomous sensory meridian response—in its listeners. ASMR typically manifests as a gentle, pleasurable tingling sensation on the scalp, neck, or upper spine, and a feeling of deep relaxation. Not everyone reports experiencing it, but for me, as for many, ASMR has been familiar since childhood. I associate it most with somatic intimacy and bodily care: having my hair brushed or cut, or having friends draw on my hands with felt tips. At its most intense, it feels like being stroked, but without the need for actual haptic stimulation. Until a few years ago, I didn’t recognise this gentle tingling as a distinct experience, or suspect that it was peculiar to a subset of the population. 

Many different sounds trigger ASMR: whispers, a pen moving across paper, skin rubbing against skin, the pages of a book being turned, clothes being folded, a microphone being tapped. My own triggers are mainly ‘interpersonal’: I tend to feel the low-grade euphoria characteristic of ASMR only when addressed by a voice. Like most (but not all) who experience ASMR, I need external triggers: I cannot spontaneously induce its sensations. As a result, in childhood, ASMR was a rare and unpredictable pleasure. Now, I can experience ASMR on demand: there are over 13 million ‘trigger’ videos on Youtube, most of them made with the explicit goal of inducing ‘tingles’.

ASMR tracks and videos tend to fall into one of two ‘genres’. In the first genre, the performer is incidental: you won’t see their face (if you’re watching a video) or hear them speak (if it’s a track). They turn pages, scissor through paper, or fiddle with their headphones. This genre largely leaves me cold. In the second kind of track, the performer is centred: they address the listener directly, in a soft voice, often role-playing as a hairdresser, a nail technician, or a masseuse. The ASMR artist WhispersRed (13,410 monthly listeners on Spotify) is typical. ‘Hello’, she breathes. ‘How are you? OK. Thank you for coming to visit. I’m going to give you a relaxing haircut today. First I’m going to start with a little head massage, just to calm you down…’. This form of ASMR is feminised twice over: not only is it made mostly by women, these women induce ASMR by imitating service workers in highly feminised sectors of the economy. For people with triggers like mine, the pleasant tingles of ASMR are generated by an idealised, simulated consumer experience.

So: is ASMR sexual? Its aesthetics and tropes—hot women, glossy lips, heavy breathing, role-play—are, after all, often reminiscent of softcore porn, and, like softcore porn, it aims to produce bodily elation in its consumers. Its makers (and most of its consumers) are adamant: no. It is not, they insist, designed to sexually gratify, nor, for the most part, is it used for sexual gratification. 

There’s a clear struggle for respectability on show here—neither ASMR artists nor consumers want the stigma associated with (respectively) porn production or consumption. There’s also the strained articulation of a deeply ingrained cultural fantasy, that ‘the sexual’ can be safely hived off from the innocent, the professional, and the platonic. But consumption patterns for ASMR mirror those for porn in certain ways. Users report covert indulgence: they slam their laptop closed if someone walks in whilst they are watching a video. They don’t listen or watch in public. They keep their listening habits a secret. ‘Somehow I don’t feel comfortable watching this,’ it says under one video. ‘Like I’m doing something forbidden. Like this video is a kind of porn.’ When I mentioned that I was writing about ASMR, men, in particular, would bashfully admit their indulgence. ‘I only listen to the non-vocal stuff’, they would say. ‘The other stuff… it’s just too weird.’ 

When people insist that the pleasures of ASMR are not sexual, what do they mean? Philosophers, when attempting to say what distinguishes sexual pleasure as sexual, have often appealed to a bodily criterion: sexual pleasure is pleasure experienced in the sexual parts of the body. What, then, are the sexual parts of the body? Answer: the genitals and ‘other parts that differentiate the sexes’. This, though, is hopeless: no one feels sexual pleasure in their facial hair, or in their fallopian tubes. What, then, if we read more charitably, and assume that ‘other parts that differentiate the sexes’ is meant as a coy reference to, say, breasts. Things still look pretty dire: as far as I’m concerned, if a sexual encounter only produces pleasure in ‘the sexual parts of the body’, it’s been a bad one. 

It’s hard, then, to read much philosophy of sex without feeling bad for its authors. But there are philosophical problems here, as well as problems of technique. One problem, I suspect, is with the underlying theory of pleasure. Most philosophy of sex seems to be written in a broadly hedonistic tradition: a tradition on which pleasure is understood as a particular kind of sensation, or as a conscious episode with a distinctive phenomenal ‘feel’. From within the hedonistic tradition, orgasm and arousal will appear as the paradigms of sexual pleasure and so as the starting points for analysis. Given such paltry raw materials, it will be hard to develop an account of sexual pleasure that is neither depressingly narrow nor alarmingly over-general. But there is an alternative. Aristotelians think of pleasure very differently. For the Aristotelian, pleasure is understood as a form of absorption in an activity valued for its own sake. Gilbert Ryle recounts, in an Aristotelian vein, the pleasure taken by a child in play:

Every drop of the child is soaked up into the business of manipulating his clockwork trains… All his thoughts, all his talk, all his controllable actions are those of his engine drivers, signal men, and station masters. He does not coerce or marshal himself into playing, else there would be some drop of him recalcitrant to the blotting paper… the game which absorbs the child is nothing but the child himself, playing trains. He, the player, has, for the moment, been sucked up, without resistance, every drop of himself that might have been on other business or no business at all.

The child’s pleasure is not a matter of his experiencing a feeling, or being subject to any sensation. To be subject to a sensation—to be standing apart from it, observing or noting it—is to resist the total absorption, the diffusion of consciousness into activity characteristic of Aristotelean pleasure. This, I think, is a much better model. (The hedonist, it turns out, is no hedonist.) For the Aristotelian, sexual pleasure is absorption in sexual activity, valued for its own sake. Not all sexual activity need be so valued: if one masturbates just in the hope of a clearer head, or fucks someone new just to get over someone else, the sexual activity is valued only instrumentally, not for its own sake.

What, then, makes an activity sexual? Here’s a guess: what makes an activity sexual is that it is oriented towards orgasm; that it is or is part of a complex action which characteristically takes orgasm (one’s own, or another’s) as an end. You might worry that this restores to orgasm just the dubious centrality it possessed by the hedonist’s lights. But this is a mistake: that some end must be adopted if we are to engage in some activity does not mean that we can value the activity only insofar as it is a means to that end. The best way to see this is to consider the ludic character of sex. When we play a game of, say, cricket, we must aim to win—otherwise, we would not be playing cricket. But the point of playing cricket is not (only) the winning: we play cricket because we like playing cricket, whether or not we win. On this account of sexual pleasure, it does not really matter how much or whether AMSR-induced sensations (the tingling neck) resemble those characteristic of sexual pleasure ‘from the inside’. What matters is which kinds of purposeful activities those sensations pattern with. 

However. That ASMR videos are not sexual does not mean they aren’t pornographic. There are all sorts of porn that aren’t sexual: food porn, real estate porn, outrage porn. The philosophers C. Thi Nguyen and Bekka Williams have recently—and persuasively—argued that this designation is no mere fillip. Rather, there is a real, underlying social kind picked out by this pornographic vernacular. They argue (roughly) that what makes something pornographic is that it offers immediate gratification, sans the difficulties and complications that come with actually engaging in the associated activity. The ASMR videos I most enjoy are intimacy porn. They elicit the pleasures of intimacy without the difficulties and burdens characteristic of its genuine instances—in short, those associated with the presence of another vulnerable, hungering person. 

One response to intimacy porn, as to porn generally, is a shallow moralism. Real intimacy, says the shallow moralist, is work: boring, hard, and full of rules. Getting the thrills of intimacy, without putting in the work, is cheating. Here, the problem with intimacy porn resembles the problem of sentimentality; the sentimentalist, as Oscar Wilde puts it, ‘is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it’. But why must everything be paid for? Laura Kipnis writes: 

Yes, we all know that good marriages take work: we’ve been well tutored in the catechism of labour intensive intimacy. Work, work, work; with all the heavy lifting required, what’s the difference between work and after work, again? Work/home, office/bedroom, are you ever not on the clock. Good relationships might take work, but unfortunately, when it comes to love, trying is always too hard: work doesn’t work. Erotically speaking, play is what works. Yet here we are, toiling away. Somehow—how exactly did this happen?—the work ethic has managed to brown-nose its way into all spheres of human existence.

Read through Kipnis’ zippy, staccato fury, Wilde’s insistence that feelings must be earned—a work ethic for affect—sounds nothing but pious and schoolmasterly. A long tradition in sexual ethics has a similar flavour. For Kant, sexual arousal directed ‘not [at] its real object but by his imagination of this object… is contrary to the purpose of the desire’. Roger Scruton is a little more forgiving: unlike Kant, he allows that some masturbation—’the normal’—is permissible. ‘Normal’ masturbation ‘relieves a period of sexual isolation and is guided by a fantasy of copulation’; masturbation becomes a ‘perversion’ when it replaces the human encounter, by ‘bending the sexual impulse away from interpersonal union’. 

For both Kant and Scruton, (some) wanking is a kind of cheating: a way of getting sexual pleasure without paying the proper price: what Scruton calls ‘the burdens of interpersonality’. This miserly attitude—orgasms needn’t be paid for—also reflects an odd, unacknowledged ambivalence about precisely the forms of sex both Kant and Scruton are concerned to sanctify. ‘We all have an urge to do these things’, writes Scruton of masturbation, fornication, and homosexual intercourse, a breath before he condemns them. Do we? All three of Kant, Wilde, and Scruton are anxious that someone else might be getting pleasure (aesthetic pleasure, for Wilde; sexual pleasure, for Kant and Scruton) on the cheap. In the face of this anxiety, all three cast paying full price as a moral duty. There’s something uneasy in such a strategy. The presence of another creature comes with burdens, of course, but it is not all burden. Masturbation may feel good, but it is seldom truly fun or playful, or utterly self-shattering. Sex with other person doesn’t need a moral defence. It needs practice.

Wildean book-keeping might not help, but other ways of thinking about sentimentality might. My own preferred reading of sentimentality indexes it to misrepresentation. When we are sentimental, at least two things happen: first, a ‘true’ image of the world is displaced by what I.A. Richards called a ‘factitious, illusory situation’. Second, this distortion is driven by our desire to feel, and experience ourselves as feeling subjects; we fictionalise the world in order to experience a fictionalised version of ourselves. On this view, sentimentality is a desire-driven fabulation of the self, and so always a form of narcissism. 

But in a 1983 paper, Mark Jefferson points out that this can’t be the whole story. The sentimentalist is not the only one who fictionalises the world in their own affective interests; the melodramatic, the cynical, and the self-righteous are all guilty of the same tendency. If sentimentality is worse than these companion vices (and Jefferson assumes that it is) then it must be because there is something specially corrosive about the affective profile of the sentimentalist—the ‘soft’ feelings of pity, compassion, sympathy—or the species of fiction in which the sentimentalist engages. Jefferson takes the latter tack:

What distinguishes the fictions that sustain sentimentality from those that occur in other forms of emotional indulgence? Well, chiefly it is their emphasis upon such things as the sweetness, dearness, littleness, blamelessness, and vulnerability of the emotion’s objects. The qualities that sentimentality imposes on its objects are the qualities of innocence.

Sentimentality, then, is a ‘parody of moral appraisal’; it casts its objects as ‘unambiguously worthy of a sympathetic response’. This is promising. Jefferson argues that we can now see what is truly wrong with sentimentality: ‘[this] unlikely creature and moral caricature… has its natural counterpart in a moral caricature of something unambiguously worthy of hatred.’ On this account, the problem with sentimentality is its symmetry-driven tendency to give rise to its opposite. Jefferson gives as an example the sentimental response to Miss Quested in Forster’s A Passage To India, which takes as its ghoulish counterpart the racist demonisation of her alleged attacker, Dr Aziz. 

Jefferson is surely right that this sort of sinister twinning does occur, and that it often takes as a vehicle racist (or misogynistic—consider the sentimentalising of someone like Brock Turner) tropes. But his diagnosis elides the degree to which our ‘tender’ responses to sweet, dear, little objects are already inscribed with hatred. Sianne Ngai, the best theorist of the contemporary aesthetic vernacular, stresses the ambivalence built into cuteness. Consider the desire we often have to squeeze cute animals or objects, or even take bites of them. There’s a desire to hurt, to break, or to devour cute objects that is not the opposite of a sentimentalising response, but right at its heart. There is a sadism in all sentimentality, precisely because sentimentality casts its objects as vulnerable. We resent the claims made by the vulnerable object to our care; we loathe the reminder of our own vulnerability; we want to expunge both with violence. 

Cuteness is pervasive: think hello kitty, emojis, puppy gifs, and rupi kaur. Ngai argues that we cannot understand its cultural centrality unless we tie it to the commodity form. The appeal of the cute object is that it wants to be consumed; it wants to ‘nestle’ in our hand. Its artlessness has what she calls a ‘pastoral’ aspect: it encodes a thwarted desire for a simpler relation to our commodities, one on which we are joined by a pre-social, quasi-maternal bond. I suspect that, like the dominance of the cute aesthetic, the cultural phenomenon of ASMR videos can only be understood as a curdled negotiation with the economic ordering of contemporary life. Where cuteness is the aesthetic residue of commodity exchange, ASMR videos overtly sensualise the exchanges of the service economy. 

Herndon’s ‘Lonely at the Top’ dramatises just this process of sensualisation. Against a fuzzy background noise, the lisping voice says, slow and soothing, ‘Please don’t worry about being late for the appointment. Clients like you are our top priority.’ Then, the childish voice becomes almost ecstatic, overwhelmed: ‘We feel so lucky you chose us’. Pause. ‘I’m so glad you’re taking care of yourself.’ Pause. ‘It’s important and you deserve it.’ You are led to a treatment room; there is the delicious sound of water being poured into a glass. ‘I’m going to touch you now’, says the voice, and then there is the rush and rasp of skin pressing skin. The voice continues. It begins, haltingly, to praise you more intensely:

And from what you tell me so many people depend on you 

And it’s not just because you’re good at what you do

It’s because you’re a great person

And from what you’ve told me, so many people in your position wouldn’t act as generously as you do

Yeah yeah

How does this feel?

Good ok great great

I think about what you’re doing every day and you’re always giving

You’re giving the world your ideas

And from what you’ve told me they’re incredible

Yeah not everyone has these ideas

Let alone your charisma

I don’t know how you do it.

There’s something very close to cuteness in the way the track unfolds: its clumsy, toy-like poetics are all diminutive artlessness; the contrast with the rest of Herndon’s work, which is consistently marked by stylisation and artifice, is striking. The effect of this track, for someone susceptible to ASMR, as I am, is extraordinary. It produces both extreme quivering delight at the same time as an urgent, incorrigible awareness of being buried deep in narcissistic fantasy. It can be hard to listen to, so uncomfortable is the pairing of these two feelings. The track, of course, only exaggerates the dynamics at play in ‘ordinary’ exchanges of the service economy. Just as, on Ngai’s view, cute objects encode a pastoral longing for a simpler relationship to our commodities, ASMR videos suggest a longing for a simpler relation to our practices of care-giving, namely, one on which the receipt of care is not (sorry, Kipnis) the extraction of another’s labour.

Feminists’ most canonical worry about porn is that it objectifies women; like the sentimentalist, the porn viewer distorts the world—refuses to see the personhood of women—in the name of their own sexual pleasure. Perhaps there is a model here for what is sinister in ASMR. But I doubt it. Some porn is objectifying, yes. But when critics of porn reach for the flattening language of objectification, they risk numbing us to the other species of pleasure-laden, semi-conscious fabulation. Thinking about the fantastical pleasures of ASMR, and the pornographic status of its artefacts, brings into focus the limits of this moral lexicon. For in a certain kind of porn, everything becomes sexy, any arbitrary object becomes a turn on. In ASMR, by contrast, every object becomes an affectionate, propitiatory companion. In these almost-uncanny fantasy scenarios, every object, is alive and inhabited, as in the fairytale castle in Beauty and the Beast. This is the very opposite of objectification. 

Walter Benjamin took this ‘inhabitive’ mode to be characteristic of both kitsch and folk art. As Ngai writes, quoting Benjamin: 

Because the work of kitsch seems to ‘address him only’… the aesthetic subject does not perceive it from a contemplative distance ‘like a bystander’ but rather experiences or inhabits it like an atmosphere, one enveloping him like a coat, or pulled over his head like a mask. Thus, while art ‘teaches us to look into objects’ folk art and cute kitsch ‘allow us to look outward from within objects’.

This, I think, is very much how children relate to their toys and teddy bears. The child animates the bear and gaze out at themselves through its adopted gaze, feeling themselves as an animated object—a puppet of sorts, safe among other puppets. When feminists speak of the objectifying male gaze as reducing women to a doll, then, they may forget quite how alive dolls are to the children who play with them: a doll can rebuke and disdain as well as play nicely. The experience of playing with a doll is not, in fact, an experience of unbridled power, for the doll, to be worth playing with at all—even to be worth maiming—must be given a mind of its own. 

Like Benjamin’s kitsch object, and the child’s teddy, ASMR videos scramble the structure of aesthetic judgement. In a ‘normal’ aesthetic judgement, we are conscious of ourselves as the feeling, responsive subject; our attention is claimed by an object ‘out there’. But when responding to an ASMR video, we are the object ‘out there’ who claims the attention of the subject-object. The normally-mute objects in the world become vantage points from which we peer out, curious about and beholden to ourselves. Rather than an escape from Scruton’s burdens of interpersonality, what intimacy porn offers is an escape from the burdens of personality

Simone de Beauvoir remains the best theorist of impersonality’s curious allure. Man, she says, proposes to dominate woman by stabilising her as object. But the woman may become pleased with this status; to be a true subject—to be transcendent—is hard work: the subject ‘achieves liberty only through a continual reaching out towards other liberties’. This, quite frankly, sounds exhausting. The injunctions to activity continue: every time, Beauvoir says, that we fall back into immanence, there is ‘a degradation of existence into en soi [being-in-itself, as opposed to being-for-itself]… of Liberty into constraint and continence’. This, she says is an ‘absolute evil’. But Beauvoir misses a crucial point. In Anne Carson’s poem, The Albertine Workout, Albertine escapes her captor, Marcel, by falling asleep and becoming ‘a plant’, too wholly passive, too thoroughly docile to be truly dominated. Just as the doll must be given a mind to be worth maiming, domination, to be worth it, must be domination of someone. The fantasy of total power that seeks to strip its objects of personality is self-defeating, for to become wholly an object, is, paradoxically, to escape the reach of power. Objectification has its own pastoral aspect.

Where does this leave us? Feminist anxiety about porn, like Scruton’s anxiety about masturbation, has typically focused on the distortion of the interpersonal relation supposedly at the heart of ‘authentic’ sexual pleasure; this sentiment receives powerful articulation in the language of objectification. But it’s a mistake to take the sexual impulse to be interpersonally structured: sexual pleasures, I have argued, can and may be solitary. The pleasures of intimacy (and not all sex need be intimate) are different: they really do require more than one person. Both feminist critics of porn, then, and their conservative critics, have confused sex with intimacy, and projected anxieties proper to the latter onto the former. But when intimacy rather than sex is centred, it becomes clear that the moral lexicon of objectification has limits. These limits emerge not because porn is never objectifying, or because objectification never deserves objection, but because porn can do more than objectify. Intimacy porn does not risk making objects of its performers, so much as it risks sentimentalising the viewer.

I’m a philosopher by training, and by inclination. Both push me to ask the simplest of questions: can one, in good conscience, use intimacy porn? Or should we—that is, should I—stop? (The great secret about sexual pornography, of course, is that much of it is really intimacy porn.) Glib liberal responses to porn’s feminist critics insist that porn and its attendant fantasies as a harmless pleasures. This is nonsense. But to deny a harmful pleasure can be more harmful still. So it may be with intimacy porn. Yes, its usage is childish and faintly pitiful. But so, for the most part, are we. Intimacy is a far more demanding discipline than sex. Achieving personhood is harder than achieving orgasm. No wonder we sometimes dream of getting its pleasures for free.

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Rachel Elizabeth Fraser [2] is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, and a Tutorial Fellow at Exeter College.