As the YouTube phenomenon of ASMR evolves from crinkles and whispers that help us fall asleep into girlfriends and boyfriends that kiss us goodnight Angela Waters talks to creators and psychologists about the divisive trend and asks what we are looking for in an ASMR relationship.
The mainstream ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, community has gained a mainstream following by using soft crackling noises to produce so-called brain tingles that induce sleep and relaxation.
A movement that was once limited to the back alleys of the internet is now advocated by the likes of Cardi B (you can see her performing an ASMR rendition of "Bodak Yellow" here) and companies such as IKEA are using it to market their products. A YouTube search for "celebrity ASMR" returns dozens of videos featuring high profile stars including Emily Ratajkowski (see below), Jake Gyllenhaal, and Aubrey Plaza.
But now, a new strain of content producers are looking to make other things tingle as well. Boyfriend and girlfriend role-play videos are gaining popularity from their ability to pull on heartstrings, seduce us and create feelings of intimacy. This one video alone has almost half a million views.
Ricky Odriosola, 26, who specializes as an ASMR boyfriend for 96,000 followers, told Highsnobiety that the girlfriend and boyfriend videos are a natural evolution for the genre. “When I first started making videos nobody was doing boyfriend or girlfriend role-plays,” Odriosola said. “Still, I came across a video that was called whispering seduction and not only did it relax me, but it made me feel giddy, like when you watch a romantic movie. I couldn’t find anymore videos like that so I started to make them myself.”
If you were looking at ASMR as a sleeping aid, which was one of its main purposes originally, science would side with the YouTube boyfriends. “When we look at some of our own research and the factors that influence sleep, marital status is a key determinant,” Dr. Azizi Seixas of New York University told Highsnobiety. “I am not saying that folks should get married, but the idea of companionship makes people feel more at ease or more comforted. Folks that are not married tend to have poorer sleep."
This may also explain the popularity of relationship simulation products such as “boyfriend pillows” or virtual reality girlfriends. Still, the girlfriend and boyfriend videos remain controversial within the YouTube community. Cardi B, who uses ASMR videos to fall asleep, has insisted in interviews that it is not supposed to be sexual, and a large part of the community would agree.
Many of the ASMR creators who specialize in whispers and slime are underage and largely female — this makes it dangerous to label the entire genura as sexual, fueling existing trolls and creepy comments. Even Odriosola, who has posted both videos of him sucking on an ear and him sucking no an ear with his twin brother, believes that there must be delineation and that ASMR cannot go too far into sexual territory.
“A lot of ASMR artist frown upon content that ventures into cam girl or cam boy territory,” Odriosola said. “I try to distance myself from this because sometimes my videos could be considered cam boy territory. But mainly, girlfriend and boyfriend role-play is just a subgenre of ASMR.”
ASMR Girlfriends and Boyfriends Are Not Always Nice
Although many of the relationship role-plays focus on the positive aspects of companionship such as asking how your day was, playing with your hair and kissing you, some creators take on the darker aspects of relationships. “Jealous” and “Overly Attached” girlfriend role-plays with hundreds of thousands of views have creators acting out going through their boyfriends phones while they are in the shower or grilling them about different girls.
The Yandere category, commonly titled “Psycho Boyfriend” or “Boyfriend Kidnapping” (see above) takes it even further. In these videos your love interest is so enraged with jealousy that they kidnap you and threaten your life. The content can be shocking at first, but Odriosola says that the demand for these videos is less problematic than you might think.
“If somebody watches them when they are not in the right mind, they might think that that is normal and what they want. I see why that might be a problem,” he said. “At the same time you can’t see who is watching our videos and not allow them to watch them. But for the most part it is like watching a movie while being part of a movie or like being on a rollercoaster, where you are simulating the rush without ever really being in danger.”
Whether Odriosola is playing a good or bad boyfriend, the one thing he finds himself stressing to his thousands of fans is that what they see in the videos is not who he is. “My fans don’t get attached to me as much as the character. Sometimes they shoot me a message and say ‘I wish all boyfriends were like this,’ and I have to remind them that it is a character. I am not as attentive as the roles I play,” he said.
While the pretend boyfriend receives mostly benign comments and fans, for many of the women who specialize in girlfriend ASMR, feedback can be more lurid, with comments describing sexual things they would like to do to them or calling them whores.
It's Not Just About the Romance
Although the relationship role-plays cater to lonely hearts, Seixas says that the main draw of the videos is not actually romantic.
“It is one of those things where if you were to hearken back to the days as a child, personal attention is soothing,” he said. “There is something about just being taken care of so the person who is facilitating or the moderator of the video focuses on taking care of the person an that is very comforting.”
This is why other role-plays focus on things such as a best friend or sister doing your makeup. Some creators even add a celebrity twist pretending to be beauty mogul, Kylie Jenner, while others have cut together pieces from actual Kylie Jenner videos to achieve this effect.
“If your sleep deprivation is not based on a medical problem, but rather caused by stress or lifestyle factors, those types of guided meditation videos are very soothing,” Seixas said.
Although the NYU sleep researcher says that the techniques in ASMR can be effective for relaxing and falling asleep, he has reservations about people getting to deep into or too reliant on YouTube videos.
“I would caution people not to get too addicted to this because it hasn’t been studied to see if it has any hypnotic effects,” Seixas said. “With hypnosis it can be a positive thing but if done unsupervised it can have some negative effects. It can lead to dissociative memory issues and people not feeling in control.”
Part of the popularity of ASMR comes from people’s aversion to taking sleep medication—which can easily build dependency—but Seixas says that if you are seeking a trained professional non-pharmaceutical options are also available like guided meditations. “When I treat folks there is a governing body that is supervising and I am using methods that have been empirically validated and tested, these have not,” he said.
ASMR girlfriends and boyfriends may be attentive, but they definitely are not a substitute for medical professionals.
Next up; here are all the ways social media is affecting your mental health.