By Abby Lee Hood
You’ve decided it’s time for a change — a big one, and you want lavender-colored hair for the upcoming holiday. You hole up in the bathroom with your friend and enlist her help, asking her to apply the color and oversee the entire box dye process.
Your friend happens to be one of the best you have, and she goes above and beyond, bringing a plastic cape to cover your clothes and brushing your hair gently before starting to color your hair. She also continuously checks in with you, asking if it’s alright to brush your hair, asking in a concerned tone if you’re comfortable once the cape is on. Your friend explains each step and repeatedly asks, “Is this okay?” as she applies product to your hair, and you’re delighted with the end result.
In reality, you don’t have purple hair, nor are you sitting in the bathroom floor with your friend. You’re actually watching a video created by Latte ASMR, a YouTuber who creates relaxing role play videos to help viewers experience the tingly, calming sensation of autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR for short.
You’ve probably seen a viral ASMR video recently somewhere on social media, where honeycomb-eating and close up videos of someone putting on chapstick get passed around on Instagram aggregator accounts and rack up hundreds of thousands of views. Some ASMRtists — people who help others experience the sensation through video or audio recordings — make a career of the art, sometimes to the tune of more than one million subscribers on YouTube. ASMR has even infiltrated pop culture, too; Cardi B once did an interview in full-blown whisper.
ASMR videos have grown in popularity since debuting online about a decade ago, and for good reason: The main goal is to help people relax and fall asleep. According to ASMR University, an ASMR informational resource founded by Dr. Craig Richard, professor of biopharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University, ASMR can include a variety of soothing sensations like calmness, a tingly feeling, or relaxation, due to gentle stimuli like whispering, methodical sounds, and light touches. Tingles are mentioned quite a lot in videos and it’s common to see titles like “ASMR Triggers for Strongest Tingles!” And while there is still a lot to learn about the positive ways ASMR affects our brains, devotees believe it helps them fall asleep, de-stress, or find comfort when things get tough.
There are as many types of ASMR videos as there are people creating them, and many artists develop a signature style. Some whisper, some only speak softly. Some like fast-tapping or slow-tapping, create characters, or include fairy-tale elements like fairies and witches. No matter who you’re watching, it’s common to find role play videos in which a creator treats the camera as a person receiving personal attention. ASMR role play is all about creating a soothing space to relax in, and the ASMRtists don’t purport to replace any of the services that the original practices provide; creators may mimic real-life appointments and treatments but they don’t replace medical advice from a doctor. Yet comparing different styles of role play videos will likely reveal one small commonality, so quick and gentle it’s easy to miss unless you’re looking for it: questions about consent.
Though consent is usually defined in a sexual context, and many sexual health and violence prevention organizations teach consent to reduce sexual assault, RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, states that consent is all about communication, a skill ASMR showcases consistently. Consent is an important part of conversation in romantic relationships and intimacy between partners, but it should be acquired in everyday, non-romantic situations, too. It ensures mutual agreement, and respect between two people no matter what activity they engaging in. In role play videos, ASMRtists often film situations that might require consent in real life, such as a doctor taking your temperature or a hairdresser placing a cape around your shoulders. While ASMR videos are a certain kind of fantasy, asking consent questions is still important for both creators and viewers and helps create a safe space to relax.
“Touching someone, even gently, without their consent can trigger their alert state, which is counterproductive to ASMR,” Dr. Richard — who literally wrote the book on inducing the tingly, relaxing feeling ASMR lovers crave — told MTV News in an email. “If an ASMR artist asks for consent … this can relax the viewer even more.”
Dr. Richard writes extensively about consent; in Brain Tingles, he explains that people who practice ASMR must ask for consent at the beginning of each and every session without making assumptions, and that consent in a previous session doesn’t guarantee consent in the next. Even though ASMR videos are imaginary, Dr. Richard told MTV News that asking for consent in a simulated situation is important because people will still have real-life reactions. Without consent or making a viewer feel safe, the relaxing feelings may not be as intense or enjoyable.
Not every person who watches ASMR videos pays attention to consent questions, although a number of people who responded to a survey by MTV News appreciated the thoughtful inclusion of such prompts before ASMRtists establish tactile sense. And ASMR may not help every person dealing with a mental health issue or trauma; for that, it’s crucial to seek help from a licensed professional. At its root, ASMR’s primary goal is an incredible experience for each viewer, which may or may not influence how that person feels day to day.
According to Dr. Asia Eaton, feminist social psychologist and Assistant Professor in Psychology at Florida International University, ASMR is a space where consent questions are second nature, because it is a welcoming environment where creators’ main goal is often to build a loving and relaxing atmosphere.
“[ASMR is] modelling high quality, interpersonal exchanges,” Dr. Eaton told MTV News. “Part of caring communication involves consent. And part of ASMR is to express respect. Naturally, when they’re role playing something like [that], it makes sense to stop and ask your ‘client’…. It’s even more important in real life.” She added that ASMR offers the opportunity to model consent in both romantic and non-romantic or professional settings.
Some creators may not realize they’re actively asking for consent, and the act often doesn’t register for viewers, either. Yet in MTV News’s survey, 70 percent of 124 respondents (all of whom were anonymous unless otherwise noted) said they noticed when ASMRtists asked for consent before “touching” them. In the survey, 57 percent also said an ASMRtist asking for their consent before “touching” them made them feel comfortable or safe, indicating that viewers may appreciate a video more when consent is a part of their experience.
One respondent told MTV News that ASMR had helped their insomnia, and that consent questions enhanced their relaxation. “I notice every time the artist asks for consent. It makes me feel seen and heard… and allows me to relax,” they said. “It normalizes consent as a sign of respect and I covet this in my daily life.”
Many of those surveyed shared similar experiences, explaining that consent questions made them feel, among other things: safe, connected to the video, enhanced tingles, relaxation, and more. Another respondent mirrored the feelings of safety and comfort and said the thought put into a pre-recorded video to take the viewer’s consent into account is wonderful.
Sharon Dubois, also known as ASMR Glow, has 770,000 followers on YouTube and regularly creates role play videos. In an email to MTV News, Dubois said she includes questions about consent almost without thinking and that being an ASMR viewer for a long time has influenced her into making consent almost a second thought. She believes it’s important in her content and hopes her questions about consent serve as a model for her viewers.
“It gets the viewer involved and shows them they’re in good hands… The creator is here to respect them and take care of them in the most respectful manner,” Dubois said. “It tells the viewer they’re in a comfortable and safe place.”
As ASMR Glow, Dubois is just one of many creators using consent questions in videos. You may frequently hear, “Do you mind if I touch your face?” or “Do you mind if I go around you?” throughout videos, as well as treatment descriptions: “We’ll check both the health of your eyes, and your vision… [The light] is going to be a little bright, but nothing too uncomfortable.”
Dubois takes her platform seriously, and aims to be especially considerate of female viewers and how ASMR might be able to positively impact their lives outside of simply helping them to fall asleep. “Especially being a woman and having such a platform, it’s my role to show younger women that their consent comes first and is the most important thing in anything happening around them or to them,” she said. “If anything is done without someone’s consent, the person should not accept it and it’s important that everyone knows that and is never ashamed of saying no.”
While ASMR videos clearly intersect with non-romantic, professional, or casual situations in which consent is important, some respondents in MTV News’s survey described how modelling these questions and taking the viewer into consideration helped them deal with the aftermath of sexual assault and violence, and assisted in their healing process.
“As a rape survivor, it allows me to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is ‘out to get me,’” one response read. “I feel more comfortable talking about consent in emotionally heightened contexts… ASMR has given me emotional tools to take into the real world … and made me more present and in tune with others, thus making me less vulnerable.”
To those who do take notice, consent questions can heighten their experience and help make them easier to use every day. One survey response went so far as to say ASMR is cutting edge when it comes to inclusion and consent, and expressed a desire for more people to take those lessons to heart.
“In many ways, I feel like the ASMR community is at the forefront of consent normalization,” they explained. “So many ASMRtists ask before ‘touching,’ use gender-neutral language, and allow for the viewer to be gay/straight/bi/trans, etc. just with their wording. It makes me hope for a world in which we all act this way.”
In a whispery, tingly corner of the Internet, there lives an art form some rely on daily for relief from a busy world. How natural, then, these videos also provide what may be the most relaxing model of consent normalization. With each video, viewers are reminded of their own autonomy — and that only they can choose whether or not they want someone else to touch them.