Braingasms Vs. Orgasms: Sex and the Intimacy of ASMR

Humans are sensitive beings. Our senses can lead us to all kinds of experiences. When we travel we tend to buy perfume because we link smells to memories, certain colours and shapes can bring up traumatic experiences and somehow no one can really resist putting their hands in those big burlap sacks of dried lentils or kidney beans because it gives off an indescribable sensation of satisfaction and relaxation. Especially sound can create pleasurable experiences. We all have that favourite song that gives us goosebumps every single time we hear those first few notes. But not only songs can provoke these feelings, sounds can too. I’m not only talking about whale songs and rainforest sounds, some people can have a powerful response to certain types of ordinary, everyday sounds like clicking a pen. The feeling that these kinds of sounds provoke is called ASMR: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. ASMR is a euphoric experience that feels like a pleasant, static-like or tingling experience that starts at the back of the head but can be experienced anywhere on the body. Basically, it’s a braingasm. Remember those weird whisk-shaped head scratchers? Imagine summoning that feeling by listening to someone crumbling a piece of paper. It can be triggered by a wide variety of sounds, like tapping, brushing, and whispering, but it can also be visually triggered by watching someone perform a task, like a facial in a beauty salon for instance.

The discussion on ASMR originates in 2007, when Okaywhatever, a user of steadyhealth.com, started a forum called Weird Sensations that Feel Good. At this time the sensation did not have a name, but over the years different terms have been initiated by different contributors to the forum. In 2008 a forum user named the phenomenon Attention Induced Head Orgasm (AIHO). Two years later the term Attention Induced Observant Euphoria (AIOE) was introduced, soon followed by the term Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response on which the community gained a consensus.

Like everything else, the wondrous world of the internet has a thriving community built around ASMR called the Whisper Community. Thousands of videos have been, and are, created by so-called ASMRtists, containing all sorts of sounds to trigger the meridian response while also using stereo effects to intensify the response. Some of these videos are simply a collection of triggers, while others take on the form of a role-play like a session at the hairdresser’s, a spa centre or a doctor’s examination. These kind of role-play videos also draw on the intimate personal attention that accompanies the trigger sounds in real-life situations as a trigger itself.

Although I have not experienced ASMR myself, I have become intrigued by the concept and its community. Having come across this world of braingasms, it got me to think about the concept of pleasure. Is the braingasm the same as the orgasm? Does that make ASMR some kind of fetish? If it is should we treat it like porn? I do not claim that I have all the answers, nor do I speak for anyone but me. However, the Whisper community, like its content, is a quiet one and does not speak out very loudly when it comes to promoting it or defending it. Due to its generally altruistic goal to pleasure the viewer/listener through close personal and intimate attention, the Whisper community, in my opinion sometimes mistakenly understood as sexual fetishists, has become a subject of kink shaming. In our western society it seems to me that any form of intimacy is almost immediately connected with sex; the euphoric experience of ASMR is often associated with actual orgasms. As Emma Leigh Waldron argues: “ASMR ‘feels so good’ because the technology affords viewer-listeners the opportunity to access alternative sexualities outside of the dominant Western paradigm”[1]. This paradigm could then be a society in which such forms of pleasure cannot be anything but sexual, but ASMR claims to be an anomaly to this paradigm.

However, the association of ASMR and the sexual orgasm might not be so strange after all. Maybe it is not the platonic intention of ASMR that should be under discussion, maybe it is the definition of the orgasm. An orgasm could be seen as the  pleasure achieved by having an intimate connection with someone, but maybe this connection should not always be considered sexual. Perhaps that connection could just as well be platonic and have a similar effect.

To come back to Waldron’s argument, I wonder why this paradigm came to be. Why do we seem to scare away from intimacy and only allow it to be sexual? One could even argue that a similar reaction seems to happen in friendships between men and women, which people often (wrongly, in my opinion) believe to be impossible on the basis of this same improbability of platonic intimacy as is implied of ASMR (however, that is a topic to get into some other time). Should we not be comfortable enough in our being, and most reassured in our relationships that intimacy can exist outside its sexual context? The Whisper community is an example of this and has started, or at the least resurfaced, a discussion that challenges our views on intimacy and encourages to think outside of the box. Contrary to some beliefs, sex is not everything, and not everything is sex. Because sometimes a cigar is just a cigar[2], and a hug is just a hug.

[1] Waldron, Emma Leigh. “”This FEELS SO REAL!” Sense and sexuality in ASMR videos.” First Monday, vol. 22 issue 1.

[2] Sigmund Freud

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