Laila Love ASMR, as she goes by on YouTube, sits before her laptop camera in a room that appears to be a bedroom masquerading as a spa. A Himalayan salt lamp is propped next to a sprawling white bed, along with a spread of lit candles that I can only imagine smell soothing as hell.
In the video called “~Sensual Trigger Words~ *ASMRotica* *3Dio Binaural*,” Love wears a low-cut T-shirt, rectangular glasses and fluorescent pink lipstick, her black hair styled with short, Bettie Page–style bangs. She greets her viewers in a painstaking whisper in which every consonant is elongated, enunciated, even somehow massaged. “Now today I wanted to do a sexy, sensual trigger words video ― Part 2,” she says, her dimples popping in and out of view as she attempts to hold back a smile.
“Sensual,” she begins. The word is brought to life in Love’s mouth, stretched out and softened as if spun from cotton candy, or uttered in a melodramatic perfume commercial. “Love. Close. Satin. Warm. Quiet. Whisper.” She keeps speaking with hushed restraint, connecting trigger words like linked sausages, hinting at a story without actually making any linguistic sense. “Bodies. Soft. Smooth. Care. Gentle. Liquid. Breasts.” If there was any question, the story is about sex.
Love works in the field of ASMRotica. ASMR, which stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, is a phenomenon experienced by people who claim sensual forms of stimulation incite a tingling sensation near their scalps and spines. The tingling sensation, sometimes described as a “braingasm,” can be a response to visual, olfactory and auditory stimuli of varying kinds ― from Bob Ross’ voice to the crinkling of a plastic bag. ASMRotica, however, is when ASMR moves from stimulating to sexually arousing.
For her brand of ASMRotica, Love operates in the domain of sound, delivering breathy words loaded with innuendo. “Drip. Moan. Rock. Heavy. Lust. Desire,” she continues, her words reclining and writhing as momentum builds. “Building. Feeling. Pleasure. Hot. Scream. Harder. Moaning.” Her tone is suggestive enough to make a parent cover her kid’s ears. The climax hits. “Together. Release.” And then things wind down. “Sticky. Ecstasy. Finish. Quiver. Gasp. Wet. Dripping. Flow. Love. Deep breaths.”
Depending on whether or not you respond to ASMR, you may, by this point, be feeling some seriously sexy tingles up and down your spine.
Love first learned about ASMR through an old boyfriend who’d recently discovered that the term helped explain an experience he’d long struggled to describe. When he outlined a “pleasant tingling sensation that starts at the base of your skull and travels down your spine,” Love immediately recognized the feeling, too.
“I had gotten tingles from having my hair touched or played with, getting my hair cut, and when people whisper into my ear,” she explained in an interview with The Huffington Post.
The non-clinical term ASMR was coined in 2010 by a woman named Jennifer Allen, a manager at a cybersecurity company. “I first remember experiencing ASMR and noting that it was a strange occurrence in my early 20s,” Allen recalled in an interview. “I searched the internet a number of times for any indication of what the experience was or who else might share it, but found nothing for over a decade.”
Allen would periodically search the internet for some semblance of a similar experience, but never came up with results. Then she stumbled upon a steadyhealth.com forum thread titled, “Weird sensation feels good.” “Once I read the accounts of others, I realized what I was experiencing was similar and decided to pursue answers,” she said. Allen later founded an ASMR Facebook Group as well as an ASMR Research Survey to collect people’s anecdotal experiences. The survey received over 4,000 responses in the first 10 days, according to The Washington Post.
There are currently two peer-reviewed, scientific, published, research articles about ASMR, one of which mentions its sexual effects. Also, not too surprisingly, Reddit provides plenty of anecdotal evidence. Bryson Lochte, a former Dartmouth College undergraduate student, studied ASMR using neuroimaging technology for his senior thesis, examining how the neurobiology of the reward system is positively influenced by the internet. Lochte’s research has yet to be published, though he keeps readers updated on his blog.
The primary goal of ASMR is relaxation. It allegedly can, in serious cases, assuage insomnia or even severe depression, as numerous Reddit users continuously attest. Homemade videos of purposeful scraping and light tapping rack in millions of views on YouTube, thanks to people using the delicate sounds as a form of meditation. (This video, with over 85,000 views, features a woman brushing her hair for over an hour.) For a select few, the sensation is so intense they claim it’s paralyzing.
Love’s videos, however, aren’t just ASMR, they’re ASMRotica. So instead of crumbling up masking tape or jingling coins in a bowl, Love is sucking on lollipops, licking ears and roleplaying your girlfriend.
She made her first video about a year ago, on a whim. In it, Love lies down on a bed in a tank top and underwear, speaking into the camera as if it was her lover, softly helping him or her drift off to sleep. “I have this big test tomorrow. School stuff, you know?” She giggles. “It’s so nice waking up to you, even if it is the middle of the night.” Eventually she offers a scalp massage.
“I had been watching videos for several months and just one day kind of decided to make my own,” Love said. “I wasn’t expecting anything to come of it, but to my absolute surprise, my channel blew up overnight. It was crazy how much attention that one, poor-quality video got. Since so many people liked the first video, I decided to make a few more with a similar theme. My channel grew pretty quickly from that point on.”
Love now has 82 videos and over 50,000 subscribers to her name. Although the content varies from Love chewing gum to reciting Maya Angelou poems, the general thrust is always the same. Exaggerating the viscous smack a tongue makes when it brushes against the roof of a mouth. Turning every consonant into an alien kiss. “My videos have always had an erotic edge,” Love said. “Not sure why, but that’s just the type of content that I like making. I like being fun and flirty and sexy and combining that with ASMR just came naturally to me.”
Although Love is, to an extent, performing in the videos, she’s hesitant to call her on-screen self a character. “Laila Love is a persona in some sense and not in others,” she explained. “When I create my videos, I am creating a fantasy, a refuge, a place for people to go to feel pampered and cared for. But I don’t really feel like Laila Love is a too much of persona because there is more of me in her than anything made up. I just try to be myself and make the kinds of videos that I think people will enjoy.”
Occasionally, Love answers questions from her fans, posed to her on Twitter, in videos uploaded to her site. The questions range from “What size are your pretty feet?” to “Have you seen ‘The Rookie’ 1990? If yes, what do you think about Sônia Braga’s Liesel?” (She’d rather not say, but: big, and she hasn’t seen it.) When asked, “How soft are your down below parts?” Love responds with a seven out of 10. When asked about the harassment and slut-shaming she sometimes receives online, Love says: “It makes my humanity hurt, some of these bad comments.”
Each of her videos takes several hours to make, with most of Love’s time spent editing and processing the content. Love does make some money from them, although they’re not her primary source of income. She also writes and runs an online store.
When asked about the most common misconceptions she encounters in her unorthodox career, Love responded: “That it’s all about sex. It isn’t. My work might have an erotic edge but a lot of of ASMR is strictly about relaxation. People use ASMR for different reasons. Some use it to help treat their insomnia, some to calm their anxiety, others to relax after a long day and yes, some to get off.” Think of it as a happy ending massage magically delivered through your laptop.
In what is to me the most perplexing video, “Vegan Muk bang Eating Show *ASMR*,” Love eats a salad ― her favorite food ― before the camera, lingering over every bite. “What I’m going to have today is chicken salad,” she says beforehand. “It’s vegan, of course. Vegan chicken, vegan bacon bites, cucumber, tomato, and croutons.” She smiles coyly. “I also have a carrot salad left over from the other day that’s going to go bad soon so I’m going to eat that too.”
In hot pink lipstick, Love moves her mouth toward the camera to capture every crunch and swallow as she enjoys her meal. “A piece of chicken,” she whispers, before ushering it inside her. For many individuals, watching and listening to someone eat would be nothing short of a nightmare scenario. But the video has 14,000 views. One comment reads, “I like it when you talk clean to me :)”
There is something oddly comforting about Love’s ability to blend the erotic and the banal, implying that sensuality isn’t all lingerie and dirty talk but back tickles, dinner leftovers and sleepy ramblings. In Love’s world, everything seems bursting with erotic potential ― that is, if executed slowly and gently enough.
In the year 2016, the internet is frequently described in many ways ― addicting, mind-numbing, infuriating, stimulating, democratizing, a colossal waste of time. Relaxing is not often on the table. And yet, the world of ASMRotica paints a picture, Bob Ross–style, of a very different online realm, one in which authentic sensual pleasure is just a YouTube video away. There won’t be penetration or nudity, not even much obscenity. But perhaps a haircut, a gentle bedtime story, or a soft scalp massage.
Correction: An earlier edition of this article incorrectly stated there was no official published research on ASMR. We regret the error.