ManlyASMR is among the biggest purveyors of sexual ASMR for a female audience. In one popular video, after an opening montage of him shirtless doing push-ups and pull-ups, he pretends he’s having phone sex with you — his girlfriend — and describes how he’d kiss along your thighs. His other videos include an extended series of him pretending to be your boyfriend, where he joins you in bed, takes you on vacation, acts possessive, rejoices that you’re pregnant and comforts you in the hospital. While the comments on his videos suggest that many viewers are indeed sexually excited by his content, for some, his videos achieve ASMR’s real intended purpose: helping the viewer fall asleep.
ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) is the phenomenon of “brain tingles” some people experience in relaxing scenarios, like while getting a haircut or receiving the close attention of a friend. It’s not a medically recognized term, but recent research has shown that ASMR can reduce stress, anxiety and heart rate.
In 2007, a YouTube community emerged centered upon the creation of videos that mimic these experiences and produce the same feelings of calm and comfort. The community was small for a few years, but rose to mainstream prominence around 2013. A small portion of viewers are aroused by ASMR itself, while others specifically seek out videos that are designed to be sexual — i.e., there are tons of videos of girls pretending to be the viewer’s girlfriend, kissing and licking the mic, trying on bikinis and reviewing dildos.
The YouTube community of ASMR creators is perhaps best known for its pretty women and delicate voices. Among the 10 most popular ASMR videos on YouTube — all of which have between 14 million and 26 million views — only one features a male creator, who is silent throughout the video; instead, he taps on objects. One other shows only a pair of hands, which in fairness, appear to belong to a man, and another that consists of rain sounds. The rest feature women, and with the exception of a lady loudly eating pickles, feature soft sounds and voices.
There are, however, still men who specialize in ASMR. FredsVoice ASMR, for example, applies his deep voice, British accent and Viking-esque looks to roles like video game store clerk and rude barber. ASMRZeitgeist, on the other hand, dons a snapback in all of his videos and specializes in producing ASMR without speaking, capturing unique sounds on a microphone by tapping on glass or squeezing putty in his hands. This compilation of 29 different male ASMRtists provides a good idea of the scope of the genre:
ManlyASMR, whose real name is Yoshua, got into ASMR about two years ago at the recommendation of his cousin. Yoshua wanted to make a YouTube channel, but originally, he wasn’t interested in doing ASMR. He only decided to give it a try to see if he liked it. He improvised the scene in his first video, called “Boyfriend Roleplay ASMR, When He Gets Home (Kissing Sounds, Mouth Sounds, Whispering),” yet somehow, he still quickly garnered views. And so, he kept at it. “What really made me fall in love with ASMR was the community. I posted the first video, and the love I was getting was crazy,” he tells me over the phone.
Yoshua estimates that about 70 percent of his audience is women. He doesn’t watch much ASMR himself, but when he does, he usually watches women. He makes an exception, though, for EphemeralRift, whose videos Yoshua sees as particularly creative. EphemeralRift, whose first name is Paul, has a series of videos on his channels featuring a character named “Iggy Manley,” a parody of hyper-masculinity. Yoshua discovered EphemeralRift when looking to see if the channel name “ManlyASMR” was already taken.
“Ladies, feel free to watch this video, but there ain’t a god dang thing here for you,” Iggy says in the first video of the series. “There’s no lipstick, makeup tutorials, no looking through my purse to see my lipstick and makeup, nothing like that. This is all manly ASMR stuff for men. For guys. Because, us guys, we’ve gotta put up with all of your female crap a lot. My YouTube feed is constantly you trying to paint my face with your makeup, kissing me — other women kind of things that you like to do.”
Among ASMR devotees, gender is sometimes a cause of conflict. Two years ago, r/ASMR had a lengthy discussion as to why videos by men were less popular. While everyone agreed there was nothing inherently worse about these videos, some commenters just couldn’t get past the whole “man” thing. “ASMR is a pleasurable physical sensation,” Redditor MyShamefulShit wrote. “While I pass absolutely no judgement on others, I won’t be dishonest and say that I’m totally comfortable receiving physical pleasure from other males. It’s no different than massage; I’m much more at ease with a female.”
The Reddit thread also demonstrates that there’s some debate as to whether ASMR is sexual. Namely: If a straight man only watches women ASMRtists, is this a matter of sexual preference? “As a gay man, the flirty glitzed-up videos done by women make me uncomfortable,” ThalassAl argued. “I prefer either gender neutral or men’s videos, since they don’t seem to be trying to getting my dick all hopped up for views.”
Of course, it varies from person to person. “It’s funny because I — as a male — highly prefer males with deeper voices,” wrote HiderDK. “I guess this is due to me getting ASMR when I listen to someone who acts like he knows what he is doing and tells me everything will be okay. Female voices on the other hand don’t provide that.”
The Atlantic has previously reported upon the emotional labor of ASMR, and the ways in which it provides comfort in a world deprived of it. In this context, ASMR creators are providing self-care. What’s interesting then, is how men play into this production of emotional labor — which is typically the domain of women. While ManlyASMR’s videos may not appeal to all women, those for whom it does are drawn to the expression of love, intimacy and vulnerability.
On the flip side, EphemeralRift’s videos are definitely intimate, but not in a conventionally comforting way. His work aligns more with an odd subgenre of ASMR related to horror, sometimes called Negative ASMR. Think Plague Doctor role-plays, masked sanitorium patients burying you alive roleplays and recreations of Stephen King novels. (For some, being creeped out has a relaxing quality.) All the while, with his “Iggy Manley” series, it’s clear Paul (aka EphmeralRift) is aware of the gender dynamics at play with ASMR. “Not too many men are doing it,” he says. “I don’t wanna say it’s not a manly thing, but there are more women doing it. It’s kind of a comedy of all those different things going on.”
Most central to the dynamics of gender in ASMR is the unwillingness of men to admit the need for comfort. “Not too many guys are gonna hang out and go, ‘Hey, can you whisper to me at the bar?’” says EphmeralRift. So instead, they get lulled to sleep in the privacy of their dark rooms, brains tingling to the sound of EphmeralRift’s characters tapping on a scalpel, ready to cut them open.