Making ASMR videos — movies with sounds designed to make the watcher feel tingly all over — is Gibi’s full-time job. But lately, her income from her YouTube channel has been jeopardized by a growing perception that the genre borders on sexual fetish.
Gibi started her channel two years ago, right out of college in the Midwest, and she now has over 1.5 million subscribers. Like other creators in the field of ASMR — Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response — her videos are defined by a practice of whispering or speaking softly into binaural microphones, coupled with tapping and scratching household objects for a spine-tingling soundtrack.
But recently, YouTube has been limiting ad placement on ASMR videos — including Gibi’s — often deeming the context to be sexually suggestive, and thus inappropriate for advertisers. PayPal and Patreon have also been cracking down on ASMR, and a few months ago, China effectively banned the genre as pornographic.
“There are certainly arguments for adding sexuality into your ASMR,” Gibi explained to VICE News. “People add their own flairs to whatever they do, whether it's to get more views or whether is what they genuinely like. But at its core, ASMR is not sexual. Somebody drawing your picture and, like, staring at your face is intimate; it's not sexual.”
The genre has adopted the TV landscape painter Bob Ross as a kind of unintentional godfather of ASMR, and many creators follow in his soothing footsteps. But there are also ASMR creators who post sexually explicit material to porn sites or use their followings on other platforms to sell access to explicit content.
“Unfortunately, it hurts other creators because ASMR isn't like well-enough understood yet for there to be the distinction of: It's not always a sex thing,” Gibi said. “If somebody wants to make it sexual, they can, like anything in the world.”
One group of determined online trolls have made it their mission to brand almost all ASMR creators as purveyors of pornography and take them down. Users on 8chan — the self-described “darkest reaches of the internet” — have violently threatened and stalked ASMRtists, including Gibi. In response, she and her family and friends have had to anonymize her identity and location on all of their social channels.
Still, despite the sexual stigma of the genre and the challenges to sustaining her income, Gibi continues to live online. She’s supplemented her YouTube ad revenue with Twitch streams and product placement deals, and is still devoted to creating tingles from sponges and shampoo bottles for all of her loyal fans — whether they're turned on by it or not.
This segment originally aired December 3, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.