By EJ Dickson
November 8, 2018
When Mariah A. was 13 years old, she was sexually assaulted by a family member. For a year and a half after the assault, she stayed silent, terrified of how her other family members would react. And when she finally worked up the courage to tell them, they did not believe her. “They said things like: ‘Oh, are you sure you didn’t take it the wrong way?’… or ‘You probably asked for it,’” she said.
Unable to find the validation and support she needed, Mariah looked elsewhere — specifically, on YouTube, where she entered “affirmations for healing from sexual assault” into the search bar. That’s how she discovered ASMR videos, specifically ASMR comfort role play audios and videos, in which YouTubers pretend to be therapists, family members, or supportive partners providing the listener with words of comfort and affirmation.
“When I listened to the audios as I fell asleep, I slept more soundly. When I did wake from a nightmare, I heard the soothing words from the ASMRtist and felt reassured,” she said. Over and over again, she listened to the words she had desperately wanted to hear from her own family members: You will be OK. I am so sorry he did that. It’s not your fault.
With the help of her therapist, Mariah wrote a script for what she wished her family members had said following her assault — and she sent it to one of her favorite ASMRtists, Lauren of the channel Happy Feet Audios, to perform. It didn’t matter to Mariah that she didn’t know Lauren, and it didn’t matter that Lauren didn’t know her. Just knowing that there was someone out there who could provide her with the comfort she’d so desperately needed helped.
ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), a little-understood sensory phenomenon that manifests itself as “brain tingles” or a pleasant, tingling sensation in the head, neck, arms, or legs. It’s triggered by a wide range of stimuli, such as soft sounds, whispering, hair-brushing, tapping, and crinkling. Some people don’t experience ASMR at all, and find the videos weird or creepy; many, however, find them comforting and are increasingly using them to fall asleep or help relieve their anxiety. And increasingly, ASMRtists are making videos for sexual assault survivors like Mariah, who use their content as a way to cope with trauma.
“Some [ASMRtists] may steer away from darker, heavier topics, but I think it is part of the process of helping people,” said Lauren, who turned three of Mariah’s scripts into comfort audios on her channel. “Whether you’re acting as a girlfriend or friend or mother, you’re able to in a sense tell someone’s story and give them the support that in real life they may not be getting.”
While some of these videos are role plays, others are more like vlogs that combine the personal stories of ASMRtists with standard ASMR stimuli (tapping, mouth sounds, etc.) “I believe it is 100% therapeutic and can be used as a form of therapy,” said Karuna Satori, an ASMRtist and sexual assault survivor who credits ASMR with helping her cope with her trauma.
While it may seem strange to use a video of someone chewing a bagel and whispering as a form of therapy, the little research that does exist on ASMR suggests it may have some small therapeutic benefits. A 2018 study in the journal PLOS One found that among people who reported experiencing ASMR, watching ASMR videos was linked to reduced heart rate and overall feelings of calmness, indicating its effects may be akin to those of mindful meditation. “Since discovering ASMR, I have used it as a way to cope with emotional setbacks or to recenter myself if my thoughts are going back to those traumas,” said Grace, a survivor who runs the channel Grace’s Grove.
To that end, many YouTubers will do role plays or affirmations aimed specifically at people with depression, anxiety, or PTSD and include these conditions as keywords, often with a disclaimer stating they are not licensed medical experts, and that anyone struggling with such issues should speak with a trained mental health professional. Many have partnered with mental health organizations to give their content a degree of legitimacy (with mixed results, as indicated by the controversy over some YouTubers financially profiting off partnerships with the controversial startup BetterHelp).
Nonetheless, experts trained in dealing with sexual assault have some concerns.
“My feeling is if it helps people, great. If it helps them feel calm and grounded, that’s wonderful,” said Moriah Cohen, LCSW, a sexual assault program coordinator and therapist at Crime Victims Treatment Center in NYC.
Jennifer Wyse, LMSW, a supervising social worker at Safe Horizon, a national victim services organization, sees how the videos could potentially be useful. “When someone has experienced sexual violence, there can be an extreme amount of stress on the body and brain… The nervous system can go into a bit of overdrive,” she said. “Someone can feel this level of stress for a long time, and we know that self-soothing — from interacting with loved ones, hearing the voice of a loved one or a therapist — has been really important for a survivor’s healing.”
That said, Wyse noted more research should be done on ASMR’s effectiveness and emphasized that the benefits of face-to-face contact with a trusted friend or trained specialist cannot be overstated. “[The videos] may be created by people who are not experts in sexual violence and healing,” she said. “We want to suggest this is not the only way that someone would want to heal, and that having support from a professional counselor can be really important.”
Some of the more intense role plays may also have the unintended effect of triggering survivors. In one video, for instance, a male YouTuber pretending to be the boyfriend of a sexual assault survivor raises his voice and threatens to hurt the assailant; another video is a date role play in which a man tries to take things a little faster than his date wants him to. The audio ends with the man reassuring his date that he’s OK waiting, and it is intended to “comfort people who have had negative experiences and/or model healthy behavior for them,” said YouTuber Rainy Day Audios, the creator of the video. But it also illustrates just how quickly and easily the lines of consent can become blurred, which can make for a jarring listening experience. “The fact that it’s a male voice kind of breathing heavily and getting aggressive could be triggering, period, even if it’s followed up by a supportive voice,” said Wyse.
Cohen believes it may be wise for survivors interested in ASMR comfort audios to explore them “in a safe place like therapy first,” rather than listening to them alone. That said, if the comments on these videos are any indication, there is a clear need for survivors to get the validation and support that they’re not getting elsewhere. “I’m a rape victim and this actually helps me,” one person writes on Rainy Day Audio’s video, while another comments: “If only all guys had this same mentality.”
When Mariah heard the audio she wrote for the first time — the words that she wished her loved ones had said to her after she reported her assault — she was in tears. “It was somewhat painful to hear at first,” she said. “But after a bit, I started to just let it soak in and found it to be very healing.” While she’s still in therapy and finds it incredibly helpful, ASMR, she said, “has truly been a lifesaving tool for me.”