Why PayPal’s crackdown on ASMR creators should worry you

Misogyny, weaponized (again).

In June, China banned and excised videos of sound effects while claiming to cleanse its internet of pornography. YouTube had already demonetized the genre in a sex panic; now PayPal is banning people for life and holding individuals' funds, ignorant of the facts and marching lockstep to the tune of 8chan trolls enacting a campaign to punish "whores."

The most bitter punchline in all this? A tiny percentage of the entire video genre is even remotely sexual, and those suffering — female creators — aren't even making sex content.

This past week, nonsexual ASMR video creators Sharon DuBois (ASMR Glow), Scottish Murmurs, Creative Cal, and Rose ASMR have been permanently banned from PayPal and had their funds frozen for 180 days. Like with YouTube's July censorship sweep, the women create videos of sound effects and have been expelled from the payment utility under alleged violations of the company's sexual content policy prohibitions. ASMR community websites are now warning all creators to avoid PayPal. Engadget reached out to PayPal regarding the banning of ASMR video creators, the 8chan sex-harassment campaign and how PayPal plans to protect users from this type of abuse -- but we did not hear back before publication time.

Update: PayPal responded with the following statement:

"Customer service and the positive resolution of buyer and seller issues are an important focus for PayPal. Our customer service team is always available to help customers understand our policies to ensure compliance. Additionally, PayPal has no policy against autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) related content that does not otherwise violate PayPal Acceptable Use policy."

Capitalizing on entrenched and easily exploitable anti-sex policies by internet giant payment processors and a new internet sex panic ushered in by FOSTA, 8chan trolls have started a campaign to mass-report attractive women who make ASMR videos. Listing names of women making these sound-effect videos in a forum thread called "PayPal lowering the hammer on ASMRtits" they've declared war by posting links to report pages for PayPal, and called upon fellow haters to get the women kicked off YouTube and Patreon as well. They're laughing at the women's anguish over creating nonsexual content and losing their revenue streams, saying things like "another whore for the deep-freeze" — in between posting anti-Semitic and Pepe the frog images, of course.

If you're unfamiliar with ASMR, it's essentially a genre of videos where the creator makes sound effects in a variety of scenarios that are geared toward evoking a sense-memory of tingling sensations from the back of the head. If anyone ever played with your hair and you felt a funny but calming shiver, you get the idea. The performance artists in these videos do things to create sounds like playing with hair, brushing microphones with makeup brushes, chewing ice and lots of other things that evoke a feeling for viewers. Not everyone tunes into the sensations, but those who do find it very beneficial.

It may sound weird, but it's quite popular — especially with people combating anxiety and insomnia. University research has found that these sound effects and their resultant physical trigger, ASMR ("autonomous sensory meridian response"), actually work. In June this year, the University of Sheffield's department of psychology found that people who "use" ASMR showed significant reductions in heart rates, as well as lowering of stress and anxiety, and feelings of social connectivity.

"The study found that those who experience ASMR showed significantly greater reductions in their heart rates when watching ASMR videos (an average decrease of 3.14 beats per minute) compared to those who do not," wrote the researchers. "They also showed significant increases in positive emotions including relaxation and feelings of social connection."

What's more, in 2015, researchers at Swansea University in Wales found that 85% of people who watch (listen to) ASMR videos use them to reliably fall asleep. "There is a suggestion that ASMR may be of use for providing temporary relief to individuals with depression, stress and chronic pain," the study abstract explained.

It's particularly important (for our purposes here) to note that the research found "82% agreed that they used ASMR to help them sleep, and 70% used ASMR to deal with stress. A small number of individuals (5%) reported using ASMR media for sexual stimulation, with the vast majority of participants (84%) disagreeing with this notion."

For those curious, "The sample of the present study was comprised of 245 men, 222 women and 8 individuals of non-binary gender (N = 475)."

Interesting facts about ASMR aside, what's happening to women who make these videos is ugly, disturbing and harrowing. The systems in which ASMR videos are made possible and distributed (YouTube, PayPal, Reddit, Patreon and others) are still a dream come true for men who want to harm women. Conservative social media policing mores naturally conflate sexuality with women and LGBT people, while relying on discriminatory and anti-sex automation. It deepens the wound of trying to be a female or LGBT creator in a system that categorically doesn't believe you or trust you.

That's because these systems weren't created with targeted harassment in mind; the guys who made them didn't believe it was happening at first, and now the rules and policies are like a leaky boat someone keeps trying to fix with chewing gum and duct tape.

It's the kind of thing that will precede articles in a few years' time asking why there aren't more female creators, with well-meaning pundits scratching their heads and muttering about diversity and pipelines, while the next potential crop of female creators looks at what happened to those who came before and says, "no thanks."

YouTube and PayPal have long-held reputations of discriminatory practices around LGBT people and sexuality — and still do. It's worse now with FOSTA, the law telling internet and online payment companies that practically anything can be considered sex work, and that sex work is "trafficking" — code for child prostitution. So this kind of targeted harassment suits anti-sex conservatives just fine, because it does the work for them of having to censor things that challenge their agenda. And again, these ASMR videos don't even have nudity, simulated sex acts, erotica or anything we'd consider even borderline porn. It all boils down to women as sex objects (whether they like it or not) and an unhealthy fear of the sexual unknown.

The thing is though, the men purposely attacking the women making sound-effect videos don't want to just harm them. Read the threads behind this harassment campaign and you'll see that these guys actually want to destroy the women they're harassing. It's a trip into the mind-set of an incel who really wants to kill women, who thinks it's heroic.

It's the kind of thing you're never unaware of when you're a female creator online; that thanks to conservative and inept social-media and payment sites, the men who want you dead hold more power than you over your ability to use and enjoy the same tools everyone else does. They can erase you, and they will.

In the case of PayPal and YouTube and ASMR video creators, it's working. Sexual fears are being catered to, rather than being countered with accurate information, and the most repugnant of trolls are winning. And it will continue to happen until someday, hopefully, we get past this shameful, inhuman era of online sexual repression.

Update: After publication of this story, PayPal unbanned accounts belonging to Scottish Murmurs and Rose ASMR. Scottish Murmurs told Engadget via email, "Originally they cited 'brand image' as the reason for the ban and once questioned further they then decided it was due to ' olfac reasons' without providing any proof. The whole thing was ridiculous."