Why you should care

Because the fine line between fantasy and reality is getting blurred.

The conversation begins normally. Your boyfriend tells you that you’re gorgeous, asks you how you are, calls you “baby.” But you can tell there’s something wrong: He gets mad at you all the time, often for reasons that you don’t understand. This time, he’s found out that you’ve been texting your male cousin. With a frightening gleam in his eye and pursed lips, he says: “It makes me wonder whether you love me as much as you say you do, or if you’re just lying to me.”

He pauses, then leans forward, staring deeply into your eyes. “Why I think it’s silly of you to be texting that boy is because by texting that boy you are putting yourself in danger.” He leans back, reaches into the front pocket of his hoodie and pulls out a long, shining kitchen knife. “You are putting yourself in danger, and you are putting him in danger,” he threatens, as he gently scratches the blade across his stubble.

Luckily he isn’t really your boyfriend, but a YouTube simulation, and you’re sitting safely in front of your computer screen.

The video described above is a real example of a new YouTube trend of possessive and abusive digital boyfriends that has been gaining popularity since early 2017, within a genre known as autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, videos. Today, a “possessive boyfriend ASMR” search on YouTube turns up more than 4,010 results from 40-plus channels. The views on these videos range from 255 to 308,000.

Most of the people that watch ASMR boyfriend role-plays are feeling lonely — many of them don’t have a boyfriend.

BFBarnfield, maker of possessive-boyfriend ASMR videos

ASMR videos use various methods to relax the viewer and, most important, induce a tingling sensation on the skin akin to goose bumps. They mostly rely on four categories of “triggers” to bring the viewer to “tinglegasm”: quiet or soft-spoken voices, repetitive tapping noises, carefully executed mundane tasks like wrapping presents (the sound of crinkling paper is apparently a big trigger) and altruistic role-play care. The final category refers to videos of ASMRtists — as they like to be called — posing as doctors, hairdressers, masseuses and increasingly as boyfriends and girlfriends.

AJ, the ASMRtist who made the knife-wielding possessive-boyfriend video, the most popular video in the genre with 308,000 views, started off making videos that fell into other ASMR categories until he noticed a slew of strange requests in the comments. “Someone had commented saying, ‘Snap my neck, hit me with your car, cum down my throat and hide my body,’ with a love heart face,” he tells me over Skype. So AJ, who comes across as far more normal than his video may suggest, responded to market demands.

And that video, uploaded five months ago, remains by far the most popular on his channel, ASMR by AJ Says, eclipsing his second-most-popular video — “ASMR Boyfriend Treats You to a Massage & a Surprise ;)” — by 199,000 views. “I think people want to feel wanted and loved,” he says. “These role-plays are a submersive experience. People really feel the emotions that you’re portraying.”

BFBarnfield, another ASMRtist who makes possessive-boyfriend ASMR videos, agrees. “The idea of being [so] important to someone makes them feel special,” he says. “Most of the people that watch ASMR boyfriend role-plays are feeling lonely — many of them don’t have a boyfriend.”

But the possessive-boyfriend ASMR trend goes beyond mere loneliness. Not only do possessive-boyfriend ASMRtists like AJ wield knives, bats and other weapons to threaten the viewer, they even kidnap and trap them in basements. In fact, kidnapping and psycho-boyfriend role-play videos are a popular subset of the larger trend. These videos are often a mixture of traditional caretaking triggers and violence, with the scorned ex-lover tending to his restrained victim by massaging their scalp or cutting their hair.

The leap from ASMR caretaking simulations to videos simulating situations of extreme submission (like kidnapping) is a relatively small one because they both cater to the so-called liberation of submission.

“Domination-type fantasies and role-playing are not so unusual among women,” says Marni Feuerman, a psychotherapist in Boca Raton, Florida, adding that “it can feel exciting to have someone want such control over you by being ultra-jealous and possessive.” But these fantasies, while fun for some to explore on YouTube, aren’t necessarily a reflection of what women may want away from the screen. “I do not think this is what any woman would desire in real life,” Feuerman says.

Even on the screen, the possessive and abusive boyfriend simulations mostly strip away the traditional decadence of bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism (BDSM), replacing the theatricality of whips, chains, masks and latex with more realistic psychological abuse. Essentially, the most popular videos in this subgenre are a fetishization of a mundane type of maltreatment that most people are all too familiar with, in place of the absurdly violent delights dreamed up by the Marquis de Sade. Case in point: An offshoot of the possessive-boyfriend ASMR is the “bitchy popular girl.” In these videos a beautiful, mean girl does your makeup while calling you a loser or ugly.

AJ appears aware of the dark implications in the popularity of his knife video. He explains to me that the video was meant as a warning against abusive relationships. It’s not clear that message has gotten through.

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