First, a bar of soap sliced smoothly with a kitchen knife; next, a pair of disembodied hands squeezing, pulling, and stretching lavender slime; then, two manicured fingers pressing into bubbly foam, leaving fingerprint after fingerprint after fingerprint.
I saw my first #oddlysatisfying video while peering over my six-year-old daughter’s shoulder; she had nabbed her grandfather’s iPad and knew with a distracted, deadline-plagued mom on duty that if she didn’t draw attention to herself that she could watch almost anything unbothered.
As I recognized how much work I was accomplishing, however, I realized how uncharacteristically quiet my daughter Cecilia was being.
Propelled into instinctual high alert I thought: My child! The dark labyrinth of the internet! What was she watching? It was time to close the laptop and perform my due diligence and “monitor” her intake.
Cecilia sat on her belly, screen propped on a pillow, mesmerized as a hand pressed itself into some sprinkled putty until it was lost, subsumed by the material.
“Cool,” I said in a stupid voice.
She didn’t reply.
I followed her gaze. The same manicured hand, now pushing into kinetic sand, crumbling the mound and burying itself.
“Ahhh. So satisfying,” Cecilia said, briefly fluttering her eyelids. Together we watched the hand squish some gelatinous goop until it was enclosed in a sticky, pink glove.
I felt icky — guilty, even. Not just for the evil screen time, or that she had parroted the hashtag of these looped clips, but for what felt implicitly sexual in all of this — fingers and stickiness. And then, contrary to what mindfulness advised me, I straight up judged that thought. Wasn’t I always advocating against Puritanical beliefs that shamed kids from getting in touch with their bodies, their desires? Wasn’t I the one to put friends at ease when their own children lingered too long over a Jacuzzi jet or gently humped some soft, stuffed toy — proclaiming, “It’s only natural!” But when confronted with my own daughter’s self-soothing — self-satisfying — I panicked.
For what goes against the good-with-a-capital-G parenting, what borders more on the taboo, than trying to understand and allow the sensual needs of our children?
I did what I always do when something too sexy and physical unnerves me — I researched it. What was the deal with these videos, after all?
Oddly satisfying videos are not just insanely popular, but are considered — on the internet at least — to be a genre in and of themselves. They are part of the rising digital trend toward ASMR media. According to Wired, “ASMR — autonomous sensory meridian response — has reached cult-like proportions. There are millions of videos created to encourage the ‘brain orgasm’ that can come from listening to gentle whispers or watching people touch soft objects.” Wired’s piece focuses more on the market aspect, the rise in apps that are here to soothe us before sleep; for a paltry subscription price one can be sent off into dreams with tracks that go beyond the old-school white noise machines or tapes of thunderstorms set to Native American flutes. Now tracks include soothing for the niche audience: tapping, light scratching, and even peaceful, Italian whisperings.
Although they attribute ASMR media’s appeal to the proximity simulated between viewer and performer, they say little as to the psychic need this new media and market is fulfilling.
My first thought was of course this was coming in the midst of our “sex recession.” Teenagers and millennials are having less sex these days. The Atlantic cites many potential reasons the younger generation is having less sex than, say, our philandering Boomer parents: the alienation of dating apps, Netflix, and anti-depressants. I’ve been long-intrigued/disturbed by this less-sex trend and have had multiple conversations with young adults, hypothesizing that if they are having it IRL (and they’re not just relying on solo sex with chakra dildos, specialized vibrators, and free porn) then they are, most likely, having it badly. Hook up culture might be to blame, but most likely I would argue that a decline in intimacy is at the root.
This fits in with what academics are saying. According to Evan Malone in his paper “On the Oddly Satisfying,” “these small, subtle bursts of cinematicity provide us with the means to re-familiarize ourselves with the aesthetics of the everyday.”
And I think that is just it: we want the tender everyday banalities only lovers and mothers provide — hair combing, cooing voices, whispers; we are longing to brush against strangers and dip our hands into sacks of grain like Amélie in an open-air market; for the things we are not getting if we are not making love, if we are not touching.
As I watched video after video — water fountaining out of sprinklers, people collapsing into fresh snow — it is clear we are hungry for a world of natural touch, of illicit slowness, of even the most basic satisfaction that the domestic world offers — removing dryer lint in one clean pull and rolling it into a gorgeous ball.
It might be hyper real a la Baudrillard, but I would argue, with these videos, it’s not real enough. Oddly satisfying accounts are a digital archive of our basic desire for intimacy and collective longing. We sigh and say “Ahhh!” for a reason. Malone discusses how through a visual medium we experience a “defamiliarization” and a “casting of auras” and I couldn’t agree more. My hope is that this will not simply satisfy us into restful sleep, into atrophy, but it will also wake us up.
A few weeks later, after a morning of water coloring with my daughter; as we rinsed the brushes in the sink and watched as the colors swirled out and mixed in the basin, she exclaimed, “This is good enough for YouTube!” and I said — to her annoyance — “Yes, but this is also good enough for us.”
Idealistic, I know. Just as I also know I will never succeed as a true luddite and get rid of my iPhone, or her iPad, or become some fanatic who arrogantly believes she can prevent her child from the modern addictions of her generation.
But still, I can claim my resistance — I can’t get no odd satisfaction! Instead of putting me to sleep, these videos have been keeping me up at night. Not because these strange clips were perhaps introducing latex fetishes to my child as I had initially feared, but rather with drumming and more crucial questions: what did my daughter’s attraction to those soft and gentle repetitions say about her sensual hunger? What was I not giving her? And, was I willing to really embrace her, look, and find out?
Yes, I am.
I am reclaiming intimacy for my daughter and myself. I am allowing for more mother/daughter time before bed to comb her hair, to have us sit in front of the mirror on the cool tile as I move the comb ever-so-slowly, just grazing her little skull… just the right amount of scratching. I listen to that tender little sound of the teeth and the hair, so quiet that I almost miss it, and am calmed by her soft voice as she says, “Ahhh!”
Julie Schulte is an LA-based writer. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and is forthcoming in the LA Review of Books. Currently she is working out her theories on desire and love in a story collection set in Orange County. She and her daughter Cecilia are currently listening to Le Tigre.