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Kink and autism – Interview with John Pendal

Isn’t it amazing when you find out that one of the most remarkable comedians out there turned to be a kink coach like you? What’s even more peculiar is checking out his website… and discover that he also found out to be autistic, which in turn gave him lots of interesting insights on his own BDSM experiences. By now, I believe you know what happened next, don’t you? Here is the conversation that followed.

 

Hi, John! A few days ago I mentioned to my partner your kinky stand-up comedy show I attended several years ago at a BDSM convention. Imagine my surprise when I looked online for a sample, and I found you are doing something entirely different now! Maybe it is better if you introduce yourself to the readers?

My name’s John Pendal and I’m a kinky, autistic, gay man who lives in the UK. In 2003 I became the 25th, and to-date only British winner of the annual “International Mr. Leather” contest in Chicago. Part of my prize was travelling to leather and fetish events around the world full-time for my title year. I loved it, and I’ve been a BDSM educator and kinky stand-up comedian ever since!

During the COVID pandemic all my live work at events was cancelled, so I retrained and got qualifications in life coaching and mental health. Now I also work online as a kink mentor, and as a life coach helping people who identify as outsiders find self-acceptance and happiness.

 

Since autism will be the co-protagonist of this interview, this might also be the right time to introduce it too. Can you share a layman’s description of what it actually is, in order not to fall for the oversimplifications or armchair medicalization so common in the media?

When I’m asked to describe my experience to other people I say: being autistic feels like I have eight times number of the nerve endings for taking in the world through my senses. I seem to have one hundred times the neurons for thinking up possibilities of what might happen next, and an inability to speak out loud when I’m upset.

Every autistic person is different in how it affects them. For me, I can’t catch a ball or drive a car – but I was able to study every waking moment for three months to learn what I needed to win International Mr Leather. I honestly don’t think I would have won if I wasn’t autistic. It gives me great focus at times – and at other times I have to leave events because of sensory overload.

John Pendal

John Pendal

There is a growing sentiment within the kink community – and the BDSM one in particular – that unusual sexualities tend to attract a larger number of autistic persons compared to other social circles. Supposing that the observation is correct, this is usually explained with «kinksters are more accepting of differences» and «BDSM is for geeks, and nerds are frequently neurodivergent». Would you agree with the assumption itself, and if so, do you think there are any other reasons for this?

I am convinced there are more neurodivergent people in the kink community. I can tell you some of the reasons why kink is perfect for me, as long as other autistic people don’t worry if they disagree with me. We are all different!

1) I struggle with sensory overload in regular pubs and clubs. Gay venues will often have a mirror ball, drag queen as entertainment, a dance floor in the corner with flashing lights, and people shouting at the bar to get drinks. Compare that to a kink play area, which usually has subdued lighting, static white spotlights on equipment, low music to provide atmosphere but not spoil the play.

2) Trying to chat people up for vanilla (non-kink) sex completely mystifies me. There are no rules. You’re meant to have a natural, unstructured conversation that puts you both at ease? Not happening for me. Compare that to kink style negotiation. Someone in charge. Conversations have a point! If you’re lucky there’s a questionnaire. If you’re shy you can respectfully submit a journal. Topics to cover, questions that need to be asked (needs / wants / desires / limits / past experience / relevant history). So much easier and more direct.

3) I often miss social cues in everyday life. Kink has lots of visual aids that can help. Bag full of rope? Probably a rigger. Covered in bruises? Most likely a submissive. Red hanky back left pocket? Fisting top. Collar around their neck? Look out for their owner. Hood with a snout? My guess is they’re into puppy play. The extra information really helps.

4) It doesn’t matter how much of a beginner you feel compared to other people: you can take classes in kink! You can also learn in different ways: as well as workshops, there are YouTube videos, and books, and you can co-Top or co-bottom. If you play in a group there might be a volunteer walking around making sure everyone has the right supplies. In all my years of non-kink sex, no one in a hi-vis jacket ever stopped to offer help.

5) I love intense sensations that I’ve asked for – they seem to drop my thoughts into my body and turn my brain off, calming me down (Mind you a tiny sensation I haven’t asked for, like a dripping tap, will drive me nuts). Talking to other autistic people many of us seem to like sensations that take us out of our heads, like sleeping under a weighted blanket. Kink allows you to specify the kind of touch you do and don’t want, and it’s not seen as weird.

6) Quite often I’m in a state of sensory dysregulation, and I look for activities that can help me to reset. For some people that’s playing Minecraft or watching their favourite TV show. When I look back at twenty years of kink, I realise how often I thanks the other person afterwards and said «thank you, I feel reset!»

Each autistic person is going to have their own reasons – but on behalf of all of us, thank you making kink such an autistic friendly environment.

 

I remember reading Oliver Sacks’ books about Tourette syndrome, and his amazement in recognizing it everywhere once he learned what it actually looked like. Recently I am experiencing something similar myself with autism among kinksters: in fact, I am not entirely sure not to be seeing it even where there is none. Still, several cases are so clear that I kind of feel guilty for having overlooked the phenomenon for so many years. For example, I am just learning to consider the special needs some kinky autistic persons may need. What approach would you suggest to make autistic people feel more at ease with atypical sexualities, both in private and in social settings like parties and munches?

In terms of sensory overload: let folk know that it’s okay if they want to wear headphones, earplugs or sunglasses at events. Try and provide a quieter space somewhere without background music. If it’s a meet up online let people know that they can turn their camera off, or give opportunities for text chat as well as speaking out loud.
My biggest fear is being thrust into a room full of strangers and having to make casual conversation. It’s easier for autistic people if a conversation has a point or we’re given an activity to do. I love social gatherings where I know what my point is, such as a quiz on the walls, demos to watch or try out, or a question to ask other attendees («What’s your favourite kink?»)

In kink negotiation, I like it when people give me thinking time for my answers, and there’s an option of replying verbally or in writing. Also questions like «what does good aftercare look like for you?» are really useful at discovering what other people need after a scene that you might not realise.

 

By the way, after all these years I’ve become pretty good at spotting kinky people who don’t know they are yet – and they are quite a bunch! Does this happen to you as well with neurodivergent persons into unusual expressions of sexuality?

Oh yes, as well as developing “gaydar” for spotting other LGBT people I’ve started noticing people who might be autistic. Little clues give it away, like someone saying «after a kink event my partner has to go and watch their favourite TV show to recover», or «sometimes my friend disappears without saying goodbye, it’s what they do when there are too many people around».

 

john pendal comedian

John as a leather stand-up comedian

In your writings you mention that kink can be therapeutic – and I wholeheartedly agree, yet I am pretty scared by the periodic resurgence of the trend of “BDSM therapy”, where people without professional training portray themselves as experts who can fix someone’s mental health via an erotic domination session. Can you clarify the matter?

I honestly believe that kink can be therapeutic, and I have personal experience of it being healing in my own life. But I think that kink should be therapeutic as a side effect and not your main goal. If your main goal is therapy, please go and see a therapist. I have met people at large kink events approaching the heaviest players asking to be hit harder than they’ve ever been hit before «so that they can feel something» – but if you manage to break through you don’t know what’s on the other side. Suddenly in a dungeon you may be dealing with untapped trauma, grief, rage, abuse, or mental breakdown – and you may not have the skills to deal with that. It’s a huge risk.

 

Going back to autism, speaking with you I am realizing how exhausting having to process life through continuous analytical schematizations must be… but I somehow also envy the clarity this may offer. One big example is your ‘Pendal model of BDSM‘, plotting one’s attitude toward these practices on a 3D graphic. Can you please describe it and how it came to be?

It’s a common experience for autistic people that we can feel like we’re looking through a window, and all of humanity is on the other side having fun. We spend our days looking through the window trying to work out the rules of the game so that we can join in. The model came to me because I’m forever analysing situations and try to work out rules to explain human behaviour. I thought it was normal, until I shared the model with someone else and they said: «you should teach that, it’s really useful!»

 

I am really very happy for this opportunity to learn your insights on a much-underestimated facet of kink. It was as eye-opening as your take on what straight sex actually is! Which links would you suggest to someone looking for more information on the subject, especially from you?

The link you listed brings interested people to my latest comedy show in full (you’ll need to sign in as it’s 18 rated).
For more information about my life coaching there is a website… and another one for kink mentoring. I’m also on Fetlife as KinkyLifeCoach, and on Facebook and Instagram as @johnpendal.coach – please do get in touch if you have any questions!

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