A sex coach’s thoughts on correlations.
A while back, a friend of mine hosted a brunch to introduce all her kinky comrades to one another.
I happily attended, of course. Kinky people are fun!
Within an hour, however, we were bonding over something else we had in common: neurodivergence.
Since that brunch, I’ve been thinking about the prevalence of neurodiversity in kink. Many people I interact with at kink events and parties comfortably acknowledge and discuss their neurodivergence with others.
As a kinky, polyamorous, queer, nonbinary, and possibly autistic person diagnosed with ADHD, I couldn’t help but wonder…was there something going on here? Is there really a correlation between neurodivergence and these identities?
As usual, I turned to Google for some answers. I was looking for research on neurodivergence, sexuality, and gender…and somehow ended up researching the Industrial Age.
Settle in, friends: this one’s a long, winding journey.
Obligatory Neurodivergent Disclaimer
Before I share my thoughts and research, it’s important to note a few things in case they aren’t obvious:
- Not all neurodivergent people are kinky, queer, trans, nonmonogamous, or any other designations related to sexuality and gender.
- Not all people who are kinky, queer, nonmonogamous, or identify with other designations related to sexuality and gender are neurodivergent.
- The relationship between neurodivergence and sexual/gender identities is highly personal and not well understood from a research perspective.
With all that in mind, I’ll strive to make it clear when I’m sharing research findings versus my personal thoughts and interpretations.
My own experiences with neurodivergence, sexuality, and gender unavoidably shape my views. They are not representative of everyone who falls under these umbrellas. I encourage you to take mine as a single granular perspective from the sands of a vast neuroqueer planet.
Alright, let’s dive in.
Storytime: Anecdotal Observations from Neurodivergent Sex-Positive Land
The internet is a goldmine of perspectives on this topic. I’m talking about so much content I’d have to write a book rather than a blog post to cover it all.
I’ve decided to just brush over some of the most common observations. These are themes I’ve seen reflected in FetLife writings, Tweets, subreddits, Facebook groups, and conversations I’ve had with people in communities centered around sexuality.
Sensory processing differences are common in neurodivergent folks. As a result, many engage in behaviors designed to cope with being over- or understimulated. We may seek activities or fidgets that help us increase, reduce, or prevent sensory overload.
Some things that may lend themselves to sensory regulation include:
- Consent to touch. In sex-positive spaces and communities, there’s typically an expectation that people will ask before touching someone, discuss what activities we’d like to do together before initiating them, and check in throughout activities to ensure ongoing consent. This is the perfect culture for managing sensory input from other people’s touch.
- Dark spaces, audible rhythms. Light sensitivity is common in neurodivergent folks; the dim lighting of sex clubs, dungeons, and similar spaces accommodates that. These spaces also tend to play music during events, and music has been found to be therapeutic for many autistic individuals, possibly providing a beat to regulate with.
- Pressure-touch. “As described by individuals with autism, sensory integration techniques, such as pressure-touch can facilitate attention and awareness,” the Autism Research Institute explains. Playing with restraints, rope, or mummification kink may provide desired pressure. (Vanilla folks can stick to weighted blankets.)
- Pain. Hypo- and hypersensitivity often contribute to sensory issues. The pain of impact, hot wax, and other forms of pain play might be experienced differently among some neurodivergent people, explaining its appeal. While research is ongoing, at least one small study supports the idea.
Neurodivergent people tend to communicate and socialize differently than neurotypical people. So much so, there are a number of books dedicated to helping us navigate dating and relationships (tap to explore):
This may explain an increased interest in—
Kinky, nonmonogamous, and queer folks usually can’t rely on conventional norms in a sexual exchange or relationship. As a result, we often discuss a scene, sexual interaction, or dynamic before engaging. Some neurodivergent folks may prefer this up-front clarity when navigating intimacy and relationships.
Reduced social pressure.
Queer, kinky, nonmonogamous people live outside of social norms regardless of whether we’re neurodivergent. As a result, our circles and spaces tend to welcome people who socialize and behave differently. Common refrains include, “Whatever happens between consenting adults is fine,” and “Do what you want, just don’t harm anyone.” These simple expectations can feel accommodating compared to high-context groups.
Many neurodivergent people’s neurons don’t respond to dopamine as well as neurotypical brains. As a result, we may need to behave in unconventional ways to experience pleasure or satisfaction. When navigated with consent and safety, kink and nonmonogamy provide harmless thrills without engaging in self-destructive behavior.
Shedding social concepts.
Gender and sexual expression are highly social concepts. Because we socialize differently, neurodivergent folks may be uniquely equipped for exploring these concepts separate from social expectations. As a result, it’s possible that neurodivergent people are more likely to uncover self-identities like queer and trans and be open to kink and nonmonogamy.
Again, not all people in any one of these groups is necessarily a member of another. Neurotypical trans, queer, kinky, nonmonogamous people exist. Neurodivergent cis, straight, vanilla, monogamous people exist.
Also, none of these things cause another. (Though I am tickled by the implied theory that if all neurotypical folks were granted a one-day pass for “freedom from social norms” the world might get just a little more queer and kinky.)
Remember: this is a limited list of anecdotal observations. If you want more, search for “neurodivergent and ____” on your favorite social platforms.
Research: Sex-Obsessed Neurospicies Being Neurospicy About Sex
There are interesting themes in the research available online.
Most of the studies I found focused on Americans with autism spectrum disorder. This is probably because of the way Google personalizes search results. However, it does appear that there is limited research on this topic overall.
The available studies tend to be small and use self-reported data. This means they’re less robust and objective than bigger, observational research.
That being said, they’re not useless. As more studies come out, we can build on our understanding.
- Research published in Sex Medicine found that individuals with autism spectrum disorder were likelier to report an interest in BDSM than neurotypical individuals.
- Analysis out of Ball State University concluded that the autistic traits of motor movements and attention to detail correlate with BDSM sensory and control practices.
- A Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience study concluded that individuals with autism spectrum disorder are more likely to have nonnormative sexual behaviors and interests such as paraphilias.
- Transgender individuals are three to six times more likely to be autistic compared to cisgender people, according to a study published in Nature Communications.
- Autism Research found that autistic individuals are less likely to self-identify as heterosexual and more likely to report being asexual, bisexual, homosexual, or an “other” sexuality.
- Autistic respondents to a study covered by Autism Spectrum News were more likely to report engaging in polyamorous and/or nonmonogamous relationships.
- Research published by Frontiers in Psychology found that people with ADHD are more likely to participate in sexual risk-taking behaviors such as having multiple sexual partners.
- The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published findings that people with ADHD had a significantly higher preference for same-sex or either-sex partners, were more sexually adventurous, and had higher rates of electronic sexual exchanges, and masturbation.
Estimates state that 15-20% of people are neurodivergent.
Again, the research is limited. So far, however, it appears to support what many have anecdotally observed.
Personal Thoughts on Neurodivergent Sexuality and Gender
As someone who sees myself in the research, I’ve obviously got a lot of feelings to share.
Let’s start with the language.
Nonnormative sexual behaviors (aka kink).
The phrase “nonnormative sexual behaviors and interests such as paraphilias” makes me chuckle.
There’s legitimate concern around paraphilic disorders. These refer to sexual behavior that is self-destructive or disregards consent.
Nondisordered paraphilias, however, are simply “atypical sexual interests” that don’t cause distress or harm.
Basically, they’re kink.
Americans are among the kinkiest population in the world. We have been for decades. While no studies have found that a majority of us are interested in kink, most conclude that between 25% and 40% of us are.
I’m amused because normative or conventional behavior is subjective. It varies depending on things like time period, location, culture, and other contextual factors.
For example, research shows that people born in the U.S. after 1940 are 30% more likely to have ever experienced oral sex than people born earlier. These days, at least 83% of adults have performed oral sex.
In one human lifespan, oral sex went from kinky to normative. Talk about moving goalposts.
Sexual risk-taking behaviors (aka nonmonogamy).
I was also struck by the definition of risky sexual behaviors:
- having more than one sexual partner
- changing sexual partners frequently
- having sexual contact without a condom
- using unreliable methods of birth control, or using birth control inconsistently
Listen, safer sex is great. Do your part to prevent unplanned pregnancy and reduce the spread of STIs.
But yeesh, does that definition come down hard on nonmonogamy…which as many as 45% of Americans have some interest in.
I get it. From a public health perspective, people who practice nonmonogamy and serial monogamy are at an increased risk of contracting STIs or experiencing unwanted pregnancies.
From a personal perspective, I feel the need to point out that this risk is significantly reduced with safer sex practices. Self-identified nonmonogamists are more likely than monogamists to get tested for STIs and use condoms during sex.
While that may not have reduced overall risk enough to placate public health services, I feel it’s notable that many nonmonogamists take steps to reduce risk.
Gender and sexual identities (aka queer).
There are the behaviors we engage in, and there are the identities we hold. This research made me think about that difference a lot.
In recent years, sexual orientation and gender have become more accepted as unextractable components of our authentic selves.
Sexual orientation no longer appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), for example. The manual also explicitly states that “gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder” in its discussion of gender dysphoria.
There’s still hesitation, however, to grant the same acceptance to people who claim kink or nonmonogamy as part of their sexual identity. In research, nonmonogamy is simply a risk and kink is just deviance from norms.
Personally, I see kink and nonmonogamy as part of my sexual identity. I cannot live authentically as a monogamous person having conventional sex any more than I could live authentically as a straight cis(gender) woman.
In community spaces, the question of whether kink and nonmonogamy can constitute intrinsic sexual identities is a controversial topic.
There’s particular resistance against classifying these identities as “queer”, with most citing the outsized violence endured by LGBT people compared to the relative nonviolent stigmatization and oppression kinky and nonmonogamous folks experience.
Identity is complicated.
Digging into Social Correlations
When I think about my experience with neurodivergence, sexuality, and gender, I keep coming back to the experience of existing outside of social norms.
Nerd out with me for a moment.
Historical evidence of sexual, gender, & neurodivergent traits.
The traits and behaviors that we associate with neurodivergent, queer, kinky, and/or nonmonogamous folks have been around for thousands of years, if not always.
- Written evidence of sexual expression that would be considered queer today dates back as far as 4500 years ago. The text includes references to men filling roles usually reserved for women and homosexual acts.
- Additional texts from the same period describe a goddess who whipped her subjects into sexual frenzies (that’s not a figure of speech: she used whips) and held rituals “imbued with pain and ecstasy.”
- Genetic research proves that the dominant way humans produced offspring in the last 10,000 years was polygyny (few men impregnating many women).
- More genetic research reveals that autism genes have been around not only longer than humans but even predate all vertebrates (organisms with a spine).
I’m not sharing this information to say that these traits and behaviors were ever held by a majority or that these snippets represent happy societies full of people who consented to everything that ever happened to them.
I just want to acknowledge that these things have likely always been around. If queer sex or kink left behind genetic evidence, I’d bet money it could be traced back even further than 4500 years.
Societies have always had people with these traits and interests. The only difference between the societies probably boils down to how they treat diverse people.
Historical evidence of acceptance & celebration.
Most of us are aware of the stigma, marginalization, and oppression experienced by people in the groups we’re discussing.
It wasn’t always this way, though:
- Those kinky-queer texts from 4500 years ago? They describe gender nonconformity, homosexual acts, and erotic submission as forms of spiritual worship. They also discuss polygamous marriage without attaching shame or stigma (much like the Old Testament of the Christian Bible).
- Polygamous marriage was politically vital in ancient civilizations like the Incan Empire, the Siamese Kingdom, and the Kingdom of Buganda. There is evidence that polygamy has been the norm throughout human history, counterbalancing high infant mortality and the disproportionate loss of men to war.
- Researchers have reason to believe that human societies didn’t just accommodate but embraced neurodiverse traits as far back as 100,000 years ago. Heightened sensory perception, hyperselective memory, and other traits were likely leveraged for navigation, plant identification, animal tracking, and other skills critical to group survival.
All these differences were, at least in some places at some times, accepted and appreciated. At some point, that changed.
Fast Facts: Out of 195 countries worldwide today…
- 20 have passed legislation in support of transgender rights
- same-sex marriage is legal in 34
- over 60 support comprehensive and coordinated efforts for the management of autism spectrum disorders
- polygamy is legal in 80
Thousand-year-old shifts in social acceptance.
The late Middle Ages mark a significant change in acceptance of diverse sexual and gender expressions. While it’s impossible to pin down just one cause, most anthropologists agree that the spread of Christianity was the primary social influence.
Some even point to evidence that Western leaders used Christianity to socially enforce procreative sex within monogamous, opposite-sex marriages in order to gain a strategic advantage over other nations.
Yet, penis-in-vagina sex within monogamous relationships persists as a social standard against which all other sexual expression is compared.
I think this happened to neurodiversity, too.
Industrial acts against the neurodivergent.
Note: This section includes my thoughts on neurodivergence through a social lens. This is not the whole picture; it’s just a part of the picture I‘m really interested in. I welcome additional perspectives in the comments.
Like sexuality and gender expression, we somehow went from accepting and appreciating the whole spectrum of neurodiverse traits to classifying some of them as disordered.
At some point in history, verbal and social skills, sensory tolerance, cooperativeness, competitiveness, strong performance under pressure, adaptability, and predictability must have become advantageous and/or socially valued.
PAUSE. Before reading on, ask yourself this question. There are no wrong answers: When you read that last paragraph, what kind of environment(s) do you imagine people with those traits would thrive in?
Those are traits we assign to being neurotypical today.
Around the time those traits became more valued, being sensitive, observant, regimented, creative, straightforward, detail-oriented, egalitarian, energetic, or independent must have become less valued.
These are traits we assign to neurodivergence today.
The trouble with binaries.
There’s nothing wrong with the traits on either of these lists. At some point, social preference simply drew a line that didn’t previously exist between them.
After the new standard was set, being sensitive meant you were hypersensitive. Instead of being observant or regimented, you were nerdy or inflexible. Creative people needed to get real jobs, and straight-talkers were too blunt.
Whew, that’s tough stuff if it hits home. Let’s pause for some cute animal photos:
Sweet, sweet industry.
Okay, here’s my armchair theory:
To me, neurotypical traits sound like what manufacturing companies in the late 1800s and early 1900s would value in their workers.
When machine production and assembly lines were at their height, the ability to work well with others in a factory for long hours despite lots of sensory input probably made a person extremely hireable.
Over time, those who couldn’t work well in these conditions due to inherited traits were incrementally marginalized. Eventually, we were stigmatized and medicalized.
Other things were changing, too. The introduction of the automobile and other machines made life noisier. Flourescent lighting was introduced.
Modernized hospitals, where the differences we now call divergent were first noticed, were built. Medical care became standardized. More patients were sharing social space and tolerating high sensory stimulation while being observed and compared by doctors.
We didn’t start studying neurodivergence (specifically autism) until the mid-1900s. I acknowledge that the Industrial Age dates back much further, and admittedly, my knowledge of what life was like during this time period in the U.S. is limited.
But I’ve gotta say, I feel like I’m onto something here.
I also think the recent explosion in conversations about neurodivergence stems partly from the work-from-home shift. As we’re increasingly called back to noisy, brightly-lit offices with chatty coworkers, us sensitive, independent workers really don’t want to go back…and we’ve got the internet to express it.
On the Spectrum(s): NeuroQueer Intersectionality
As mentioned, all this is a strictly social lens. There are other factors to consider.
For this reason, nothing I’ve written here should minimize the experience or identity of neurodivergent people. This also goes for people of marginalized sexual and gender identities.
Marginalized groups tend to overlap, so it’s not surprising for people in these groups to find themselves sharing space. This feature of intersectionality is yet another thing bringing these groups together.
We need to be mindful of what we do with this knowledge. Statements like “everyone’s a little queer” or “…a little autistic” are often used in an attempt to normalize differences.
Our attention should be on validating and accommodating marginalized groups, not socially dispersing them. Accommodation demonstrates social value of these groups, moving them closer to actual acceptance.
Neurodiversity, sexuality, and gender all exist on wide spectrums. They also all have socially imposed norms based on cultural values.
In a society where constellatory gender and sexuality, consensual plural relationships and marriages, kinky sex, and neurodiversity were accepted, I doubt there’d be enough perception of differences to see a correlation between any of these things at all.
Until we get there, there’s work to do.
Meet neurodivergent sex & relationship coach: Shannon Burton, SXI
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