The Sad But Rad Club: Kristel Penn Talks Mental Health Support

The Sad But Rad Club: Kristel Penn Talks Mental Health Support

Shortly after Kristel Penn won the 2021 XBIZ Exec Award for “Community Figure of the Year” in January, the longtime creative and marketing director for Grooby, clearly moved, posted a video to TikTok and Twitter where she re-committed to using her platform to continue to empower and advocate for her community, particularly in regards to mental health and wellness. Last year, Penn saw a need to create a safe, affirming space when a TikTok video where she expressed vulnerability and an emotional rawness went viral.

Thus, the Sad But Rad Club was born.

These are not normal times. And so the internal meter that you may use to measure your productivity or your own value needs to be thrown out the window.

She admits elevating the voices of the adult talent community is a challenge.

“It’s hard because our industry is so vast, you know what I mean? There are people everywhere and there are different kinds of sex work,” she said. “In some ways there is a community, but more accurately there are a lot of smaller communities within that. I think everybody has their own place in terms of what they can do to help. For me, because of where I am and my [platform], my goal has always really been to empower performers directly to make their own choices.”

Penn noted there still an assumption, when it comes to health care, that doctors are the experts and that we have to blindly accept what they tell us.

“To a certain extent, we can’t argue [against] science. But particularly when it comes to mental health, we need to remind performers that they will always be their own expert,” she explained. “So if something feels incongruent, or if they feel unsafe, they have the right to leave. There was a performer I’d been [helping] and she was seeing somebody and it wasn’t a good fit. But she felt like she couldn’t leave, you know? She felt, ‘Well, maybe I’m the one who’s wrong.’ And I had to tell her, ‘You can stop and find a different therapist at any point. It is your right.’ It’s our right to ask about their qualifications and what they’re saying about themselves and make an informed decision that way. Because then you’re thinking about the things that are important to you when you’re looking for a clinician or a therapist versus thinking like you have to accept the first thing that you get.

“I feel like Sad But Rad sits at the intersection of all of my identities,” Penn continued. “One of which is being a queer Asian-American person in the adult industry. I want to use the privilege that I have to show more diversity and to show people you can be wherever you’re at with your mental health and that it’s okay.”

Sad But Rad is “an anthem that declares we are perfect as we are and will be equally perfect when we become who we want to be.”

XBIZ: We’ve been talking about Sad But Rad Club as it applies to the gay and trans communities, but it is open to anyone.

PENN: It is inclusive of those communities because it’s part of my identity as a queer person, but it’s not for those communities exclusively, if that makes sense.

XBIZ: It does. Tell me about the initiative or the group. How would you describe it?

PENN: It’s technically a club; I created a Patreon where people can interact and whatnot and the idea, more long term, is that it’s going to be more of a formalized community. I’ve created a space for people to be who they are and wherever they are in their journey. But mostly [the name] is for marketing purposes. It really is an initiative or a project where I’m trying to use myself as an educational tool in terms of destigmatizing mental illness and mental health.

XBIZ: I’m trying to think of the right words here. That’s a vulnerable thing to choose to do.

PENN: Yeah. It’s definitely something that I had to sit with. It’s not something that I just decided to do willy-nilly. It was a very purposeful move, you know? I think that things have been getting better in terms of our discussions about mental health. But the place where I feel it’s lacking is that we don’t have a lot of mainstream representation about what the healing process looks like.

XBIZ: I agree.

PENN: We see often in movies or TV that “Aha!” moment when the protagonist realizes that they are struggling and want to seek help. And we see, on the other end, what people look like when they feel healed, whatever that means. But, largely, that in-between period is not documented. And I feel like there’s a lot of stigma [attached to] how that in between journey is experienced. I saw a video on TikTok months ago where this girl talked about brushing her teeth for the first time in a month because she was so depressed. And there were all of these comments basically saying that she was dirty and gross. To me, it felt like an example of how mental health and how we understand it still falls largely into two categories: socially acceptable and unacceptable ways to express our mental health.

XBIZ: Right.

PENN: Right? The truth is this: there are things that are difficult for me and things that are hard for me that may not necessarily be the same for you. I may be great about brushing my teeth when I’m sad because I’m also anxious and so I will anxiously brush my teeth. Maybe I’ll feel paralyzed for a day and want to lie on the floor. You know what I mean? All of that stuff is very unique to the individual. And so part of Sad But Rad Club, and part of sharing who I am through this platform, is to show people that there’s no one way to work on your healing. And healing is non-linear. The goal is to try to encourage people to look within themselves to work on themselves and not feel like they have to compare themselves to other people.

XBIZ: I appreciate you saying that. When I look at my own mental health, I don’t think I’m a Type-A personality, but I am very much a people-pleaser.

PENN: So am I.

XBIZ: And so I don’t necessarily want to show something that’s got me anxious or to tell somebody, “You know what? I’m overstimulated right now and I need to leave.” I see a lot of that in this industry.

PENN: If you haven’t been taught that it’s okay to take up space in that way, it feels really fucking uncomfortable. You know what I mean? When, in reality, it is your fundamental right to be able to speak your truth about how you’re feeling. And also to set boundaries in that way; not in a negative way, but to say, “I’m fuckin’ over-stimulated. I’m out.” You know what I mean? There’s nothing wrong with that. I think that we have not been taught that those things are okay. And if you’re a people pleaser like I am a people pleaser, it’s hard to take up space that way. It feels very counter-intuitive. It is an active practice.

XBIZ: That is a great way to describe it. It really is an active practice.

PENN: I fuckin’ feel you. It’s hard!

XBIZ: Because it sneaks up on you.

PENN: Yeah, it does. I don’t know about you, but for me, I’ve been conditioned to be really good in social situations and to anticipate and meet people’s needs and be thoughtful and considerate. And sometimes I just tap out quicker than I expect. And then I get mad at myself.

XBIZ: I always think about something RuPaul said years ago about situations like that. She said, “I’ve learned how to approximate human behavior.”

PENN: It’s true!

XBIZ: I do sometimes find myself approximating human behavior because otherwise I might lose it.

PENN: And also, I don’t know if you’ve felt like this, too, but if you’ve been conditioned to be this way, it’s almost easier because you know it. Right? It’s easier to control those things because you know you can anticipate people’s behavior and that seems safer than being vulnerable because you don’t have the space to say these things out loud.

XBIZ: We could talk about this all night.

PENN: [laughs]

XBIZ: You said you have a Patreon account for Sad But Rad?

PENN: Yeah, but the platform I’m using mostly is TikTok. The Patreon really is to supplement and give greater context to TikTok videos, which is very limited in terms of character length and also the length of the video itself. So I make videos, but a lot of context is often missing, which I think is difficult when I’m discussing mental health stuff. And so on Patreon I give larger context so people have a greater understanding of what I’m trying to cover.

XBIZ: Do you have a fixed posting schedule?

PENN: Yeah, with TikTok I generally post two or three times a day and I alternate the content. For Patreon, it’s usually once or twice per day, depending on what I feel needs a larger explanation. But I generally try to post every day.

XBIZ: This seems to tie directly into the workshops you’ve been teaching for performers. Can you talk about that a little, so talent knows what’s available to them?

PENN: I’ve been doing this workshop for the last two years now which is to help sex workers find competent and affirming mental health clinicians. I basically walk them through the whole process, from how to find somebody and what to look for, and how to interview them. The reason I do that, and this is no disrespect to any of the organizations that are providing mental health care, but I want to empower people to make their own decisions and not have to rely on third-party organizations.

I believe what happens sometimes is that we trust these organizations to inherently know our unique needs just because they are a part of our community. If I can educate folks to make empowered decisions, they’re going to do the legwork for themselves and figure out what their specific needs are versus going to a third-party organization and relying on them to do all the legwork. And also, if people are transitioning out of sex work, these organizations might not necessarily be available to them, but they’d still have the skills I’m teaching them and the resources I’ve used and pass it along to folks that are outside of our industry.

The workshop that I teach is applicable to anybody. It’s tailored to sex workers because some of the terminology that I use is specific to our industry. But anybody can attend my workshops and it’s going to be relevant and they’re going to be able to use those skills to find their own clinician even if they’re not a sex worker.

XBIZ: We were talking earlier about this stuff sneaking up on you. We’re over a year now into the pandemic and the lockdowns and I think this adds a whole other layer of pressure on our mental health that people don’t even really notice. I’m an introvert, so I don’t mind staying home —

PENN: Me, too.

XBIZ: But for somebody who is an extrovert, like so many performers are, that burden can be rough.

PENN: It is important to remind performers that these are not normal times. You know what I mean? And so the internal meter that you may use to measure your productivity or your own value needs to be thrown out the window. Really, the most important thing to emphasize now and to remember is to practice self-compassion. It doesn’t help us to use a meter from five years ago when the world was not this way and we’re in the middle of a pandemic with no real end in sight.

XBIZ: Yeah, people feel guilty because they haven’t learned a new language or baked sourdough bread.

PENN: Those things are wonderful but people shouldn’t feel like they have to work their way through a pandemic in a certain way. We’ve been cut off from our family and our friends, all of these things that would negatively affect our mental health, and then we try to use a meter that isn’t applicable anymore. You know? Remind people to be kind to themselves and to remember that we are at where we’re at and that it’s okay and to have compassion for where we are.

Visit for additional information.

Images: Courtesy Kristel Penn

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