Name: Kate McCombs
Claim to fame: New York-based sex educator, writer, and empathy advocate
Wise words: "Women are pulled in so many different directions with sex, to be these sexually empowered orgasmic creatures, but if they exhibit sexual behavior outside of any box that they’re labelled sluts and are ostracized and bullied."
Kate McCombs is a woman living life out loud. This New York-based sex educator, entrepreneur, and writer is on a mission to bring conversations about sexuality out of the shame closet and into the light. Kate’s very being is in opposition to the shame-based sex education that so many of us received growing up -- she is joyful, friendly, expressive, and incredibly honest as she speaks about herself and her work.
She has spent the last eight years traveling internationally giving talks, teaching workshops, and working on-on-one with adults seeking a healthier, more pleasure-filled sex life. Kate is also the founder of Sex Geekdom, a global community for people who love having “geeky” conversations about sex.
What initially drew me to Kate was the beautiful duality that she encompasses: Kate exudes tremendous warmth and compassion, but is also willing to step up to the plate and speak in a direct, no-BS way about the things that matter most.
The irony, as Kate points out, is that North Americans love to talk about sex in a sensational, “who’s having it with who” kind of way, but many of us shy away from meaningful dialogue about our own sexuality. If this sounds like you, I’m sure that Kate would want you to know that you are not alone: in all her years of work, she says that the only thing that still surprises her is just how many people are uncomfortable talking about sex.
Earlier this month, I spoke with Kate over the phone from her home in New York City. We spent over an hour discussing sex, death, core desired feelings (thanks, Danielle!) and disability. As Kate said, “you know...the small stuff.”
On having the tough conversations
“No matter how many times I see it, I’m still surprised that so many people are uncomfortable talking about sex” she said, “talking about sex is often more vulnerable than actually having sex.”
Kate points to our tendency to compartmentalize sex as one possible explanation, “for most of us, sexuality is only an action that happens in our beds.” Because this tendency to keep conversations about sex out of the public sphere is so deeply entrenched in our society, people like Kate tend to stand out quite a bit. “People often assume that I’m really wild and crazy sexually, which is just not totally accurate,” she shared with a laugh.
While she may get a laugh about being mislabeled as wild and crazy in the bedroom, Kate knows that the very fact that that misconception exists is proof of why her work is so important: “It stems from this idea that sexuality is really silo’d for most people in their beds. So if someone is talking about sexuality as much and as publicly as I do they assume I’m wild and crazy.”
When I asked Kate where her sense of ease and comfort with topics like sexuality and desire comes from, Kate pointed to her upbringing, crediting her family for providing her with a good education about sex and death from an early age.
"I think my fascination could easily have been about death. They're both universal aspects of humanity that we have no idea how to manage."
“I saw that there was this universal aspect of the human experience that I was comfortable talking about that other people weren’t and that the lack of conversation about it was causing pain” she continues, “I think my fascination could easily have been about death -- they’re both universal aspects of humanity that we have no idea how to manage.”
Aware of the fact that not everyone was fortunate enough to grow up in such open environments, Kate feels a strong responsibility to create that safe space for others. “I wanted to be a beacon of permission” she explained, “giving people permission to have honest, educational, and even healing conversations about sex.”
On slut-shaming and the power of empathy
When slut-shaming makes headlines, many people express shock and surprise at the treatment experienced by women, but as Leora Tanenbaum, author of I Am Not a Slut: Slut Shaming In the Age of the Internet, points out, it isn’t news to the women themselves: “Twenty years ago, every school had one or two girls who were labeled sluts, and everyone focused their slut-bashing energies on them. But now, the slut label ensnares pretty much every young woman. I don't think I've met a female under the age of 25 who hasn't been called a slut, even if in a jokey way.”
Kate isn’t surprised, either: “Women are pulled in so many different directions with sex, to be these sexually empowered orgasmic creatures, but if they exhibit sexual behavior outside of any box that they’re labelled sluts and are ostracized and bullied.”
With nearly a decade of experience as a sex educator, she regularly bares witness to this depressing trend, “the pervasiveness of slut-shaming is difficult to overestimate” she noted. In her experience, Kate has found that is tied to a lack of meaningful, honest conversation about sex and women’s sexuality, in particular.
She believes that creating safe spaces for those conversations to happen is essential to combatting the toxic effects of a culture of slut-shaming. “The only way that women can have any semblance of ‘winning’ is by creating a micro-culture of supportive women” she argues, “when they are part of communities that has a set of values that explicitly challenge those kinds of norms and create spaces for meaningful dialogues that shine light on shame. “
Fuelled by the belief that empathy and connection are essential for unwrapping the layers of shame and judgement around female sexuality, Kate has created a beautiful response to this culture of sex-negativity: tea and empathy parties. Once in a while, Kate invites people into her home to sample delicious teas and flex their empathy muscles. The group sits in a circle taking turns sharing short stories and receiving “empathy guesses”, which can be a powerful experience of being heard and seen. “Everyone goes home feeling very nourished -- both with tea and with genuine empathy and presence.”
On self-care and living with an invisible disability
As some of you might know, I am a major advocate for self-care, particularly when it comes to women entrepreneurs and creatives. As joyful as it can be to do work that you are emotionally connected to, it can also be uniquely draining, and I was deeply curious about how Kate approached her self-care.
So I was absolutely thrilled to find out that Kate shared my enthusiasm for the topic “I love that you asked me that”, she said. I was particularly honoured that Kate was willing to speak so candidly with me about her self-care journey, given that she is still adapting to a chronic migraines diagnosis which she received less than two years ago. “I have really high self-care needs, not just because of the nature of my work, but because of my chronic migraines, which can be anywhere from 15-30 a month.”
The invisible nature of Kate’s disability presents its own unique challenges, particularly when it comes to dealing with other people, “people don’t necessarily understand what I’m dealing with” she explained. “I think because I look well, people don’t recognize that I have a disability. I have good days and bad days, so if you see me on a good day, you’d never know.”
As a result, she frequently finds herself on the receiving end of unsolicited -- and problematic -- advice. “It’s not empathic, it’s actually quite motivating to me to teach people empathetic skills to receive emotionally complex information without feeling the need to change where they’re at.” These complicated reactions from other people, combined with the newness of her diagnosis means that Kate is still feeling out her comfort levels when it comes to talking about her disability, “I don’t totally feel grounded in where exactly my comfort levels lie in how I want to talk about my disability on a regular basis.”
But she knows that even just by being willing to explore these public conversations, she is acting as a beacon of permission for others around her, “I’m making space for these conversations, which gives permission for other people to have them.”
On What’s Next
After an hour on the phone with Kate, it became clear that there is no limit to what this creative, business-savvy entrepreneur with heart can accomplish, which prompted me to ask...what’s next?
“I would say figuring say figuring out how to live in greater harmony with my migraines and contribute to the world in the scale that I want to,” she said, adding that writing really seems to be flowing out of her lately, too. Which, as a fan of Kate’s wonderful blog, I was thrilled to hear!
“My curiosity is taking me in all sorts of different directions” she shared. “I feel really curious about how to build the skill-set around stretching our capacity for nuance, which is ley to doing my job and being more joyful. In areas of my life where I’ve been able to hold things with greater nuance, I feel more joy -- I love living in NYC, I love the work that I do and I live in chronic pain, and when I can be present with both of those thoughts, I feel a lot of resonant joy.”
And, of course, Kate plans to continue her work as a beacon of permission:
“I often think of a lighthouse, you shine light on shame it tends to shrivel and die. The permission part is around giving permission that it’s okay to have these meaningful conversations.”