Kate McCarthy: Let’s Talk About Sex

An Interview with MIT’s Official Sexpert

Students who have concerns or uncertainties about sex don’t need to suffer alone, and can seek out help through MIT Medical’s Kate McCarthy. A year ago, McCarthy joined MIT Medical’s Center of Health Promotion and Wellness as its program manager on sexual health. She works to promote safe sex and understanding of sex in the community. While her role includes hosting events, including a December 1st “Know Your Status” HIV testing day, and writing “Sexpertise,” her online advice column where students can submit questions about sex, McCarthy primarily meets with students on a one-on-one basis to discuss all aspects of sex.

The Tech sat down with McCarthy and her colleague Maryanne Kirkbride, clinical director for campus life at MIT Medical, to discuss her job of helping students work through issues and concerns regarding sex.

The Tech: What does being the program manager on sexual health entail?

Kate McCarthy: I do a fairly large variety of things on campus. Lots of programming in the dorms, sororities, fraternities, living groups. Different people ask me to come in and share information on relationships, struggles, intimacy issues, contraception, STDs, and STD testing. I do see people who are struggling with a specific problem in their world of sexual health. I work through with them hopefully to come to some sort of resolution. I also see couples who are having struggles and talk them through them.

TT: What made you motivated to work in the field of sexual health?

KM: I was actually teaching abroad in Japan, having a lot of experiences with young women as I was teaching English who were asking me questions about their intimate lives. I was really invigorated and so excited to help them with it, and I realized it was something I was really passionate about.

TT: You came to MIT just over a year ago from working at Bentley University. What has surprised you about MIT?

KM: Here I have to say that I’m trying to be more scientific in the way that I talk and look at things, and that’s really challenging for me because my mind does not work in that way. People really want me to have very specific numbers and facts and statistics and figures which aren’t always possible when it comes to this field.

The community has embraced the work that I do; they have embraced the column, which has been a great experience. I think that it’s a unique community because it goes from all ends of the spectrum; it goes all the way from people who have not had any sexual experiences at all yet and aren’t ready to — which is great and fine and wonderful — to people who are having a wide variety of sexual experiences, and everywhere in between.

When I was at Bentley — not to insult the people there — it was much more of a particular type of a person who was a student there; it was a lot of the same experiences. Here, there is such a variety of students.

TT: What are the most common sexual issues you talk with students about?

KM: I talk a lot with undergrads, with young women about how to have an orgasm, and a lot with young men about erection issues.

TT: What types of attitudes about sex do you see at MIT?

KM: Some people are very closed off about it, nervous about it, and some people are open about it. It runs the gamut of all sorts of attitudes around it.

TT: What are the most common misconceptions MIT students have about sex?

KM: I think one of the most common misconceptions is that people think that everybody else is having sex, and they’re supposed to have sex because by the time they get to freshman year everyone is doing it. It’s not true. If you look at the Youth Risk Behavior survey done by the CDC every other year, the latest statistics show that that 60 percent of 18 year-olds are having intercourse — that means 40 percent of 18 year-olds are not. People put pressure on themselves that they should do it when they’re not ready for it.

For everything else there’s this learning curve, but for sex it’s all of a sudden BAM! You’re supposed to know everything and do everything right and know how to get contraception and know how to get emergency contraception and know how to talk to your partner and know how to be totally confident, and I think that sex also needs to be on a learning curve.

TT: How many condoms does the Center of Health Promotion and Wellness goes through a year?

Maryanne Kilbride: Thousands. Thousands and thousands a year. The public health strategy is saturation.

TT: How do you feel about the fact the number of people who use protection is so low [as per The Tech’s survey results]?

KM: I feel like I have a lot of work to do. With the oral sex part, that’s not surprising to me at all and I think it’s a huge challenge for people to use protection during oral sex.

I think that oral sex is sort of this anomaly, for lack of better words. People think that oral sex is the “okay sex” because they’re not having penetrative sex, so they’re still virgins. I think people often do it more casually. When casual sex is involved, then people are not thinking about protection in the same way. I think it’s very challenging for people to have the self confidence and the confidence in general to say “I’m going to do this, but I’m only going to do it if we use a dental dam, or a condom, or some sort of protection.” That’s very, very, very challenging.

TT: What inspired you to develop the column “Sexpertise” [located on MIT Medical’s web site,]?

KM: We have a challenge in health promotion, in that there are around 11,000 students here and we only have a handful of people that can provide health and emotional information. If you want to bring that to scale, you cannot do it simply by going to dorms. There’s always pent up demand for the sexual health person no matter what. We started asking for questions, and the questions started to pour in. The thing has gotten 6,000 hits since the start of the school year.

TT: What are the questions you most commonly receive?

KM: There are those, “Am I normal?” That variety comes again and again and again.

MK: I think this is true for many communities, but trying to overcome the immobilization of “This is a problem, I’m afraid to talk about it. I’m just stuck with it.” I think Kate gets people through that, with some coaching. I think that there’s a connection between self-esteem and sexual confidence. We know MIT students often feel kind of beaten down by the curriculum, and we can help students feel good about themselves and feel like they have their sexual health under control for them.

One thing we want to be clear about, is that if people are having more complex, personal problems, that we’re not the mental health service. Mental health can help people with more intertwined problems where sexual health is part of it, but this is more of a health from an emotional approach. We can help people, and we can co-coordinate with people to make sure they get the help they need.

TT: What has been the most surprising question you received? 

KM: Did you read the “dog washing” one? That one has definitely garnered the most popularity. I think that when we did the hits counts, it was through the roof in comparison to other weeks. Everyone was sending it to their friends — “You’ve got to read this, you’re not going to believe it.”

MK: The runner-up would be the “Am I normal?” question about the fantasy of being in a bath tub full of almonds. Whatever blows your skirt up, as they used to say about Marilyn Monroe.

TT: Any last comments?

KM: I’d like to stress that I am here for anybody who has any questions, concerns, issues, if they feel like they can’t talk to anybody about. I am absolutely open and not judgmental. It is safe within my four walls. There are all sorts of contraceptives at MIT Medical — condoms, female condoms, and lubricants. Please use them and use them well.