Owning Yourself & Your Sexual Health: A Spotlight On Courtney Brame
Courtney Brame recalls a campus nurse telling him that the issue he was worried about below the belt “looked like friction.” This was back in 2010 when Courtney, then a college student and football player, got tested for herpes for the first time. Despite the presence of antibodies in his system, he was diagnosed as herpes negative.
Fast-forward to 2012: Courtney graduated and landed his first job at a media advertising company in his hometown, St. Louis. One day in August he woke up with body aches, chills, and a fever. Courtney remembers feeling the same wave of panic that drove him to get tested two years prior. “I went to the restroom and I looked down at my junk and was like, what is happening.” He immediately went to an urgent care clinic.
The doctor gave Courtney medication for gonorrhea and chlamydia just in case he was exposed and diagnosed him with herpes on the spot. He gave him a pamphlet, a prescription for Valacyclovir, and sent him home.
“My initial reaction when I was diagnosed was, oh shit, who else did I give this to? And who gave this to me?” Courtney said. He called up all of his past partners, but nobody said they had herpes. “I was like, okay, who’s lying to me? I was confused and I didn’t have anyone to point the finger at. It was just me.” Upon reflection, that turned out to be a blessing.
“Rather than me having to put in all of this energy into being upset with someone else, I had to direct it inwardly. I remember standing in front of my bathroom mirror, looking myself in the eyes, and saying, I have herpes.”
Courtney felt sad, upset, and paranoid. “I used to shower two to three times a day. I’d wash my hands for a minute and a half after I used the bathroom. I would change towels after every shower. It was so dramatic.”
One of the first things he did after coming home from the doctor’s was a Google search on how to manage herpes. The top advice? Workout, manage your diet, manage your stress. That got Courtney thinking about how much his lifestyle had changed since playing college football. He was now at a desk job, had stopped working out, and didn’t think about what he ate. “I probably was exposed to the virus back around 2010 – when I first got the negative diagnosis,” said Courtney. “But because I was so active and healthy, my body was able to suppress the virus.”
Courtney worked with a personal trainer/nutritionist for twelve weeks. “He had me write down everything I ate and send it to him,” Courtney recalled. “I remember this one time he came down hard on me for having KFC. I tried to defend myself – since it was grilled chicken at least – but he said, ‘it’s still KFC!’”
Working with the trainer got Courtney back on track to being healthy. Not only did it change his lifestyle, it eventually prompted a career switch, as Courtney himself is now working as a professional trainer at Given100 in St. Louis. While becoming more active post-diagnosis helped with physical symptoms, Courtney still struggled emotionally with dating and even being honest with friends.
He tried Tinder, Plenty of Fish, Bumble…but it just wasn’t working. He was “being weird” and “afraid of an uncomfortable conversation.” Instances of being ghosted upon disclosing his diagnosis didn’t help his confidence. Eventually, he discovered a platform specifically designed for people living with herpes.
“Being on there, on chatrooms, I felt myself,” Courtney explained. “I spent a lot of time on there, to the point where you could almost call it an addiction. I found myself turning down going out and hanging out with my friends, just so I could be on this website, around people – complete strangers – who knew I had herpes.”
One day, Courtney had an epiphany. “I remember thinking: what if I could be like this around all my friends, the people who actually knew me?”
With time, Courtney opened up to more and more people in his “real” life. He remained active in the online herpes community, where he began to notice a troubling pattern: a lot of people were contemplating suicide, openly.
“People would say things like, ‘my life is over; nobody’s going to want me; I should just end it,’” said Courtney. By this time, Courtney had become true friends with some of the people he’d met online, one of whom disclosed to him that she had thought about killing herself. He was floored. By all accounts, she had a good life. She had a job, an understanding partner; it just didn’t make sense to Courtney that something like a herpes diagnosis should make someone want to kill themselves.
“The worst thing you could possibly say to someone is, ‘it’s not that bad, it’s not the end of the world,” said Courtney. “So, I didn’t say that to her, but in the end I decided my words of comfort weren’t enough.”
The interaction inspired Courtney to go out and buy a podcast microphone. He posted on one of the secret Facebook groups, asking if anyone would be willing to share their story and let him record it, so he could share it with people who were recently diagnosed and possibly considering killing themselves.
From that post, Courtney got his first podcast guest, Amy, who had recently divorced her spouse who cheated on her and infected her with herpes. “I was interviewing Amy face-to-face and the podcast was the first time she had talked out loud about this,” said Courtney. “You could feel her spirit lift. Her posture changed, her voice went from hesitant and shaky to empowered. It was extremely motivating.”
He posted the first episode of Something Positive for Positive People onto YouTube, where it received a few hundred views. He sent dozens of emails, posted episode links to any Facebook groups that would allow him to. He interviewed people who were living with STIs, doctors and medical professionals, nonprofit staff, and eventually put the podcast onto a hosting platform where it lives today. It can be found on Spotify, Apple’s Podcast app/ITunes, and Google Play. What started off as a completely DIY passion project with episodes posted every month morphed into a weekly podcast with tens of thousands of downloads and – like many podcasts – corporate sponsors, including DatingPositives, a new dating platform for people with STIs.
“It’s been a great ride so far,” said Courtney. “A lot of good things have come from the podcast already. I’ve gotten emails from people thanking me, telling me it gives them hope, which is amazing, because that was the reason I started it.”
When asked what he would tell people who have been recently diagnosed with herpes, Courtney had some advice. First and foremost: do not isolate yourself. Be diligent and inform past partners for their safety, but don’t go looking for someone to blame. If you’re struggling with your diagnosis, seek help immediately.
While it can be therapeutic to be involved in STI communities, Courtney also places huge importance on living openly among friends and family, when the time feels right. “All the jokes, all the stereotyping and things like that – all of that would be gone if everyone knew that they know someone who has herpes.”
According to the CDC, more than one out of every six people aged 14 to 49 are living with genital herpes, which supports Courtney’s assertion that we all know multiple people who are living with the virus.
Courtney cautioned that people with a new diagnosis to avoid jumping into dating right away. The right time to get back in the dating scene? “When you can look somebody in the face and say, ‘I have herpes,’ and not break out crying,” said Courtney.
His own journey back into dating required a lot of self-reflection into how the stigma of living with an STI affected his confidence.
“The stigma is so real, and when you first get diagnosed your head is flooded with the voice of that stigma,” explained Courtney. “For me, that voice was confirmed after being blocked on dating apps because of my disclosure of my diagnosis. However, the truth of the matter is herpes does not make someone unlovable or undesirable. Eventually, I realized that I wasn’t finding the right people, but it wasn’t because of the herpes. It was how I felt about the herpes and how it was playing out in my behavior.”
Courtney believes that stigma and shame can be reduced if people were more educated about misconceptions and myths and if people – especially men – took better care of their sexual health. Interestingly, the herpes community is comprised of mostly women, and when asked why more women are involved as opposed to men, Courtney had some thoughts. “On a somewhat shallow level, many men have been taught not to discuss their feelings or reveal vulnerabilities, like having an STI,” said Courtney. “On a deeper and more troubling level, many CIS-hetero men don’t go to the doctor regularly – or at all – to get tested or address sexual health issues.”
The CDC has no recommendation concerning CIS-hetero men and getting tested for STIs, except to say that everyone should be tested for HIV at least once in their lives. The CDC is also against testing for genital herpes as part of sexual health screenings, unless physical symptoms are present. This results in people thinking they are being tested for herpes as part of their comprehensive screening, when in many cases they are not.
Courtney has seen and heard how these recommendations (and lack thereof) play out in real-life doctor’s offices. In one instance he recalled, a friend told her ex-boyfriend that she had tested positive for herpes and asked that he get tested as well. When he went in to get tested, he was told by his doctor not to worry about it, and to “just use condoms” – even though it is known that condom usage cannot fully eliminate the risk of spreading herpes.
But owning your sexual health is not just being on top of doctor’s visits and knowing your own status. It’s about having honest conversations, even when they’re difficult. Courtney’s own experiences have given him a new litmus test for sex. “If you don’t feel comfortable talking about sexual health with a person before you have sex with them,” said Courtney, “you should not be having sex with them. Period. That’s not up for debate.”