I'm a firm believer that sexual health is mental health.
“I'm going to be honest, I thought I was probably going to do one podcast episode a month,” Courtney Brames said during our call.
After receiving a positive herpes diagnosis nine years ago, he found community through online forums and groups. It was this community, specifically the mental health struggles he noticed within it, that inspired him to go out, buy a podcast mic, and put together the very first Something Positive for Positive People podcast episode.
Now, more than 200 episodes later, he’s an advocate for mental and sexual health and a voice for anyone struggling with the stigma that comes with a positive STI diagnosis.
We caught Brame early in the morning to talk about the stigma surrounding a positive diagnosis, the potential kink vocabulary has for any sexual conversations, and what the future of sex education can be.
Our conversation has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
SHAME: In your podcast and on your Instagram page there is a big focus on mental health and supporting people with a positive diagnosis in their personal relationships. What resources are needed most in your experience?
BRAME: People need community; there is a place that you can go where there are other people who’ve navigated this. The information that's out there, if you Google herpes, scares the shit out of you. Even for me, I wasn't aware that outbreaks come and go, that you're more contagious during an outbreak, and that you can be someone who doesn't have any symptoms. I didn't know these things.
BRAME: Being able to speak to concerns from a lived experience, is what I feel people need in the beginning; to just know that there are support resources out there that can help guide someone through the initial stages of stigma. People need to be reminded that they're still people. I try to put myself out there as a whole person to mirror back to people that despite having your herpes diagnosis, all the things that you enjoyed before your diagnosis are still yours.
SHAME: How can STI minimization influence current guidelines around STI prevention?
BRAME: I speak to this concept of STI minimization, which does incorporate sexual health as mental health. I'm a firm believer that sexual health is mental health. Our identities are so interconnected with our sexuality, how we experience it, how we express it, and how we explore it, so receiving the herpes diagnosis is something that just comes in and completely shatters a person's identity.
BRAME: When we get providers who are delivering diagnoses and don’t see the person as someone who is sexual, someone who's had sex and who got this diagnosis as a consequence, and we start to shift to “this is a human with a mental health reaction to something that has happened to them”, I think that we can generate a lot more compassion. When we see sexual health as mental health, in the sense of the provider perspective, people will get a more human treatment.
SHAME: How does this connect to the guidelines that currently exist?
BRAME: The lived experiences of people ought to be incorporated with the CDC’s prevention efforts. Because there's so much to be learned from people who have the lived experiences, beyond the CDC being like “don't get an STD”. Alright, how does it help me? We can understand and accept the fact that we can be as careful as we can be, we can follow the guidelines to a T, and we can still end up being exposed to the virus. So, let's talk to people who have this lived experience. The stigma is the only thing that keeps people from talking about their experiences with herpes.
SHAME: How could the BDSM and kink approach to sex help non-kinky relationships and conversations?
BRAME:The kink and BDSM community does a damn good job of teaching sex education; you're talking about boundaries, you’re talking about what abuse is and how to identify it, you're presented with support resources, and encouraged to speak out against any consent violations, you're taught how to ask for what you need.
BRAME: [It’s also about] being able to understand that sex doesn't have to exclusively look the way that we're taught sex is supposed to look. The way that I learned about sex was through media in my culture; I listened to a lot of hip hop and r&b music and that was projected into my head.
BRAME: As an adult with herpes having to navigate what sex looks like with someone who may not be fully comfortable with the potential of exposure, there are other ways that we can be together, like using sex toys, getting into the roleplay, and kink scenes and things that can be sexual without having to necessarily involve my penis. So having [the vocabulary] in place allows for dialogue that extends beyond “are we going to have sex?”
BRAME: My definition of sex and someone else's definition of sex may be two different things. I can't go into sex with the understanding that everything is on the table and assumed. [A BDSM negotiation outside of BDSM scene] encourages dialogue beyond “I have herpes, are you okay with that?”
For the future of SPFPP, Brame hopes to secure funding to pay for therapy of people with a positive herpes diagnosis. Through his podcast and social media presence he continuous to bring awareness to the interconnectedness of mental and sexual health and is helping newly diagnosed people to answer the question “how do I disclose this to future partners?”
You can find Courtney Brame at spfpp.org, on Instagram, and anywhere you get your podcasts.