Courtney Shatters the Stigma Around Having Herpes
"How many Black men do we know with an STI talking about it? We don't know many. There's a “It can't happen to us” mentality. But, then you see statistics. I know I am not alone, but I feel alone. As Black men, we have so many notches against us that we aren't supposed to talk about sexual health."
When you experienced childhood trauma did you feel like you could tell your family?
I didn't know that it was a trauma. I only realized it was a trauma as an adult during a meditation class when we were asked to meditate on the question: “Where are you from?” The earliest memories I could recall were being a Black boy in a very controlled environment where the adults in my life tried to keep me safe. So, I was constantly told “Don't talk back!” and “Don't go there!” among countless other commands. My mom always told me not be like my father which I didn't know what to make of. My mom had me at 18 and may have had some unchecked trauma herself. Technically, my mom and I grew up together. Back then, I don't think I even knew I needed to talk to anyone because I didn't know that wasn't normal. When you're told so much not to do things all you start thinking about is doing those things because you aren't given any real guidance. As long as I was alive and went to college, I think my family felt like I was a success. But, being so controlled felt like a loss of freedom to explore or be creative.
You mentioned your race in your response. Were you aware of any racism in your environment?
I didn't have much interaction with white people outside of the teachers in my classroom and some cashiers in stores. I was told to “not bring home a white girl” by family but didn't really know why. I do recall an incident when I went fishing with my dad at the age of seven. For
some reason, this white kid kept throwing rocks in the water where we were fishing. My dad told me to pack up so we could leave. As we were leaving, the white kid yelled, “Yeah, you better get out of here you n---ers!” I didn't understand what had happened as a kid but as an adult I respect my dad for taking the higher road in this situation. My dad doesn't even remember this happening but I remember it very vividly.
I wonder if your dad didn't remember this incident because he had experienced racism so much that he became desensitized to such hateful attacks?
My father worked in the predominantly-white field of construction so that may be true. My dad could have easily handled the situation differently but he chose to walk away.
We both know that law enforcement is often not on our side so your dad made the best decision to keep you both safe. Given so many restrictions, what would happen to you if you didn't listen?
I got whoopings and got my ass beat! I think my family did what they knew and what was done to them. I now know that there are other ways but I understand how exhausting it can be to provide for children as a minority. I understand that in their eyes this was discipline and that they couldn't afford to let me fuck up because my consequences would be exceptionally worse as a Black youth. The criminal justice system is so unjust so my family felt an extreme need to keep me safe. I didn't get the chance to just be a kid that can make mistakes.
Beatings are so normalized in our communities. It sounds like your family was in a perpetual state of fear about losing you so they tried to condition you via beatings to act perfectly. Were you allowed to cry growing up and express your feelings?
I don't think I really knew emotions. No one's ever asked me this before. As I think through the question, I can recall excitement being followed by disappointment. For example, I only saw my dad on the weekends. I would often get excited to see him but then it wouldn't happen. It got to the point where I would stop getting excited until the point that I became neutral about my feelings. That way I wouldn't get let down. The absence of emotion during my childhood now makes me really want to experience the intensity of emotions in my adulthood. Similarly, all that control and fear growing up has made me want to experience pleasure and freedom even more now. But, I do understand where my parents were coming from. For example, I found out my mom experienced sexual abuse and so she did a great job of protecting me from that. I think what happens is sometimes our parents want to protect us from pain they experienced but they end up making us feel another type of pain. So, when I have kids, I may give them too much freedom to the point that they may ask me to be more controlling.
That makes sense. We inherit so many types of generational trauma and sometimes we pass down new forms ourselves. What did your adolescence look like?
I immediately think of my puppy love breakup in seventh grade. I was so excited to have someone to talk to, kiss, and trade notes with. But, then we broke up. It reminded me so much about my relationship with my dad. All of these highs followed by a bunch of disappointment. I just learned not to get excited whether it was with people or playing sports which affects my life and relationships.
While in college did you have any knowledge of mental health care?
College was very superficial for me. It was all about drinking, sex, sports, food and video games. I had no awareness of it. I could still see how things I learned as a kid affected me as an adult. For example, I wouldn't kiss the white women I had sex with because that was too emotionally-connecting and I wasn't trying to bring them home. I also found myself with controlling partners because I didn't trust my own freedom. I always liked to be around people because I didn't like to be alone. I preferred to be around people and experience emotional intensity. I played more of an observer role. I avoided feelings to not have to feel rejection or failure.
You were like a spectator of your own life. You do amazing work around removing stigma around sexual health and sexually-transmitted infections. When did you receive your HSV-2 diagnosis and how did you feel about it?
Immediately after college at the age of 23. I actually had an outbreak. I had my first job, my degree and had just graduated. This is a whole story in itself so if you'd like to check it out head over to the SPFPP podcast. My initial reactions were surprise, confusion and contacting my most recent sexual partners. Everyone I spoke to said they didn't have herpes. For awhile, I didn't want to touch my genitals and started doing research on herpes. I realized I had a lot of misconceptions about herpes. I also learned that you needed to manage what you eat, your physical health and your mental health. I didn't really know what to do about mental health. Eventually, I looked myself in the mirror and said, “I got herpes.” I learned to accept it.
Prior to your diagnosis, did you received any sex ed in school? Did you have open dialogues about STI statuses before having sex with partners?
My sex ed was just like, “This is an STI. Don't get one.” As far as conversations about sex, my question would be, “Do I need this condom?” Meaning, “Are you on birth control?” I was brought up being told not to get anyone pregnant so that was really my only concern around sexual health. Now, I know how commonly STIs are transmitted and that all STIs are treatable or curable. It should be normalized to talk about sexual health status.
How did you diagnosis affect your mental health?
I did avoid dating and have some lingering guilt about having herpes. I kept finding myself in controlling relationships again. Eventually, I got out of zombie mode and started to realize what I was really feeling and experiencing. I conducted a survey of 110 listeners of the SPFPP podcast: 98% expressed depression after their diagnosis, 49% experienced suicide ideation, 25% had engaged in self-harm behaviors and 6% attempted suicide. Some people think that you get STIs from having a lot of sex. That's not true. My first guest was a woman that was married and got it from her husband who had cheated on her. You can't assume anyone's story. It's also not true that no one will want to be with you. There are support groups online and even dating sites for positive people like: positivesingles.com.
I appreciate you sharing. It's a fact that Black men experience disproportionately higher rates of STIs in America. For example, the CDC reported in 2017 that Black men are about nine times more likely to get chlamydia than white men are. What do you make of this reality especially given the propensity to experience mental health conditions following a diagnosis?
It starts in the household. In your home you're told what not to do like being gay and having sex. You're taught that these are wrong. So, in order to take part in some of these things you do it away from home and in secrecy. Obviously, we don't have the same resources or education to make the most informed decisions but we also don't have representation in the community. How many Black men do we know with an STI talking about it? We don't know many. There's a “It can't happen to us” mentality. But, then you see statistics. I know I am not alone, but I feel alone. As Black men, we have so many notches against us that we aren't supposed to talk about sexual health. Especially because we so sexualized by society that an STI messes up this sexual identity attached to us. It's hard for me to get straight men to come on my podcast and talk about their emotions.
I've heard men in my own life express their discomfort in getting screened for an STI. Some of these men, however, feel comfortable engaging in unsafe sex despite not knowing their or their partner's status. What are your thoughts on this?
What Black guy talks about their status in the media? The media message is: “Fuck b—ches, get money.” I've learned that sex isn't just intercourse. There's so many different ways to be sexually intimate with someone. It can also be enjoyable to negotiate sex and get tested together. There was no one that looked like me expressing these things.
I taught sex ed in Baltimore to young male offenders that were mostly Black. Statistically, Black communities often do not receive competent sexual education and abstinence-based sex ed. What would be good ways to education our communities?
We need families to teach consent and sexual health in the household. We are oppressed communities in survival mode. Being able to talk about sex is a luxury and not a priority over keeping our kids alive. Or providing food. We may have to change the approach and give parents homework like listening to podcasts about sexual health on their way to work. We can also teach about sexual abuse and the many forms that can take as well as not shaming our kids for exploring their bodies through masturbation.
What advice would you give specifically to younger Black men and boys about their mental health?
We all have it. We all have some type of mental health status. It's okay to feel the way you feel and think the way you think. It's okay to question things. We're taught not to challenge things but we can't afford not to take care of our mental health. It's never too late to work on our mental health and build our knowledge on these topics through reading. It's so powerful to put language to what you're experiencing. The only way to overthrow white supremacy is to nurture Black men and women. We have systems that send us to jail and prevent us from working on our mental health and meeting our needs. We really need to stop going against one another and focus on supporting each other's wellness.
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