A new game aims to help teenagers take the sex-ed message on board. Fergus Crow rolls the dice
Every Monday night for the past three years, Sharon Vernon, Sarah Jones and Sarah Keefe have gathered in Sharon's sitting room in Peacehaven, a blustery suburb on the Sussex coast. Fuelled by mugs of coffee and buckets of enthusiasm, they deal with orders for a product that has earned them something of a reputation.
Lying in front of me on this particular Monday night is a pair of giant contraceptive pill packets with big, brightly coloured tablets running around the outside edges, each labelled with a day of the week. In the middle of these faux-foil rectangles stand six stacks of cards, also vividly hued, each pile marked with a bold title - What Am I?, Draw, Fact, Qamp;A, Dilemmas, True or False. At the starting point, marked "Family Planning Clinic", a cheeky cardboard condom awaits the roll of the dice.
I am looking at a board game called Sexploitation. Each of the coloured pills corresponds to a coloured card, and each card poses a challenge. Land on a pink space and you might find yourself asked to draw a gynaecologist's speculum and spatula; land on violet and you could find youself discussing a tricky dilemma; pick up an olive fact card and you might just find out that you know less about sex than you thought you did.
Which is precisely the point: the object of Sexploitation is not to win, but to learn. If you are a teenager (Sexploitation is aimed at those between 13 and 25) you might not fully understand sex, but you could be sexually active; you could conceive, you could contract a sexually transmitted disease. And the designers of Sexploitation should know: two of them, Sarah Jones and Sarah Keefe, were aged 15 and in Year 11 when they began work on the game.
Five years ago the two Sarahs were asked by Sharon, then a local youth worker, to participate in a project, inspired by the Government's Health of The Nation initiative, aimed at getting young people involved in the provision of education on sex and drugs.
"We got what we needed from sex education at school," says Sarah Keefe, now 21, "but we watched a lot of videos, and although there was some discussion, we were still learning a lot from the playground."
Within four months, the trio had the bones of what would become Sexploitation, a game designed to inject a bit of fun into sex ed.
The team had to find a way of breaking into a subject that institutions often find difficult to address, and which young people and adults are often uncomfortable discussing together. "The game came from our point of view," says Sarah Jones. "It was put together using our own language. It's really practical."
The response was overwhelming. "We took it to a youth workers' conference," beams Sarah Keefe, "and they were really impressed. They wanted to employ us!" But it wasn't just those in authority who had to be won over. Sharon Vernon knew their target audience also had to be convinced. "We tried it with young people at youth centres and it went down well," she says.
So well, in fact, that the group decided to set up a professional marketing operation, called Larst Again Ltd, a move that struck a nerve with local business. Steve Roe of Shoreham's Gemini Press, where the game is printed, says: "People's ears prick up when they hear it's a sex game and it's called Sexploitation. But the whole project looked interesting to us. It was thought up and designed by local teenagers, so we thought they must have a pretty good idea of the kinds of questions they would ask each other. I learned something myself from working on it."
Besides helping the group to get the game together within budget, Mr Roe also volunteered to find 1,500 clear plastic duffel bags (for packaging) and 1,500 dice. "That took me about a month," he sighs.
Other local organisations were approached for financial support, and the list of eventual donors is a long one. From Seeboard to Peacehaven Rotary Club, the money came in. Even tiny Telscombe town council offered pound;100. Kathleen Verral, Telscombe's town clerk, says: "We saw its value from an educational point of view. We were really impressed that they had gone ahead and done it."
It was an pound;8,000 donation from Schering Healthcare, a pharmaceutical company based at Burgess Hill, East Sussex, that took Larst Again to its target and meant production could begin. It had taken just over a year to raise the money.
Sexploitation quickly found a niche in youth clubs, and the organisation now hopes that more schools will start playing.
Duncan Sandford, head of social education at Tideway school in Newhaven, East Sussex - where the two Sarahs were pupils - is one teacher who believes the game's fun and frank style has a place in schools. He bought two copies to use as part of Tideway's sex and relationships education package, and says the game has brought an extra dimension to the classes. "Any activity that stimulates discussion among young people regarding matters of sexual health is worth buying," he says. "I felt it was innovative and non-threatening in its application - an excellent vehicle for the transmission of important health messages."
Megan Hearn, a Year 10 student at Tideway, agrees. "I think the game is entertaining and educating," she says. "I didn't think I would get anything from it but I did learn a lot. It helped me think about what I will do to protect myself in the future."
This month, Sexploitation notched up its 800th sale. Larst Again remains a non-profit making organisation, and the Sarahs continue to work locally, where the game has brought them and Sharon Vernon praise and recognition. This year Sharon was one of only 150 people around the world to receive a Great Citizens Award from her employer, American Express, for commitment to the local community.
"This project has been such a success," she says. "It has enabled young people to come up with an idea and liaise with people they might not have come into contact with otherwise. It has empowered them to make decisions and grow as adults."
So, another Monday night comes to a close in Peacehaven, with fresh orders logged, accounts in shape, and money ready to be banked. Amidst confusion over the amount of exposure young people should have to sex and relationship issues, the success of Sexploitation suggests that, as with so many other initiatives aimed at that age group, a bit of imagination and a sense of fun is the best way to get the message across.
Sexploitation costs pound;32 (including postage and packing), and is available from Larst Again, 2c Meeching Road, Newhaven, East Sussex BN9 9XQ HOW TO BAN THE BLUSHES
Sexplained is another company that aims to help non-specialists deal with sexual health issues. It has set up a series of training courses that it claims provide the information many teachers badly need. The five one-day sessions cover sexual health, contraception, drugs and sex, and men's health.
For further details on the courses and the series of Sexplained guides, contact Sexplained at PO Box 6969, Chiswick, London W4 3WX or call 020 8995 8782.
Respect and responsibility are the key themes in The Weird and Wonderful World of Billy Ballgreedy, a video aimed at teenage boys from the fpa (formerly the Family Planning Association).
It deals candidly with such subjects as spots, sex and homosexuality, masturbation, sexually transmitted diseases and young, unplanned fatherhood.
It comes with a support manual containing ideas for discussions, quizzes and worksheets. The Weird and Wonderful World of Billy Ballgreedy costs pound;24.95 plus pound;4 pamp;p from fpa Direct, PO Box 1078, East Oxford Do, Oxfordshire OX4 6JE. Tel: 01865 719 418.
Sexplanations, a free guide to talking to young people about sex from Marie Stopes International, could be useful for teachers who feel ill-equipped to lead sex ed lessons.
It suggests levels of information that should be given to each age group, how to approach certain topics and contacts for useful organisations. Send an A4 self-addressed envelope to Marie Stopes International (parents), 153 Cleveland Street, London W1T 6QW.