Our first workshop ‘AIDS and You’

Our Sex in Six Objects project was off to a great start with our first workshop exploring the history of AIDS and HIV educational material for young people from the 1980s and 1990s. The workshop took place on 2 April from 2-3:30pm and was facilitated by Hannah Elizabeth from the University of Manchester.



‘Sharing Sex Toys: SAFE or UNSAFE?’

The first thing you notice about the ‘AIDS and You’ game is that it doesn’t beat around the bush. It even comes across as quite risqué, considering it targeted an audience of 11 to 16 year olds. It was developed in 1988 to teach children and young adults about how to prevent the transmission of HIV. But is it really possible to turn information about HIV and AIDS into a fun and entertaining game?

The AIDS and You game won’t necessarily give you an answer to this, because – well, to be quite honest – it isn’t the most entertaining of games. It was devised by the British Medical Association (BMA), the professional association for doctors in the UK, which didn’t necessarily comprise a group of savvy game developers. The game was meant to be non-competitive: the players have in front of them a stack of cards, each presenting a scenario, and have to decide if the situation is SAFE or UNSAFE. The UNSAFE card is illustrated with mean-looking squished little creatures, like walking bogies – just so you can recognise the AIDS virus, if you ever happen to see it. In 1994, the BMA also released ‘AIDS and You’ as a computer game – probably about a decade too late, if they wanted to compete for teenagers’ attention against other computer games.



But despite its dubious success in its aim of edu-taining the youthful masses, the game offered an excellent start to our Sex in Six Objects workshop series. In a group, we discussed how we might be able to update and improve it.

Some really obvious hiccups in the original game included:

  • Never mentioning homosexuality: the game was published just as Section 28 was introduced, which prohibited the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality and pretty much made it impossible to talk about a HIV and AIDS key population: gay men.
  • Implying that HIV-positive people are solely responsible for the public’s health and safety: after playing the game once from the pupils’ position (they are all assumed to be HIV-negative), the class is asked to re-evaluate all situations from the point of view of an HIV-positive person. Whilst such situations as ‘having a baby’ and ‘donating sperm to a sperm bank’ are considered SAFE for HIV-negative people because they don’t risk contracting the virus, these scenarios are considered UNSAFE for the HIV-positive person because they expose others to the risk of infection.


Other suggestions that the workshop participants came up with:

  • Add a semi-translucent card that represents a condom: how does the scenario change from UNSAFE to SAFE?
  • A lot of vocab was left unexplained: do 11-year-olds know what is meant by the term ‘sex act’? Or even what it means to engage in ‘sex acts which tear or cut the skin’? The game is all about informing young people before they begin to be sexually active (sweet but naïve when we consider the game targets 16-year-olds), whilst desperately trying to not actually mention anything sexual.
  • Get rid of the SAFE/UNSAFE cards (or at least its stigmatising terminology): all situations that are considered UNSAFE can be made SAFE: using intravenous drugs can be made safe in terms of HIV transmission through needle exchange programmes; having condomless sex can be made safe through PrEP or if the HIV-positive partner is on HIV treatment.


All in all, we found the game to be a great conversation starter on such topics as sexual orientation, stigma, and alternative places for RSE and health education (Why not as a game? …If it were actually well-designed). And it works well in combination with other educational material from the 1980s and 90s, too. Hannah also brought along a collection of sex education books from the 80s and 90s and we also had a look at the Wellcome Library’s ‘Picturing AIDS’, a pocket-sized collection of AIDS posters (you can explore their amazing collection of HIV and AIDS posters here).


If you are interested in holding a similar workshop using objects from the history of sexuality as a conversation starter, the ‘AIDS and You’ game would be a great choice. Get in touch with us through our contact form if you would like to know more!


All photos by Diana Patient.