Four girls ranging in age from 11 to 17 years old and their mom are sitting around a living room table in Ottawa’s south end. They are being guinea pigs and trying out Blush, a sexual education game created by Jen Desmarais, a 2016 Algonquin graduate of the tourism and travel program.
“What is a 69?” is the first question asked by the cards and there is a lot of nervous laughter around the table.
The idea for this game was born when Desmarais was taking an adolescent psychology class at the University of Ottawa in 2008. She had to write a paper and the only guideline was that it had to be about teenagers.
“I had time after writing the paper to make a game because it was such an easy paper to write,” said Desmarais. “You know where everything you need, exactly what you want to search for, exactly how to write it and it all comes together. Like 48 hours, and it was done.”
The first edition of the game was an actual board game and only included about 50 rudimentary questions. Her teacher played it with his teaching assistants and was so impressed with it that he made Desmarais promise to one day make the game a reality.
The game sat in storage until 2016 when an opportunity with Renaissance Press presented itself.
Desmarais was talking with her friend Nathan Frechette, co-owner of Renaissance Press, about things they were proud of and she mentioned the game she had created in university. His company was looking to expand into board games and he asked if he could take a look at it.
After testing out the board game with his family, Frechette came back with a publishing offer. With the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, the current incarnation of the Blush game was born. It is no longer a board game but a trivia game that comprises 250 questions that have gone through sensitivity editing so that all references are gender neutral.
There was a lot of research that went into Blush. Desmarais herself admits that she didn’t know much about sex at all before creating this game and that her own education growing up was severely lacking.
“Birds and the bees – that was it, not even safe sex back then,” said Desmarais. “It was so strict to this is how you have sex to procreate, whereas now, one of the things about the game, there are no gender-specific terms in there, it’s all ‘if you have a vulva’ vs ‘if you have a penis’ so that it’s all-inclusive.”
The hardest part about doing the research was sifting through all the disreputable sites and finding ones with good, accurate information. Do a google search for sex and it is easily understood how anyone can be confused by the large amount of inaccurate information available on-line. It’s no surprise that teenagers are struggling to find answers to their questions since most of the adults in their lives aren’t equipped to help them. What teenagers want to know strays outside the standard hetero-normative and reproductive basics of sex-education.
“A lot of sex and sexual education and sexual health talk doesn’t happen at home and they don’t happen in school,” said Frechette. “Like for me for example, they happen a lot with friends and they happen through pornography, and that’s one thing upsetting to me. In pornography, it’s not meant to be educational, and in pornography, you don’t learn about realistic expectations, you don’t learn about respect, you don’t learn about consent, you don’t learn about safe sex. And safety is something that is very, very important.”
Through her research, Desmarais discovered many different ranges of sexual options and choices for people that are outside the mainstream focus of society.
“Asexuality is also a spectrum,” Desmarais said. “That was a huge learning curve for me when I was doing the 200 questions. It was like, ‘there’s more than just, wow! Okay, wow, I had no idea.’”
Desmarais’ father Dave Coderre was up for the challenge of helping create Blush too. He learned a lot himself and helped come up with all the wrong answers.
“He just made something up,” said Desmarais, “he did such a good job, honestly, most of the questions you’ll see and there’s going to be one funny one – that was my dad because he couldn’t think of any more realistically wrong answers.”
On April 1, 2016, Desmarais and Coderre were interviewed on CBC’s All in a Day as part of the Kickstarter campaign.
“Here I am, living every parents’ nightmare,” said Coderre in the interview, “discussing sex with my daughter on live radio.”
After some discussion about what sex education was like in their family growing up and its awkwardness for both child and parent, Coderre continued, “I was relieved (that the conversation was avoided). I think that’s where the board game Blush opens up the opportunities for discussion.”
And discussions were definitely being generated back at that living room table where four girls and their mom were playing Blush.
When asked what they had learned the girls responded:
“I do know that a penis can break,” said Kaylin, 17.
“I know more about boy parts,” said Sydney, 11.
Their mom, Angela Toth-Blais, a 2015 graduate of the social service worker program at Algonquin, had a bit more to say.
“I think it was good to open up communications and get to hear what your kids actually know and not know so you can fix that,” said Toth-Blais.
Taylor, 14, wanted to learn more about LGBTQ+ issues and the game provided lots of chances to learn more on the subject and open up conversations in a way that can feel more comfortable for all parties.
“The whole purpose of the game is to just bring stuff up. Something comes up on the table and it becomes okay to discuss because it’s not necessarily about you anymore,” said Frechette, “it’s just this card that just came up and now you can ask your parents, ‘well I don’t know, what do you think about transgender people using the bathroom in public?’ and then your parents are discussing and you might find out that ‘hey, maybe I can come out as trans to my parents.’”
This is the point of the game. To make sex education less taboo, to make learning about all aspects of sexual orientation, pleasure and the mechanics of sex easier to talk about and learn about. It’s not just for kids and their parents, most of us would learn something playing this game. See if you know the answer to these questions:
“What is a refractory period, and who has them?”; or this one, “What does a vaginal condom look like?”
Challenge your friends to a game and learn something new while building a more inclusive and consensual understanding of human sexuality.