I WAS HANGING around this week at my son's elementary school, chatting with a group of parents as we waited to take our second- and third-graders on a field trip. Suddenly, one mom raced toward me and, nearly breathless, said, "You have to tell me about Glove Affair."
"What's Glove Affair?" another mom asked.
"It's a condom party for teenagers," the first mom replied before I could say a word.
Suddenly all eyes were on me, eager for an explanation of how I could possibly allow my 13-year-old daughter, Emma, to attend such an event.
The truth is, when Emma arrived home the previous Saturday night clutching a goody bag from Glove Affair, my liberal credentials were instantly tested. One by one I pulled the following from her white plastic sack: a condom; pamphlets on masturbation, oral sex and intercourse; the "Rubber Bible," featuring alternative names for prophylactics, such as "gent tent" and "peenie beanie"; and an information wheel labeled "Condom Comebacks," which included a list of excuses boys might make for not wearing a condom and possible rejoinders a girl could offer.
Him: "It doesn't feel good."
Her: "I've got moves rubbers can't stop."
I tried to play it cool. As it turned out, I was a little too cool. While standing in the kitchen with my daughter and her friend, getting all the post-party gossip, I absentmindedly reached into the bag and handed my 8-year-old son a squishy red toy that resembled one of those ubiquitous M&M candy guys.
The girls burst out laughing. "What's so funny?" I asked. They snatched the trinket from my son and turned it upside down. Printed there was the web address stopthesores.org. This was no candy icon; it was a toy syphilis lesion, bright red, with feet.
That's when I insisted my son go to bed, bid the girls goodnight and went upstairs, where I tossed the information wheel at my husband. "Boy," I said casually, "Jerry Falwell would sure bust an artery over this."
My husband spun the wheel to the "They don't fit" excuse and read the answer aloud: "If it's too big for a condom, it's too big for me."
"Forget Jerry Falwell," he said, looking up. "I'm going to bust an artery." I was relieved that I wasn't the only one feeling prudish. Was this too much information too soon?
Oakwood School in North Hollywood, where my daughter is in eighth grade, has been holding Glove Affair since 2000. In reality, it's not a "condom party" but a fundraiser for L.A. AIDS-prevention groups. This year, about 500 teens attended -- half from other middle and high schools across the city.
The aim is for kids to understand that having sex is serious business and to help them become utterly at ease with condoms, right down to unrolling them correctly and learning to check the expiration date. Mickey Morgan, a social studies teacher at Oakwood who helps organize the event, says that's especially important for girls "so that it's not awkward for them to talk about safe sex with boys -- when the time comes."
There are those, of course, who argue that all of this explicitness will do nothing but lead teenagers to engage in sex. And I admit, there's a part of me that remains a little queasy over the graphic nature of Glove Affair. But as schools wrestle with the question of how much information is too much, many health experts insist that the answer is clear: At a time when HIV and teen pregnancy are so prevalent, educators can't do enough to demystify condoms, even for eighth-graders who may be just beginning to explore their sexuality.
A few days after Glove Affair, I asked Emma what she thought about it -- beyond the DJ and the dancing. She explained to me that seventh-graders aren't allowed to attend because they haven't yet completed the school's human development curriculum. The course covers human sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases, among other topics, and teaches students how to properly use a condom.
"Teenagers are going to have sex if they want to," she said. "Don't you think it's better that if they do, at least it's safe sex?" For the next half an hour we talked about her human development class, AIDS and teenage sex.
Emma was so poised, so mature, so relaxed and so informed that talking to her about sex was really easy. And she was right. "Knowing about sex doesn't mean you're going to have it," she said. "It just means that when you are ready, you'll know the facts. That makes me feel a lot more comfortable."
I'm not sure I'll ever be completely comfortable. But as I told the group of elementary school moms gathered around me, knowing that my daughter is makes me feel a whole lot better.