In 2003, The Oprah Winfrey Show warned viewers of the latest codewords teens were using to discuss sex. As you’d expect from such a deliberately alarmist segment, it was a mixed bag in terms of accuracy: “Booty call” has stood the test of time, while an abortion supposedly being a “hoovering” doesn’t appear to have ever been mentioned again. But then, we were told of the “pervasive” rainbow party. As we cut to members of the audience looking on in shock and disgust, it was reported that teenage girls treat oral sex with such flippancy that guys don’t even have to ask for it.
A rainbow party, as the legend goes, sees girls apply different shades of lipstick and take turns fellating all the boys present. If you need a further layer of salaciousness, there were sometimes claims of a competitive aspect, with girls looking to place their color the furthest down the shafts and the boys trying to collect the most diverse rainbow. (How the lipstick would stay neatly intact for scorekeeping is left unexplained.)
All of this, of course, sounds like the fantasy of a teenage boy who hasn’t received oral sex yet and isn’t quite certain of its mechanical nuances. But the rainbow party legend has had surprising staying power, continuing to make appearances despite repeated debunkings.
Rainbow parties were first mentioned in 2002’s Epidemic: How Teen Sex Is Killing Our Kids, a book that also warns us about the horrifying sexual rampancy of Ally McBeal and that was reviewed, perhaps a little too kindly, as “fact-filled but overheated.” A fearful 2005 young adult novel with powerful cash-in vibes followed. They were a plot point in numerous TV shows, including a 2015 Law and Order: SVU episode that features the immortal line, “Did I miss an episode of Girls? Remind me what a rainbow party is.” In this version, a rainbow party is just something high school kids casually knock out over their lunch break (in an extra layer of fear, the party allowed measles to spread among teens with anti-vaxxer parents). 2015 also saw this award-winning Icelandic short film treat rainbow parties with all the gravitas of Requiem for a Dream.
While the pop-culture references have mostly since petered out, the concern and fascination remains. A 2014 TEDx talk by a parenting coach insisted rainbow parties were both real and worrisome, and the forever sexually curious Reddit and Quora have long been home to “Hey, remember Rainbow Parties? Were those real?” discussions. One redditor who claims to have “been in several blow job contests” in sex clubs as an adult explains that, no, of course they’re not, suggesting that they were invented by someone “without experience with lipstick.”
Rainbow parties were dismissed as a mere moral panic as early as 2005, with The New York Times pointing out that, while more teenagers were having oral sex, very few found the idea of a rainbow party appealing. Most teens were familiar with the concept, but always through “my cousin’s friend at another school,” soggy biscuit-style rumor-mongering. In their investigation, psychologist Deborah Tolman found it dubious at best that boys would stand around, comparing their lipstick-slathered dicks.
Tolman found it even more unlikely that girls would risk the social stigma of attending, but weirdly, despite it being an event where boys receive all the sexual pleasure and give none in return, it’s the girls who are usually portrayed as organizing the parties, which adds to the sense that it’s all just some lonely boy’s wet dream. The party in the 2005 novel is organized by the school’s Machiavellian sexpot, while the 2015 short warns us, “Whoever said that teenage girls were innocent — well, they were so wrong.” Boys, of course, would just appear, like horny moths to a flame. But regardless of a supposed sexual epidemic, the fear of being labelled a slut was still common: Teenagers were somehow both out-of-control and yet as sensitive to judgement as ever.
2014’s Kids Gone Wild: From Rainbow Parties to Sexting, Understanding the Hype Over Teen Sex dug further into the legend, and it credits its flexibility for its success. Essentially, there was an angle that every adult could worry about: All the careful organization that a rainbow party would implicitly require (imagine a frustrated 16-year-old trying to coordinate the schedules of a dozen of their peers while they all tried to keep the affair secret from their parents) fed the fear that modern teens had the sexual sophistication of orgy-throwing adults, while concerns also emerged that religious teens were using rainbow parties to experiment while still retaining their virginity. Conservatives could despise the entire concept, while liberal commentators could focus on the troublesome gender dynamics.
Oral sex had, of course, been on America’s mind ever since the Monica Lewinsky scandal, with no less than a 70-year-old Tom Wolfe writing a book suggesting that 13-year-olds were blowing boys in the hallway between classes because they “needed to satisfy my man.” But Kids Gone Wild points out that precursor legends about chicken parties and train parties — similar to rainbow parties, but lacking the colorful execution — didn’t quite take off. Rainbow parties stuck around because, while teen sex was scary, the bigger fear was that teenagers were hooking up with panache.
So why were genuine concerns about teenagers practicing oral sex safely overshadowed by the over-the-top luridness of rainbow parties? And why do adults use such incredibly explicit detail to describe teenagers participating in activities that, according to that New York Times investigation, teens themselves find implausible and unappealing?
Sociologist Joel Best, who co-wrote Kids Gone Wild, tells me that a general fascination with sex tends to mingle with an adult need to feel like a guardian. “If you go to a sex museum (I’m thinking of Amsterdam’s Museum of Sex), you — at least, I — come away with two vivid impressions: People across time and space are very interested in sex, and for the most part, they’re interested in a short list of activities,” says Best. “Some cultures are shy about talking about sex in very public ways. If you look back on the Meese Commission [a 1986 government investigation into porn] report, it featured very detailed summaries of pieces of pornography. Walter Kendrick’s book The Secret Museum talks about opposition to porn as designed to protect ‘the Young Person,’ who is presumably innocent and corruptible, while those of us intent on protecting [them] are made of sterner stuff; we are beyond corruption.”
Sociologist Mike Males, author of Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities, points out that the very idea of “teenage sex” is weird — while attitudes toward sex certainly change across generations, it’s not as if teenagers have access to a fundamentally different sexual repertoire than adults. “Panics over ‘teen sex’ and the myth that it’s a distinct phenomenon are the markers of an adult culture with an unhealthy, prurient interest in youthful sexuality,” says Males. “Such a culture demands lurid descriptions of supposed teen and pre-teen behaviors. A true description of [teenage] sexual practices would be clinical, measured, boring and disappointingly dominated by small numbers and parallels with adult sexual practices that no one wants to hear. The news media, TED talks, interest groups, etc., couldn’t make hay by presenting realities.”
If we’re worried that the kids these days are deviants, Males explains, then each generation needs a legend that’s a little more shocking than the last. “Names of panics change, but they all revolve around assigning more lurid behaviors to younger kids. Rainbow parties are just permutations of the 1990s oral sex panic; hookup culture is a synonym of promiscuity panics, etc. There appears to have been a juncture in the late 1960s and early 1970s of more extra-/pre-marital sex among both adults and teens, but there is little evidence practices have changed materially since then, except to involve more contraceptive use. Conservative culture is fascinated with lurid tales. The two go together. And I don’t mean just political conservatives: I would bet the most lurid puritanicals — ‘P-lurid-tanicals,’ to coin a term — are liberal democrats.”
Go back to the 1950s, and you can find fears that “going steady” was “ruining our teen-agers.” Kathleen A. Bogle, the sociologist who co-wrote Kids Gone Wild, tells me that the belief that society is on a nonstop descent into sexual debauchery can persist even as modern teenagers actually trend in the opposite direction. “Although there is a case to be made that Americans are conservative about sex, there is a total lack of awareness about this,” she explains. ”So, we tend to see a lot of talk about how the behavior of youth is getting ‘worse’ over time and commentators talk about that in graphic detail. In fact, several indicators suggest that the sexual behavior of youth has actually moved in a more conservative direction than their parents’ generation.”
But Bogle also says that it’s hard for society to shake an urban legend once it reaches critical mass. “Since urban legends often give voice to an underlying fear in society, they can be hard to get rid of permanently. These myths spread via word-of-mouth, television, newspaper, talk shows and the internet. When you hear a story everywhere, it’s hard to believe it’s wrong in every place you’ve seen or heard it. If you want to see the myths out there [today], start asking people how they think the sexual behavior of teens has changed over time. I bet they will tell you kids are having sex way younger and with more ‘random’ partners, but the social science evidence says otherwise.”
And that’s how come we can have a 2018 warning that rainbow parties might be real, based on the logic that debauched kids once wore colored bracelets to signal the sexual acts they were willing to perform — yet another legend that Bogle and Best’s book debunked. Best concludes by saying that, as long as there’s a fear that kids are hypersexual, there will be an inability to discuss their sexuality with the same healthy mundanity as everyone else’s. “There is always the risk that our aversion to thinking about the young as sexual can make things worse,” he says. “[Look at] the history of debates about sex education, [or] the initial hysteria that had kids who’d sexted their close friends being registered as sex offenders and charged with child porn offenses.”
Just like that leprechaun’s pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, then, these colorful parties will endure in the popular consciousness, despite being about as realistic. That is, at least, until the next absurd urban legend makes it onto the daytime talk show circuit.