Anatomy of an urban sex legend: Why TV loves to scare parents out of their minds

Nothing draws ratings like a salacious report on children's scandalous sex lives. Too bad it's mostly bogus

Published September 13, 2014 7:30PM (EDT)

Excerpted from “Kids Gone Wild: From Rainbow Parties to Sexting, Understanding the Hype Over Teen Sex”

"We’re going to turn  now to a disturbing new trend in the news among young girls. Very young girls. It has to do with jelly bracelets. And you’ve seen them. . . . We want you to hear now the kind of thing that is going on. And we want to warn you if you want to have your own kids leave the room because you’re going to hear from 11  year-old Megan. . . . And remember, she’s in the fifth grade."

—Diane Sawyer, on "Good Morning America," 2004

While newspaper stories, magazine articles, local TV news broadcasts, and other media reports ran stories about rainbow parties and sex bracelets, nationally broadcast television programs probably had the greatest effect on the public’s awareness of these tales. Television reaches large audiences. On a typical day, a program on a cable news network, such as MSNBC’s  Scarborough Country, might have about 300,000 viewers, while the broadcast networks’ morning shows, such as NBC’s Today Show, reach as many as five million viewers. These programs feature well-known, trusted media personalities, such as Diane Sawyer, who may have been able to persuade their audiences that the stories were true or at least interesting enough to repeat during their next watercooler conversation.

As discussed, media attention to rainbow parties and sex bracelets occurred in short-lived waves. Coverage on television news programs— including the shows on cable news channels and the major networks’ morning programs—tended to be concentrated during these waves. National television news coverage tended to follow some bit of breaking news, such as a report of a school banning jelly bracelets or the release of the novel Rainbow Party. But other television shows occurred outside waves of coverage; for instance, a talk-show program about some larger topic, such as teen sex, might make reference to shag bands or rainbow parties. TV dramas might also allude to these tales, but the lead time required to produce episodes of these shows meant that their broadcasts rarely coincided with news coverage.

Regardless of the network or the type of show, television tended to depict sex bracelets and rainbow parties in fairly consistent ways. TV coverage tended to be both credulous, in that it rarely cast doubt on these stories, and alarming, in that it portrayed kids’  sexual play as troubling threats to young people. This chapter explores the techniques adopted when TV tried to convince viewers that sex bracelets and rainbow parties were disturbing, newsworthy trends. These techniques reflected the formulas used to produce TV shows, so we begin by discussing television’s formulaic content.

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Most popular culture is organized into genres, that is, a familiar story format. Popular novels can be classified as romances, thrillers, science fiction, and so on, just as popular music can be divided into country, rock, and hip-hop. Each genre has a formula, a set of conventions: readers expect that a romance will end with the heroine finding true love or that the detective will solve the murder mystery. Genres have their fans (who enjoy a formula’s  familiar contours)  and their detractors (who often complain about the formula’s predictability).

Television, of course, has its genres (such as dramas, talk shows, and news programs), and these genres have their own formulas. Anyone who watches more than a couple of episodes of a TV show learns to spot the recurring elements: X tends to occur at point Y in each show and is treated in way Z. Virtually all TV programs—including news shows, talk shows, and other forms of nonfiction programming—display this sort of regularity. The content may vary from one episode to the next—after all, we expect each day’s news to be different from every other day’s— but that content is presented within a framework of conventions.

We might imagine that covering contemporary legends offers challenges to TV programs. After all, while some people may firmly believe in the truth of a particular contemporary legend, the evidence to support these tales is fairly thin. Therefore, TV might frame these as controversial topics and present them as debates between people warning about the dangers of sex bracelets and rainbow parties and those skeptics who challenge the believers’ claims (as chapter 4 demonstrates, some online forums hosted such dialogues). Although some TV programs feature debate as a formula (think of those political shows where liberals and conservatives rail against one another),  the coverage of shag bands and rainbow parties rarely cast doubt on these stories. A different set of conventions was at work.

You Better Listen Up: Sensationalistic Story Introductions

In order  to attract viewers, television news and newsmagazine programs typically introduce  stories with teasers meant to keep viewers tuned to the program. This tactic not only maximizes the chances that viewers will keep watching but sets the stage for the story. The introductions to coverage of sex bracelets and rainbow parties typically warned viewers about this dangerous new trend. These teasers often targeted parents and presented sex bracelets or rainbow parties as something they ought to know about, so they could prevent their children from participating in practices that threatened young kids, not somewhere but everywhere.

The first national television program to cover sex bracelets was MSNBC’s Scarborough Country (broadcast during prime time on November 13, 2003), which adopted a tone designed to sensationalize the story and generate fear among the public, especially parents. Joe Scarborough, the program’s host, began,

Kids gone wild, children out of control, experimenting with sex before they reach their teens, using drugs and going on violent rampages in schools. . . . What should concerned parents do? . . . Now, as some of you may or may not know, one of the latest fads going around our kids’ schools are jelly bracelets. What you might think is good, clean fun could be ruining your children’s lives. Some kids call them sex bracelets.

The very next day, on the top-rated morning program, The Today Show, cohost Matt Lauer introduced a report on shag bands: “Well, parents beware. Your teenage daughter’s  favorite accessory may be a kind of sexual code. NBC’s Don Teague reports on the way schools are now responding to the many colors of the rubbery bracelets called jellys.”

Although coverage of sex bracelets continued  in print  media and on the Internet, sex bracelets faded from national TV coverage for six months, presumably because the story did not offer a new angle that could keep it fresh. Then, in May 2004, programs on three networks discussed the topic on three consecutive days. This coverage followed a New York Post story about a fifth grader who had been expelled from her school for selling jelly bracelets to fellow students; all three programs featured interviews with both the student and her mother. On May 24, The Big Story with John Gibson on Fox News kicked off this wave of coverage with this sensationalistic introduction: “OK, parents. Heads up. Kids today may be trading sex acts like we traded baseball cards. Stuff we didn’t even know about back then is literally a game to some young people today. Heather Nauert has more now on something called ‘sex bracelets.’ ”

Scarborough Country followed the next day, this time emphasizing not the gender-neutral  “kids gone wild” angle but warning parents about their middle-school-age daughters: “Have you noticed your daughter wearing colored jelly bracelets? Well, if so, they could be sex bracelets. We’re going to tell you about the latest trend that is sweeping middle schools, with an 11-year-old girl who was expelled for wearing them.” The following day, Diane Sawyer of Good Morning America picked up the topic (the teaser for its coverage is at the beginning of this chapter)—notably warning parents to have young children leave the room  yet quickly noting that the featured speaker was an 11-year-old fifth grader.

Lead-ins to coverage of rainbow parties followed the same pattern. For instance, Miles O’Brien, the host of CNN’s American Morning began, “Do you know what a rainbow party is? If you’re parents, you better listen up. Your teenage daughter might know. She’s reading about it in a sexually explicit young-adult novel that puts an emphasis on ‘adult’ to say the least.” Similarly, MSNBC’s The Situation with Tucker Carlson covered the purported oral-sex craze among middle schoolers, in a story that referenced rainbow parties. “Thirteen-year-old girls having oral sex? Everybody knows it happens. But according to a number of recent press accounts, it happens a lot. Not just in bad neighborhoods but in your neighborhood. Probably in your child’s school. Scared yet? If not, you don’t have a 13-year-old daughter.”

The language used by news programs to introduce the topics they cover on any given day is strategically chosen. It is meant to grab the viewers’ attention by using scare tactics and to keep them tuned to the show. The story introductions  we analyzed, whether the segment was about rainbow parties or sex bracelets, (a) emphasized the involvement  of young kids, especially girls, (b) warned  parents  that  they were ignorant of what their own children were doing in secret, and (c) declared the phenomenon  to be widespread. Often, the introductions made it clear that wearing sex bracelets and going to rainbow parties were going on among the kids who “matter” to the largest share of the viewing audience: white, middle-class kids. This formula  was standard; the words adopted by different programs were almost identical.

By sensationalizing their lead-ins to these stories, the news programs successfully gave the impression that sex bracelets and rainbow parties were important topics that should be taken seriously.

Just the Facts

In order for national television programs to justify their sensationalistic, sexually suggestive coverage, they presented the sex-bracelet and rainbow-party stories as factual, in spite of very weak evidence that either was actually happening.  In  contrast,  newspaper articles were much more likely to suggest that the stories might be contemporary legends. For  example, when  the  Associated Press ran  a December 2003 story about sex bracelets, it quoted the vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited, a firm that tracks youth trends: “No one could point a finger to anyone who was actually doing [the sex-bracelet game].” Similarly, a January 2004 Washington Post story argued that sex bracelets were likely an urban legend, while a 2005 piece in the New York Times titled “Are These Parties for Real?” asked whether rainbow parties were an urban legend:

“This ‘phenomenon’  has all the classic hallmarks of a moral  panic,” said Dr. Deborah Tolman, director of the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality at San Francisco State University. “One day we have never heard of rainbow parties and then suddenly they are everywhere, feeding on adults’ fears that morally bankrupt sexuality among younger teens is rampant,  despite any actual evidence, as well as evidence to the contrary.”

Yet when national television programs covered these stories, most presented the sexual games as fact and scarcely mentioned that some authorities considered these tales to be urban legends. They also offered so many details and specifics about the stories that many viewers may have concluded they “must be true.”

For sex bracelets, one detail the television media focused on was which sex act each colored bracelet symbolized. The color codes varied somewhat from program to program, and there were also titillating references to colors representing something so risqué that the host could not even share the true meaning. According to the initial Scarborough Country coverage of sex bracelets, “The kids say they have a sexual meaning. The yellow ones mean hugging, purple ones kissing, a red one means a girl will give a lap dance. A blue one means she will perform oral sex. And a black one means she will go all the way.” Six months later, the same program embellished the color code, in the process significantly altering the supposed meaning of purple: “A black bracelet means sexual intercourse. Blue is for oral sex. Red is lap dance or French kiss. White is for homosexual kiss. Green means you’re going to have sex outside. And if you got a light-green glow-in-the-dark, that means using sex toys. Brown, purple, and silver represent acts that shouldn’t be mentioned on a family program like Scarborough Country.”

In addition to informing parents and other viewers about the color codes, the television hosts also presented the sex-bracelet story as if there was no doubt that this was a widespread problem. They did this by identifying specific locations where it was happening and ultimately claiming that the game was “everywhere.”

We hear stories every week. And there was one in Dallas this past week of an eighth-grade girl having sex with a tenth-grade boy. And we hear these stories every week. (Scarborough Country, November 13, 2003)

The controversy isn’t just limited to Florida. Schools around the country are now beginning to ban these jelly bracelets, and some students are now fighting back. (The Today Show, November 14, 2003)

This is something that we’ve been hearing that kids have been wearing throughout  the country, in California, in Georgia. What do you think when you hear that these bracelets are being worn pretty much everywhere? (The Big Story with John Gibson, May 24, 2004)

And again, it’s not just one case in New York. Again, it’s around country. It’s Pennsylvania. It’s in South Carolina. I come from a very conservative area, and I’ve heard horror stories about what goes on in middle schools there. (Scarborough Country, May 25, 2004)

Talk-show host Montel Williams went further and warned his viewers that sex bracelets were not just a problem in the U.S. but “all over the world.”

The coverage of rainbow parties included graphic descriptions of the practice. On Oprah’s episode about the secret life of teens, journalist Michelle Burford explained, “A rainbow party is an oral-sex party. It’s a gathering where oral sex is performed. And a rainbow comes from all of the girls put on lipstick and each one puts her mouth  around the penis of the gentleman or  gentlemen who are there  to receive favors and makes a mark in a different place on the penis—hence, the term rainbow.” Similarly, a therapist guest on the syndicated medical talk show The Doctors insisted that rainbow parties were happening “everywhere.”

In national television’s accounts, sex bracelets and rainbow parties were presented as true stories. In spite of the questions raised in widely circulated newspapers and other media, TV insisted there had been many incidents of kids participating in these games, enough cases to justify describing them as nationwide trends. By describing the games’ specifics and providing locations where they took place, the shows lent credence to the stories. This coverage left viewers little room for doubt.


In order for TV-show hosts to back up the claims they were making, they often turned to guests who could provide firsthand accounts or further knowledge about teens’ sexual play. In coverage of sex bracelets, guests would appear on camera to recount what they knew about the illicit game. Students, parents, and school officials were among those giving on-camera interviews. One cannot help but notice that almost all the kids interviewed were girls. Presumably, the notion  that very young girls were willing participants in illicit sex games made the coverage more frightening to parents; if girls, the ones traditionally held responsible for limiting sexual intimacy, were no longer setting limits on sexual play, anything might happen. Although television producers had no trouble finding people to talk about shag bands, including girls and their mothers, a careful reading of the transcripts showed that no student admitted actually playing the game, and no parent or school official could identify a concrete case of it happening. However, this fact did not deter these guests from joining in the chorus warning the public that the sex-bracelet game was indeed widespread.

In several interviews, kids confirmed that the bracelets had sexual meaning, but they would be sure to point out that they did not act on those meanings. On The Today Show, an eighth-grade girl from a school in Ohio said, “I heard they have sexual meanings, but I don’t pay attention  to those meanings.”  The same fifth-grade girl—Megan— appeared on three shows; her connection to jelly bracelets had made the news, both print and television, after she was expelled from a Catholic elementary school in Queens, New York, for selling the bracelets to classmates. Yet, like other kids who were used as sources for the story, Megan stated that she had never engaged in sexual acts due to the bracelets:

Joe Scarborough: You know, Megan, this obviously would shock a lot of parents across the country, that these bracelets are being used to send—what is it, to send the message out to boys of what you will or what you won’t do [sexually]?

Megan: I don’t do that stuff. I just collect the colors. Mostly, I have all the colors except orange. I just collect them. I don’t do any stuff like that.

In spite of the kids’ denials, savvy television hosts made every effort to turn their child sources into eyewitnesses to grade school debauchery.

Diane Sawyer: Now, Megan had talked about the fact that it—and again, [parents], if you want to have your kids leave the room—that [the colors do] mean oral sex or . . . lap dancing. And that’s what girls are expected to do. She also told us what she sees her fifth-grade friends doing.

Megan: Sixth graders in my, in my school, some . . . some of them were. . . were kind of like doing the French kiss and stuff. But they weren’t doing like . . . like the [other] stuff. All . . . all they did was the French kiss.

Sawyer: So they were starting with the French kiss in her school. That’s what she had actually seen.

Given the young age of the kids who served as sources for this story, they often appeared on camera with a parent by their side. The parent would serve as a secondary source of information on sex bracelets. Although none of the girls interviewed admitted actually doing anything sexual, the parents who appeared warned that the game is a clear indicator that kids today are becoming sexual too soon and something must be done to stop it.

Mother: It’s shocking. You know, they’re middle school kids. When I was in middle school, I never thought about anything like that.

Megan’s mother: I am outraged, and I’m, like, terrified. . . . I hope that the parents and grandparents who are out there listening . . . they should ban [jelly bracelets] from their—all places like 99-cent stores. They should not sell them to children.

In addition to calling for a ban on jelly bracelets, the same mother, while appearing on Scarborough Country the next day, echoed other parents’ sentiments that it was not like this when she was a kid.

Megan’s mother: I’m horrified as a mother. I grew up in the ’80s, and. . . I played with Barbie dolls back then. But this, when I heard this, me and my husband were just shocked and outraged. It’s like, wow. I taught [my daughter] about the birds and bees, but this is too much. I’m sorry.

In a couple of cases, school officials were used as sources to lend credibility to the story. Although no school official could confirm a case of the sex-bracelet game actually happening, these officials still expressed their concerns as if it was a real phenomenon.  A school board member on The Today Show insisted, “Kids in the fifth, sixth, and seventh grade should not be talking about lap dancing or oral sex or even concerned with that.” Similarly, a Dr. Phil episode about the sex-bracelet controversy included a school board member and a parent who debated whether their school should ban the bracelets. Neither guest could confirm that the game was being played, only that some kids wore the bracelets.

School board member: My son right now is in the fifth grade. . . . I happen to know that there was one child in his class who wore the bracelets. I’m absolutely appalled, and I’m devastated that it’s the age of the children that are discussing it, that we have 9- and 10- and 11-year-old kids. How awful is it, as adults, that we’ve allowed to erode to the fact that lap dancing is something that’s cool in middle school? And I’m—that just makes me sick.

Like parents, school representatives also claimed that kids’  sexual behavior was more out of control than in previous generations. On The Montel Williams Show, the host prompted a veteran high school teacher in the audience:

Williams: Twenty-two years you’ve been sitting in classrooms. Now, tell me, do you think the kids of today are more sexually active and sexually charged than the kids of, let’s say, five years ago?

Teacher: I do.

Williams: And so should parents be alarmed right now? Because I don’t know if parents really understand what is going on in schools. They don’t know that there’s this little bracelet thing happening.

As this exchange illustrates, the most compelling source of information on sex bracelets often was not one of the guests but the television host. If a student, parent, school official, or other expert did not say enough to convince the audience that sex bracelets were something they should worry about, the host was always there to make sure viewers did worry. Consider this exchange between Montel Williams and another audience member.

Williams: You got any kids at home?

Mother: Yes. My son just turned 14, and my daughter’s 9.

Williams: Really? Now, your 14-year-old son, did he tell you about the [sex] bracelet?

Mother: I’ve never heard anything about any bracelet.

Williams: Really?

Mother: I don’t think they have those in Florida.

Williams: That’s a lie!

Similarly, on a segment of CNN’s American Morning about the release of the novel Rainbow Party, host Carol Costello and her guest had an exchange in which Costello continued to press:

Costello: So what’s a parent to do? Atoosa Rubenstein, editor in chief of Seventeen magazine, joins us to talk about the book and the controversy surrounding it. . . . Frankly, this book shocked me. . . . Do teenagers really buy into this stuff?

Rubenstein: I have to tell you . . . I’ve been doing this for a long time. I have never heard of a girl who’s actually attended a rainbow party.

Costello: But the idea of a rainbow party does go through teenage circles?

Rubenstein: I think that it’s more about the titillation of books like the one that we’re talking about. You know, it’s more of a fantasy. . . . But it doesn’t mean it’s what they’re actually participating in. . . . I mean, I have to tell you, the numbers prove that girls today are actually starting to go toward modesty in their own lives. The number of virgins is up. Fifty-three percent of teens are virgins. The pregnancy rates are down. So there’s a lot of good news. But I do think that steamy, sexy headlines like this are what get parents’ attention and ratings and viewers and—

Costello: You know, I don’t know though. Did you watch the Oprah show where she talked about oral sex among teenagers and how teenagers really don’t consider that sex? I mean, where do they get that? Is it Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan?

Often, then, the host proved to be the most important source for the story. The format for these programs allowed the hosts to shape the conversation and offer their opinions on the topics being covered. In fact, several hosts indicated that they personally believed that sex bracelets or rainbow parties were major problems. For example, on Fox’s Hannity & Colmes program, cohost Sean Hannity started off his discussion with his guest, sex therapist Judy Kuriansky, by declaring that he believed rainbow parties are real.

Hannity: This is happening.

Kuriansky: Yes. And, you know, it isn’t just that the girls are wearing different color lipsticks. They’re doing something.

Hannity: They’re performing oral sex on these boys, and the idea is for the boys to have all the different color lipsticks.

Kuriansky: Yes, as rings on their private part.

Likewise, the hosts of The Doctors affirmed the dangers of rainbow parties after a guest, psychotherapist Stacy Kaiser, described them:

Kaiser: Well, back in the day, like five years ago, you were hearing about parties where people played Spin the Bottle and Truth or Dare, and now it’s escalated to a whole other level. The big thing I’m hearing about now is called rainbow parties, and that is where several girls engage in oral sex with the same boy. They put on different shades of lipstick, with the result being a rainbow on the little boy.

Dr. Lisa Masterson (cohost): Risky behavior.

Dr. Jim Sears (cohost): And then . . . then the guys, apparently, they . . . they compare to see how many different colors they can have, and—

Kaiser: I mean, there’s definitely a competition in how many girls you can get, how many different colors you can get.

In most segments devoted to sex bracelets or rainbow parties, the hosts had the final word, and they tended to use it to reaffirm the reality of the risks. Thus, after discussions of sex bracelets, The Today Show’s Matt Lauer said, “Just another reason [my daughter is] staying home until she is 23,” while Good Morning America’s Diane Sawyer concluded by urging parents, “[You] might want to have a talk with your kids.”

Closer to Home: Local Coverage

The national coverage of the rainbow-party  and sex-bracelet stories did not go unnoticed by local TV stations. In many cases, high-profile national media coverage was followed by local stations covering the same topic. For example, after the NBC Nightly News covered the controversy surrounding  sexually explicit books for teens, including the novel Rainbow Party, at least ten other local stations covered the story in the days that followed.

In total, we found approximately 60 references to sex bracelets and rainbow parties on  local U.S. television news programs.  These stations were spread all over the country from big-city markets, such as San Diego, Las Vegas, Chicago, Dallas, and New York, to smaller cities, such as Little Rock, Buffalo, Cedar Rapids, Norfolk, and West Palm Beach. Not only do these stations have a combined audience of millions of viewers, but their broadcasts may add further credibility to a story because it is introduced by well-known local media anchors, often alongside other content pertinent to the hometown audience.

Viewers also may have been persuaded of the veracity of these stories by how the message was delivered. Just as national news programs gave sensationalistic teasers to introduce stories on sex bracelets and rainbow parties, local news did the same—with a twist. That is, they embedded stories on sex bracelets and rainbow parties with news accounts of local happenings and other important  news stories that had actually been documented, thereby making it more difficult for the viewer to sort fact from legend. Thus, a 2005 report from Huntsville, Alabama, begins,

Parents, listen up: what your child wears to school could be sending the wrong message. Coming up next at five, we’ll tell you more about the so-called sex bracelets—and what they mean. Stay with us. I’m Jerry Hayes with a look at local news. . . . Does your child wear this kind of bracelet? Some say it’s more than a trend. The color could be sending the wrong message to their peers. And a local soldier returns home from war to find his business in shambles. We’ll have more on these stories coming up tonight on News Channel 19 at five and six.

Similarly, on a New York–area station, a news segment begins by reporting a wildfire in California, covers health news, including information on a scientific research study, and then covers rainbow parties: “Parents, beware: your child may be invited to a rainbow party. How this raunchy social gathering could lead to a social disease.” Thus, viewers are seamlessly led from footage of a serious problem in California to a story about scientific research to a report that treats a contemporary legend as fact, without skipping a beat.

TV Shows Get In on the Act

As sex bracelets and rainbow parties became hot topics in the press, the stories started showing up in plot lines of fictional TV shows. We found nine different dramatic programs that covered sex bracelets or rainbow parties between November 2003 and March 2011. What is interesting about these fictional accounts is how closely they mirrored the treatment of these topics in nonfiction TV genres. For example, many news stories issued a “parental alert” claiming that parents were unaware or even “clueless” of the secret behavior of their teenage son or daughter. Similarly, in the first coverage of sex bracelets on a fictional TV series (in November 2003—just months after the story began attracting attention in other media), the plot of an episode of the ABC sitcom George Lopez featured Angie, a mother who stumbles on her daughter, Carmen, talking to a friend about sex bracelets. Angie failed to overhear the bracelets’  secret meanings and upon  seeing the bracelets says to Carmen, “Cute bracelet. You know, a blue one would make a great gift for the flower girl.” Carmen replies, “Do not—do that!” Later, Angie likes the bracelets so much she gets some herself and wears them to the grocery store. When she gets home, she takes the scissors to the bracelets and tells her husband what happened while wearing them:

I had an interesting trip to the grocery store. . . . When the teenage boy bagging my groceries noticed my bracelets, I took it as a compliment. When he helped me to the car, I thought it was really sweet. When he put his hand on my butt and told me he’d never done purple with an older chick, I hit him. When he stopped crying, and we found his retainer, he told me that each of those colors stands for something different you’ll do with a boy.

This incident prompts the parents to panic over why their daughter is wearing the bracelets. Carmen reassures them that she wasn’t  doing what the bracelets mean but  wears them  because “people think  it’s cool”: “A week ago, hardly anyone at school talked to me. Now everyone likes me.”

A year later, in November 2004, on the Showtime drama-comedy Huff, the title character and his wife find out that their 14-year-old son has attended—and participated in—a rainbow party. Once again the parents are in the dark and comically stumble on what their son, Bird, is up to. The confrontation begins when Beth, Bird’s mother, finds lipstick smeared in his jockey shorts. When both parents confront their son, he confesses that he went to a rainbow party the previous night. The mother does not know what a rainbow party is and mistakenly assumes her son is coming out as gay.

Beth: A rainbow party? Wow. Bird, I am so glad that you feel safe enough to tell us about this. [Huff looks puzzled.] And we’ll talk about it, and we’ll just keep . . . talking, you know, about it, and I’m sure there’s a lot that your father and I need to learn. Honey, we could join PFLAG. . . .

Bird: What is PFLAG?

Beth: Parents for Lesbians and Gays. It’s a support group for parents whose children are gay.

Bird: What? What are you talking about? I’m not gay.

Beth: Oh! Uh, but isn’t . . . the rainbow a symbol for the gay community?

Bird: It’s a rainbow party. It’s a—it’s where girls wear lipstick and give guys blow jobs. That’s it . . . a blow-job party.

Beth: A blow-job party? There are parties . . . for . . . blow jobs?

Bird: Yeah.

Beth: And . . . and they are called rainbow parties.

Bird: Right. They . . . call them that because the guys bring in lipstick and the girls put it on and then give them blow jobs, and the guy with the most colors at the end of the night wins.

Another  theme found  in the news coverage of sex bracelets was detailing which sex acts the different colors represented. In the television news accounts it was common  for journalists or hosts to act shocked by the color codes or to claim that the meanings of one or more of the colors were so deviant that they could not be revealed. This was depicted in some fictional television episodes as well. In a 2005 episode of the popular  NBC drama  Law and Order:  Special Victims Unit— known for having story lines that are “ripped from the headlines”—the police investigate the murder of a 15-year-old girl. The officers interview the principal at the school the deceased teen attended:

Principal: The only time I ever had to call [the deceased] in [my office] was over the sex bracelets, and I’m sure that was just peer pressure.

Male police officer: Sex bracelets?

Principal: Different colored bracelets the girls wear, signaling which sex acts they’re willing to perform. Uh, yellow’s hugging, purple’s kissing, red is for a lap dance, blue is for oral sex, and . . . don’t make me say what black is for.

Similarly, in a 2005 episode of F/X’s drama Nip/Tuck, the main characters, who are plastic surgeons, go to a party at a fraternity house and stumble on a sex-bracelet party, which is an unfamiliar concept to them. One of the doctors asks a fraternity brother what the bracelets are for. The fraternity brother replies, “Ahh, it’s a bracelet party. They’re color coded. See, every girl wears whichever color they’re looking for tonight—like blue means they like head, double blue means they like 69, pink means they’re into girls too—sort of streamlines the whole process.” The doctor responds by asking if there is a bracelet for girls who like guys twice their age. The fraternity brother answers, “Green— means they like money!”

Another theme from the television news coverage of sex bracelets and rainbow parties that several fictional shows picked up on was that kids today engage in sex—or think about sex—too casually. In the same episode of Huff mentioned earlier, Beth tells her husband, “[Our son is] getting blow jobs in the same nonchalant way that you and I used to go to the movies.” Similarly, a couple of episodes depict adults being shocked that contemporary teens do not think of oral sex as “sex.” For example, in an October 2004 episode of the CBS drama Judging Amy, the title character is presiding over a sexual-assault case. The episode examines a case of unwanted oral sex in which the defendant (Brent) allegedly demanded that the plaintiff (Caroline) perform oral sex on him. The defendant claims he did so because the girl in question was wearing a blue jelly bracelet, which supposedly signified willingness to engage in oral sex. While on the stand, the defendant has the following exchange with the judge:

Brent: [People] go to the party to hook up, do what every girl’s up for. Most of them don’t even want real sex.

Judge: Real sex?

Brent: They just want to fool around, you know?

Judge: No, I’m pretty sure I don’t know. What does fooling around mean to you?

Brent: Kissing . . . to . . . to everything but. . . . When the guys saw Caroline’s blue bracelet, they started to say stuff.

Judge: Her blue bracelet?

Brent: Yeah, the girls wear these, uh—I don’t know what you call them—jelly bracelets? They come in different colors, so you know what they’re into. And blue means they do oral sex.

Judge: Girls color code themselves?

Brent: Orange is just kissing, black means they go all the way, and . . . and clear’s wild card. . . . I never saw a clear.

Some news coverage of sex bracelets and rainbow parties focused particularly on the behavior of girls today compared to girls from previous generations. In news accounts, this concern takes the form of debates over what has caused this supposed change in behavior. In fictional accounts, the concern is dramatized by portraying girls behaving in a sexually aggressive manner. In the Nip/Tuck episode mentioned earlier, a college girl approaches one of the older plastic surgeons at the fraternity party. The doctor asks her what her braided bracelet means. She replies, “That means for the right guy, I do anything.”

A 2010 episode of The Hard Times of RJ Berger, which aired on MTV, picked up on this theme of female promiscuity in a scene in which characters discuss whether even girls who claim to be “pure” really are. The sequence begins with the title character and his friend Miles sitting together on the school bus. RJ, who is a virgin, wants to have sex with a new girl in school, but he’s learned she wears a purity ring. The episode comically examines whether purity is all it is cracked up to be.

Miles: You ever heard of a rainbow party?

RJ: No.

Miles: Well, the purity kids invented them. They’re also called everythingbut parties, because it’s everything but sex—you know, like butt sex, like butt with two t’s—

RJ: I get it.

Miles: See, that’s how they stay technically pure, by saving the baby hole for the Lord.

RJ: So what goes down at these parties?

Miles: Girls, RJ, girls do. Apparently there’s a punch bowl filled with lipsticks, all the colors of the rainbow. The goal is for each girl to leave a color on as many guys as possible. When they’re done, each girl’s left her mark, and by keeping the front door nailed shut, they’ve done it all with God’s approval.

Many television dramas try to stay current and relevant to their audience by reflecting what is happening in real life. Given that sex bracelets and rainbow parties were the subject of much media coverage, it is not surprising that they began showing up in the plots of fictional programs. However, like TV’s nonfiction genres, these dramas treated these stories as factual, forms of sexual play that are commonly known among today’s kids yet below the radar of adults. These story lines seem to underscore the notion that the teens’ sexual behavior is more outrageous than ever before. The possibility that these tales were best viewed as contemporary legends, that they ought to be treated with a degree of skepticism, was never raised.

Becoming Cultural Touchstones

Television news coverage exposed millions of people to stories about sex bracelets and rainbow parties. Since various forms of media borrow stories from one another, television coverage played an integral part in spreading these stories; as of late 2012, sex bracelets continued to receive media attention  in countries all over the world, including England, Ireland, Australia, and Brazil. It is not surprising that television comedies and dramas borrowed from current topics in the news and thereby added to the exposure that sex bracelets and rainbow parties received.

In the wake of all this media attention, these stories began to be referenced on television without any further explanation. Sex bracelets and rainbow parties had become cultural touchstones. In other words, it was apparently assumed that these stories had become common knowledge or that at least many people would get the reference. For example, on a 2010 episode of CNN’s Joy Behar Show, the host interviewed comedienne Kathy Griffin about her plan to broadcast her annual gynecological exam.

Behar:  You know, I can’t understand [women’s reluctance to get pap smears], because in my day a lot of the girls were virgins, believe it or not. But the younger girls, these girls are sleeping around like crazy now; this is no big deal, believe me. . . .

Griffin: Yes, this is nothing compared to a rainbow party.

Behar:  Exactly.

Note how both women understand the reference. Similarly, on a 2012 episode of NBC’s The Today Show, cohosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb showed a clip from the movie American Reunion, in which rainbow parties are referenced. In the clip, one male character says, “Okay, is it just me or do girls today seem a bit sluttier?” The other male character replies, “Oh, definitely. Teen sex, rainbow parties, sexting nude photos—saw it all on Kathie Lee and Hoda.” Following the clip, Gifford responded by saying, “Well, we are here to inform the public, so . . .”

Likewise, producers of television dramas have apparently come to believe that merely showing sex bracelets or tubes of lipstick near a teen party is sufficient to make their point. In a 2010 episode of CBS’s hit show The Good Wife, a young girl, who is interested in the teenage son of the title character and her politician husband, is wearing a wrist full of jelly bracelets. The bracelets are not explained; instead, the young girl says. “Hey, I like politicians’ kids. What can I say?” As the camera focuses on her bracelet-filled wrist, she continues, “I need one more to complete my political education.”

But the clearest use of these stories as cultural touchstones—and the clearest example of skepticism regarding these tales on TV—comes from a 2010 Saturday Night Live skit featuring a news anchor introducing a story about “another terrifying teenage trend,” followed by a trench-coated reporter describing trampolining: “A teen boy sits on the roof of a one-story house receiving oral sex from a girl jumping up and down on a large backyard trampoline. Sources say if a girl trampolines ten boys, she receives a bracelet—and that’s what Silly Bandz are.” The skit went on to show a teenager calmly dismissing the reporter’s questions about trampolining (“I’ve never done this. . . . I don’t think that’s even physically possible”), while her mother is overcome by hysterical fear. The skit managed to combine the oral sex of rainbow parties with the bracelet-as-coupon theme of sex bracelets and to illustrate how television uncritically promotes concern and the public gets caught up in fear. Satire, then, permitted a critical reflection of television’s coverage of these stories that was otherwise absent when TV addressed claims about sex bracelets and rainbow parties.

While this chapter examines television’s role in spreading the contemporary legends about sex bracelets and rainbow parties, these are only two among many claims about teen sex that have received a great deal of media attention  in recent years. For example, in 2008, Time magazine ran a piece about a high school in Massachusetts where there had been an increase in student  pregnancies and quoted the school principal, who claimed that the girls had made a pact to get pregnant together. Following this story, there was an onslaught of media coverage citing the so-called pregnancy pact as another piece of evidence that teens were out of control. This story made headlines in the U.S. as well as in Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, and Scotland. Later, some reports cast doubt on whether there ever was such a pact (apparently, the principal who claimed there was a pact could not remember where he heard that information, and nobody else could confirm his version of the story). Yet news coverage persisted, and in 2010, a made-for-television movie, The Pregnancy Pact, was released on the Lifetime cable channel, which claimed it was “inspired by a true story.”

For the pregnancy-pact story, like reports of sex bracelets and rainbow parties, the pattern is clear. The media picks up a salacious story: sexual topics tend to be newsworthy; in particular, stories about kids and sex are especially newsworthy because they can be approached from various angles—vulnerable kids in danger of victimization and needing  protection,  licentious kids, especially girls, gone  wild and needing to be brought under control, middle-class kids acting out as much as kids from the “wrong side of the tracks,” and so on. While print media sometimes offer nuanced treatments that allow critics and skeptics to be heard, television’s attention tends to be more fleeting and less subtle. When TV did cover rainbow parties or sex bracelets, it rarely lasted more than a few minutes—a short segment in a longer program. Presumably, this reflected the limited material TV had to work with: there was no footage of sexual play, no detailed testimony from kids who acknowledged participating in these activities, no experts who had studied the subjects. Instead, TV coverage came down to repeating the legends. There is not much difference between Oprah hosting a writer who said that she talked to girls who said they’d heard about rainbow parties and conversations in which people relay what they’ve heard from someone who knows someone who knows a person who had sex after breaking a bracelet. But television’s  larger audiences mean that these stories spread further, until they become familiar cultural touchstones, just one of those things everybody knows about kids today. As a result, not only do the legends become commonly believed, but the “teens gone wild” image becomes ingrained. This, in turn, affects how we think about the overall image of today’s young people.

Excerpted from “Kids Gone Wild: From Rainbow Parties to Sexting, Understanding the Hype Over Teen Sex” by Joel Best and Kathleen A. Bogle. Copyright © 2014 by Joel Best and Kathleen A. Bogle. Reprinted by arrangement with NYU Press. All rights reserved.

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