Monday, June 28, 2010

Papa don't preach

LIPSTICK, cheap jewellery, drink bottles and household detergents – what does this list say to you? To most folks, it reads like a pretty mundane collection of everyday objects. To more exciteable souls, these items all come dripping with hidden sexual meanings.

Since time immemorial, humans have been obsessed with sex and how to get it. Unlike in the animal kingdom, however, sex among we two-legged creatures quickly became subject to social, religious and cultural mores. There is always someone telling us when and with whom we should be getting jiggy. As a result, some sex practices get shoved under the carpet, others go underground. To gain access to them, you have to know the secret code.

That’s the fearful fantasy anyway – that a dangerous sexual undercurrent is constantly throbbing under just under the surface of society. This fear recently exploded into a furore over so-called ‘shag bands’ apparently doing the rounds in Irish and British schools. Parents were suddenly alerted to the ‘real’ meaning of the plastic multi-coloured bracelets popular with teenagers and children.

Rather than the cheap fashion accessories they appear to be, each coloured band supposedly signifies a different sexual activity ranging from French kissing to full-blown intercourse. If a boy ‘snapped’ one from a girl’s arm, she had to succumb to the activity that band represented.

Parents, naturally, freaked out. They could well believe their 9-year-olds were being indoctrinated into a sex craze because, as Carol Platt Liebau writes in her book Prude, “an incremental but aggressive sexualising of our culture (has created) a status quo in which almost everything seems focused on what’s going on ‘below the waist’.” Even though pop stars Avril Lavigne and Pink sport these bracelets as a style statement, it was possible they meant more than that.

The shag band reports have been doing the rounds for some time. In the States, they are called jelly bracelets and in the early Noughties – or should we say, Naughties – were banned from schools in Marion County, Florida after a few students divulged their “secret meaning” to adults.

Outside of that incident, it’s up for debate whether kids were aware of the sex symbolism of the bracelets before they read about it in the papers or on the internet. In the 1980s, I had no idea how risqué Madonna’s Like a Virgin was until my mortified father demanded I stop singing it at the top of my voice around the house. (Incidentally, it was Madonna who first popularised the jelly bracelet and I decked out my entirely virginal arms in them as a tribute. Who knew I was sending out sex signals at the age of 8?)

The shag band phenomenon is the latest in a line of everyday objects apparently gaining currency as a sort of sexual token. In the 1970s, it was the ring pull from a can of Coke. Offer a broken one to the object of desire and they had to return the favour with a kiss. Manage to take the tab off intact, and the prize was much higher. Beer bottle labels came with similar smutty innuendo. An intact label peeled carefully from a bottle was supposed to entitle the bearer to sexual recompense. It all sounds a little convenient and as Barbara Mikkelson of the hoax-busting website says, “wishful thinking codified into belief”.

Still, it didn’t stop down-with-the-people princess Oprah giving weight to one urban legend by allowing mention of it on her chatshow in 2003. In a debate on oversexualised young people, one contributor spoke of ‘rainbow parties’. Oprah’s well-to-do Middle America audience listened with their mouths gaping to how young teenage girls would slather on brightly-coloured lipstick and then give oral sex to any number of boys at secret sex parties.

The ‘rainbow’ referred to the different coloured rings of lipstick left on the boys’ genitals as proof of their conquests. If you’re having trouble picturing it, think of a Fruit Pastilles ice lolly with its stack of differently-coloured flavours.

As it turns out, the legend of the rainbow parties was shortly debunked by investigative reporters who couldn’t find one group of teenagers to admit, even off the record, that such activities were widespread. The same had been the case with the so-called ‘non-virgin clubs’ – no explanation needed – of the 1950s.

So our teenagers may not be half as devious as we think but there have been other groups who have made widespread use of sexual codes. Gay culture, for example, had to get around the fact that for a long time to signal your homosexuality was an illegal act. The Hanky Code, or flagging, sprang up in 1970s New York to signify sexual availability to another man – it is even referenced in the 1980 movie Cruising when Al Pacino’s straight character is heckled for wearing the wrong colour handkerchief to a gay bar. The roots to the code are believed to go right back to San Francisco just after the Gold Rush when gay men would wear blue hankies to square dances to identify themselves on the ‘gaydar’.

Adulterous sex is another area that has traditionally required its share of signals and subterfuge. When my mother, who lived in London as a young woman, would see boxes of OMO washing powder stacked neatly in Irish shop windows she used to give a little chuckle. She had always been told by her English friends that a box of OMO in the bedroom window of a house signified to a lover in the time before mobile phones that the ‘Old Man’s Out’ and the coast was clear for a rendez-vous.

There is of course the modern difficulty of trying to crack the sext code of your husband or wife’s texts to their new close friend (the number ‘8’ is often used to signify oral sex though, if that helps). But love letter-writing paramours went to great lengths to conceal their affairs. Invisible ink, invented by Socrates, reactivated when held to the heat of a candle flame or fire was a crafty way of reading between the lines.

And just as parents might sit kids in front of a DVD while they head off for an “afternoon nap”, Tsar Alexander II and his mistress Katia had a personal code for sex in their letters: an otherwise nonsensical word, ‘bingerle’. In 1871, Katia wrote: “I saw in your eyes that you wanted to throw yourself at me to forget everything and enjoy our bingerle.” Well, quite.

Even the censorious Victorians found a way to express their hidden desires: they literally said it with flowers. The red rose, of course, denoted true love but if you received a bunch of gardenias from a suitor, his intentions were slightly less honourable: gardenias stood for ecstasy.

Sexual codes are everywhere now from subliminal ones in advertising to the overtly sexual lads’ mag at the supermarket checkout. As such, it’s easy to read sauce into everything we see. Shoes, we are told by Leora Tanenbaum in her book Bad Shoes, can signify sexual availability in women if they are high enough and pointy enough. Then again, women seen smoking in the 19th century were seen to be of loose moral standards. Perhaps sometimes a kids’ bracelet is just for fashion – and a woman’s shoes are just for fun.

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