Rainbows of a different kind

The fear of rejection is pushing some young girls further than they'd like ...
The fear of rejection is pushing some young girls further than they'd like ... Photo: Getty Images

Among many teenagers, the term ‘rainbow’ has taken on a rather sinister twist. It’s enough to make every parent with young children wish their kids would never have to leave kinder, and every parent with teenagers reach for the Listerine.

In teen lexicon, a rainbow refers to the different shades of lipstick a boy can collect on his penis. How does a boy gather said shades of lipstick? He simply asks girls — ones he’s just met at a party for example — for oral sex. And, according to my sources — interviews with students, parents and school nurses — in many instances they oblige.

Alarmingly, teenage girls are reporting that there’s an unspoken expectation that they will ‘go down’ when asked.

Before the blinkers of denial slide down your forehead and you reassure yourself that your little darling won’t be doing that when she hits her teens, let me ruin your day with some statistics. 

A 2011 study by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that 37 per cent of year 10 students and 57 per cent of year 12 students have engaged in oral sex.

Similarly, a study conducted by La Trobe University, also in 2011, found that ‘Oral sex has increased in importance in the repertoire of students over the time these surveys have been carried out and is now a sexual practice of the majority of secondary students.’

School nurses and sex educators are also reporting an increase in students engaging in oral sex.

One health worker I spoke to, Lucy Forwood, Coordinator for Health Promoting Schools at Women’s Health West, said that she has observed an increase in anecdotal accounts of oral sex among adolescents.

‘The onset seems to be getting younger, some as young as 12 and 13 years old,’ says Forwood.


Alarmingly, research by Women’s Health West in Victoria found that students regarded oral sex as foreplay. In other words, it’s not considered to be ‘real’ sex and therefore not a big deal.

As one teenage girl explained to me, ‘You’re still doing something for the guy but it’s not actual sex or losing your virginity.’

Forwood is particularly concerned about the gender inequality of oral sex among teens.

‘Among heterosexual young people, the girls are asked for oral sex by the boys; it is rare for girls to ask for oral sex from boys. It illustrates the power inequities between young men and women. Girls appear to want to please the boys by ‘giving them head’, Forwood said.

The more liberal among us may dismiss the prevalence of rainbows as kids being kids. Teenagers dabbling in sexual experimentation is nothing new and it’s all just a bit of harmless fun.

But not everyone is having fun. Just ask the young women.

As one 16-year-old student told me: ‘I have never once heard a girl say that she actually enjoys giving blowjobs’.

If it’s not fun, why do they do it? Why are bright young women, with the world at their feet, on their knees in front of boys doing something they don’t like?

For many, it’s because they fear that the boys won’t like them, or won’t talk to them. As my 16 year old friend — who attends one of the most prestigious girls schools in the country, by the way — explains, ‘the way you can tell if a guy really likes you is to give him a rainbow and see if he talks to you afterwards’.

Boys also feel pressured to partake in oral sex, fearing that if they don’t ask for it they’ll be labeled ‘gay’. Many young men have developed their ideas about sex from watching porn and are genuinely surprised to discover that girls don’t like to be treated like porn stars.

It seems that boys are asking for rainbows because they believe that’s how to be a man and girls are obliging – and pretending to enjoy it – because they think that’s how to be a woman.

When our kids are getting sex-ed lessons from online porn, and raunch culture, the traditional birds and the bees chat about how not to make a baby is woefully inadequate.

At home and at school, we need to deliberately and systematically dismantle the assumption that sex is a mechanical transaction where men get pleasure and women get acceptance.  

One of the young women I spoke to cried with relief when I told her that she didn’t have to give boys rainbows if she didn’t want to; that saying no didn’t make her prudish or less of a woman. She said, ‘I really needed to hear that.’

The idea of consent and mutually respectful relationships seems like a basic concept, but when you look at the statistics and hear the stories about rainbows, it seems that a lot of kids really need to hear it.

Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of 4 books 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband, and OMG! That's Not My Child.