(All photos by the author)
Remember shag bands? Those thin pipes of coloured rubber you wore around your wrist. They looked cheap, they didn't match what you were wearing and there was nothing cool about them whatsoever. But they did have a non-aesthetic purpose: if someone snapped one off your wrist, it meant you had to shag them. Except you were probably 12, so no one was actually getting shagged.
But where did they come from? Although they'd been around since Madonna wore them in the 80s – a time when wearing a ton of bracelets on one wrist was the height of rebellion – they didn't mean much to anyone until the 2000s. So who injected all the meaning into these inert bits of plastic?
It was the year 2004. Life was about Runescape, Anglo Bubbly, Limewire, scented gel pens, maintaining your Myspace top eight alongside your side-gig trying to breed alien babies. People started wearing those Livestrong wristbands and all the charity spin-offs. They also began to wear shag bands bought from newsagents and Claire's Accessories. Except they weren't called shag bands at this point, but "gel bracelets".
The year before, mostly unbeknownst to young Brits, these gel bands had become "sex bracelets" in America. In October of 2003, a school in Gainesville, Florida banned them, with the principle telling parents in a newsletter that some students had been making inappropriate sexual references about the bracelets. Third, fourth and fifth-graders of Alachua Elementary were no longer allowed to wear them to school. "It's better to eliminate the problem before it gets going," said Principal Brandenburg at the time.
It took slightly longer for these connotations to reach the UK, but when it did, everyone was ready. And we had the word shag.
Word got around that each band's colour represented a different sex act, from the PG (yellow for hugs and light pink for love bites) to the more X-rated (brown for anal sex, black for full sex and the illustrious gold for full sex plus everything else). Pinks, reds, whites and blacks were a favourite among punks and grungers graduating to Myspace, and became a classic emo accessory.
In a 2005 study, nearly two-thirds (60 percent) of 15 to 19-year-olds said the wristbands signalled their owners' sexual preference and availability. At the time, people would rampage around the playground snapping wristbands or cutting them as a joke. Questions were raised: if you broke your own wristband, did that mean you had to have sex with yourself? What if you didn't have sex with the person – what punishment would you receive?
Entrepreneurs began to sell them in playgrounds, picking up a fine profit on rare colours and glittery numbers – the ones that were generally more difficult to acquire at your local newsagent.
Eventually, in September of 2009, years after the whole shag band thing had started, newspapers caught on. According to The Sun, this was part of a "terrifying wave of promiscuous behaviour". A 12-year-old girl told the paper: "A gold band is the most important and means you have to do all of the above. They are pretty rare, so if you find a gold band in a shop, you have to get your mum to buy it."
The Daily Mail went full Daily Mail, writing: "It is their name that causes alarm bells to ring: Shag-bands. Each colour denotes a physical act, from a hug or a kiss to showing body parts, to other acts that would make many adults blush." Oral sex and sex, then. Case study parents told in horrified tones how they found out what the bands really meant from the children themselves, while some guy called Richie who owned a corner shop in Croydon sat on the other side of the fence, saying children don't much buy into the sexual side – that they're more a fashion trend, with parents having more to worry about than bracelets.
By the end of that month, outrage had peaked. Schools were banning students from wearing them and Wakefield MP Mary Creagh called for under-16s to be stopped from buying them. Regurgitating the semi-myth, she claimed each colour represented an intimate sexual act. The issue apparently came to her attention after hearing from her local newspaper about parents who had bought the jelly bands to put in children's party bags, but were "absolutely horrified" when they read details on the packaging. It's very unlikely that any packaging ever detailed the sexual acts, of course, but that's by the by.
This week I went to Claire's – the best place to get shag bands during the glory days – to see if they were still being sold there, but I couldn't find even one. There were none at Poundland either. I managed to find some on Amazon, but considering you can get literally anything on there I'm not sure that represents any kind of continued popularity.
I wondered, then, if anyone remembered what they were. And there was only one place to find out: Camden, spiritual home of the shag band.
According to Jerod and Caitlyn, both 18, they were called "snap bands". "It was the black one that was really taboo," said Jerod. "It'd be, 'Oh, look out, she's got the black one – she's a nutter!'"
"I just remember they were a thing and had something to do with sex levels, and whoever had the most up their arm was the coolest," offered Caitlyn.
Both agreed that the craze ended with their generation, and that their younger friends would have no idea what they were.
Sarah and Taityana, also both 18, disagreed on the meaning of the bands, but both wore and loved them. Sarah thought they were "just called bracelets", while Taityana knew them as "sex bands" and thought they were worn as an indicator of how far you'd gone with someone.
Twenty-four-year-old Khari knew exactly what they were straight away.
"I was wearing them from around year four or year five, so I must've been about 8 or 9," he said. The guy working with him, who went by the name "Boombastic Nathan", couldn't remember them at all. Their conversation went like this:
Boombastic Nathan: How did you know about shag bands when you were that young?
Khari: Because people had older brothers and sisters and they gave them to them and they brought them to primary school.
Boombastic Nathan: …Is the black one sex?
Boombastic Nathan: Is it a game? Khari: No… I just had them on my wrist for no reason.
Which sort of sums it all up, really.
Today, shag bands are nothing more than a Todayskidswillneverknow hashtag and a point in a Buzzfeed listicle. But whether it's rainbow parties or vodka tampons-slash-butt chugging, every generation has a teen-related moral panic they hold dear, and for many, shag bands are just that.
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