Being in a Gang: The Background

Joining a gang is a significant, potentially life-altering, event. The reasons for any single juvenile’s joining a gang are complex and personal. Though most females join gangs for friendship and self-affirmation (Campbell, 1984a, 1987; Moore, 1991), recent research has begun to shed some light on economic and family pressures motivating many young women to join gangs.

Economic and Ethnic Forces

Throughout the 20th century, poverty and economic marginality were associated with the emergence of youth gangs, but in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the loss of hundreds of thousands of factory jobs made conditions even worse in America’s inner cities.3 Hagedorn’s (1988) study of gang formation in Milwaukee, WI, a city then suffering economic decline, shows that although the parents of most gang members usually held good jobs, these jobs had disappeared by the time their children were grown. It is not surprising that gangs proliferated rapidly during this period, not only in Milwaukee but throughout the Nation.4 (See Hagedorn, 1988, 1998; Moore, 1991; Padilla, 1992; Taylor, 1990, 1993.) An informal economy flourished. Although much of the work associated with this economy was legal, a substantial portion involved drug dealing and other illicit activities, and gang members joined in. (See a more extensive discussion of the drug-dealing activities of female gang members.) In Chicago, IL, for example, economically successful gangs—female and male—became significant community institutions, sometimes offering resources and protection to neighbors (Venkatesh, 1996, 1998).

Female gang members have been affected not only by these economic shifts but by recent changes in the welfare system. Welfare has been an important economic resource for many of them. In Los Angeles, CA, for example, Mexican American gang members active in the 1950’s and 1970’s became pregnant, on average, at age 18. They tended to rely on welfare, combined with work and help from their families, to survive (Moore and Long, 1987). Similar patterns were found in Milwaukee in the 1990’s (Hagedorn, 1998). However, welfare reforms introduced in the mid-1990’s have reduced or eliminated welfare payments. Because female gang members often face significant barriers to legitimate employment, it is unclear what they will do to replace welfare support.

Ethnic marginality often lies behind economic marginality. In the 1920’s, most gang members were children of European immigrants (Thrasher, 1927). By the 1980’s, most were African American and Latino. In recent years, large-scale immigration from Spanish-speaking countries and from Asia has changed the ethnic composition of the United States. Increasingly, gangs tend to be Latino and Asian (National Youth Gang Center, 2000). Because ethnicity is closely related to gender roles (as discussed in Ethnicity and Gender Roles in the Gang), this nationwide shift in ethnicity has important implications for female gangs.

Family Pressure

There is one aspect of female gang life that does not seem to be changing—the gang as a refuge for young women who have been victimized at home. The available research consistently shows that high proportions of female gang members have experienced sexual abuse at home. In Los Angeles, for example, 29 percent of a large representative sample of Mexican American female gang members had been sexually abused at home, and their homes were more likely than those of male gang members to include drug users and persons arrested for crimes (Moore, 1991, 1994). Another study found that almost two-thirds of female gang members interviewed in Hawaii had been sexually abused at home. Many had run away and had joined gangs to obtain protection from abusive families (Joe and Chesney-Lind, 1995; Chesney-Lind, Shelden, and Joe, 1996).5 A recent report sums up young women’s reasons for joining a gang: “[T]he vast majority noted family problems as contributing factors,” citing drug addiction and abuse as the most common problems (Miller, 2000b).

Photograph copyright © 1997-99 Photodisc, Inc. Joining a gang can be an assertion of independence not only from family, but also from cultural and class constraints. In joining a gang, young Puerto Rican women in New York felt that they would be able to express themselves as assimilated Americans, spending money freely and standing up for themselves. “[They] construct . . . an image of the gang that counterpoints the suffocating futures they face” (Campbell, 1990, p. 173). In Los Angeles, Mexican American gangs were described as “a substitute institution . . . [providing] meaning and identity” (Quicker, 1983, p. 28) or “their own system in which they [could] belong,” in the absence of “clear or satisfactory access to adult status” (Harris, 1988, p. 166). In San Francisco, CA, a large, multiethnic study of female gang members describes them as “resisting normative forms of femininity” but also as “devising alternative forms of femininity” (Joe-Laidler and Hunt, in press).

Sex: Stereotyping and Victimization

“Sex object” was one of the early stereotypes of female gang members, and the interest in the sex lives of female gang members still persists. Early reports about the easy sexual availability of female gang members came almost exclusively from male gang members (e.g., Short and Strodtbeck, 1965). Even some recent reports present similar male perceptions as fact, with no attempt at verification (Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991). However, male gang members may be indulging their own fantasies. In a recent study, male gang members told researchers that group sex was an initiation ritual for female gang members, but female gang members dismissed the idea as ludicrous (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996).

In Los Angeles, a large random sample of male and female Mexican American gang members was asked about the role of women in the gang (Moore, 1991). Half of the male members claimed that female members were “possessions.” This response not only referred to the females’ sexual exploitation but also reflected the males’ general need to be in charge. The other half of the male members felt that female members were respected and treated like family. (About two-thirds of the female members vehemently denied that they were treated like possessions.)

In San Antonio, where there are many Mexican American gangs but few female gangs or gang members, most females who associate with male gang members are respected. But “hoodrats”—females involved in “frequent partying, drug using, participation in illegal activities and multiple sexual encounters”—are not deemed worthy of respect (Valdez and Cepeda, 1998, pp. 6–7).

Although male gang members may exaggerate their sexual domination over female members, there are reports from females that they have been sexually exploited by males within the gang. In San Francisco, females from an immigrant Salvadoran gang reportedly often were sexually victimized by male gang members, although this rarely happened in a nearby Mexican American gang (Brotherton, 1996). Sexual abuse and exploitation by male gang members were also reported by some subsets of female gang members in Columbus, OH (Miller, 1998); Milwaukee (Hagedorn, 1998); Phoenix, AZ (Portillos, 1999); Chicago (Venkatesh, 1998); and Los Angeles (Moore, 1991).6 Some of these reports may have been from females who were only marginal to the gang. In Milwaukee, for example, females controlled admission to their gang (a female auxiliary to the male gang), but female “wannabes” seeking to become members thought that males controlled admission. The male members tricked some female wannabes into group sex by telling them it was an initiation ritual. It was not, and females who participated in the group sex did not become members of the gang (Hagedorn and Devitt, 1999). A similar situation existed in Phoenix (Portillos, 1999). Evidence of sexual exploitation of female gang members at home and within their gangs is one reason for considering female gang membership a serious social concern.

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Female Gangs: A Focus on Research Juvenile Justice Bulletin March 2001