Thursday, June 16, 2011

Females Gangs in America

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In the United States, the 180’s and 10’s have witnessed monumental national growth both in gangs and in the renewed academic study of gangs. Female gang involvement, which until recently was typically either stereotyped or ignored, has also garnered new interest among researchers, thanks in part to the work of feminist scholars, who have struggled to bring the study of women’s lives more fully into the field of criminology. One consequence of this renewed interest in gangs, and girls’ gang involvement in particular, has been much improved information about the topic, including a number of important questions

§ How widespread is young women’s gang involvement?

§ Why do they join gangs?

Write your Females Gangs in America research paper

§ What is the nature of their involvement?

§ What are the consequences of girls’ participation in gangs?

This paper will examine each of these issues by reviewing recent research on young women’s gang involvement in the United States.

How Widespread is Young Women’s Gang Involvement?

Recent estimates suggest that female gang participation is much more widespread than has typically been believed. On the one hand, data from official sources continue to underestimate the extent of girls’ gang membership. For instance, Curry, Ball and Fox (14) found that some law enforcement policies officially exclude female gang members from their counts. Excluding data from these cities, they still found that females were only 5.7 percent of gang members known to law enforcement agencies. Part of law enforcement’s underestimation of girls’ gang involvement is likely attributable to male gang members’ greater likelihood of being involved in serious gang crimes, as well as law enforcement’s greater attention to older offenders (Curry 18). In contrast with law enforcement data, results from survey research with youths indicate that young women’s gang involvement is much more extensive.

For instance, Esbensen and Deschenes (18), based on a sample of eighth graders in eleven cities, report that the prevalence rate for gang membership is 14 percent for males and 8 percent for females. Other studies examine the gender ratio within gangs; these studies estimates that young women approximate 0 to 46 percent of gang members (Esbensen and Huizinga, 1; Esbensen and Winfree 18; Moore 11; Winfree et al. 1). Miller (18) indicates that this varies considerably across gangs-girls were as few as 7 percent or as many as 75 percent of the membership in mixed gender gangs, and of course, 100 percent of the members in independent female gangs. Despite this variation, by and large girls were a numeric minority in their gangs; half were in gangs with a third or fewer female members, and two-thirds were in gangs in which females were less than half of the members. This is based on 48 female gang members.

While Millers study included four from independent female gangs, other research has emphasized all-female gangs as a new and perhaps growing phenomenon (Lauderback et al. 1; Taylor 1). However, survey research suggests that independent female gangs are far from the dominant form of young women’s gang involvement. For example, from 110 female gang members in three sites (Boston, MA; Seattle, WA; Pueblo, CO), Curry (17) found that only 6.4 percent described being in independent female gangs, while 57. percent described their gangs as mixed gender, and another 6.4 percent said they were in female auxiliaries of male gangs.

In fact, while some researchers have suggested that female gang involvement is increasing (Spergel and Curry 1), it is difficult to discern whether these numbers reflect an actual increase in the rates of young women’s participation in gangs, or simply better measurements. Until recently many gang scholars gained their information about girls’ involvement from male gang members rather than the young women themselves (Campbell 184). Despite researchers’ inattention to female gang involvement in earlier periods, both Klein’s (171) and Moore’s (11) research indicate that young women were between a quarter and a third of gang members in the middle part of the century. These studies suggest that young women’s extensive involvement in gangs is not a new phenomenon. While the past remains sketchy, researchers have very data today indicating that young women are participation in gangs in numbers large enough to cause concern.

Why Do Girls Join Gangs?

There is a growing body of knowledge, including both qualitative and quantitative studies, which provides insight into the causes of girls’ involvement in gangs in the United States. Addressing the question of why girls join gangs involves examining two interrelated issues-the background factors associated with girls’ gang participation, and also the functions and meanings of gang involvement for girls, i.e., what they describe gaining from being in gangs. To examine these questions the literature will review four topics

§ Structural and neighborhood conditions,

§ The family,

§ School factors,

§ The influence of peers.

Understanding these life contexts provides insight into their decisions to join, as research suggests that gangs comprise an important element of the social support systems of their members (Vigil and Long 10), and likely meet specific needs for young women (Campbell 10; Joe and Chesney-Lind 15).

To account for the proliferation of gangs in recent decades, many scholars have focused on compelling evidence that much, though not all, of this growth has been spurred by the decline the in living conditions for many Americans. This has been caused by structural changes brought about de-industrialization (Huff 18; Klein 15). These structural changes have resulted in the growth of what scholars refer to as an urban “underclass”-disproportionately poor, African American and Latino individuals living in conditions of entrenched poverty in inner-city communities.

While this assessment appears to be accurate, it nonetheless remains only a partial answer to the question of why girls join gangs. Most research shows that fewer than one-quarter of youths living in high-risk neighborhoods claim gang membership (Winfree et al, 1), and researchers have not found differences in perceived limited opportunities between gang and non-gang youths in these communities (Esbensen et al. 1). Thus the need to look at what other factors night lead some girls into gang involvement, even while others within the same impoverished communities exercise other options.

A factor that has received quite a bit of attention is the family, which has long been considered crucial for understanding delinquency and gang behavior among girls. One set of family factors that has been considered includes the extent that youths are supervised by their caregivers, and by the strength of attachments within the family. Bherregaard and Smith (1) measured both parental attachment, and found neither to be significantly related to gang membership for girls. Ebensen and Deschenes (18), in a multi-site study of risk factors for delinquency and gang behavior, found that lack of parental supervision was associated with gang membership for male and female gang members, but that maternal attachment was more predictive of gang membership for males than females.

Ethnographic and other qualitative studies are much more likely to suggest that serious family problems are major contributors to girls’ gang involvement. With regard to the issues just noted, Joe and Chesney-Lind (15) observe that the young women they spoke with sometimes had parents who worked long hours, or parents who were unemployed or underemployed circumstances which they suggest affected the girls’ supervision and the quality of their family relationships. Fleisher’s (18) ethnographic study of gangs in Kansas City, MO documents intergenerational patterns of abuse and neglect, spawned by poverty and abject neighborhood conditions, which he suggests are at the heart of the gang problem.

Likewise, Moore (11) documents a myriad of family problems that contribute to the likelihood of gang involvement for young women; childhood abuse and neglect, wife abuse, having alcohol or drug addicts in the family, witnessing the arrest of family members, having a family member who is chronically ill, and experiencing a death in the family during childhood. Her conclusion, based on comparisons of male and female gang members, is that young women in particular are likely to come from families that are troubled. In Miller’s (18) study, he offers a comparison of gang and non-gang girls from the same communities, and also suggests that gang girls are more likely to come from families with multiple problems, including violence, abuse, drug, and alcohol addiction, and imprisonment. Moore’s research and Miller’s also suggest that having close family members in gangs also increases the likelihood that young women will join.

Thus research suggests that the gang can serve as a surrogate extended family for adolescents who do not see their own families as meeting their needs for belonging, nurturing, and acceptance. Other gang members offer support, solidarity, and a network of friends for those girls whose parents are unable to provide stable family relations. Moreover, girls’ friendships within the gang provide an outlet for members to deal with family problems and cope with abuse and other life problems.

While qualitative studies are most likely to find family problems at the heart of girls’ gang involvement, a number of studies based on surveys of juvenile populations note school-based problems. Bjerregaard and Smith (1) found that low expectations for completing school were a significant predictor of gang membership for young women. Likewise, Bowker and Klein (18) report that female gang members are less likely than non-members to intend to finish high school or attend college. More recently, Esbensen and Deschenes (18) report that while boys who feel that educational success is unattainable are more likely to be gang members; this was not the case for girls. However, they did find school commitment or expectations to be uniquely associated with gang involvement for girls.

Finally, there is also strong evidence that peer influences are important for understanding gang participation among females, as well as males. Researchers know from much research that youths who participate in gangs often express the importance of the gang in their lives. Esbensen and Deschenes (18) found that although male and female gang members reported similar levels of commitment to negative peers, this was a stronger explanatory factor for gang involvement for females that males. In addition, they report that risk seeking was predictor of female, but not male, gang membership. The rewards provided by the gang-status, companionship, excitement, protection, and belonging-facilitate the building of esteem. Participation in the gang results from group dynamics that encourage member involvement through the provision of self-esteem and identity. Moreover, gang activities provide these youths with a way to alleviate the boredom of their daily lives, given the limited options for recreation and entertainment found in impoverished communities. Quicker (18) summarizes, “to be in a gang is to be part of something. It means having a place to go to, friends to talk with, and parties to attend. It means recognition and respected status.” In addition, as the section details, these peer factors also contribute to the gangs’ facilitation of delinquency among its members, including its female members.

What is the Nature of Girls’ Gang Involvement?

One reason gangs have received so much attention among criminologists is the we know from quite a bit of research that young people who are in gangs-male and female-are substantially more involved in delinquency that their non-consistently found that serious criminal involvement is a feature that distinguishes gangs from other groups of youths (Esbensen et al. 1). This pattern holds for female gang members as well as their male counterparts. The enhancement effect of gang membership is most noticeable for serious delinquency and marijuana use (Thornberry et al. 1). Bherregaard and Smith (1) summarize, “our study suggests that for females (as well as males), gangs are consistently associated with greater prevalence and with higher rates of delinquency and substance abuse. Furthermore, the results suggest that for both sexes, gang membership has an approximately equal impact on a variety of measures of delinquent behavior.”

Perhaps what is most significant about this research is the evidence that female gang members are more delinquent than their female non-gang counterparts, but also more so than their male non-gang counterparts. For instance, Fagan (10) reports that “prevalence rates for female gang members exceeded the rates for non-gang males” for all the categories of delinquency he measured. He summarizes his findings in relation to girls as follows

More than 40 percent of the female gang members were classified in the

least serious category, a substantial difference from their male counterparts. Among female gang members, there was bimodal distribution, with nearly as many multiple index offenders as petty delinquents. Evidently female gang members avoid more serious delinquent than their male counterparts. Yet their extensive involvement in serious behaviors well exceeds that of non-gang males or females.

Despite these findings, there is also evidence of gender differences within gangs with regard to criminal involvement. Bowker et al. (180) suggests there is a “structural exclusion of young women from male delinquent activities” within gangs. Their male respondents suggested that not only were girls excluded from the planning of delinquent acts, that when girls inadvertently showed up at the location of a planned incident, it was frequently postponed or terminated. Fagan (10) reports greater gender differences in delinquency between gang members than between non-gang youth. Male gang members were significantly more involved in the most serious forms of delinquency, while for alcohol use, drug sales, extortion and property damage, gender differences were not significant.

Miller’s (18) research suggests that most gang girls do not routinely participate in the most serious forms of gang crime, such as drive-by shootings and drug sales, sometimes by choice but also as a result of being excluded by their male counterparts. Data from the St. Louis Homicide Project (Decker et al. 11) also offers support that female gang members are not nearly as involved in the most serious forms of gang violence as male gang members. From 10 to 15, there were 07 gang homicides within the study area of this project. Only 17 of these involved female victims, and in only one case was one of the suspects a female. She was reportedly not a gang member, but was protecting her children from local gang members who were harassing them.

It appears that when it comes to serious crime, male gang members are clearly more involved than their female counterparts. Nonetheless, all of this evidence does suggest that young women in gangs are more involved in serious criminal activities than non-gang youths-male or female. Although one of the reasons there is so much concern about gangs is their criminal involvement, it is important to recognize that not all of gang members’ activities are delinquent. In fact, they spend much of their time involved in the same activities as other adolescents-hanging out, talking and laughing, playing games, listening to music or watching television. Gang members are more likely to drink and use marijuana than other youths are, but even these activities remain well within the grasp of non-gang adolescent activities. One of the gang members in Miller’s (18) illustrates, “a typical day would be sittin’ back at the park or somethin’ like that or one of our friend’s houses, or a gang member’s house, getting drunk, getting high, and, you know, watchin’ TV, listenin’ to the radio.”

This makes sense, given the discussion in the previous section about why young people join gangs-in part, because they believe the gang will provide a sense of belonging and support, status, and identity, along with recreation and excitement. For some, delinquency is part of the appeal, but evidence suggests that some gang members-particularly young women-are fairly ashamed about their criminal involvement, even though they report finding it fun or exciting at times. On one hand, it brings them status and recognition within the group, as well as economic compensation; on the other, it can get them into trouble with the law, or put them at greater risk for being victimized by rival gang members or others on the streets.

For girls in particular, many aspects of gang involvement, including delinquency, go against dominant notions of appropriate femininity. This shapes girls’ experience within and outside of their gangs, often locking them into what Swart (11) describes as a series of double binds. This point brings in the last topic on-the consequences of gang involvement for girls. Though young people often turn to gangs as a means of meeting a variety of needs within their lives, it is often the case that their gang affiliation does more harm than good, by increasing their likelihood of victimization, and decreasing their opportunities and life chances.

What are the Consequences of Girls’ Gang Involvement?

Girls’ gang participation can be viewed as transgressing social norms concerning appropriate feminine behavior. Young women are typically in gangs that are predominantly male, and that they are sometimes excluded by young men from activities, such as serious crime, that confer status within the gang. Leadership in these groups also typically is male. Consequently, Most gang girls are participating in what can appropriately be described as gender-stratified groups. While some scholars would suggest that, because they are challenging traditional gender roles, girls’ gang participation might be viewed as liberating, most researchers highlight what Curry (18) refers to as the “social injury” associated with gang involvement. During the course of their gang involvement, girls face a number of risks and disadvantages associated with gender inequality. Moreover, there is some evidence of long-term damaging consequences for gang-involved young women.

Research has shown that girls in gangs face social sanctions, both within and outside the gang, for not behaving in gender appropriate ways. For instance, Swart (11) suggests that girls’ experiences in gangs are complicated by the contradictions they face as they balance deviant and gender norm expectations. On the one hand, he argues, “the female gang member’s behavior must be ‘deviant’ to those outside of the gang in order to ensure her place within the gang itself” (Swart 11). On the other hand, if it is too deviant, it risks the danger of offending other gang members who maintain certain attitudes about appropriate female conduct when it comes to issues of sexual activity, drug use, violence, and motherhood.

These findings are complicated by evidence which also suggests that young women’s gang involvement provides a means of resisting limitations placed on them by narrow social definitions of femininity, which they recognize as limiting their options in an environment in which they are already restricted. Campbell (187) found that gang girls see themselves as different from their female peers. Their association with the gang is a public proclamation of their rejection of the lifestyle, which the community expects from them.

Regardless of girls’ awareness of gender inequality, it remains an unfailing element of their experiences within gangs, and brings with it particular sorts of consequences. For instance, there is a clear sexual double standard in operation within gangs, and in American society as a whole. In most studies, for example, many of the male gang members admitted that female members were “treated like a piece of ass.” (Moore 11). By this making them less attractive to boys outside of the gang. On the other hand, male gang members frequently had girlfriends outside the gang who were “square”; the boys as their future looked to these girls as “respectable”.

Moreover, research suggest that rather than challenging this sexual double standard, young women often reinforce it in their interactions with one another. Several studies reveal that gang girls create hierarchies among themselves, sanctioning other girls, both for being too “square” and for being too promiscuous. Typically, the sexual double standard is reinforced by girls as sanctions against those they perceive as too sexually active. Girls have not been found to gain status among their peers for sexual promiscuity, rather they are expected to engage in serial monogamy (Campbell 10). On the whole, the sexual double standard tends to disadvantage girls in their relationships with boys but also interferes with the strength of their own friendship groups.

There are many problems caused by gender inequality within gangs, specifically in relation to victimization risk. As a whole, gang participation is likely to involve high risks of victimization. For instance, those delinquent lifestyles in general are associated with increased victimization risk (Lauritsen et al. 11). Gangs are social groups organized around delinquency, and participation in gangs escalates youths’ involvement in crime, including violent crime. Moreover, research on gang violence indicates that the primary targets of this violence are other gang members (Block and Block 1). Gang members, then, are likely to be at greater victimization risk than youths not involved in gangs.

Since girls are less likely than their male counterparts to engage in serious forms of gang crime, they face less risk of victimization at the hands of rival gang members, because they are less likely to engage in those activities that would increase their exposure to violence. However, because leadership and status hierarchies in mixed-gender gangs are typically male-dominated, and because girls are less likely to engage in those activities that present status within the gang, they are often viewed as lesser members within their gangs. This depreciation of young women can lead to girls’ mistreatment and victimization, especially by members of their own gang, because they aren’t seen as deserving of the same respect. These problems are further exacerbated by the sexual double standard.


This paper has addressed a number of issues concerning young women’s involvement in gangs. The extent of their gang involvement, why they become involved, what their experiences in gangs are like, and the consequences of gang involvement. Young women join gangs in response to multiple number of problems. Unfortunately, responses to gangs and gang members are primarily punitive in nature, disregarding the social, economic, and personal contexts that cause gang participation. This punitive orientation toward gang members means that gang involved youths are not seen as in need of assistance and protection, and this is coupled with the problems they face in their daily lives and the detrimental effects on these young people. Given the findings, the best course of action with regard to young women’s gang involvement should involve policies that consider the social, economic and personal contexts that influence gang participation and gang crime. Initiatives that consider the best interest of youths are desperately needed in order to respond to gangs and young women’s involvement in these groups effectively.


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