When I think of gangs, I tend to think about groups of kids who, in some cases, might be a risk to others.
For the most part, I don’t connect gang membership itself as being risky to young people in the same gang.
But, along with abuse from other gangs this is actually what happens, particularly for girls. The following summarises the initial findings of ongoing research into the sexual abuse of girls in the context of gang membership.
So what happens in gangs…
A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner (England) and University of Bedfordshire researched sexual exploitation in gangs. The interim report outlines the findings, some of which will be summarised here.
GANG: ‘A relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of young people who (1) see themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group, (2) engage in a range of criminal activity and violence, (3) identify with or lay claim over territory, (4) have some form of identifying structural feature, and (5) are in conflict with other, similar, gangs’ (Pitts 2008; Centre for Social Justice 2009).
A tentative preliminary analysis of the first set of young people’s interviews, conducted in year one of the research, suggests that:
1. Gangs largely reflect what we already know about sexual violence and exploitation in general; i.e. that
- Perpetrators are predominantly male, victims are predominantly female;
- It invariably takes place between people who are known to each other; and
- It is used as a means of boys and young men exerting power and control over girls and young women.
2. Ways that the gang environment can make these things worse, include:
- Using sex as a means of initiating young people into a gang;
- Sexual activity in return for (perceived) status or protection;
- Young women ‘setting up’ people in other gangs;
- Establishing a relationship with, or feigning sexual interest in, a rival gang member as a means of entrapment; and
- Sexual assault as a weapon in conflict.
3. There are some incidents of sexual violence against young men, but this information is less forthcoming than that related to incidents against young women. Sexual violence against young men is viewed differently than that against young women.
4. Not all young women are viewed as having equal rights to assent to or decline sexual activity. Young women who are seen as engaging in casual sex are viewed by some as having lost their right to withhold consent. Experiences of sexual violence also increase vulnerability to further incidents of the same kind.
5. Incidents of gang-associated sexual violence and exploitation are rarely reported. There are a variety of reasons for this including:
- Resignation to, or normalisation of, such experiences;
- Fear of retribution or retaliation.
- Low levels of reporting of sexual violence amongst young people in general; and
- A lack of confidence in the ability of police and other statutory services to offer adequate protection following a disclosure.
(Bullet points from interim research report, p.3)
Here are some real life scenarios given to the research team by young women. They illustrate the kinds of challenges and abusive situations girls in gangs encounter:
“Like my friend, it happened to her in the past…She was walking in the park and there was a gang of boys and then that [rape] happened to her…that’s cos of who her brother was. Cos’s he’s a top boy, they thought cos they can’t get to him, cos I think he was in jail, they can’t get to him, they’ll get to her” (21 year old young man, ex-gang involved)
“Take me for instance, I liked her [my child’s] dad because he was this bad boy, that attracted me when I was younger for some reason to have someone stronger. I felt safe with him, like no one could, because he’ll just deal with things. But, that all came back in my face years after because he put his hand on me, and that’s when things got rocky…At home, when the doors were closed, when there were no visitors around, anyone to see, he was a monster, yeah he turned into a monster over the years. Threatened me with a sword. He beat me up when I got pregnant with [child], tried to force me to have an abortion, so I ended the relationship…. It’s normal, like… say if I told someone I had to call the police on my baby father because he pulled a knife out, this is true, it happened, they would go, “oh!” – not at the fact that he pulled a knife out on me, but because I called the police. That’s how normal it is” (24 year old young woman, father of her child is gang-involved)
“She wants to leave, then she may have to face the consequence of that…when I was at school that was common…[researcher asks what might those consequences be?]…maybe rape…so like even if she didn’t want to have sex with someone else in the gang she would have to. It’s just nasty the things that people have to do” (18 year old young woman, ex-boyfriend was gang involved)
(Quotes from interim research report, p.9)
So, may be it’s time for us to think differently about gangs in general. And about the place of girls in gangs, in particular. They are at risk for all kinds of reasons, but specifically they are at risk sexually…
What do you think?…
- Do you have additional comments to make about gangs?
- What’s your experience been of working with gang-involvement young people? Girls?
Please contribute to this discussion by adding your own thoughts and experiences. You can leave a comment by scrolling down, or just click here.
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