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Female Street Gangs

Female Street Gangs

The presence of female gang membership can be found in the early 19th century (Valdez, 2000). Other researchers have reported that female gang activity has been documented since the early 1920s (Thrasher 1927/1963, Asbury, 1927).

Historically, most researchers believe that 10 percent of all gang members are female. Many researchers have viewed female gangs as poor imitations of male gangs, but are very capable of committing violent criminal acts, but not in the same proportion as males' (Delaney, 2006, p.227).

Female gang members are found to be actively involved in violent acts such as fighting and holding important roles and position in their gangs than being simple “sex objects” (Miller, 2002).

The National Gang Threat Assessment (2005), notes that there is a continues role in young females in gangs, assisting in the movement of drugs, weapons, and gathering intelligence from other gangs ( p.v). Most often females assist the male gang, serving as decoys for rival gang members, as lookouts during acts of crimes or as carriers of weapons when a gang war is impending. They are also known for carrying information in and out of prisons and provide sexual favours as they are often drug dependent and physically abused by male gang members.

Although the number of female gangs is increasing, gangs are still predominately male. Female gangs have been around for nearly as long as male gangs, most of them remain auxiliary to male gangs.

Over the past years the study of female street gangs has become increasingly more important due to the rising numbers in female gang membership in the United States. The scope of the problem of female gangs however is not as easy to recognize. The reason for this is because not only it is difficult to identify gang members as explained in the previous chapter, but figures of female gang memberships stated by official data sources are not as accurate as gangs break up and form every day, (Curry, Ball, and Fox, 1994). What also complicates matters is the fact that female gang members can be involved in several types of gangs which could include mixed gangs of male and females, auxiliary gangs, where female gangs are affiliated with male gangs and independent female gangs (Miller, 1975).

However to get a rough idea of how bad the situation is of female gang members, the National Youth Gang Survey (1996-2000) reported that 94 percent of street gang members in the United States were identified as males and 6 percent females. 39 percent of all youth gangs were also reported to have female memberships.

In another study by the National Gang Threat Assessment (2005), it reported a continues role in young females in gangs, assisting in the movement of drugs and weapons, and gathering intelligence from other gangs ( p.v).

In recent reports from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (2008), reported that 32.4 percent of boys and 29.4 percent of girls in high risk crime neighbourhoods claimed to have gang membership. A review of research on girl gangs show that some young women find themselves trapped in horrible social conditions “ characterized by widespread poverty and racism “( Shelden et al., p.174). While the most common age at which girls enter gangs is 11 or 12, with the prime age of initiation occurring between ages 13 and 14, Eghigian and Kirby (p.48) note: “it is not unheard of for girls to slide into gang involvement as early as age 8. Those who enter at this age and up to 10 years of age often have relatives who are gang members or have experienced a strong gang presence in their neighbourhoods.”

There is a general consensus that exists in the research literature explaining that girls join gang life for the same reasons as their male counterparts, to meet basic human needs such as belonging/being a member of a family, self esteem and protection (Shelden et al.. p.175).

Females join to fulfil social, personal and emotional needs which they lack from in their own homes due to abuse and or dysfunctional. (Chesney-Lind, 1993).

One theory which is similar to the strain theory of delinquency, explains that females from the lower class tend to join a gang to fulfil and achieve middle class goals in the absence of legitimate means to do so. In order to achieve and get by in their social and economic situation, they turn to the illegitimate means of gang activity (Rosenbaum, 1996).

In the UK, the literature on gangs, especially girl gangs is less developed as in the united states. However According to the metropolitican police (2009), in london alone 174 gangs have been identified where as only 3 of which were all female. As this is a very small figure of female gangs yet a report from the home office (2009) recently suggested that crimes commited by 10 years old girls has increased by 25% over the past three years and by 2008, 15,000 violent crimes were reported to be carried out by young women.

The metropolitican police (2008) admitted that they knew little about this growing social phenomenon, stating “the actual number could be much greater than this; it is based purely on police intelligence.”

The culture of Street gangs in the UK and in america were mainly seen as a male preserve but not any more as stastics and reports indicate a rise in female involvement in street gangs.

IN the UK female street gang incidents are currently being reported on the tv, an example of how bad the situation of female gangs is in the UK is by looking at the incidents over the past years. In 2008 police in Brixham reported a gang fight of up to 30 girls from the age of 12, with knives and other weapons. As well as that, in Stratford in London a 17 year old female gang ring leader and a 16 year old girl were put behind bars for brutally attacking a 16 year old girl, giving the reason that she disrespected the 17 year olds mother. What is also shocking is that it was reported that the 16 year old attacker while detained in a young offender's institution had remarked heartlessly that they should have got her raped by a male.

In England and Wales the concern on female gangs has got the attention of a wider audience. In 2002 the chairman of the youth justice board in England and Wales, also expressed the issue that young females were being used by male gang members for sexual services, hiding weapons and drugs.

In the UK, the literature on gangs generally, and on girls and gangs specifi cally, is less well developed. This is largely due to the rejection of the gang paradigm by British researchers (Campbell and Muncer, 1989; Sanders, 2002). Early attempts to apply American gang theory to the UK failed to fi nd evidence of structured, street gangs (Downes, 1966; Parker, 1974; Scott, 1956), leading to a shift in focus, from a concern with delinquent gangs towards the study of leisure-based youth subcultures (where offending is one of a number of areas of investigation) (Hall and Jefferson, 1976; Muncie, 2009). As Hallsworth and Young (2008) have observed, British resistance towards the gang paradigm has meant ‘data on gangs have not been routinely collected or disseminated as they are in the USA. . . . In other words, in the UK there is no sound evidential base to prove the case [for the proliferation of violent street gangs] one way or the other' (Hallsworth and Young, 2008: 177). Recent research is expanding our knowledge about UK gangs (c.f. Aldridge and Medina, 2008; Bannister and Fraser, 2008; Bennett and Holloway, 2004; Bradshaw, 2005; Communities that Care, 2005; Kintrea et al., 2008; Pitts, 2007; Sharp et al., 2006; Young et al., 2007), but the majority of these studies emphasize gangs as a male phenomenon with little or no attention paid to girls or young women.

The average age of the juvenile female convicted in courts has fallen to 14. In the early nineties it was 16. Of course these figures do not neccessarily prove that they were gang-related incidents.

To have a generation of young women turn to violence because they inhabit a world of prejudice, poverty and exclusion provides a damning insight into Britain today and must be prevented through a realisation of the standards of living endured by citizens of this so-called “Great” nation.It used to be that street gang culture in the UK was a male preserve. Well, no longer. Female membership of these gangs is on the rise - as is the elevation in the number of exclusive girl gangs.

Though far from being an epidemic sweeping our streets, the phenomenon of girl-gangs is increasing. Well inclusion for one. No one likes being an outsider and being part of something affords you legitimacy and acceptance amongst your peers. Being part of a group also brings protection. Everyone feels safer in numbers. Within their circle of friends it can engender a sense of respect and raise their image and prestige within that group. Factor in low self-esteem, low education levels and poor social examples and you have girl gangstas ready to do more than rap.

A Home Office report recently suggested that crimes committed by girls, some as young as ten, had risen by 25% over the course of the last three years. The same period boasted 15,000 violent assaults by teenage girls. The average age of the juvenile female convicted in courts has fallen to 14. In the early nineties it was 16. Of course these figures do not neccessarily prove that they were gang-related incidents.

In the last year police in Brixham reported a gang fight involving up to 30 girls, some as young as 12, brandishing knives and other weapons. In another case in Stratford, London, a 17 year-old gang leader and another 16 year-old were jailed for viciously attacking a 16 year-old girl. The reason given was that the leader's mother had apparently been disrespected. In a revelation that tells us quite a lot, it was reported that the 16 year-old assailant, whilst detained in a young offenders institution, had remarked callously that they should have got a male friend to rape her.

More recently, attention has focused on the sexual exploitation of girls by gangs, with journalists drawing on anecdotal evidence from police and youth justice professionals to distinguish between ‘two types of girls who become involved [in gangs]: those who are “as tough as the boys” and fight to defend themselves, and those who become involved with, and can be sexually exploited by, gangs of boys, sometimes under the auspices of being “initiated” or accepted into the group' (O'Hara, 2007). Anecdotal evidence also features prominently in policy documents and statements made by high profi le public servants. In 2002, Lord Warner, the then Chairman of the Youth Justice Board in England and Wales, expressed concern that girls and young women were being used by male gang members for sexual services, or to conceal weapons and drugs: ‘We have heard anecdotal stories of young women being coerced into sexual activity as part of gang culture', he said. ‘Sex is the chosen form of physical intimidation of girls' (Warner, quoted in Burrell, 2002). This concern, again not discernibly informed by any research evidence, was reiterated in the recent Gangs and Group Offending Guidance for Schools, issued by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (2008). Girls and young women, the report stated, ‘are subservient in male gangs and even submissive, sometimes being used to carry weapons or drugs, sometimes using their sexuality as a passport or being sexually exploited, e.g. in initiation rituals, in revenge by rival gangs or where a younger group of girls sexually service older male gang members' (DCSF, 2008: 7).

In April 2008, the Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini made headlines in Scotland when she appeared before the Parliament's Equal Opportunities Committee and stated that she and others in the Crown Offi ce and Procurator Fiscal Service were worried about the increasing number of girls in groups using knives: ‘I've seen anecdotal evidence,' she said, ‘that many women are not just simply the collaborators - going along with a dominant male partner, being an accessory, carrying knives for boyfriends, assisting in cleaning up after a murder, hiding weapons, etc.' (Angiolini, quoted in BBC Online, 2008). Some are, she claimed, often the ‘prime movers,' attacking others within their own group: ‘This can be gang-related or it can just be that there is someone in a group who is quite persecuted by the gang leader or their cohorts. That is the kind of machismo behaviour that hitherto we would only see from a male offender' (Angiolini, quoted in Naysmith, 2008). One reason that such dichotomized representations hold sway is the dearth of empirical research in this area, particularly in the UK. Patterns of female invisibility in thinking about gangs have been largely set by male-centred research investigations (Campbell, 1984; Miller, 2001). Historically, the fi eld of criminology has been a masculinist enterprise, primarily interested in understanding the more dramatic or exciting offending of (predominantly lower-class) boys and young men (Millman, 1975). As a result, most empirical research and theoretical explanations of gangs have tended to focus on gangs as a male phenomenon, discussing girls and young women ‘solely in terms of their . . . relations to male gang members' (Campbell, 1990: 166). As one recent review of the literature concluded:

‘Sex objects or tomboys' - these are the images that, until recently, dominated the literature on female gang members. Individual females were portrayed in terms of their sexual activity, with an occasional mention of their functions as weapon carriers for male gang members . . . . Even when describing female gang members as tomboys, researchers emphasized that the females' motivations were focused on males.2 (Moore and Hagedorn, 2001: 2).

In the US, such images have been challenged by feminist researchers, who have attempted to provide a more ‘nuanced portrayal of the complex gender experiences of girls in gangs' (Miller, 2001: 16). This research has demonstrated that female gang members not only adhere to rigid gender expectations and experience heightened risks for physical and sexual victimization, but also claim that gang membership fosters a sense of belonging and empowerment, offering them a refuge from abusive families and the means by which to resist dominant gender stereotypes (Campbell, 1990; Joe and Chesney-Lind, 1995; Joe Laidler and Hunt, 2001; Miller, 2001, 2008; Moore, 1991; Nurge, 2003). In the UK, the literature on gangs generally, and on girls and gangs specifi cally, is less well developed. This is largely due to the rejection of the gang paradigm by British researchers (Campbell and Muncer, 1989; Sanders, 2002). Early attempts to apply American gang theory to the UK failed to fi nd evidence of structured, street gangs (Downes, 1966; Parker, 1974; Scott, 1956), leading to a shift in focus, from a concern with delinquent gangs towards the study of leisure-based youth subcultures (where offending is one of a number of areas of investigation)

(Hall and Jefferson, 1976; Muncie, 2009). As Hallsworth and Young (2008) have observed, British resistance towards the gang paradigm has meant ‘data on gangs have not been routinely collected or disseminated as they are in the USA. . . . In other words, in the UK there is no sound evidential base to prove the case [for the proliferation of violent street gangs] one way or the other' (Hallsworth and Young, 2008: 177). Recent research is expanding our knowledge about UK gangs (c.f. Aldridge and Medina, 2008; Bannister and Fraser, 2008; Bennett and Holloway, 2004; Bradshaw, 2005; Communities that Care, 2005; Kintrea et al., 2008; Pitts, 2007; Sharp et al., 2006; Young et al., 2007), but the majority of these studies emphasize gangs as a male phenomenon with little or no attention paid to girls or young women.

The Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime,4 a longitudinal study of around 4300 young people starting secondary school in Edinburgh in 1998, found that the overall proportion of respondents who self-defi ned as gang members dropped from around 18 per cent at age 13, to 12 per cent at age 16, and fi ve per cent at age 17 (Smith and Bradshaw, 2005). These fi ndings were consistent with those of Sharp et al. (2006), who - based on data from the Offending, Crime and Justice Survey5 in England and Wales (and utilizing a series of fi ltering questions developed by the Eurogang Network) - discovered that involvement in ‘delinquent youth groups' (DYG) peaked at age 14-15 (12%), falling to nine per cent at 16-17 years and two per cent at 18-19 years. Both studies found comparable rates of gang membership amongst girls and boys in the younger age groups, but reported that involvement peaked earlier for girls, at around 13-15 years, before tailing off in their late teens. By age 16, prevalence was considerably higher amongst boys than girls. According to Smith and Bradshaw (2005), this is because girls reach maturity earlier than boys.

Because most of the gang activity identifi ed in self-report studies starts young and then rapidly declines, it is fair to assume that most ‘gangs' or ‘delinquent youth groups' are not engaged in serious criminal activity. Indeed, some such groups may not be involved in offending at all, particularly in those studies relying on self-defi nition. The questions used to defi ne gang membership in both the Safer London Youth Survey6 (Communities that Care, 2005) and the Edinburgh Study, Nuts and sluts revisited: Girls' role in UK gang research Whereas self-report surveys suggest an almost equal level of female gang membership in the UK, qualitative studies suggest that gangs are much more male dominated and, as a result, tend to pay lesser attention to the views and experiences of girls (Esbensen et al., 1999). The two most recent studies in this vein are Aldridge and Medina's (2008) account of youth gangs in an English city11 and John Pitts' (2007) research with armed gangs in Waltham Forest. Other qualitative studies include Kintrea et al.'s (2008) exploratory study of young people and territoriality (in Bradford, Bristol, Glasgow, Peterborough, Sunderland and Tower Hamlets) and Young et al.'s (2007) interviews with young people involved in group offending (in fi ve towns and cities in England and Wales). As will become apparent, only the latter account includes any detailed consideration of the views and experiences of girls and young women.

Aldridge and Medina devote only one paragraph of their end of award report to a discussion of gender. In it, they highlight the diffi culty of identifying and accessing gang-involved girls: ‘Our ethnographic data . . . indicate that females are seen as playing a secondary role in most of the gangs we had access to. In one of the gangs. . . we gathered reports of a greater involvement but were unsuccessful in talking to female members' (2007: 7, emphasis added). Kintrea and colleagues devote two paragraphs to girls and young women in their study, but all of the quotations used to back up the claims made are drawn from interviews with (male) adult practitioners, thus perpetuating the stereotype of girls as auxiliary members:

Most participants who were reported to be involved in territoriality were boys or young men . . . . Girls and young women took a more minor part; they were less often involved in gang confl ict and they were less constrained by territoriality in their personal dealings, and it was believed that the impact on their life chances was much less than for boys . . . . A typical comment about girls' role was: ‘The girls play a background role to the gang. They are there, and they are there for their boys but they are not as territorial as the boys are. They are proud of their areas and they are proud of where they come from and they stick by their lads, but they are not as visible . . . for the girls it's part of hanging out with the lads'. (Kintrea et al., 2008: 25)

In line with malestream research conducted in the US, the report also portrays girls as relegated to gender-specifi c crimes, claiming that girls ‘play an important role in encouraging gang activity,' through ‘wanting to have a boyfriend who is the biggest, baddest guy in their scheme' and ‘[making] boys in their area jealous by deliberately cultivating friendships with guys from other areas' (derogatively referred to as ‘scheme-hopping') (Male practitioner, quoted in Kintrea et al., 2008: 25). This is a view reiterated by the male gang members and adult practitioners interviewed by Pitts (2007), who devotes one paragraph to a discussion of gender. ‘Girls,' his interviewees report, ‘play an ancillary role, sometimes carrying or hiding guns or drugs for the boys' (Pitts, 2007: 40). They are apparently ‘attracted to the “glamour” and “celebrity” of gang members' (Pitts, 2007: 40) but often fi nd themselves being sexually exploited, sometimes in exchange for drugs:

The relationship [between gang members and their girlfriends] tends to be abusive; one of dominance and submission. Some senior gang members pass their girlfriends around to lower ranking members and sometimes to the whole group at the same time. Unreported rape by gang members, as a form of reprisal or just because they can, is said to occur fairly frequently and reports to the police are rare (Pitts, 2007: 40).

‘There are other girls,' Pitts claims, who ‘do not perform the same sexual role as the “girlfriends” of gang members' (Pitts, 2007: 40). In London, these girls are said to ‘regard themselves as “soldiers” and concentrate on violent street crime' (Pitts, 2007: 40). In Glasgow, they form adopt imitative ‘she' gangs (i.e. auxiliaries to male gangs) (Kintrea et al., 2008: 26). The only example found of an all-female gang was discovered by Aldridge and Medina (2008), but this (small) group was said to engage in acquisitive as opposed to violent offending. A view from the girls: Friendship groups as a source of fulfi lment and fun The only UK gangs research to include any detailed consideration of the views and experiences of girls and young women is Young et al.'s (2007) study of groups, gangs and weapons for the Youth Justice Board in England and Wales.12 Like previous studies, this research had some diffi culty in identifying female gang members (see also Batchelor, 2001; Batchelor et al., 2001), resulting in their having to extend the defi nition of gang membership to include young women who were ‘known to have offended with other people.' This wider defi nition produced a sample of 25 young women aged between 14 and 20 years. Seven had been involved in street robbery, fi ve had committed an assault and seven had been arrested for shoplifting.

A smaller number had been involved in sex work (n = 3), or been arrested for possession of drugs and/or small time drug dealing (n = 3). All of the young women interviewed described growing up in ‘bad areas', characterized by poverty and deprivation. Many had diffi cult family backgrounds and often related experiences of bereavement and loss, as well as bullying and neglect by parents and carers. This frequently resulted in experience of the care system and an inability to meet the demands of mainstream education.

Young et al.'s (2007) research is important because it demonstrates that when researchers engage directly with girls and young women, a different picture emerges of their ‘gang' involvement. Unlike the UK studies reported above, which tend to portray girls and young women in terms of their status as ‘girlfriends,' Young et al.'s interviewees said that the mixed-sex groups they belonged to were composed of peers whose principle relation to each other was friendship. All denied that their group was a gang. Sometimes the young women went out with older group members, some of whom were abusive, but this was said to be uncommon.

Unlike in the US literature (e.g. Miller, 2001), the young women did not ‘join' the group as matter of ritual (the group emerged from friendships forged at schools, in the care system, or in the estates where they lived) and there was no evidence to suggest that they were subject to initiation rites (such as being ‘jumped in' or ‘sexed in'). What's more, Young et al. (2007) uncovered evidence of all-female groups, whose principle points of reference were each other and not their male associates:

Seven young women belonged to all-female groups and although they would periodically hang about with the local young men, this was not because these relationships with males were considered to be important or necessary. Indeed, from their testimonies it was evident that these women did not consider the males around them as friends or even friendly. Nor did this group enter into intimate relationships with the young men they associated with. These young women determined when they associated with the males in their social circle and were not signifi cantly infl uenced by the actions of males or male-dominated groups. (Young et al., 2007: 143)

Whilst the main activity that the young women engaged in with their friends was ‘hangin' out' and 'aving fun,' some also participated in interpersonal physical violence and street robbery (or ‘jacking'). Most violence occurred within the peer group, often as a result of rumours or excessive teasing, as retribution, perceived rule infraction or injustice, or jealousy. Fighting was also associated with ‘being pissed', although most young women did not drink with the intention of causing trouble, but rather to combat boredom and ‘for the pleasures that came with intoxication' (Young et al., 2007: 148). Street robbery was similarly pursued as a source of excitement (and power), but sometimes ‘took on a more instrumental sheen because the victim was both robbed of her possessions as well as being physically humiliated for something she had done, or for some slight she was believed to have occasioned' (Young et al., 2007: 151). Far from playing a minor role in group violence, these young women claimed that ‘females were more likely to pursue thrills, engage in fi ghts and cause more trouble than their male counterparts' (Young et al., 2007).

These fi ndings clearly challenge the claims made by Pitts (2007) and Kintrea et al. (2008), not least because they demonstrate the active and assertive role that young women can play within their peer networks. However, given the interviewees' reluctance to defi ne these friendship groups as a ‘gang,' they also cast doubt on the levels of female gang membership reported by Sharp et al. (2006) and Smith and Bradshaw (2005). In short, Young et al.'s research suggests that whilst some young women engage in violent crime for much the same reasons as young men, this violence is not gang-related. Ambivalence and agency: girls and violence In addition to Young et al's study of ‘girl gangsters', there are a small number of (mainly qualitative) studies that have looked at girls and violence in an attempt to ‘bring the voices of young women to the centre of theoretical and methodological debates' (Batchelor, 2005: 361). These studies report strikingly similar fi ndings to those discussed above, in regard to girls' attitudes and experiences of violence.

However they also paint a more complex picture of the role of victimization and agency in the lives of young women who offend. In an exploratory study of teenage girls' views and experiences of violence carried out in Scotland, Burman and colleagues found little evidence of a huge rise in physical violence by girls, nor of girl gangs (Batchelor, 2001; Batchelor et al., 2001; Burman, 2004; Burman et al., 2001, Burman and Batchelor, 2009).13 Although exposure to and fear of violence were fairly common, only a small number of girls reported using physical violence frequently. This group of girls had disproportionate experience of violence in their own lives, at the hands of both their families and their peers. However, such violence tended to be normalized and the girls showed a high tolerance for physical violence, particularly in self-defence. A fairly high level of verbal abuse was uncovered across the sample, and gossip, teasing and namecalling were reported as common precursors to fi ghts between girls: Contrary to its literal meaning, ‘talking behind someone's back' could be construed as an overt and challenging expression of aggression, generating intense anger, annoyance, and the need to act in ‘self-defence' . . . . When the effects of ‘gossip' and ‘bad-mouthing' were considered within the context of girls' friendships, insights emerged as to why they were considered to be a powerful catalyst for physical violence. The premise of ‘close' friendships between teenage girls is sharing, trust, loyalty and the keeping of secrets. Girls in the study commonly described their friendships with other girls as ‘the most important thing' in their lives, and spending time and hanging out with friends was their main social activity. This means that girls can react powerfully to fall-outs with friends and breaches of confi dence (Batchelor et al., 2001: 129).

Exposure to routine violence was also common amongst the young women convicted for violent offences interviewed by Batchelor (2005, 2007a, 2007b).14 Like the young women in Young et al.'s study, Batchelor's participants reported signifi - cant histories of family disruption, bereavement and neglect, as well as experiences of physical and sexual abuse, sometimes at the hands of male partners. Despite these circumstances they often demonstrated great loyalty to their families, friends and boyfriends, alongside unresolved feelings of disappointment, anger and grief (which they dealt with by using drugs and/or alcohol as a form of self medication).

Violence was perceived as a form of self-defence, ‘an attempt to pre-empt [further] bullying or victimization through the display of an aggressive or violent disposition' (Batchelor, 2005: 369). Fights usually arose over issues of personal integrity, including instances of false accusation, gossiping behind backs, and pejorative remarks about sexual morality and/or the young woman's abilities as a mother (see also Campbell, 1981). One of the unwritten rules of violence, then, was that ‘You need tae stick up fer yourself to get respect' (Batchelor, 2007b). Of course girls and young women do not solely experience their everyday lives in relation to the perceived threat of physical (or sexual) danger; rather, there is a strong sense that they also engage in risk-seeking behaviour where the pursuit of excitement, thrills, and pleasure take precedence (Batchelor, 2007a). In line with the fi ndings of Matza and Sykes (1961), along with work carried out under the rubric of ‘cultural criminology' (for an overview, see Ferrell, 1999), girls and young women in both Burman et al. (2003) and Batchelor's (2007a) research cited the adrenaline ‘rushes' involved in offending, stating that violence could be ‘fun.' For young women involved in street robbery, for example, the value of the goods stolen was often said to be of less importance than the sense of euphoria and exhilaration associated with ‘putting one over' on someone. Thus violence presented some young women with a measure of self-esteem and self-effi cacy; a sense that they had crossed the boundaries into someone else's world and ‘gotten away with it'. This sense of status and esteem was sometimes linked to the supposedly ‘masculine' nature of the offences they committed, since confronting expectations that women should not engage in violence provided an additional source of excitement, pleasure, self-respect and status.

Taken together, these fi ndings provide an important challenge to essentialist arguments about the emergence of a new breed of ‘girl gangsters' who simply seek to emulate the violent behaviour of young men. Criminally violent young women are not liberated young women, but young women who are severely constrained by both their material circumstances and attendant ideologies of working-class femininity. They are not determined by these circumstances, however. By pointing to the risk-seeking nature of much of violence perpetrated by girls and young women, qualitative research with young women demonstrates the positive contribution violent behaviour can have in terms of their sense of self and self-effi cacy. In short, such research acknowledges that subordination and agency are simultaneously realized in young women's lives, and thereby demonstrates that there is no such thing as the essential ‘gang girl'.


Stories about ‘girl gangs' and ‘violent young women' appear regularly in the UK media, where violence by girls is presented as a new and growing social problem. Yet, despite increasing concern, little is actually known about girls' attitudes towards or experiences of gang involvement. As with other areas of criminological enquiry, UK gang research has involved two different methodological approaches:

(i) quantitative analyses of risk factors identifi ed by self-report studies; and (ii) qualitative (observational/interview-based) accounts of social, situational and experiential factors. These different approaches have resulted in a lack of consensus concerning not only the extent of girls' gang involvement, but also the nature of that involvement.

Depending on what defi nition of a group or gang is adopted, and the age range of the sample, self-report surveys indicate a level of membership amongst youth of between 2 and 20 per cent. Female involvement appears comparable with male involvement, particularly in the younger age categories, although girls report engaging in offending at a much lower rate than their male peers. Qualitative research, in contrast, suggests that male gang members consistently outnumber female members, or indeed they fail to prove the existence of gang girls at all.

Interviews with adult practitioners and boys who are involved in group offending suggest that girls play a minor role in most gangs and are subjected to high levels of sexual and physical victimization. Interviews with young women, however, point to the positive features of group involvement for girls, as well as highlighting girls' varied motivations for (predominantly low level) violence. Perhaps most notably, this latter research demonstrates that, contrary to media reports and statements made by prominent public servants, there is little to suggest that recent rises in individual violent crime among girls and young women are at all gang-related. Regardless of whether they are defi ned as ‘gang' members or not, some young women clearly spend much of their time hanging around on the streets with delinquent peer groups, and this has important implications for their lives. Spending time with friends is a prime social activity for most young people, but girls in particular commonly describe their friendships as ‘the most important thing' (Burman et al., 2003; Griffi ths, 1995; Hey, 1997). For young women coming from backgrounds characterized by disruption, abuse and neglect, the peer group takes on heightened signifi cance as a source of identity, approval, support and protection (Joe and Chesney-Lind, 1995; Miller, 2001). For these young women, participating in home-centred ‘bedroom cultures' (McRobbie and Garber, 1976) is unlikely to be an option and, where affordable and accessible leisure facilities are not available locally, they are more likely to use the streets as places of leisure (Skelton, 2000).

Participation in unstructured leisure activities has been shown to be highly correlated with delinquent and violent behaviours amongst youth (Agnew and Peterson, 1989; McNeill and Batchelor, 2002). As the fi ndings discussed above demonstrate, most of the violence that girls and young women experience, as both perpetrators and victims, takes place within either the family or the friendship group. This implies that social work and probation practitioners need to heed the familial and peer contexts of young women's offending, recognizing that both groups can be simultaneously harmful and protective. In their recent article, ‘Gang Talk and Gang Talkers: A Critique,' Hallsworth and Young exhort offi cials, academics, and practitioners to look ‘beyond and behind mystifi cations like gang culture' and be ‘wary about imposing misleading labels' (Hallsworth and Young, 2008: 192). To this I would add the need to resist simplistic accounts of girls' involvement that rely on dichotomous portrayals of male and female behaviour and thereby reinforce limiting gender stereotypes. There has been a tendency, in both academic and policy discourse, to identify the ‘typical' female offender, thereby homogenizing what is in fact a diverse group (Burman and Batchelor, 2009; Carlen, 1985). Statistical representations do not break down data by gender and ethnicity, for example, nor do existing qualitative accounts address the complexity of raced, classed and gendered subjectivities. Given the diffi cult family backgrounds and levels of physical and sexual abuse experienced by many women who offend, it is unsurprising that responses to female offending have tended to focus on women's status as ‘victim,' depicting their actions as symptomatic of individual pathology or, alternatively, the result of circumstances beyond their control. However, such women are not merely victims, they are also agentic social actors who have the ability to make choices and impose them on the world, albeit it in circumstances not of their own choosing. As I have argued previously (Batchelor, 2005), if we are to effect change in the lives of young women who offend, we need to respect this agency by maximizing involvement and participation.

In short, effective interventions should provide opportunities for girls and young women to participate in positive relationships, not just with probation or social work staff, but with their families and friends as well. This implies a need for affordable and accessible leisure activities, some of which are geared to the specifi c needs of girls and young women. Such activities need to be staffed by specialist workers, who are attuned to, and equipped to deal with, girls' bullying and victimisation.

Delaney (p.227) points out: ‘the single fact that so many female gang members come from abusive and sexually exploitive environments is a strong reason for considering female gang membership a serious social problem. Most female gang members have children, and since the fathers generally refuse to take family responsibility, the fiscal burden is often shifted onto society in the form of welfare problems.” Children who are born to young, unwed female gang members face an unfortunately high likelihood of growing up within the gang culture and eventually becoming gangbangers themselves ( Eghigian and Kirby, p.48).

These numbers are comparable to those reported in 1998.Age and race/ethnicity of gang members were measured in the 1996, 1998, and 1999 surveys. In 1996, respondents reported that 50 percent of gang members were juveniles (i.e., youngerthan 18) and 50 percent were adults (i.e., 18 and older).In 1999, these numbers were 37 percent and 63 percent, respectively. In 1999, respondents reported that 47 percent of gang members were Hispanic, 31 percent African American, 13 percent white, 7 percent Asian, and 2 percent “other.” The distribution of race/ethnicity of gang members varied little across measurement years.

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