Casey has a Ph.D. in sociology and has 15 years of experience in academia.
The Importance of Studying Females in Gangs
Research on female gang involvement offers an interesting glimpse into a subject that has been under-researched historically but is complex in numerous ways. Even though male gang members outnumber females, in modern times there have been rising rates of females affiliated with gangs. When comparing female gang involvement to male gang involvement, women behave in similar social manners as males and have been recorded as committing the same types of crimes and as having similar gang social structures and expectations. When examining the involvement of females with gangs, whether by forming their own gangs or affiliating themselves with male gangs, it has been determined women join these groups for a variety of reasons.
Photo of Female Gang Members
Female Gang Involvement
Historically, the role of females in gangs has been a neglected subject by scholarly researchers. Most of the focus has been on male involvement in gangs. Female gang members have been stereotyped as maladjusted tomboys who are dependent or attached to male gang members in some way. The subject is much more complex than that though.
Modern research has indicated that there are two types of female gang organizations:
- females affiliated with male groups (often called satellite groups) and
- independent female groups.
Females affiliated with male groups display traditional power relations between males and females where males make final decisions for the group and dominate and control the actions of females. In independent female gangs, the female members establish their own rules and are not subordinates of male gangs. Female dominated gangs are perceived as equivalent to male gangs and behave in just as ruthless a manner (Hunt & Laidler, 1997) (Molidor, 1996).
Women in Male Gangs Have More Minor Roles
When trying to understand the involvement of females in male gangs or females forming their own gangs, female involvement is comparable to male involvement. Overall, male gang members significantly outnumber female members. In numerous interviews with adult and younger male gang members it has been suggested that females play a minor role in most gangs, particularly when involved in male gangs, and that high levels of sexual and physical victimization towards them exist. In studies interviewing young women involved in gangs there is an indication that joining gangs has positive impacts for females and that there are varied motivations for joining and for violent acts committed by females during involvement (Vigil, 2003).
Reasons For Joining A Gang
The reasons young females join male gangs or form their own gangs is similar to the reasons young males join. Culture, conflict, poverty, family, and school problems are all common factors influencing the formation or joining of gangs by females. Gang affiliation can also be linked to child-rearing experiences that are stricter and negative, personal feelings of devaluation, gender role expectations that result in feelings of tension, and issues with self-esteem. Joining gangs gives members a feeling of being wanted, a substitute for family, feelings of power or elevated social status, and more. Gang members become role models for women who may not have parents or adults in their own homes who are positive role models to follow (Vigil, 2003).
The earliest surveys of gang involvement in the United States in the 1970’s estimated that ten percent of gang members were female. In 1992, another survey done nationwide found that only 3.7 percent of all gang members were female. This low proportion may have been recorded because thirty-two percent of jurisdictions surveyed did not consider or identify females as members of gangs. In surveys conducted in 1996 and 1998 it was estimated that eight to eleven percent of all gang members were female. In non-law enforcement surveys where self-identified youth gang members were surveyed, the female gang member rate ranged from eight to thirty-eight percent female. Differences in statistical findings can be attributed to different sources being used to gather data, different definitions of gang membership, the exclusion of females from the statistics, age of individuals being surveyed, along with many other factors (Moore & Hagedorn, 2001).
Females and Violence
In past research conducted on the social dynamics of gangs, researchers commonly agree that there is evidence that males exhibit more physical aggression than females. In more recent studies though, female gangs and females affiliated with male gangs have participated in higher rates of physical gang related violence. Even though there are fewer female gang members in comparison to males, there is a high percentage of incarcerated female belonging to gangs, and arrest rates for young women has increased at a much faster pace than for males not affiliated with gangs for charges involving violence (Vigil, 2003).
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Females in independent gangs deal with violent situations, usually in association with selling drugs, with girls in other gangs, and boyfriends. Female gang members involved in the selling of drugs implement precautionary measures to avoid violence by traveling in large numbers, by avoiding streets in the late evening when males dominate the streets, by selling indoors and through car windows, and by carrying weapons (Hunt & Laidler, 1997).
It's been found that female gangs competed with other female gangs over men and turf. Some of the highest rates of conflict between female gang members deal with females fighting over territory, both geographical and in the form of boyfriends or husbands. Female gang members also suffer from conflict within their relationships with males with significant levels of violence occurring within romantic relationships. Female gang members tend to end up in and out of abusive relationships and most females describe boyfriends as possessive, controlling, and violent. This is a contrast to female relationships with other female group members who rarely fight with one another due to group reliance and dependence on one another. Female gang members usually take care of one another when in relationships with abusive males and defend other females during male acts of violence on members (Hunt & Laidler, 1997).
The Victimization of Gang Members
Female gang members affiliated with male gangs are also at risk of being victims of violent acts by males in rival gangs. Male members of rival gangs may kidnap, beat, and physically assault female members of their enemies gang. For example, in Los Angeles, female members of the Crips and the Bloods are often caught in the crossfire of group rivalries and it is not uncommon for females to be victims of physical acts of violence by males from rival groups (Schalet, Hunt, & Joe-Laidler, 2003).
In studies that have examined victimization in relation to gender differences in gang membership, it has been found that the risk of victimization is not significantly different for male and female gang members. In comparison to males, female gang members do not have higher risks for dating violence or sexual assault. Studies have not determined if gang membership causes victimization but only focus on the association of gang members who have experienced violent victimization (victimization could have occurred before joining a gang or during membership). Males may be victims of violence more often due to stronger gang attachments. It is also thought that growing up into a healthy adult is correlated to the avoiding negative health related experiences. These include avoiding situations that may result in physical assault and dating violence. Becoming involved in gangs is correlated to experiences of victimization with both males and females being influenced by such life events (Schalet, Hunt, & Joe-Laidler, 2003).
Even though feminist scholars have uncovered significant differences between males and females, there are still many areas of female gang dynamics that have yet to be researched. Overall, male and female gangs have many similarities but are in numerous ways extremely different. Females behave, join, and construct gangs in different ways than males and often have different reasons for joining gangs and different social behaviors within those gangs. It is because of these differences that researchers are calling for more research on this topic because there has been limited focus on females within the gang world.
For More Reading On Female Gangs
Hunt, G., & Laidler, K. A. (1997). Violence and Social Organization in Female Gangs. Social Justice , 24 (4), 148.
Molidor, C. (1996). Female Gang Members: Profiles of Aggression and Victimization. Social Work .
Moore, J., & Hagedorn, J. (2001). Female Gangs: A Focus on Research. U.S. Department of Justice.
Schalet, A., Hunt, G., & Joe-Laidler, K. (2003). Respectability and Autonomy: The Articulation and Meaning of Sexuality among the Girls in the Gang. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography , 32 (1).
Vigil, J. D. (2003). Urban Violence and Street Gangs. Annual Review of Anthropology , 225-242.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: My female friend has a 21-year-old son in a gang she has been hanging out with him and the gang. She wants to join their gang. Why would my friend want to join this gang?
Answer: In some communities, gangs are a symbol of status and power. People join gangs for a sense of power, safety, or because they see it as their only option to escape poverty or undesirable circumstances, etc. Gangs are often replacements for families for people who have broken homes or need authority figures in their life. Gang leaders are seen as authority figures to kids and adults and people in lower-income areas may be attracted to their power and dominance in a community.
© 2015 Casey White