Why Female Youths Join Gangs
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Female youths join street gangs on the basis of gender conflict, lack of family support and
violence in their lives. Through adolescence young females have a much harder time than young
males dealing with family, sexuality and the harsh reality of living in the urban ghetto. Young
females who must endure these facets of life have little opportunity to succeed. Consequently,
these young women turn to a replacement family, a place where they feel they are needed and
loved and can escape reality, even if momentarily. This type of place is in the common street
Presently, inner city minorities are hopelessly discriminated and isolated from economic
opportunity. Young females see society as having nothing to offer young minority women.
Neglected communities with high crime and a lack of resources force young females to turn to
others in the same situation for support. Thus, they develop an exaggerated sense of belonging
and gain excitement lacking in their lives (Chesney-Lind 53).
According to Thornberry there are three types of models that account for gang
membership: selection model, social facilitation model and enhancement model. Female
membership seems to fall into the selection model. The selection model states that gangs only
recruit or associate with already delinquent persons (Dukes, Martinez, Stein 143). In 1994
“females accounted for 24% of all juvenile arrests” (Chesney-Lind 11). Also, female gang
members show higher levels of delinquency than non gang members (Curry 12). However, they
do not necessarily influence members once in the gang. Such as many researchers have found;
once in a gang, female members are not expected to involve themselves in delinquency.
Recent estimates of female gang involvement have shown a tremendous increase in
female membership. These increases have become great enough to turn researchers attention to
female gang members. Studies have shown that ten to thirty eight percent of gang members are
female (qtd. in Miller 431). Miller has recognized two different types of female gangs. First, the
independent female gang. The independent female gang is completely separate of the male gang.
The females make their own set of rules and have decision making powers. Miller’s studies have
shown that less than ten percent of female gangs are independent (qtd. in Chesney-Lind 46).
Second, the auxiliary gang (qtd. in Curry 105). The auxiliary female gang is the most common
and one in which the females are separate from the males in the gang, but are still apart of the
whole gang. The males make all the decisions and essentially control the females. These type of
female gang groups are, “an expression of the gender relations and boundaries of society” (qtd.
Laidler, Hunt 150). According to Lauderback, Hansen, and Waldorf independent female gangs
show they have less interest in status and reputation, but more interest in making money in a
“bleak environment with no legitimate opportunities and lack of support” (qtd. in Laidler, Hunt
Gang members tend to have identity problems, no self esteem, little confidence in their
academic abilities, low feeling of purpose in their life and weak attachments to their own ethnic
group. This proves there is a complete lack of social bonds throughout their life. Psychosocial
theory by Hirschi states that internal control is the mechanism for explaining conformity and
delinquency. Socialization is shown to help individuals develop a strong conscience and sense of
morality that prevents delinquent behavior. Therefore, detachment from socialization breeds
delinquent behavior. Youths growing up in the urban ghetto lack this socialization, because of
growing up in a one parent or no parent household where family relationships are absent and
there is a failure to attend school. Consequently, these delinquents turn to other delinquents for
support (Dukes, Martinez, Stein 142-143).
Gaining insight into the family lives of these female gang members will demonstrate the
lack of socialization, gender bias and violence inherent in these youths lives. Therefore,
establishing why these female youths turn to street gangs. A self identified study was conducted
by Laidler and Hunt where sixty five female gang members were interviewed face to face. Of
these sixty five females, fifty one were Hispanic, ten were African American and four were
The African American females described their family homelife as impoverished. Their
fathers were reported as being unskilled laborers or unemployed. The females had little or no
contact with their fathers, because the fathers were living on the streets addicted to drugs and
alcohol. Only half of the mothers were employed in the service industry, the other half
unemployed. Several of the females severed contact with their mothers, because of their severe
substance abuse. One young female was quoted as saying, “I don’t see my parents. They are into
alcohol and drugs and they just don’t care. Really they just don’t care” (qtd. in Laidler, Hunt
154). Most of the females never finished high school, were unemployed and on public assistance
or hustling for money. All, but one had a child living with them.
The Latina females on the other hand described their family homelife a little differently.
Some reported having good relationships with their parents, however, their parents held very
strict and traditional views of femininity. Fathers punished these females by hitting them, calling
the police or kicking them out of the house. If the females didn’t get kicked out they would end
up running away. The mothers and fathers both worked semi skilled to unskilled jobs. Half of the
females interviewed had nine years or fewer of education. Surprisingly, over 40% of the females
interviewed had a primary income source (152-153).
Females see joining a gang as protection from this type of violence in their family and
from the men in their lives. Many of these young females come from underclass urban societies
where “violence against women is heightened by the nature of the urban street world” (qtd. in
Miller 430). These young females see their mothers being abused by their fathers and most of the
time are subject to the same abuse. Consequently, because of the cultural support for violence
and power over women in these type of societies, females are more likely than boys to be
sexually abused. Approximately 70% of victims of sexual abusive are female (Chesney-Lind 25).
As a result of this abuse females tend to run away from home; not as an act of rebellion, but as a
way of coping, to escape the harsh reality of the urban ghetto (qtd. in Curry 109). In conclusion to
a study on female gang members, Bowker and Klein found that, “the overwhelming impact of
racism, sexism, poverty and limited opportunity structures is likely to be so important in
determining the gang membership and juvenile delinquency of women and girls in urban
ghettos”(qtd. in Curry 110). For females a gang fills an emotional void left because of a weak
family structure. The gang provides a safe retreat and surrogate family (Chesney-Lind 54).
According to Curry in his publication Female Gang Involvement, a female gang study
was conducted by Ruth Horowitz that showed female participation emerged as a form of a
struggle against male control (112). Males such as boyfriends or relatives are used as an entrance
into the gang. Once in the gang females tend to separate themselves from the males and gain a
solidarity (Curry 103). Although, gang involvement is seen as protection from male violence and
escape from male control, these females are exposing themselves to victimization by their fellow
male gang members. Things such as being coerced into having sexual relations with one or
multiple male members to gain status in the gang. Therefore, leading to the social injury
hypothesis which states, “any benefit in personal liberation that girls may gain from involvement
is outweighed by the social costs of such affiliation” (Curry 107).
Gender combined with delinquency a contributing factor in female youths involvement in
gangs. The liberation hypothesis falls into this category. The liberation hypothesis is a way for
young females to liberate themselves from male control by committing not only more crime, but
more violent male centered crime (Chesney-Lind 21). This increase in violence and delinquency
leads young females to the open arms of a gang. A gang for most of the females is another way to
gain their liberation through means of respect and toughness. As mentioned earlier females are
abused by their fathers, boyfriends and other male gang members. Consequently, these young
females see their female counterparts as more dependable than men. These are the very reasons
females are looking to liberate themselves any way they can. For the economically challenged,
uneducated, minority females there are few opportunities to liberate themselves. Hence, a recent
increase in independent female gangs.
While researching female gangs, Miller found only one independent female gang in 1975.
In 1982 she reported six and in 1988 twenty two independent females gangs were found. By 1992
“ninety nine independent female gangs spread over thirty five law enforcement jurisdictions”
(qtd. in Curry 104). As Taylor stated, “the male-female gang relationship is being altered” (qtd.
in Chesney-Lind 47).
In contrast, some females use their gender to their advantage instead of trying to escape
from it. Gender inequality gives a protective edge for these females that are willing to utilize it.
They see it as a way to get into the gang, but not have to live up to the gang member standards.
Females are able to avoid the serious delinquent involvement that the males engage in. There is
less expectation from male and female peers for females to be involved in delinquent or violent
crimes. Also, they are seen as not having to risk whole life for gang. That is the males job (Miller
By compiling all the research, the studies that have been conducted and the theories that
have been developed, it is easy to answer the question, “Why do female youths join gangs?”
Simply stated, female youths join gangs to liberate themselves. Some of the researchers came to
the conclusion that females were joining gangs to liberate themselves from the “female” label.
Other researchers noted females as joining gangs to escape family abuse and neighborhood
violence. Poverty, cultural bias and weak family structures was also seen as a key factor in
determining female gang involvement. In fact, all of these findings are related to liberation.
Escaping family abuse and violence; removing oneself from those surroundings is liberation.
Breaking the mold and removing the “female” label is liberation. Leaving behind poverty,
finding new family ties and becoming culturally strong is liberation. In summary, female youths
join gangs to liberate themselves from the downward spiral of their environment.
Chesney-Lind, Meda. The Female Offender. California: Sage Publications, Inc., 1997.
A vivid compilatio of females and crime. Includes information on female youth gang
mebership and delinquency.
Curry, David. “Female Gang Involvement.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 35
(1998) : 100(19).
Focuses on female participation in gangs and the crimes they commit.
Dukes, Richard, Ruben Martinez and Judith Stein. “Precursors and Consequences of
Membership in Youth Gangs.” Youth and Society 29 (1997) : 139(27).
A study conducted to find what causes youths to joing gangs and how society has to deal
with the gangs in their neighborhood..
Fleisher, Mark S. Dead End Kids: Gang Girls and the Boys they Know. Wisconsin: The
University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.
A collection of studies done on specific female gangs and a step by step look at their
Laidler, Karen A. Joe and Geoffrey Hunt. “Violence and Social Organization in Female Gangs.”
Social Justice 24 (1997) : 148(22).
Discusses the influencing factors behind female gang involvement.
Miller, Jody. “Gender and Victimization Risk Among Young Women in Gangs.” Journal of
Research in Crime and Delinquency 35 (1998) : 429(25).
Connects female gang involvement with the risk of victimization and violence.
Pattillo, Mary. “Sweet Mothers and Gangbangers.” Social Forces 76 (1998) : 747(28).
Studies a black middle class neighborhood in chicago and the gangs that live there.
Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi. “The Social Organization of Street Gang Activity in an Urban
Ghetto.” The American Journal of Sociology 103 (1997) : 82(30).