September 12, 2011

Gangs have existed in this country for decades. What started out as a male-dominated phenomenon in the early 1930s has evolved into a nongender-specific phenomenon. Adolescent females have become increasingly more involved in youth gangs and youth violence in the last 10 years, and as they engage in what is already considered high-risk behaviors, their likelihood for victimization and exposure to various health hazards increases.

Young women have been involved in gang-related behaviors since the 1950s. During the early years, their roles were primarily to manage the money that was generated by the illegal enterprises of the male gang members. These enterprises included drugs, illegal arms sales, and prostitution. At that time, the women were not viewed as actual members of the gang, but rather were more often the spouses or girlfriends of the male members. However, in the early 1990s there was a noticeable change in this trend. Young women began to form their own gangs, usually a subgroup of one of the male gangs, and in doing so, established their own code of membership, rules, and guidelines, and initiation rites.

There are many initiation rites in the gang culture. The two that are most often used are what is known as “jumping in” and “roll of the dice.” In the jumping in process, the prospective gang member is placed in the center of a circle of established gang members and physically beaten. The beating is a timed process and the object is for perspective members to defend themselves to the best of their ability and to remain on their feet. If they fall down, they may be subject to being kicked and stomped, and subsequently not allowed to become a member. In the event perspective members remain standing, they are then allowed to become a peripheral or intermediate gang member. Peripheral members are allowed to follow and be an “apprentice” to established members of the gang before they are given any rank and status. Intermediate members are allowed to actively participate in the activities of the gang, and are granted some status in the gang. In the roll of the dice initiation, the perspective member becomes a sexual object. Several of the established male gang members roll a set of dice; the numbers that come up determine the number of established male gang members with whom the initiate must have intercourse. This method is used primarily with perspective female gang members. If the perspective gang member participates willingly she is admitted into the gang as an intermediate gang member. If the perspective gang member refuses to participate, she is usually forced. If she still wants to become a member, she is granted peripheral status in the gang, and after a period of time may be granted intermediate status.

Both of these methods present health risks to this population. The number of serious physical injuries during the jumping in initiations has been documented by the reports of increased numbers of young trauma patients, many of whom are adolescent females between the ages of 12 and 15 years, in the emergency rooms around this country.

The sexual acts performed during the roll of the dice initiation are unprotected. This places the adolescent female in the high-risk category for sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. This also places the adolescent female at risk for an unwanted pregnancy.

Another aspect of this alarming trend is the number of adolescent female gang members committing violent acts. There has been an increase in the numbers of adolescent and adult females being incarcerated for serious offenses ranging from aggravated assault to murder.

The two reasons adolescent females give for joining gangs and putting themselves at risk are their need to belong to a family and/or family unit and the sense of power they get from belonging to the gang. Their perception of external power gives them a sense of internal power and control.

A lot has been written about gangs and gang subculture, but little attention has been paid to the participation of females. As the trend in this area continues to grow, so does the need for more research.

SEE ALSO: Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, Adolescence, Sexual abuse, Sexually transmitted diseases, Violence, Youth

Suggested Reading

  • Furr, A. L. (1997). Exploring human behavior and the social environment. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Molidor, C. E. (1996). Female gang members: A profile of aggression and victimization. Social Work, 41(3), 251—257.
  • Spergel, I. A. (1995). The youth gang problem: A community approach. New York: Oxford University Press.

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