Sexuality and Gang Involvement
- Vanessa R. PanfilVanessa R. PanfilDepartment of Sociology & Criminal Justice, Old Dominion University
Recent gang research has explored various dimensions of diversity including sexuality and has provided important insights regarding sexual identity and sexual behavior within the context of youth street gang involvement. Insights include the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning (LGBTQ) gang members such as their prevalence rates, reasons for joining, gang activities, homophobia within youth street gangs, and how gang structure and composition affect their ability to be open about their sexuality within the gang context. These insights were preceded by scholars’ descriptions of the “homosexual activities” of gang members, particularly in mid-20th-century works, but early-21st-century works include empirical research and documentaries that explore the lived experiences of self-identified LGBTQ gang members. Another major area of study explores the ways that young women are subjected to various forms of sexual violence within gangs, partially because female gang members are often viewed as sex objects. Girls may be “sexed in” to a gang, targeted for sexual violence to exact retribution, raped as a tool of control, or coerced into commercial sexual exploitation. Sexual behavior and sexual identity are often linked with gendered processes and expectations for gang members, which similarly factor into our understanding of the youth street gang experience. Other topics of interest in this field include determining the relationships between childhood sexual abuse and later gang involvement; how to better research sexual autonomy and sexual agency (choice) that may become available to young people within their gangs; as well as addressing extensions of sexuality, such as by examining the relationship between pregnancy or parenthood and leaving the gang, focusing on shifts in available time, priorities, and identity.