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Article

Vanessa R. Panfil

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.

Article

Dana Peterson

Sex and gender are often conflated, but there are important distinctions between the two. This is true also with terms related to gender identity, including masculinities and femininities or the performance of gender. In addition, the terms gang and gang member are contested, so it is important to establish a basis for understanding these terms in order to discuss the relationships between gender and gang involvement. Historically, gang-involved young women and men were described in terms of gender extremes, with scholarship and journalistic accounts focusing on the perceived aggressive masculinity of lower class males—and the deviant sexuality of females, who were rarely seen as legitimate full-fledged members of those groups. By the 1980s and 1990s, young women were recognized in scholarship as “real” gang members, and qualitative researchers sought to provide voice to them and examine issues of gender and gender dynamics in gangs, while quantitative researchers sought to explore similarities and differences between girls and boys in gangs, often through large scale studies using self-report surveys of adolescents. Feminist criminology and burgeoning queer criminology have pushed and blurred the boundaries of gender and gang involvement, asserting the importance of taking into account multiple, intersecting identities that differentially structure the experiences of young people, and of the troubling heteronormative, heterosexist, and cisgendered assumptions that have permeated criminology. Moving away from these assumptions means accounting, for example, not only for gender but also for the multiplicative effects of race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, ability, etc.; it means considering what the presence of young women in stereotypically hypermasculine environments signifies for gender performance, moving away from assumptions of opposite sex attraction that cast females in supportive and dependent roles with males, and accounting for the experiences of gang members who identify outside gender and sexual orientation binaries. These issues provide fruitful avenues for sensitive and productive future scholarship on gender and gang involvement.