(WOMENSENEWS)-- Perhaps it is because I am now officially a mother, but I find myself increasingly drawn to the women in the neighborhoods.
I want to understand more about their role in gangs. For months now, I have heard conflicting stories about how active women are.
One thing was clear, however. Some women were full-fledged gang members, moving far beyond the more traditional status of baby mama.
Kenny Green told me, "They're a part of it now--they are bad--they roll up and start shooting."
Various experts had as much trouble as I did trying to figure out just how active young women are.
The National Gang Center highlighted a purposive study conducted in 15 major cities revealing that 7.8 percent of females, compared with 8.8 percent of males, between the ages of 18 and 30 self-reported that they were gang members. Law enforcement offered a different view--insisting there were far fewer female than male gang members. The only thing academics and practitioners agreed upon was that the actual number of female gang members was impossible to estimate.
In the past year, both Greg Boyle and Big Mike have insisted that probably less than 5 percent of "at-risk" young women became active gang members. The numbers weren't the only area where information was soft. Early on, the accounts of "girls in gangs" mirrored mainstream society: young women were the second sex, playing a supporting role. But from the mid-1980s and into the aptly named decade of death--when Los Angeles experienced up to 1,000 gang-related homicides a year--homegirls proved to be much more than Dale Evans with tattoos. Women did not just carry guns--they shot them. They did not just hide drugs for their homeboys--they dealt them, taking care of the cash and the transactions.
All this female activity in gangs ultimately gave rise to reports of sexual violence. The streets buzzed with stories of girls getting "sexed in" to neighborhoods by being gang-raped. In one rumored initiation rite, aspiring homegirls were forced to have sex with a gang member who was HIV-positive. There were tales of bloody beatings using fists and clubs, with no exceptions for gender. But all of this was secondhand. When I start talking to women in the neighborhoods, joining the gang sounds almost organic--evolving alongside criminal activity.
"We partied together and then they invited me to go on a drive-by," Vanity "Dimples" Benton explains. "Next thing I knew, 'cuz I was the only one with a license, they told me to drive while one of my homies opened up shooting. After that I was in the neighborhood. When they caught us and locked me up--I still thought it was worth it. I wanted to gangbang and slang drugs and just hang out."
Despite all the information and titillation, it takes me a long time to catch on to what happens with women in the neighborhoods. Too long. I am late to the party because, up until now, I have never been particularly interested in women. Hanging out with the homegirls was just not my speed. In my mind, there were two kinds of women--nuns and bitches--and I placed myself firmly in the latter category. Growing up in a Greek extended family, I watched how "good girls" exhibited a version of female dependency I wanted desperately to avoid.
Because of this I had no use for the girlfriends of gang members.
These girls--some of them only 14 or 15--surrendered their lives. As they entered the bloom of adulthood, they had no plans other than giving birth to multiple children and ensnaring a man. Marriage did not exist; pregnancy was the closest they would come to long-term commitment and infidelity was the aftermath.
The attitudes of men in the neighborhoods resembled something circa the 1950s. Women were good for one thing--sex; sex with a beautiful woman was even better and, for God's sake, domestic sex was bound to be supplemented. Of course, all this possession and infidelity caused unending problems between the neighborhoods. Kenny Green was my guide to the sexual politics in the gang world.
"Everyone thinks that gangbanging is about turf," he instructed. "No way. Most of it is about women--they make all the trouble. And now there are the women who want to be shooters and slang; they want to be part of the neighborhood."
These are the women who catch my interest. I am not interested in the nuns--the girls who behave as if they are tattooed with the word victim. I stay as far away from them as possible. I want nothing of their silent suffering, their fortitude, or their devotion. Instead, deep down, I know I am just a tough little bitch with too much rage. I identify with the female gangbangers who are angry and "down for the neighborhood."
But, despite my empathy, the women I meet are even more suspicious than the men of the neighborhoods.
"What do you want?" Dimples questions me after I ask her if we can hang out together. I am blunt; I tell her I want to know why she gangbangs and deals drugs. I may be a chameleon, but I refuse to lie. Lying is dangerous; your street credibility--no matter who you are--depends on telling the truth. Gang members come equipped with a bullshit detector; they call you out for "fronting." Slowly, Dimples and other women I meet react to the honesty I express. Their stories spill out while I am at Homeboy Industries, gathering information for a research proposal I am writing.
"This is not about girls becoming like guys," Meda Chesney-Lind, a gang researcher at the University of Hawaii, tells me. "Although the themes are the same. The girls come from toxic, abusive families, and are re-victimized in the gang setting." I wonder how the women I am getting to know would feel about being seen as "re-victimized." They openly describe the trauma they have experienced, the abuse they have known. There are stepfathers who demand blowjobs or cousins who force them to have anal sex. But making the deliberate choice to become part of a neighborhood involves something beyond trauma. Sometimes the act of joining a gang is experienced as empowerment. It doesn't really matter if it's a male gang or a female gang--all that matters is the feeling of control, with the added attraction of rejecting both traditional female passivity and victimhood. Chesney-Lind sums it all up by saying, "Girls choose the gang for entirely understandable and even laudable goals, given the constraints that they experience in a society that is increasingly likely to police and pathologize girlhood." The women I know want to rewrite the rules. These are not the nuns--these are the bitches, the girls who want, somehow, to have control.
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Excerpt from "Jumped In" by Jorja Leap. Copyright 2012 by Jorja Leap.
Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston.
Jorja Leap has been a member of the UCLA faculty since 1992. As a trained anthropologist and recognized expert in crisis intervention and trauma response, she has worked nationally and internationally in violent and post-war settings.
For more information:
Jumped in: What Gangs Taught Me about Violence, Drugs, Love, and Redemption: