Female Gang Members Rewrite the Rules

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Jorja Leap explores the personal stories of gang members in her new book, "Jumped In." In this excerpt she goes beyond statistics and stereotypes, finding for some, joining means taking control over their lives.

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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:

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