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Gender and Gang Involvement

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: gender, gender identity, gang, gang member, femininities, masculinities, heteronormativity, feminist criminology, queer criminology

An Overview

Gangs and their members have historically been depicted in terms of gender extremes: hypermasculinity of males and either sexualization or masculinization of females. Sociologists and criminologists are among those who have been “gender attributors,” assuming and reproducing gender dualism (though, as will be discussed, they are not the only ones making assumptions, blindly following and failing to question conventional notions of gender—actors themselves can fall into routinized actions and interpretations). Such assumptions have limited understanding of the full range of relationships between gender and gang involvement.

In this article, the history of the treatment of sex and gender with regard to gang involvement, and in order to provide context and meaning, readers are referred first to the section entitled “Definitional Issues: What is ‘Gender,’ How Does it Differ from ‘Sex,’ and Why is it Important in the Study of ‘Gangs’?” In this first section, key concepts are defined to provide clarity, promote broader understanding, and place the discussions of gender and gang involvement in context: gang, sex, gender, gender identity (and related terms such as genderqueer, transgender, and agender), and gender expression. The section titled “Historical Accounts of Gang-Associated Females and Male Gang Members, Late 1800s–1960s” reviews early (1900s–1960s) scholarly and journalistic accounts that focused on gendered, classed, and raced stereotypes—shaped by dominant values of the time—of young people in gangs. The next section, “The Increase of Research on Gang-Involved Females and Shifting Conceptions of Gender, Intersectional Identity, and Gang Involvement, 1980s–Early 2000s,” describes how, after a brief lull in gang research, particularly with regard to gender, the 1980s brought a resurgence of interest, and the proliferation of academic attention during the next 20 to 30 years illustrated shifts in the conceptions and theoretical treatment of sex, gender, and gang involvement. This included large-scale studies that recognized females as gang members and compared females and males on important aspects such as their reasons and risk factors for gang-joining to inform a broad prevention base, as well as parallel inroads made by feminist criminologists who illustrated the roles of femininities and masculinities in processes of gang joining, intra- and intergroup dynamics, and gang activities including crime commission. The ideas of multiple femininities and masculinities and multiplicative identities also informed the field of criminology with regard to the interconnected roles of structural inequalities, hierarchical power relations, and intersectional identities in producing constrained choice and situated action for young people involved in gangs. The most recent scholarship (growing strong in the 2010s), covered in the section “Contemporary (Early 21st Century) Work Challenging Notions of Gender and the Relationship of Gender and Gang Involvement,” is informed by the burgeoning queer criminology movement, spearheaded by innovative scholars who, following up on questions posed by some feminist writers, problematize the very assumptions of the gender binary and force the consideration of gender and gangs in a different light. These authors take head-on issues of gender identity and sexuality as they challenge the heteronormative and gender-normative interpretations of prior work. The final section, “Future Directions for Theorizing and Researching Gender and Gang Involvement,” recaps some of the significant questions and issues that provide a roadmap for future theorizing and research on gender and gang involvement.

Before embarking on tracing the history and evolution of gender and gang involvement, it is important to attend to definitional issues, to ensure clarity in the discussions that follow, through current definitions for terms such as gang; sex; gender; gender identity and related terms such as genderqueer, transgender, and agender; and gender expression.

Definitional Issues: What is “Gender,” How Does it Differ From “Sex,” and Why is it Important in the Study of “Gangs”?

Gangs, crime, and gender are all social constructions, in that they are concepts defined by persons and groups, sometimes by groups in power, in order to have a joint basis and shared assumptions or understandings and sometimes in order to exert power and control. The concept of “gang” and its application have been contentious in a number of ways: For example, there is no solid consensus among gang researchers, policymakers, and practitioners about how to define and measure the concept, so multiple definitions exist in studies, legislation, and programs to suit the needs of each (Esbensen, Winfree, He, & Taylor, 2001) and concern has been raised about the negative use of the term “gang” to label and control certain groups of people when similar peer groups are not socially stigmatized (e.g., Brotherton, 2015; Garot, 2015; J. Katz & Jackson-Jacobs, 2004; Sullivan, 2005). For the purposes of the discussions herein, a definition of “gang” is employed that was developed by consensus of a cross-national collaboration researchers and some practitioners (the Eurogang Program of Research): “A street gang (or troublesome youth group) is any durable, street-oriented youth group whose identity includes involvement in illegal activity” (Weerman et al., 2009, p. 20). This definition is general in nature and can fit most of the groups under examination in many of the major studies of gangs. A deeper treatment of the ethics and other issues related to this definition is beyond the scope of this article, so readers are referred to excellent discussions by authors named previously in this paragraph, as well as Aldridge, Medina-Ariz, and Ralphs (2012), Matsuda, Esbensen, and Carson (2012), Medina, Aldridge, Shute, and Ross (2013), and Smithson, Monchuk, and Armitage (2012).

“Sex” is the categorization of persons according to the binary of “female” and “male.”1 This dichotomous classification has been variously based upon single, or a combination of, biological attributes such as genitalia, gonads, reproductive organs, chromosomes, and hormones and endocrine systems—even though these biological attributes do not themselves conform to a binary system of presentation (Greenberg, 2012).2 Because “sex” in many societies is a categorization made not by an individual but by others (e.g., doctors, parents), it is more frequently in the early 21st century referred to as “sex assigned at birth.” Societal sex-ordering is so rigid that upon birth, an infant’s “sex” is most frequently determined and recorded on birth certificates based upon visual inspection of genitals (though other biological markers described above in this paragraph may be taken into account). In cases of “ambiguity” (e.g., individuals who are intersex, with “reproductive or sexual anatomy and/or a chromosome pattern that can’t be classified as typically male or female” [GLAAD, 2016, p. 6]), sex is assigned based on stereotypes, and may include practices of invasive surgical alteration (e.g., clitoral reduction for an infant with other “female” characteristics, or reshaping of an “inadequate” penis and assignment of female sex) to fit preconceived notions of sex and gender (Greenberg, 2012).3

By contrast, West and Zimmerman (1987, p. 127) define “gender” as “the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one’s sex category (male or female).” In this regard, gender is a social construction of expectations and attributions with regard to “femininity” and “masculinity” and, like sex, has been historically constructed as binary, despite existence of considerable gender variation. Gender identity, for instance, is one’s “internal, deeply held sense of their gender,” and while many have gender identity according to the dichotomy, as “woman” or “man” (GLAAD, 2016, p. 10), others identify outside of this binary. Thus, gender variation includes individuals identifying as “gender nonconforming” (with their gender expression differing from “conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity” p. 11); “nonbinary,” “genderqueer,” or “gender-fluid” (i.e., gender identity or expression or both falling outside, in between, or wholly different from the binary; p. 11); “transgender” (“an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth” p. 11); or “agender” (see Tyler Ford’s 2015 account), marked by the uptick in the use of nongendered pronouns to refer to individuals, such as “they/them/theirs” or “zie/zim/zir” and nongendered terms such as person, individual, human, parent, child, and sibling.

Gender expression consists of “external manifestations of gender, expressed through a person’s name, pronouns, clothing, haircut, behavior, voice, and/or body characteristics” (GLAAD, 2016, p. 10). These manifestations are often assigned, according to societal gender norms, “feminine” or “masculine” qualities, such that certain types of clothing or behavior, for example, are seen as being feminine or associated with females while others are associated with males, even if the individual has no intention of claiming that gender identity.

Gender is multilevel and interactional (Collins, 2000): it is part of social structure and structural inequality; it is reproduced, reinforced, or subverted in interpersonal and in person-institution interactions; and it is variously enacted (accepted, resisted, or ignored) by individuals. Gender is therefore not a static “role” (preceding and therefore dictating behavior) but a situational practice (Messerschmidt, 1997; West & Zimmerman, 1987). The practice, or “doing,” of gender is situated within larger structural contexts, including societal power hierarchies that produce values and expectations identifying behaviors as normatively “acceptable” or not. Thus, “gender is both an indication of and a reproduction of gendered (as well as raced, classed, generational, and sexed) social hierarchies” (J. Miller, 2002a, p. 434).

In the other sections of this article, treatment of the issues of sex and gender with regard to gang involvement within a specific time period are reviewed. Within each section of this article, the following aspects are discussed: relative prevalence of female and male gang membership and common comparisons of females and males, as relayed by popular and academic scholarship of the time; conventional notions of gender and their implications for gang involvement and activities; and examples of exceptions to the prevailing depictions with regard to sex and gender.

Historical Accounts of Gang-Associated Females and Male Gang Members, Late 1800s–1960s

Gang depictions from the early 1900s through the 1960s focused largely on lower-class boys, with some illuminating mentions of females (see Howell, 2015, for an excellent and thorough history of gangs in the United States, and for reviews of females’ presence in early works, see Campbell, 1984; Chesney-Lind & Hagedorn, 1999; J. Miller, 2001).4 Gangs were described as a male space, and females’ involvement was cast in terms of their relationships to males.

Depictions of Gang-Associated Females in Historical Accounts

Gendered stereotypes of young women resulted in portrayals of females associated with gangs almost solely as accessories to males (Bernard, 1949; Brown, 1977; W. B. Miller, 1973; Quicker, 1999; Thrasher, 2000; Whyte, 1943). In conjunction with popular discourse, females’ “misbehaviors” were couched in terms of immorality, gender transgression, and psychological deficiency, with a particular concern for precocious sexuality (Schlossman & Wallach, 1978). From the late 1800s to the 1930s, Progressive Era ideals espoused particularly by white women from the newly created middle class allowed for surveillance of young (poor, immigrant) women to ensure they did not stray from the hegemonic norms of femininity and for chauvinistic “protection” (i.e., intervention) for females’ sexual behavior (Odem, 1995; Platt, 1979; Shelden, 1998). Such “protection” could be triggered by mere suspicions of future sexual behavior, which could be raised by a variety of conduct, including going to dances, using obscene language, staying out late at night, masturbating, and “strutting about in a lascivious manner” (Schlossman & Wallach, 1978, p. 72). Protection of sexuality and promotion of marriageability drove social policies and practices for white (mostly immigrant) females, while control of sexuality for females of color manifested in negative eugenics practices, including incarceration and sterilization (Young, 1994). Within this context, academic and journalistic discourse of the time was typically concerned with the “deviant” sexuality of females associated with gangs, and couched females’ activities as supportive—being available for sex, carrying weapons so males would avoid detection, selling sex, spying on other gangs, and luring rival gang members (to be beaten by their fellow members) with promises of sex.5 Bernard (1949) wrote of females in New York boroughs that, “The sex practices of these gangsterettes are particularly revolting . . . any member over 12 is expected to give her favors to the boy gangsters” (p. 94). His chapter on “Sex Exploration” is particularly misogynistic (and racist), full of sexualized images and denigrations of lesbian gangs (the “Florabels”), including intersections of the two in his descriptions of romantic and sexual relationships between black and white females in girls’ training schools, justifying racial segregation. His explanation for white females’ engaging in “honeying-up” was “lack of access to the opposite sex”:

. . . she wants to be stroked, kissed and handled by somebody as male as possible. Now, young Negro girls are apt to exhibit muscular conformations more like that of males: biceps . . . tend to be more developed than among white girls . . . buttocks, when lean, have a manly hardness . . . Add to this a physical vigor and darker color which may heighten the illusion of male virility, and it is not strange that where homosexuality exists, a Negro girl is often the prize. (p. 168)

Rice (1999) described the conundrum faced by gang-associated females in New York, who decrease their chances for respectable futures as housewives: “. . . there is simply no way for a girl to gain a significant amount of power or prestige in a gang. If a girl fights as well as a boy . . . boys don’t like her . . . the one kind of status that carousing can confer is manly status, and [this will] merely lessen the possibility that they will achieve the womanly status of being considered desirable mates” (p. 28). Thrasher (2000), who identified “five or six” all-female gangs in 1920s Chicago (p. 80), allowed that females could be “real” gang members, including leaders, by forsaking femininity and adopting “masculine” behaviors. However, more of his discussion pertained to the relative sparsity of female gang members, which he attributed to gendered socialization and supervision. Other writers, while focusing mostly on the sexual attributes of females associated with gangs, also acknowledged female “fighting gangs” or “fighting females” in gangs (Brown, 1977; Davies, 1999; Fishman, 1999; Godfrey, 2004; Hanson, 1964; W. Miller, 1975; Quicker, 1999; Rice, 1999; Shore, 1999; Taylor, 1993). Asbury’s (1927) account of white ethnic gangs in New York, for example, largely describes females in support roles, though some were revered for their leadership and fighting skills (e.g., “Hell-cat Maggie,” a female fighter in the Dead Rabbits gang; “Sadie the Goat” of the Charlton Street gang; “Battle Annie,” leader of a female auxiliary to the Gopher Gang; and “Wild Maggie” Carson).

While most accounts provided the writers’ type-scripted interpretations of females’ behaviors, there were hints of deeper treatment, even if the writers themselves failed to undertake these explorations.6 Rice (1999), for example, acknowledged that in addition to inequalities based on race and class, young women faced “a third congenital disadvantage: they were born female” (p. 28). Thrasher (2000) took the time to discuss the perspective of a female member of the Alley Gang: he described her comfort with “masculine” pursuits such as fighting (against boys), playing the role of warrior, playing baseball and football, and her extreme discomfort around feminine girls, whom she described as “silly and nonessential” (p. 80). At a female acquaintance’s birthday party, for instance, she felt “distinctly out of place among the pink and blue frills” (p. 80). While contemporary (2000s) issues of gender identity development and gender fluidity were out of the realm of Thrasher’s discussion, these issues provide some retrospective perspective on the roles and involvement of females in gangs.7

Nonetheless, for either masculinized or sexualized females, the solution, according to these early limited works, was to educate females on “being female”—e.g., “charm schools” to learn feminine dress, adornment, and demeanor, and domestic training to learn cooking, sewing, and other household skills (Cohen, 1955; Cloward & Ohlin, 1961 Hanson, 1964; Rice, 1999; Short & Strodtbeck, 1965). Although these may seem antiquated notions, see Mendoza-Denton’s (1996) retelling of a 1995 talk show on which gang girls were “re-made” in “female” attire to the delight and approval of audience members.

Depictions of Male Gang Members in Historical Accounts

As much as more contemporary scholars (from as early as the 1980s, but mostly in the 1990s or 2000s and beyond) have taken early writers to task for their typescripted portrayals of females, males were depicted in disparaging ways as well. Young men “actualized themselves as ‘men’” in economic and political spheres and while females’ involvement in (intramarital) sex, mating, and parenting was to achieve “womanhood,” males’ (premarital) sexual involvement was for “prowess” and “honor” (W. Miller, 2011, p. 596). Importantly, however, young men had to exert power and control in relationships, including keeping females at a distance at times, lest they be labeled a “mama’s boy” (p. 599). From Thrasher’s work forward during this period, the focus of theorizing and research was on explaining young lower-class males’ involvement in crime and gangs.

According to Cohen (1955), lower-class boys formed delinquent subcultures due to status frustration or the failure to achieve conventional goals, thus resorting to gaining and maintenance of manhood through rejection of middle-class values and crime for “no reason.” While males were held to conventional standards of masculine success (first, education and later, employment), females were measured for their ability to secure respectable mates through marriage, and their association with male gang members was seen in terms of deviant sexuality, to be countered by the teaching of feminine behavior, dress, and virtues. Masculine success was also defined in terms of expectations that males avoid “feminine” characteristics: as examples, although young men were expected to keep their women in line, young men who beat up on women could be punished by other men because it was considered weak to beat up on the “weaker sex”; and, boys who played with girls other than their sisters were ridiculed (Thrasher, 2000).

In contrast to Cohen, W. Miller (1958) asserted that lower-class males attended to a wholly different set of focal concerns including “toughness” and “autonomy,” while Bloch and Neiderhoffer (1958) suggested that the gang provides young men an alternative rite of passage to manhood when conventional transitions are unavailable (e.g., high school graduation, religious rites such as bar mitzvah; and, see later descriptions of declines in cultural rituals by Henderson, Kunitz, & Levy, 1999 and Pinnock, 1997).8 Cloward and Ohlin (1961) proposed neighborhood variations in access to not just legitimate but also illegitimate means (and argued that females were excluded from both [i.e., were “double failures”]), with opportunities for demonstration of masculinity arising through type of means available (e.g., criminal enterprise, conflict, and fighting). Short and Strodtbeck (1965), rather than focus solely on lower-class populations, included white and black, poor, and middle-class male gangs in their research. They noted that most of the members’ time was spent in nondeviant activities; they held “conventional” goals (i.e., not committed to subcultural focal concerns); and many of their activities (engaging in conflicts, hanging out, drinking, selling drugs, having sex, having children out of wedlock, car thefts, violence) were similar to nongang youths (see also Klein, 1971; and later, Panfil, 2017; Ward, 2013; and Wortley & Tanner, 2006); however, these young men’s opportunities were limited due to family, school, and community constraints. Importantly, Short and Strodtbeck argued that coupled with these constraints, group processes created masculinity challenges in the form of status affronts from (a) adult institutions (school, employment, law enforcement); (b) community; and (c) other gangs in the community, and that interactions in these realms created opportunities for violence through maintenance of status and reputation. Klein’s (1971) two studies in LA also highlighted the importance of group process for influencing delinquency and violence involvement, and these ideas gained additional traction in later theorizing about masculinity performances and social and gang identities.

Most of these early depictions essentialized young men and failed to recognize multiple masculinities. Most writers omitted from their explanations that not all lower-class young men were involved in subcultures of violence, not all committed crime, and not all were gang-involved (see, e.g., an early critique by Bordua, 1961). Similarly, depictions of young women were through the lenses of middle-class, white values. Despite the 1970s women’s liberation movement, traditional views of women’s place in the domestic sphere dominated, and social control policies focused on containing females’ behaviors, including greater control of females’ than males’ curfew violations, truancy, running away, and incorrigibility (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 1998). W. Miller’s (1975) survey of gangs in twelve large U.S. cities revealed that, overall, females were believed to make up less than 10 percent of gang members, they continued to play only support roles, and the data belied claims of an increase in females’ crime and violence—that is, he argued, females’ involvement in gangs remained unchanged to that point.

The Increase of Research on Gang-Involved Females and Shifting Conceptions of Gender, Intersectional Identity, and Gang Involvement, 1980s–Early 2000s

Social policy emphases shifted in the 1980s and 1990s to the “new problem” of serious, chronic, and violent offenders—young “super-predators” (Shelden, 1998), including a “‘new breed’ of ‘violent women’ roaming the streets and threatening the social order” (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 1998, p. 13). Despite the sensationalism, this was by no means a “new” concern: Within each era, exclamations about girls’ gender transgressions have captured the public’s and officials’ horror. Bernard (1949, p. 93) relayed that “Bronx magistrates call girl offenders more violent than ever before. Manhattan police state, ‘These junior gun-molls are tougher than the guys!’” More recent headlines continue to sound the alarms:

  • “Violent, Defiant Vietnamese Form Girl Gangs” (Efron, 1989)
  • “The Feral Sex: The Terrifying Rise of Violent Girl Gangs” (Bracchi, 2008)
  • “Rise of the Girl Gangs” (Hamilton, 2011)
  • “The Terrifying Rise of the All-Girl Gang” (Howard, 2015)

Concurrent with policy, justice system, and media interest was an increased academic interest in females as gang members. Research in the 1980s to 2000s revealed an evolution in depictions of females in gangs and gender and gangs, partly in conjunction with rise of feminist criminology and additional theoretical work on masculinities (e.g., Connell, 2005; Cook, 2016; Messerschmidt, 1997). In some ways, gangs were depicted as a more “equal opportunity” environment, with some interpretations seemingly erasing of gender. At the same time, discussions of the “street code” and honor-based masculinity meant a need to account for females’ presence and involvement in the “male space” of gangs.

Sex Comparisons of Female and Male Gang Members

Research during the 1980s to early 2000s sought to determine more reliable estimates of gang involvement among young people using data collected through large-scale, often longitudinal, national or multisite surveys, including the Denver Youth Survey (e.g., Esbensen & Huizinga, 1993); the two G.R.E.A.T. (Gang Resistance Education and Training) evaluations (e.g., Esbensen, Osgood, Taylor, Peterson, & Freng, 2001; Esbensen, Osgood, Peterson, Taylor, & Carson, 2013); the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (e.g., Pyrooz, 2014); the Rochester Youth Development Study (e.g., Thornberry, Krohn, Lizotte, Smith, & Tobin, 2003); and the Seattle Social Development Project (e.g., Hill, Howell, Hawkins, & Battin-Pearson, 1999). Many of these same studies examined young people’s reasons or motivations for joining their gangs as well as risk factors for gang involvement, to better direct prevention resources.

Gang Membership Prevalence

Self-report research with adolescents in the United States during this time challenged earlier perceptions of females as minimally involved as “real” gang members: These studies found that females comprised approximately one-third of gang members, with ranges from one-fifth to one-half across studies (Bjerregaard & Smith, 1993; Dukes & Stein, 2003; Esbensen & Huizinga, 1993; Esbensen, Deschenes, & Winfree, 1999; Fagan, 1990; Hill et al., 1999), and later studies conducted in Europe, Scandinavia, Canada, and the Caribbean report similar sex makeup of gang members in their samples (Alleyne & Wood, 2010; Bradshaw, 2005; Esbensen & Weerman, 2005; Gatti, Haymoz, & Schadee, 2011; Haymoz & Gatti, 2010; C. Katz & Fox, 2010; Wortley & Tanner, 2006). As well, these studies indicated females were nearly as involved in criminal activities as their male gang member counterparts, and their offending rates were even higher than non-gang males’ (Esbensen & Huizinga, 1993; Esbensen et al., 1999; Haymoz & Gatti, 2010; J. Miller, 2001).

It is difficult to say that these statistics represent an increase in females’ membership, as estimates of the prevalence of females’ gang involvement in earlier works is sparse. However, in W. Miller’s (2011) mid-1950s–1960s study of seven gangs, females in two auxiliary gangs comprised 24 percent of the gang members (50 of 205, p. 285) in his intensive study and of total members in his three study neighborhoods, females in six auxiliary sets comprised 24 percent (162 of 668 members; p. 311). And Klein and Crawford (1967, p. 72) reported approximately 200 female gang members identified along with the 600 males, indicating females made up 25 percent of gang members in their LA study. Thus while the sex composition of gang members may not have changed appreciably (though it may have), it is possible that the differences in descriptions of gangs is due to differences in interpretation—that is, early male scholars and journalists working with male gang members perceived few female gangs or members (Campbell, 1984), and those they did see were interpreted as “auxiliary,” while in fact, if females themselves were asked, they may have perceived their roles as quite central (Hagedorn & Devitt, 1999; Moore, 1991). Medina, Ralphs, and Aldridge (2012) have critiqued the even more recent characterization of females’ roles and contributions as “support” or “peripheral” activities, when those same activities would be described as central gang activities if they were performed by males.

Still, the overall prevalence of adolescent gang membership appears greater among males than among females, averaging about 6–8 percent of males and 3–4 percent of females in general samples and approximately 16 percent of males and 11 percent of females in higher risk samples (Blaya & Gatti, 2010; Dukes, Martinez, & Stein, 1997; Esbensen & Huizinga, 1993; Gover, Jennings, & Tewksbury, 2009; Thornberry et al., 2003). Important variations are found by age, with females comprising a greater proportion in earlier than later adolescence or adulthood (Esbensen & Carson, 2012; Esbensen & Huizinga, 1993; W. Miller, 2011; National Gang Center, 2017; Sharp, Aldridge, & Medina, 2006; Smith & Bradshaw, 2005; Thornberry et al., 2003), and also by both location and race or ethnicity or both, which are interconnected due to the composition of the larger population of their cities of residence (Esbensen et al., 1999; Esbensen & Peterson Lynskey, 2001).

Motivations and Reasons (“Pulls”) and Risk Factors (“Pushes”) for Gang Involvement

While shared reasons for youths’ gang-joining, such as for fun, protection, friendship, respect, and money, have been identified (Esbensen & Peterson Lynskey, 2001; Huizinga et al., 2005; Peterson, 2012; Peterson, Taylor, & Esbensen, 2004; Thornberry et al., 2003), some sex differences have also emerged, with females more likely to join for social reasons and males for instrumental reasons (Amato & Cornell, 2003; Campbell, 1984; Esbensen et al., 1999; Joe & Chesney-Lind, 1995; Maxson & Whitlock, 2002). However, consideration should be given to whether and how sex or gender or both are implicated specifically in gang-joining motivations, compared to motivations for involvement in other peer groups. Klein and Maxson (2006, p. 159), for example, summarize their research comparing males’ reasons for joining their various peer groups as identifying distinct differences among males: those who joined gangs endorsed protection and territory most often (also belonging, money, friend or family member, feeling important, crime) while nongang males selected making friends, group (nonillegal) activities, keeping out of trouble, meeting girls, preparing for the future, sharing secrets, and getting parents’ respect. Amato and Cornell (2003) found gang members to be more likely than “crew” members to endorse respect, family being in the group, protection, money, and drugs and alcohol, while crew members selected “to be with friends” more often than did gang members. Since few studies compare gang to nongang peer groups and females to males in those groups (but see Amato & Cornell, 2003; Lachman, Roman, & Cahill, 2013; Peterson & Carson, 2012; Sussman et al., 2007; Vigil, 2008), there is limited understanding of whether and how males’ motivations for involvement in different types of peer groups differ from females’ in ways that would be important for prevention.

Similarly, risk factor research has indicated quite a bit of overlap, within studies, between adolescent females and males in the factors that predict higher odds of gang membership.9 For instance, for both females and males, associating with and being committed to deviant peers and adhering to delinquent beliefs (such as low perceived guilt for potential delinquency or engaging in neutralizations for deviant behavior) are related to greater likelihood of gang involvement (Klein & Maxson, 2006; Peterson & Morgan, 2014). However as with youths’ stated reasons for joining, some sex differences in risk factors have been identified, with school factors (e.g., commitment, attachment, and performance) more influential for females (Bjerregaard & Smith, 1993; Esbensen & Deschenes, 1998; Esbensen et al., 2010; Hill et al., 1999; Maxson & Whitlock, 2002; Thornberry et al., 2003).

These studies have provided support for gender-neutral gang prevention approaches, with some gender-sensitive elements (such as school-related factors). However, critiques of this work include the omission from self-report survey instruments of questions measuring factors that might be more specific to females’ experiences, including history of sexual abuse or sexual assault (Petersen & Howell, 2013; Peterson, 2012).

Gendered Explanatory Perspectives of Gang Involvement

Femininity and masculinity (in terms of gender expectations or ideals or both) vary across cultures, and within all cultures, there is gender variation. However, tensions particularly arise when culture- (or, e.g., class- or religion-) specific ideals conflict with hegemonic (dominant) ideals, when structural inequalities restrict opportunities for successful performance of hegemonic femininity and masculinity, and when individuals’ gender identities and gender schemas do not align with hegemonic or even localized gender ideals.10 Familial socialization plays a large part in conveying (sometimes idealized) gender norms and expectations in infancy and early childhood, and within the United States, aspects such as culture, class, and religion influence families’ beliefs and shaping of children’s understanding of gender. Halim et al. (2016) relay that parents from all backgrounds expressed belief in gender differences and needing to treat girls and boys differently, but stricter adherence to gendered roles were found in their study in traditional Mexican, Dominican, and East Asian households; more gender equity was present in African American families in which girls are brought up to be strong; and white households fell in the middle. In one study described by Halim et al. (2016), African American mothers held the least traditional and Mexican immigrant parents the most traditional gender role attitudes, although African American mothers expressed the most negative attitudes about cross-gender behaviors of sons. In households that are more egalitarian, female-headed, or higher-income, children tend to have less stereotypical attitudes about gender, while in more patriarchal and in lower-income households, girls felt that males were more highly valued than females, regardless of ethnic background (Halim et al., 2016; Heimer, 1996). Religion, often but not always intertwined with culture, is also salient, as families adhering to particular religious beliefs are likely to socialize children according to religious teachings about the roles and hierarchical place of men and women. Familial and societal interactions shape young people’s development of gender schemas (in part, the extent to which gendered messages and expectations are internalized), which have implications for their own beliefs, responses, and behaviors. Below, in sections on “Pressures of ‘Womanhood’” and “Pressures of ‘Manhood,’” the relationships of hegemonic femininity and masculinity to gang involvement are discussed.

Pressures of “Womanhood”

Explanations for females’ involvement in gangs and crimes shifted during the 1980s–early 2000s, as scholars gave numerous arguments that girls and women were not becoming or trying to be more masculine or like boys or men, countering 1970s liberation arguments associated with first-wave feminism that resulted in erasing gender altogether (Daly & Chesney-Lind, 1988; Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2001; Messerschmidt, 1997). Rather, a focus became “different or unique influences” as gender-specific explanations for females, including childhood abuse or trauma pathways that take into account victimization of females within patriarchal structures (arguments associated with “second-wave feminism” or radical feminism; see, e.g., Burgess-Proctor, 2006). Mechanisms at work include females’ running away from home to escape abuse, being pushed or dropping out of school, connecting with deviant peer (street and gang) networks for support, and being criminalized for their coping and survival strategies (status offenses, drug use, theft, sex work, etc.) (Chesney-Lind, 1989; Fleisher & Krienert, 2004). Similarly, in the radical feminist view, females’ gang involvement and offending was suggested to be a reaction to gendered victimization (e.g., sexual harassment and assault, intimate partner violence) by men within the social structure that favors male power, privilege, and dominance.

Gendered childhood abuse has been found to be a contributing factor for females’ gang involvement (Fleisher, 1998; Gilman et al., 2016; Marshall et al., 2015; Valdez, 2007). Nearly one-third of female gang members in Moore’s (1991) study had been sexually abused by a family member and over one-half of female gang members in J. Miller’s (2001) study had been sexually assaulted, most by family members. The compounding effects of gendered violence in homes and communities mean that “choosing” gang membership (though this is argued to be a constrained choice) affords young women protection from certain types of violence, even if it means accepting other forms of potential violence (i.e., from rival or even fellow gang members) (e.g., J. Miller, 2001). Indeed, gang-involved females have been found to have faced a greater number of and more severe challenges than nongang females and even their male gang counterparts: in addition to childhood physical, emotional, or sexual trauma, they were more likely to be exposed to parental or sibling drug and alcohol abuse, crime, and gang activity; household member unemployment, chronic illness or death; and economic disadvantage, often leading to their needing to act as parent to parents and siblings and to running away (Brotherton & Salazar-Atias, 2003; Fishman, 1999; Fleisher, 1998; Harris, 1994; Hunt & Joe-Laidler, 2001; Marshall et al., 2015; J. Miller, 2001; Moore, 1991; Moore & Hagedorn, 1999; Nurge, 2003; Valdez, 2007; Vigil, 2008; Zatz & Portillos, 2000). Young women, therefore, have described their gangs as empowering: providing excitement, diversionary activities, subsistence and resources, and importantly, feelings of being in control, respect, and status (Fleisher, 2009; Nurge & Shively, 2008).

Variations in gender schemas appear to be related to variations in aspects of females’ gang involvement. Though systematic research on the issue is nonexistent, the patchwork of existing studies in the United States offers a suggestion that independent, all-female gangs may form more frequently among black or African American females than among Hispanic/Latina or Asian/Pacific Island females, who are more frequently involved in mixed-sex gangs or gangs that are auxiliary to males’ gangs (i.e., female cliques that are separate in some ways but still under various forms of control by their male gang counterparts) (Brotherton & Salazar-Atias, 2003; Campbell, 1984; Hagedorn & Devitt, 1999; Harris, 1994; Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 1997; J. Miller, 2001; Moore, 1991; Moore & Hagedorn, 1999; Peterson, Miller, & Esbensen, 2001; Peterson, Carson, & Fowler, 2018; Portillos, 1999; Quicker, 1999; Schalet, Hunt, & Joe-Laidler, 2003; Ward, 2013). Scholars have argued that black/African American females have taken on more independent familial and economic roles for generations, in part due to lack of “suitable” partners given the effects of societal inequalities for black males (i.e., high incarceration rates, premature death, and lack of educational and economic opportunities).11 For black females, then, formation of all-female gangs is a means of “collective solutions to triple jeopardy” of gender, race, and class (Fishman, 1999, p. 83—see also Brown, 1977; Campbell, 1987; Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 1997; Lauderback, Hansen, & Waldorf, 1992; J. Miller, 2002a; Moore & Hagedorn, 1999; Taylor, 1993; Venkatesh, 1998; Wing & Willis, 1997).

Even though Latina gang members may be more likely to be affiliated with males’ gangs, their gang membership still represents a form of gendered resistance. Gang membership itself, conceived of as a masculine endeavor (hard, aggressive, powerful, dominating, criminal), is contrary to ideals of marianismo (passive, humble, compliant, nurturing, pure). Females of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Dominican heritage, for example, use their gang membership in part as a means of resisting aspects of their cultures that constrain females, including those that represent tensions between “traditional” family values and those of “American ideals” in the United States.12 In creating their own identities, these young women may incorporate some but not other aspects of their cultural, gender, or class constraints (Brotherton & Salazar-Atias, 2003; Campbell, 1987; Harris, 1994; Kolb & Palys, 2016; Miranda, 2003; Moore; 1991; Portillos, 1999; Quicker, 1999; Vigil, 2008). Through their gang membership, they may reject, for example, gendered cultural ideals of passivity and subordinance to males, but adhere to ideals related to motherhood (Campbell, 1987; Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2001). Through their involvement, then, Latinas are engaged in resistance, and, in a sense, simultaneously “doing” and “undoing” gender (Deutsch, 2007; West & Zimmerman, 1987).

Religious adherence also plays a role, often that of excluding females as gang members (Lien, 2001; Tertilt, 2001). Traditional Islamic principles, for example, dictate sex-segregation in public spheres and sex-differentiated family and household responsibilities; furthermore, girls are closely supervised by family, spend most of their time indoors, and are chaperoned by male relatives when venturing outside the home, while boys spend time outdoors and engage in paternalistic protection and economic support of females (Kusha, 2009). As a consequence, van Gemert (2001) finds that among Moroccan residents in Amsterdam, gangs are the exclusive purview of boys. While research indicating gang membership as a form of resistance for females of Islamic faith is thus far absent, females of other religious backgrounds have been found among gang members (e.g., the Catholic Molls in W. Miller’s 1973 study).

Pressures of “Manhood”

In many patriarchal societies, hegemonic and heteronormative ideals of masculinity include success through independence and self-reliance; education and meaningful, well-paid work that supports families; and protection of women and children. However, structural inequalities based on cultural, socioeconomic, religious, political, or other constraints (e.g., race and ethnicity, national origin, ability, sexuality) interact to restrict opportunities for hegemonic masculine endeavors. Although what it means to “be a man” varies across cultures, common experiences of exclusion, marginality, othering, and denial of identity and personhood by men in power deprive men who lack power of opportunities for “traditional” assertions of masculinity. From early childhood, then, males are under pressure through familial, peer, and societal messages that convey expectations about “masculine” (and heterosexual) presentation, expression, and behaviors (Panfil, 2017). Failure to successfully perform this hegemonic masculinity results in less status and respect, dismissal, and even verbal and physical harassment. Men of color must also contend with stereotypes about being hypersexual, lazy, and deadbeat dads who fail their children and families, and with sociological labels associated with subcultures of violence or lower-class culture (despite even holding “conventional” values such as of independence, self-reliance, taking care of family, being a good dad).13 As some masculinity scholars argue, structural exclusion from conventional means of attaining financial independence forces some young men to seek alternatives, including illicit employment and aggressive behaviors to gain and maintain respect (Anderson, 1999; Davies, 1998; Hagedorn, 1998b; Messerschmidt, 1997).

Gangs in many countries and communities have been described as a context for construction of masculinity in aggressive, hypermasculine ways in the face of numerous emasculating forces: segregation, racialization, and being violently victimized by white gangs (Adamson, 2000; Alonso, 2014; Taylor, 1993); ethnic and religious marginalization of immigrants to a variety of countries (Feixa et al., 2008; van Gemert, 2001; Kersten, 2001; Lien, 2001; Tertilt, 2001; Weitekamp, Reich, & Kerner, 2005), similar to the experiences of second-generation Mexican American youth (Moore, 1991; Vigil, 1988a; Zatz & Portillos, 2000) and other groups who have immigrated to the United States (Vigil, 2002); the weight of colonialism, or of unrest following independence from colonialism (Dinnen, 2004; Glaser, 2000; Kynoch, 2005; Rivera & Phan, 2004; Theriot & Parker, 2007); and disruptions attributable to vicious civil war, including marginalized refuge in and deportation from the United States (Borrow & Walker, 2004; Rodgers, 2009; Ward, 2013). In failed states and in isolated communities (e.g., where government, military, and law enforcement organizations are ineffective and corrupt or both), gang involvement provides young men a space for identity and respect, and recognition as protectors and providers through their illicit activities (Lien, 2005; Venkatesh, 1997; Zubillaga, 2009).

Taking on “gang identity” is therefore a form of resistance identity or protest masculinity in response to structural inequalities limiting access to hegemonic masculinity (Brotherton & Barrios, 2004; Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005).14 Being a gang member projects strength and self-confidence, and confers status and resources. Yet, joining a gang does not mean that young men have “attained” masculine status: both gang and masculine identities must be continually performed and defended against status and manhood challenges, and young men must demonstrate willingness to gain and maintain respect through aggression and violence (Anderson, 1999; Davies, 1998; Garot, 2010; Hughes & Short, 2005; Nowotny et al., 2016; White, 2008; Wood, 2014). Accordingly, in communities in general and within gangs specifically, the avoidance of feminine and nonheterosexual characteristics and behaviors is paramount for men, who cannot be seen as weak. In Medellín, Columbia, for example, a man who does not follow cultural and local norms associated with machismo and patriarchy is seen as a “‘marica’ [softie/poof/homosexual]” (Baird, 2012, p. 183). Denigrating language, including calling other men “fags,” “sissies,” or “bitches,” underscores the societal messages that men who are gay and women in general cannot be “masculine” and are soft. The existence of gay men and of females among gang members therefore offer challenges to these conceptions of masculinity and gangs as masculine space, issues discussed in other sections of this article.

For both females and males, then, normative (and heteronormative) expectations of gender can create gendered experiences and gendered pressures for which gang membership can provide an outlet, a sense of control and identity, and resources (while at the same time presenting additional tensions, as young men and women negotiate both gendered and gang ideals). Theories of social identity argue that group membership and group identity can decrease individuals’ feelings of anxiety, lack of control, and uncertainty about their place in the social world, especially when those groups are “distinctive” in terms of offering clear values and guidelines for behavior, including dress, demeanor, and expression (see, e.g., Hogg, 2000, 2016; also Garot, 2010), as many gangs are described as providing. Applications to the gang context have found that the strength of youths’ identification with their gang is related to positive self-esteem, reductions in feelings of uncertainty, and fulfillment of needs (Hennigan & Spanovic, 2012). Strong gang identities are also associated with adoption of in-group expectations regarding attitudes and behaviors, including loyalty and the use of violence to protect gang identity (Vasquez, Lickel, & Hennigan, 2010; Vasquez, Wenborne, Peers, Alleyne, & Ellis, 2015). The coupling of normative gender expectations with gang expectations produces some gendered differences in the experiences and situated action of female and male gang members, examples of which are discussed in the sections that follow (“Gendered Gang Initiation Processes” and “Gender and Gang Activities: Implications of Gender Dynamics”).

Gendered Gang Initiation Processes

Gendered and sexualized assumptions permeate popular and scholarly discourse about females’ initiation into gangs. While being “sexed in” (having sex with a designated, often high-ranking, male gang member), “trained in” (having sex with multiple members), or “rolling the dice” (having sex with as many members as dictated by a roll of one or two dice) does occur, this mode of entrée into the gang for females is rare, in contrast to reports in sensationalized journalistic accounts (e.g., Sikes, 1997) or assertions by male gang members (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996; Durán, 2013; J. Miller, 2001). No females but many males in Decker and Van Winkle’s (1996) study, for example, reported that females in their gangs went through sexual initiations; and in the study by Quinn et al. (2016), just two females reported this type of initiation, while out of 29 males, 11 reported having participated in and another four having watched the sexing-in of a young woman, with the remainder reporting having heard of females undergoing this type of initiation. Importantly, sexing-in is not always a voluntary choice made by females, and, contrary to male gang members’ descriptions, constitutes rape (see, e.g., Quinn et al., 2016). Despite the actual incidence being low, the very existence of sexing-in as a gendered initiation casts a negative light on all female gang members, and females who are sexed-in are disparaged by both males and females in the gang as sex objects, promiscuous and available for sex at any time; as weak (perceived as having taken the “easy way” in); and as untrustworthy in terms of having fellow members’ backs (J. Miller, 2001; Portillos, 1999; Quinn et al., 2016; Schalet et al., 2003). Young women, in particular, engage in othering discourse and boundary maintenance against these female typescripts, maintaining their respectability (Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2001), yet perpetuating sexualized and gendered hierarchies in their gangs.15 A common distinction made by both female and male gang members is between females who are “homegirls,” who are more respected and maybe even one of the guys, and “hood rats” or “hos” who are disrespected by all and used by males, as well as considered potentially untrustworthy snitches (e.g., Baird, 2015; Cepeda & Valdez, 2003; Kolb & Palys, 2016). Issues of gender, sexuality, and gender presentation also arise in males’ discussions: young men overwhelmingly described sexual initiations for heterosexual females, but allowed that “girls that think they’re guys” (by this, they meant gay or bisexual females) could go through physical initiation such as a beat-in (Quinn et al., 2016, p. 8), and Kolb and Palys (2016) also indicate that young women who identified as lesbians chose beat-ins.

By contrast, males must prove their worth and loyalty through physical gang initiations (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996; Vigil, 1988b), and sexual initiations have not been reported (even among gay male gang members; see Panfil, 2017). Both female and male prospectives, then, can be jumped- or beat-in (fighting one or more members for a specified period of time) or can put in work (commit a crime or engage in other specified activities to prove their dedication) (van Gemert, 2001; Harris, 1994; Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 1997; Kolb & Palys, 2016; J. Miller, 2001; J. Miller & Brunson, 2000; Quicker, 1999). Females will generally fight other females, but some fight males, earning them more masculine status as “one of the guys.” Other nongendered means of initiation include begin “born in” (growing up with gang members as friends or family members), “blessed or walked in” (allowed in by virtue of long-standing relationships), or undergoing no specific ritual (Fleisher & Krienert, 2004; Joe & Chesney-Lind, 1995; Kolb & Palys, 2016; Rivera & Phan, 2004; Zatz & Portillos, 2000).

Gender and Gang Activities: Implications of Gender Dynamics

In most studies of adolescent gang members, gangs overall are found to be predominately male, but female involvement occurs in a variety of ways. Mixed-sex groups can be either within a single gang or separate female and male cliques of a gang. Although most youths belong to sex-balanced gangs, next most common are all-male and majority-male gangs, which far outnumber all- and majority-female gangs (Campbell, 1984; Curry, 1998; Fishman, 1999; Haymoz & Gatti, 2010; Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 1997; Lauderback et al., 1992; J. Miller, 2001; W. Miller, 1975; Moore, 1991; Omel’chenko, 1996; Peterson, Miller, & Esbensen, 2001; Peterson & Carson, 2012; Quicker, 1999; Weerman, 2012). That many gangs are not homogenous means that issues of gender and gender relations frequently come to the forefront.16

Gendered Perceptions About Females as Gang Members

While some research indicates that females and males are similar in terms of the proportions who report being “core” members of their gangs or in levels of embeddedness (Decker, Pyrooz, Sweeten, & Moule, 2014; Esbensen et al., 1999; Peterson et al., 2001), other research indicates variations in the extent to which females hold or are perceived to hold central roles. Male gang members tend to discount females’ involvement, perhaps to protect the image of their gangs being a “hard” masculine space (see, e.g., Baird, 2015). Young men interviewed by Eggleston (1997), for example, asserted their views that females are not “real” gang members: the gang is a masculine space, any female gangs or members are “small timers,” and females are allowed around only for males’ pleasure; females should be at home, and if they are hanging around, they are “bitches, hos, cunts” because “if they were ladies then they wouldn’t be hanging out with hoods like us” (p. 109; see too the descriptions of females by male gang members in J. Miller & Brunson, 2000). Males in all-male gangs rejected the notion of females as gang members, with one replying “What can a female do in gangs? . . . It’s just for fellas for real” (J. Miller & Brunson, 2000, p. 432). All-female gangs were particularly singled out and not taken seriously (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996; J. Miller & Brunson 2000; Taylor, 1993): Young men called them “pussy-infected,” and even young women referred to them as “stupid” and “silly” (J. Miller, 2001, p. 185).

Despite the assertions of some of the young men, young women do engage in core activities of their gangs. While females in all- or majority-female gangs are most likely (67 percent to 70 percent) to report being core members of their groups, a not-insignificant proportion of young women in other gang types also see themselves as central members: 33 to 57 percent of females in sex-balanced and 39 to 44 percent of those in majority male gangs (Peterson et al., 2018; Peterson et al., 2001). Members of independent all-female gangs fulfill, without the assistance or protection of males, their economic needs through activities such as drug sales, theft, and sometimes oft-gendered options such as prostitution (of themselves or of other young women) (e.g., Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2001; Lauderback et al., 1992; Schalet et al., 2003; Venkatesh, 1998). Although, even when young women are equal with regard to some activities within the gang, gender structures a variety of other activities; Omel’chenko (1996), for instance, found that in mixed-sex gangs in Russia, both males and females engaged in crime and gang fighting, but females had additional, subordinate, and gendered roles such as taking care of males, providing sexual favors, or working as prostitutes, while young women in San Francisco complained about their homeboys’ expectations that they take care of all the cooking and cleaning at group gatherings (Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2001; see too Lagrée & Lew Fai, 1989). Sensitive to variations in saliency of different aspects of individuals’ identity, Messerschmidt (1997) highlights instances in which “gang” identity (rather than gender) is at the forefront, such as when the group, neighborhood, or economic territory must be defended; at these times, he argues, “gang-girl violence . . . is encouraged, permitted, and privileged by both boys and girls” (Messerschmidt, 2002, p. 464). However, he notes, as have others, that females are likely to fight other females, rather than males (2002; also Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2001).

Gendered Involvement in Gangs’ Criminal Activities

Another way in which the issue of gender and gangs has been examined is through variations in females’ and males’ levels of offending. The sex composition of gangs (i.e., the ratio of females to males) has implications for gender relations and gendered activities. As discussed in other sections, criminal activities associated with gang membership, particularly various violent acts (but also property offenses) such as assault, robbery, and drive-by shootings, confer status for gang members, who are putting in work, bringing in resources, or defending gang identity. And, as discussed in other sections, both females and males engage in criminal activities at higher rates than their nongang peers, though female gang members tend to have lower levels than male gang members. However, important variations are revealed when youths in gangs of differing sex composition are compared. Quantitative research on the issue has found that in majority male gangs, females’ and males’ rates of offending are fairly similar, while in sex-balanced gangs (i.e., relatively equal numbers of females and males), males’ rates are quite a bit higher than females’; and among females, the highest rates are for those in majority male gangs, while among males, the highest rates are for those in sex-balanced gangs (Peterson & Carson, 2012; Peterson et al., 2018; Peterson et al., 2001; Weerman, 2012). In addition, the lowest levels of offending were found for youths in same-sex gangs, with rates for males in male-only gangs lower even than females in majority male gangs. Theories and research about gender ratios in organizations and findings from qualitative gang research provide some explanations for these collective findings.

Generic theories of group gender dynamics suggest that when numbers of one group within an organization are small, that group is highly visible, polarized, and stereotyped, but when the smaller group’s numbers increase, intergroup interactions increase, resulting in less typescripting of the minority group and greater influence of the minority group on the culture of the larger group (Blau, 1977; Kanter, 1977a, 1977b). Importantly, generic theories assert that the experiences of the minority groups will be the same, regardless of their characteristics (e.g., a smaller group of men in a larger group of women would have the same experiences as a smaller group of women in a larger group of men). Institutional theories of group composition, by contrast, take into account not just the relative number of each group, but the hierarchical social positioning (e.g., race, class, gender) of the groups’ members and assume competition between majority and minority group members, suggesting that backlash effects result when numbers of the minority group increase (Blalock, 1967; Gutek, 1985). This latter perspective has gained some support in studies including examination of gangs’ composition (Glaser, 2000; J. Miller, 2001; J. Miller & Brunson, 2000). It appears that the few females in majority male gangs—rather than being polarized, highly visible, and stereotyped (e.g., sexualized)—are seen by the majority-dominant group (males) more as “one of the guys” (Baird, 2015). They put in work, defend the gang, and have their homeboys’ backs, and their involvement in these activities is not seen as challenge to males’ dominance or masculinity, as described by young men in J. Miller and Brunson’s (2000) study: Robert thought of Tia, “. . . she like a boy for real. She act like a boy and work around the boys,” and James asserted that the females in his gang “don’t do the things that girls do, they do what we do” (p. 433). Similar themes arose from young women in majority male gangs, who described their interests in acquiring money and material goods.

By contrast, in sex-balanced gangs with greater numbers of females, females’ involvement is described by both males and females as more social in nature, and females are barred by males from involvement in status-conferring activities (e.g., Baird, 2015); in the words of Bowker, Gross, and Klein (1980, p. 510), recalling Cloward and Ohlin’s 1961 categorizations, females are “double failures,” blocked from both legitimate and illegitimate opportunities.17 Males’ exclusion of females is argued to be due in part to the “numerical threat” to males’ numerical and power dominance posed by females’ greater numbers, to defense and performance of masculinity, and to gendered typescripts of females. Males express that putting in work is males’ domain: “We don’t want no girls with us, period, when we got to go to work” (J. Miller & Brunson, 2000, p. 437). In addition, females are left out of situations of crime commission because they are seen by young men as weak, a liability, unable to handle themselves, or untrustworthy, as the following quotes illustrate:

“. . . [T]hey ain’t as strong as we is and most of the time they can’t take the things we can take” (p. 440).

“We don’t want to take a chance of them getting soft for real” (p. 432), and “cause we didn’t want nobody to blame us because something happen to them” (p. 436).

“What I’ve seen with females, I mean . . . they can switch up [change loyalties] at any time” (p. 432).

However, researchers have also recognized females’ agency; while the activities of females in sex-balanced gangs may be constrained, it is also the case that females make decisions about their own participation in gang activities and use their gender to exclude themselves from certain activities (J. Miller, 1998, 2001; J. Miller & Decker, 2001; J. Miller & Brunson, 2000). That is, they can rely on the gendered notion that because they are females, they can be excused from some of the more serious criminal activities: Brittany relayed, “when they do stuff I scatter” (J. Miller & Brunson, 2000, p. 442). Regardless of the composition of their gangs, females lament that they have to work harder to gain respect in the gang context, whereas male members have status “just from being a man” (Ward, 2013, p. 133; see too Kolb & Palys, 2016; J. Miller, 1998). In the generally male-dominated (numerically and hierarchically) social world of the gang, females describe themselves as having to overachieve to prove their worth and reputation (see similar arguments proposed by Kanter, 1977b with regard to women’s presence in male-dominated workplaces).

Gender and Gang Members’ Victimization

Male gang members generally experience higher rates of street victimization than females, in part given their greater involvement in criminal activities, their visibility in public places, and their targeting by rivals (Esbensen et al., 2010; Haymoz & Gatti, 2010; Miller & Brunson, 2000). However, the violent victimization of females can be gendered—that is, given the still-prevailing views of females as weaker and as sex objects, and the role that control of women plays as part of masculinity projects, young women are subject to sexual harassment and assault at the hands of rival or even fellow gang members (Baird, 2015; Fishman, 1999; Fleisher, 1998; Fleisher & Krienert, 2004; Glaser, 2000; Hagedorn, 1998b; Harris, 1994; Heinonen, 2011; Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 1997; Lagrée & Lew Fai, 1989; J. Miller, 2001; Moore, 1991; Omel’chenko, 1996; Ward, 2013; Wortley & Tanner, 2006). Given this potential, females engage in policing each other’s behavior (for physical but also reputational protection) and also engage in gendered strategies to protect themselves from violence from their fellow homeboys, such as limiting drinking and drug use or engaging in it only when with “the girls” or watching out for each other at parties (Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2001). In addition, the ways in which young women carry themselves (dress, countenance, behavior) can serve as protective mechanisms (see too Garot, 2010). In part, females’ subversion of normative gendered expectations through outward displays of toughness serves the function of communicating that they are “inaccessible; it may project impenetrability” (Miranda, 2003, p. 83), a means of regaining—or gaining—control over their bodies (see too Brotherton & Barrios, 2004).

Studies have also identified that, similar to variations in offending, gang members’ victimization appears to vary across gangs of differing sex ratios. Because of their associations with gang males, for example, females in auxiliary or mixed-sex gangs, compared to those in autonomous gangs, are at greater risk of serious violence. For instance, they may be unintended victims of violence by rival gang members targeting male members of their gangs or they may be provoked into fighting with other females by males in their gangs (Heinonen, 2011; Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 1997; J. Miller, 2001). More recent research indicates that both females’ and males’ victimization levels vary, in some ways mirroring patterns of variation in offending (Peterson et al., 2018);—for example, females in majority male gangs are most likely among female gang members to be both offenders and victims, and among males, those in sex-balanced are most frequently perpetrators and victims. While this may be partly attributable to the overlap between offending and victimization (i.e., offenders are more likely to be victims), Peterson et al. (2018) argue that additional processes, including females’ agency and the gang’s level of organization, group processes, and normative orientation, may play a role.

The differential involvement of females in gangs’ criminal activities (as well as their victimization) could be due in part to the acceptance by young women of the “patriarchal bargain” (J. Miller, 2001, employing Kandiyoti’s 1988 concept). Young women in majority male gangs, for example, achieve more freedom and equality, but at the expense of perpetuating gender typescripts of other young women. (Another example is that of young women’s boundary maintenance strategies of denigrating other young women as “sluts.”) Others raise the possibility of “selection effects,” in that certain types of youths may choose to join certain types of groups that comport with their personalities, beliefs, and preferred activities; in some locations, however, gangs are area-based (such as by neighborhood or street) with few “choices” (J. Miller & Brunson, 2000). Further, the reciprocal nature of gang joining is also recognized, in that gangs also exercise agency in choosing whom to “accept” (Densley, 2015; Garot, 2015; Harris, 1994). Research examining these issues has yet to be undertaken in earnest, and other possible considerations are the roles of gender schemas and gender identity, as well as the intersectional effects of multiple aspects of identity. Not only are these implicated in agency, constrained choice, and behavior, but “gendered power dynamics” become important only to the extent that “gender matters” to young people—yet, at the same time, young people are embedded and interact within larger societal structures and hierarchies with which they must contend in their daily negotiations and identity constructions. Recognition of these variations will prove illuminating in future gang research.

Contemporary (Early 21st Century) Work Challenging Notions of Gender and the Relationship of Gender and Gang Involvement

Not all of the work described in this section might be considered “contemporary” (i.e., as can be seen, some was published in the 1990s). However, these works are included in this section because they offered challenges to the research being done by their contemporaries of the time, raising critical inquiry about “gender,” the relational salience of gender, and construction and performance of gender in gang contexts. This section discusses critiques of the work on gender (and gangs) and rising scholarship questioning heteronormative and gender-normative assumptions that have permeated the criminological and sociological work on gangs.

Feminist work from prior decades (e.g., liberal and radical feminism) has been critiqued as ignoring, or giving insufficient treatment to, the roles of class (attended to by Marxist feminism); sex/gender and class inequalities (socialist feminism); and multiplicative intersections of identity (e.g., sex/gender x class x race/ethnicity x sexual orientation, as in critical race feminism/third-wave feminism) (see Burgess-Proctor, 2006; Chesney-Lind, 2015; Collins, 2000; Cook, 2016; Johnson, 2008; Jones & Flores, 2013; J. Miller, 2002a; Potter, 2015; Wing & Willis, 1997). Multiracial feminism, also called multicultural feminism or intersectionality theory, attempts to avoid essentialism by taking into account gender relations conditioned by multiple inequalities (based on race, ethnicity, national origin, immigration status, class, sexuality, ability, etc.) that play out in both social structure at the macro-level and social interactions at the micro-level (Burgess-Proctor, 2006; Collins, 2000). There is a call, therefore, for careful and balanced consideration to avoid under- or overemphasizing gender, erasing gender in favor of gender similarity, or arguing gender to be salient to the erasure of other important factors (J. Miller, 2001). In addition, some perspectives or prior works are criticized as erasing agency, an individual’s power to choose and to act, even if this agency is situated or constrained.18

Gangs have been seen as a space for masculinity but not femininity construction due to narrow, and even nonagentic, views of gender. J. Miller (2002a) notes that while crime as a resource for “doing gender” has been set forth as an explanation for males’ greater crime involvement, especially in violence, explanations of females’ criminal and violence involvement as “doing gender” have been generally unsatisfactory. Numerous accounts, however, indicate that anger, rage, aggression, violence, strength, honor, and respect can be part of females’ conception of their femininity, and may simultaneously be a challenge to, rejection, or subversion of normative and hegemonic femininity (e.g., Jones, 2009; Ness, 2010). Many self-identified “girls,” for example, do not see their aggressive behaviors as unfeminine, but as aspects of being a woman, of being themselves (Schaffner, 2006). This “anomaly” of females’ crime and gang membership has been partially explained as “variations in normative femininity as they emerge within different structural and situational contexts” (J. Miller, 2002a, p. 436). Messerschmidt (1997, 2002), for example, asserts that young women in gangs are enacting “oppositional” or “bad girl” femininity; however, Miller (2002a, 2002b) argues that, in addition to these enactments of femininities, some young women may be enacting masculinity, and some may do this situationally (i.e., their gender identities are consistent overall with “woman”) while others intend to be and see themselves as “one of the guys.” In fact, it could be any (i.e., situational enactment of either femininity or masculinity) or all of these (e.g., young people who identify as genderqueer or gender-fluid), or none (e.g., young people who identify as agender; or, for whom “gender” may not be the salient identity aspect in a particular situation). It is critical, therefore, is to understand the meaning of these actions and interactions (e.g., for aggression or violence, how and when it occurs, how it is justified, and what it means) to young women.

Scholars have asserted the importance of troubling the assumptions about male gang members as well (Panfil & Peterson, 2015): that they are hard, aggressive, uncaring, and reactive, for example. What do these characterizations say about young men and their agency? Baird (2015) poignantly writes that “young men do not aspire to become violent, drug dealers, or rapists; they aspire to a dignified male identity. Above all, they want status and social belonging” (p. 129). Scholars must open space for them to have a range of humanity and examine the roles that societal expectations and assumptions play in how gang-involved males and their activities are defined and described. For females, gangs have been recognized as a site of liberation, social injury, or both (Curry, 1998), yet these have not generally been explicitly applied to males’ involvement. Why can’t males’ gang involvement be seen, for example, as a response to trauma and victimization? Despite the fact that “victim” is seen as incompatible with hegemonic masculinity, research has documented, for example, that some male gang members experienced childhood abuse, including sexual abuse (see Brotherton & Barrios, 2004; Decker & Van Winkle, 1996; Hagedorn, 1998b; Joe & Chesney-Lind, 1995). How do scholars accommodate accounts of members taking care of one another’s emotional, sustenance, and survival needs, and providing for fellow members and for community members? Young men describe their gangs as family, speak of belonging and loyalty, “brothers,” “sisters,” and “showing love” (Vigil, 1988a), and some of the gang violence perpetrated by males as well as females can be described as “relational” or “expressive” (not solely instrumental) (Nowotny et al., 2016; J. Miller, 2014). Scholars need therefore consider different and multiple masculinities, not all of which are based on aggression and violence, and, as argued in a later section (“Future Directions for Theorizing and Researching Gender and Gang Involvement”), avoid making gender attributions of emotions and behaviors and the like.

Along these lines, de la Tierra (2016) critiques recent scholarship of masculinity and criminality (the works of Contreras, 2013; Goffman, 2014; Rios, 201119) as perpetuating the myopic concept of “perilous masculinity”20 to the exclusion of other forms of masculinity situationally enacted by young men, as well as those authors’ conceptualization of masculinity construction as static, rather than dynamic, in contrast to arguments reiterated by Connell and Messerschmidt (2005) of constant interactional and relational constructions of multiple and hierarchical masculinities. All three authors, de la Tierra notes in his discussion, rightly place their examinations within the context of structural inequalities, and all describe the everyday interactions by which race and class hierarchies are maintained; however, the effect of these, according to those authors, is to promote the endurance of “savage violence” as a marker of masculinity—that is, men’s engagement in savage violence is part of hypermasculinity, whereby violence and physical domination is expected, including physical and sexual violence against women (even when they might later distance themselves from it, as beating on women can be seen as “weak”) and misogynous use of women in their criminal enterprises. For de la Tierra (2016), however, the authors miss opportunities to broaden understandings of masculinity; he points, for instance, to the authors’ unexplored examples of young men’s interactions with their families (e.g., caring and providing for their own mothers and younger siblings, children, and their mothers); their engagement in generous giving to friends, family, and community; and their adherence to certain principles, including the desires for self-improvement, legitimate work, and helping their communities, such as engaging in resistance and social justice movements and actions. This critique could be leveled as well at scholarship on male gang involvement, which has tended to focus on males’ violence, crime, and mistreatment of women. Thus, de la Tierra (2016) argues, it is imperative to examine the contexts and situations in which men enact masculinity in different ways, acknowledging multiple masculinities (and, it should be added that some of these so-called masculinity projects may instead be race- or class-based projects or enactment of other identities altogether). In larger communities, as well, multiple masculinities are exhibited by residents, most of whom are not “criminal.” Why not also, then, focus on the masculinities performed by other men in a neighborhood, who ostensibly experience similar structural inequalities, including examining local forms of masculinity that inhibit criminal and violent activity? Present in the work on masculinities, gangs, and crime are common themes regarding the effects of cultural, religious, economic, political, educational, and social exclusion, neglect, and violence; however, variations in “doing masculinity” must also be examined, not just because “gang- or crime-involved” young men surely enact multiple masculinities, but also because not all young men in these tumultuous communities join gangs and attain masculinity through violence and aggression (Baird, 2012; Rodgers, 2009; Weitekamp et al., 2005).

Queering Criminological Assessments of Gender and Gangs

The growth of queer criminology has spurred additional critiques of gang research regarding its assumptions about gender identity, sexual orientation, and heteronormativity (e.g., Panfil & Peterson, 2015), and has challenged notions of gender itself.21 Up to this point, reflective of the perspectives of prior theorizing and research, this article has focused nearly entirely on the gender binary (“females” and “males”) and on femininity and masculinity, not taking into account gender fluidity. In fact, as some contemporary scholars would criticize, the bulk of this article perpetuates gender dualism (e.g., Miller, 2002a, 2002b).

Complicating notions of hegemonic and local femininity and masculinity in understanding gang involvement are the presence in gangs of persons who are gay or gender-nonconforming or both. Sexual orientation is often bound up with presumptions about gender presentation, and vice versa: For example, females who are lesbian or bisexual are often seen and portrayed in masculine terms and it is “easy” to see them as “gang members” (i.e., the masculinized tomboy portrayals). By contrast, males who are gay are seen in feminine terms, engaging in effeminate behavior and gender presentation that is antithetical to hegemonic notions of gang membership. However, although sexual orientation and gender identity and presentation are sometimes intertwined, it cannot be assumed that all gay women are “butch,” that all gay men are “effeminate,” or that all who have nonnormative gender presentation are “gay.”

While few texts about gangs and their members have explicitly focused on these issues, their examples provide new frames for considering the interrelationships of multiplicative identities pointed to in both multiracial feminism and queer criminology. Johnson (2008, 2014), for instance, interrogates the multiplicative intersections of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation in shaping the emergence of “Dykes Taking Over” (DTO), a gang formed by Black lesbian students in response to their experiences of bullying in an inner city Philadelphia school. These students had been continually harassed based on their sexuality and gender expression and, given the school’s failure to enforce their antibullying policies, ultimately exercised their agency and banded together for protection and defense. However, rather than critically examine what the gang and its actions (i.e., the resistance to hierarchical power and abuse) meant to the young women, the school, community, and media focused instead on DTO members’ (defensive) sexual harassment of their female schoolmates, framing them as “sexual predators.”

This is not an isolated portrayal. Logan (2011) recounts the demeaning media and justice system treatment of a group of young African American lesbians who physically defended themselves from a man’s persistent sexual advances, harassment, and threats of rape (see also Johnson, 2014).22 Headlines exclaimed, “Attack of the Killer Lesbians” and “Girl Gang Stabs Would-Be Romeo.” Rather than seen as victims of gendered and heterosexualized violence, the women were racially and heteronormatively demonized as a violent, predator gang (which they were, in fact, not; they were simply a group of friends on a night out) and were charged and some convicted of felony gang assault, among other charges. This incident even made its way onto a segment of the O’Reilly Factor titled “Violent Lesbian Gangs a Growing Problem,” on which newsperson Bill O’Reilly played on sexed, raced, and classed fears about “masculine” women of color by claiming that “all across the country” gangs of lesbians (and sometimes gay men) were terrorizing American communities (“150 such groups in Washington DC alone!”), carrying pink pistols and “indoctrinating [kids] into homosexuality” (see the recap provided by Buchanan & Holthouse, 2007). While these incidents did not, in fact, involve actual gang members, it is common in the gang literature for descriptions of gay females to focus on their “male-like” qualities.

As mentioned previously, for some (gay or not), issues of hegemonic gender conformance (e.g., emphasized femininity) may be unimportant. In her discussion of the ways in which cholas (Mexican American female gang members) chose to present themselves, Mendoza-Denton (1996) illustrates their resistance to policing of societal and local norms and expectations by families, schools, and peers. “This refusal of the hegemonic paradigm allows us to realize that these young women are completely differently situated and not orienting to much of the normative discourse . . . [they] are not only outside of the ‘female aesthetic community’ but want no part of it, actively rebuffing and contradicting it” (p. 60, emphasis in original). Similarly, Kolb and Palys (2016) describe six young women in their study who identified as lesbians, had masculine gender presentation and behavior, and “rejected the idea that they embraced any notions of femininity” (p. 39). As mentioned previously in this section, however, gay-identified females do not all have masculine gender presentation, and not all females who have masculine presentation are gay. Females who are gay are more often accepted in and by gangs than are gay males, however, probably precisely due to preconceived notions of their tendencies toward masculine presentation and behavior (Brotherton & Barrios, 2004; Gatti et al., 2005; Panfil, 2017).

By contrast, male gang members who are gay often find themselves hiding their sexual identities; Quinn et al. (2016), for example, relays that male gang members discovered to be gay would face extreme violence. A protective response can be to go on the offensive, as in the case of some young men in Totten’s (2000, 2012) work: gay, bisexual, and questioning male gang members engaged in serious violence against individuals in the community who were gay or gender-nonconforming. In another study, young men actively avoided such “gay-bashing,” but described hiding their sexuality or gender identities or both through other outward presentations of masculinity (“passing” through dress, countenance, and how they carried themselves) and behavior (e.g., dating females) (Panfil, 2017; see too Totten’s 2012 discussion of 16-year-old Bob, a gay gang member who engaged in public sex with gang-affiliated young women to hide his sexuality). For these young men, the hetero- and gender-normative expectations associated with gang masculinity produced serious tensions for their identities and well-being. These pressures are so great that even “straight” young men are careful to avoid any appearance of feminine traits, and gender patrolling and policing reinforces normative ideals of “manhood.” However, not all gangs are based entirely in these expectations.

Panfil (2017) interviewed a range of gay-identified, gang-involved young men and, similar to the work on variations across groups of differing sex composition, identified variations based on the proportions of members in young men’s gangs who were gay, lesbian, or bisexual (GLB). The amount of acceptable gender fluidity depended on the ratio of heterosexual to GLB members in the gang: more rigid adherence to masculine performances was found in largely heterosexual gangs, while less inhibition of nonnormative gender displays and behaviors existed in gangs with a large proportion of GLB members. Thus members of gangs with a large proportion of GLB members felt greater latitude to “be themselves,” while those in largely heterosexual gangs felt pressure to hide both their sexuality (including boyfriends) and any gender-nonconformance in order to protect the gang’s reputation in the community, maintain relationships within the gang, and reduce risk of victimization. Some young men in these latter gangs were “out,” some were not, but those who had earned “masculine respect” over years in their gangs contemplated coming out. The issue of proving oneself, even overachieving according to the group’s normative values and expectations in order to gain acceptance is present also in Miranda’s (2003) study of gang-involved females: although they were against having lesbians in their gang, the young women made an exception for one member who had proved herself an accomplished fighter. Similar to all-female gangs being discounted, all-gay gangs were not seen by some other gangs or gang members as “real” (Panfil, 2017); however, contrary to effeminate stereotypes, two of the three gay gangs were known for skilled fighting, and the members of one had a particular reputation as frequent, fierce, and feared fighters. The men in these gangs still valued aggressive masculinity and, while accepting of greater sexual and gender nonconformance, even discouraged other members from acting “too gay.”

Research on gang youth who identify as transgender, genderqueer, or gender fluid in any way is nearly nonexistent, and as of early 2018, this author is unaware of any research that explicitly identifies gang members who identify as agender. Some of the young men in Panfil’s (2017) study exhibited gender fluidity, including, but not limited to, performances of “feminine realness” at vogue balls. While several were considering living as a woman or identifying as transgender, all of them self-identified as male and as gay at the outset of the study. In another study, one participant (who was among those most actively involved in gay-bashing) identified as a male-to-female transgender youth (Totten, 2012). Her fellow gang members believed she “was a tough, macho male,” and she consistently wore baggy clothes so they would not see breasts developing from the hormones she was taking to prepare for gender affirmation surgery (p. 8). Finally, in their chapter on girls, women, and gangs, Belknap and Bowers (2016) describe “Boy Girls” or “Stud Broads”: gang-involved inmates in a Colorado women’s prison who took on the role of men (and often had gender identity as “man” prior to incarceration), were referred to with male pronouns, and had stereotypically male gender roles, including exerting power and control, engaging in fights, and having girlfriends and wives. The goal of these three works was not, however, to specifically investigate the roles of (trans)gender identity in the gang context, so this is as yet unexplored territory. Despite the limited presence of GLB gang members and the apparent near-absence of transgender and agender gang members, these omissions may be ones of hegemonic oversight rather than actual absence (Panfil & Peterson, 2015)—that is, it is highly likely that in the 100-plus years of gang studies, GLBTQA (gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer or questioning, agender) youth were among the gang members, but as with the myopic interpretations of early gang scholars who overlooked females as gang members, heteronormative and gender-normative assumptions have caused gang researchers to completely miss them.

During this time occurred increasing recognition in more mainstream scholarship of several important aspects of gender: that there are multiple femininities and masculinities, in part based on intersectional identities and structural positions; that not every action or behavior (including crime and violence) is intended to “do gender” (i.e., gender is not always the most salient aspect of identity); and that not all actions are intended as adhering to normative femininity and masculinity.23 Acknowledging these key aspects helps in avoiding the tautology of equating masculinity with actions in which men engage and assigning femininity to females’ actions, thus imposing gender difference and duality and prohibiting examination of gender similarity and gender variation and fluidity.

Future Directions for Theorizing and Researching Gender and Gang Involvement

Because of gender dualism and certain activities being described as masculine, both females and males (and scholars themselves) must account for females’ presence in gangs and for females’ gangs, and their attributions reproduce dualism. Adherence to dualism also omits consideration of the experiences of young people who are outside of the gender binary, but recent accounts chip away at the boundaries of gender binaries and offer promise for the inclusion of gender fluidity that can expand understanding of the relationships between “gender” and gang involvement.

Violent females in each era have been showcased as deviant anomalies due to gender transgression but the behavior of these young women is now interpreted as more normative due to changing conceptions of femininity, recognition of multiple femininities, challenges to notions of gender, and recognition of female enactment of masculinity. Taking their perspectives into account, especially the meanings they give and attribute, is essential. Many Latinas in Joe-Laidler and Hunt’s (1997, p. 153) study “strongly believed that one could be in a gang and also ‘act like a woman.’” Young women with whom Hagedorn and Devitt (1999) spoke relished fighting but did not consider this contrary to their femininity, and a young woman explained to Mendoza-Denton (2008) that “being macha” is not about enactment of masculinity or casting off of femininity; rather, it is about respecting and standing up for oneself, in the process of being a responsible, independent adult. The role of agency should not be overlooked: Young women, for example, use their gender in specific ways—to get them out of crime commission; to engage in crime commission by avoiding law enforcement attention or victimizing men by playing on their gendered assumptions about women (Kolb & Palys, 2016; J. Miller, 1998, 2001); for their own sexual pleasure (e.g., “[Men] are important when I have sexual needs,” [Schalet et al., 2003, p. 130]); and/or for excitement, power, and resources (Baird, 2015).

At the same time, consideration should be given to whether, how, when, and why male gang members enact “femininity.” The pressures created by gender dualism are clearly demonstrated in an example relayed by Panfil (2017): One of the young men in her study was reluctant to label his own behaviors “girly” because he felt they were part of his identity (which was male) and the tensions he faced were solely from external societal expectations about “being male.” Thus, young men (or even criminologists) often have no space or frame within which to discuss their emotions or behaviors that have been gender-attributed as “female” or “feminine.” Hegemonic gender dualism has also led to the frequent myopic depiction of gang-involved young men solely as aggressive, violent, unfeeling misogynists. Recognition and exploration of young men’s (situational) enactment of multiple masculinities will help to avoid this essentialism.

In future gender and gangs research, it would be fruitful to examine femininity and masculinity in interaction, within contexts—that is, taking a “relational approach to gender” (Connell & Messserschmidt, 2005, p. 837). Often, texts offer in-depth examinations of masculinity or of femininity, but not both, in relation to and in interaction with each other. Examining both can offer insights into within- and between-gender variations and similarities, helping to illustrate multiple femininities and masculinities enacted situationally and in interaction—that is, gang research should attend to the ways in which young women and young men construct gender in relation to each other, as in research examining gender dynamics within groups of differing sex ratios (see too Baird’s 2015 discussions of how both females and males are implicated in masculinity constructions). Quinn et al. (2016) relay that young men in their study expressed ambivalence regarding sexual activities in gangs: they reported feeling uncomfortable with incidences of and participation in exploitation and sexual coercion of females in their gangs and also feeling regret (especially as thoughts of their mothers or sisters came to mind). To reduce cognitive dissonance and self-condemnation, moral disengagement strategies (see Wood, 2014) were employed to rationalize their behaviors and adhere to masculinity norms that they stated were just “part of the gang life” (see too the justifications given by young men in Sanders, 1994). Fleury and Fernet (2012, p. 12) report that men in their study relayed similar conflicting feelings and “confusion about the concepts of violence and consent” and the overarching influence of the group’s normative expectations on their behavior and treatment of women. Despite private misgivings, both male and female gang members publicly upheld group norms (see Wood’s 2014 discussion of pluralistic ignorance), thus reproducing and reinforcing societal gender hierarchies. These asymmetrical gender hierarchies create paradoxes for young women. On one hand, gang life affords them agency to attain desired goods, identities, and relationships, while on the other hand, local gang masculinities subordinate femininities. This has prompted Jody Miller to urge consideration of how and why young women reproduce hierarchies and of questioning “what do women get out of maintaining gender inequality?” (2001, p. 15). Her work (and that of others) reveals ways in which young women perpetuate gender hierarchies, by denigrating other young women and engaging in boundary maintenance that typescripts females and upholds dominant masculinity (e.g., see the descriptions of female gang members exploiting other young women in Lauderback et al., 1992). Multiracial feminism allows a framework through which to understand these seeming paradoxes, highlighting the concepts of “both/and” and “relationality.”—that is, multiracial feminist scholars point out that everyone experiences oppression and privilege, and no person or group is exclusively oppressed or privileged; social hierarchical positioning of groups in relation to other groups is based on differences, and therefore, “some women benefit from the oppression of other women” (Burgess-Proctor, 2006, p. 37).

To fully understand “gender” and gang involvement, scholars should consider constrained choices based on hierarchical structural inequalities and intersectional identities, and also remember that “gender” is not always the driving force. Field researcher Camile Salazar, for instance, observed that one constrained choice for females of Puerto Rican and Dominican heritage was to “remain outside the group and face ethnic discrimination or join the group [the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation] and face gender discrimination” (Brotherton & Barrios, 2004, p. 194). As well, gay men have been subordinated and excluded from hegemonic masculinity, yet there are also hierarchies among gay men (and gay women) based on race and class, among other intersections (see Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Logan, 2011). Gay black men, for example, face the constrained choice of experiencing racism in LGBT communities or heterosexualism in black communities (Conerly, 2001).

Increasing societal recognition of nonbinary gender identities should challenge scholars to investigate what “gender and gang involvement” means for young people who are transgender, gender-fluid, or agender, while being conscious of within- and across-variations—for example, notions of gender and sexuality take on different meanings among Native American, First Nation, and North American Indigenous peoples (Driskill, 2010; Wilson, 1996).24 Some assert that it would be useful to decouple gender from attributes that perpetuate tautology, for instance that aggression is “masculine,” and move toward neutral language such as “people who are . . . assertive, instrumental, aggressive, violent, expressive, communal, affiliative,” etc., without attributing these to gender performance. Bem (1993) argues that even using terms such as “femininity,” “masculinity” and “androgyny” perpetuates gender polarization and hierarchies. Consequently, scholars should attend to the ways in which even talking about or pointing out gender dualism perpetuates hierarchies and seek ways to avoid dualism—yet, at the same time, if hierarchies are not openly discussed, they cannot be exposed (Kandiyoti, 2005).

Deutsch (2007) reminds that “if gender is constructed, then it can be deconstructed. Gendered institutions can be changed, and the social interactions that support them can be undone” (p. 108). Thus, for Deutsch, “‘doing gender’ evokes conformity, ‘undoing gender’ evokes resistance” (p. 122). Connell and Messerschmidt (e.g., in their 2005 article) have made similar arguments, highlighting that hegemonic patterns of masculinity are “open to challenge—from women’s resistance to patriarchy and from men as bearers of alternative masculinities” (p. 846). Accordingly, examples should be actively sought of transformation and missed opportunities for transformation, such as the one presented in the following instance in which members of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation in New York described their organization as dedicated to the affirmation of their Latino heritage and of their humanity (Brotherton & Barrios, 2004): “On a range of ideological, organizational, and cultural levels the ALKQN was dedicated to resisting and ending the processes of socio-psychological subjugation that are the modus operandi of colonial social control” (p. 255). Yet, the authors relay that,

When the [all-male] leadership was asked why more was not done to address some of these sexist practices [such as cooking and child-care falling to women], the response was usually twofold: (1) the sexism by the members is simply reflective of sexism in the public at large, and therefore outsiders should not hold the group to a standard that society itself could not attain; and (2) the group was 90 percent male and 10 percent female, and to give more power to females before they had a greater share of membership would be inappropriate. (p. 198)

This organization, committed to social and political change through resisting and overcoming hegemonic norms and power structures, would seem to be in a position to transform, yet instead reproduced gender hierarchies. Criminologists must be attentive not to contribute to gender dualism by selectively perceiving gender difference, holding individuals accountable to normative gender ideals, and making assumptions about gender as binary, thus reproducing societal ideals of gender dualism.25

Further Reading

Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.Find this resource:

    Brotherton, D., & Barrios, L. (2004). The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation: Street politics and the transformation of a New York City gang. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

      Campbell, A. (1984). The girls in the gang. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.Find this resource:

        Chesney-Lind, M., & Hagedorn, J. M. (Eds.). (1999). Female gangs in America: Essays on girls, gangs, and gender. Chicago, IL: Lake View Press.Find this resource:

          Connell, R. W. (2005). Masculinities (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Find this resource:

            Connell, R. (2009). Gender (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Polity.Find this resource:

              Messerschmidt, J. W. (1997). Crime as structured action: Gender, race, class, and crime in the making. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                Mendoza-Denton, N. (2008). Homegirls: Language and cultural practice among Latina youth gangs. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.Find this resource:

                  Miller, J. (2001). One of the guys: Girls, gangs and gender. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                    Miranda, M. K. (2003). Homegirls in the public sphere. Austin: University of Texas Press.Find this resource:

                      Panfil, V. R. (2017). The gang’s all queer: The lives of gay gang members. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

                        Panfil, V. R., & Peterson, D. (2015). Gender, sexuality, and gangs: Re-envisioning diversity. In S. H. Decker & D. C. Pyrooz (Eds.), The Handbook of Gangs (pp. 208–234). Oxford: John Wiley & Sons.Find this resource:

                          Peterson, D., & Panfil, V. R. (2017). Toward a multiracial feminist framework for understanding females’ gang involvement. Journal of Crime and Justice, 40(3), 337–357.Find this resource:

                            Steffensmeier, D. J. (1983). Organization properties and sex-segregation in the underworld: Building a sociological theory of sex differences in crime. Social Forces, 61(4), 1010–1032.Find this resource:

                              Thorne, B. (1993). Gender play: Girls and boys in school. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Find this resource:

                                Vigil, J. D. (2002). A Rainbow of gangs: Street cultures in the mega-city. Austin: University of Texas Press.Find this resource:

                                  Ward, T. W. (2013). Gangsters without borders: An ethnography of a Salvadoran street gang. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:


                                    Adamson, C. (2000). Defensive localism in white and black: A comparative history of European-American and African-American youth gangs. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 23(2), 272–298.Find this resource:

                                      Aldridge, J., Medina-Ariz, J., & Ralphs, R. (2012). Counting gangs: Conceptual and validity problems with the Eurogang definition. In F.-A. Esbensen & C. L. Maxson (Eds.), Youth gangs in international perspective: Results from the Eurogang Program of Research (pp. 35–51). New York: Springer.Find this resource:

                                        Alleyne, E., & Wood, J. L. (2010). Gang involvement: Psychological and behavioral characteristics of gang members, peripheral youth, and nongang youth. Aggressive Behavior, 36(6), 423–436.Find this resource:

                                          Alonso, A. A. (2014). Racialized identities and the formation of Black gangs in Los Angeles. In C.L. Maxson, A. Egley, Jr., J. Miller, & M. W. Klein (Eds.), The modern gang reader (4th ed., pp. 230–243). New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                            Amato, J. M., & Cornell, D. G. (2003). How do youth claiming gang membership differ from youth who claim membership in another group, such as a crew, clique, posse, or mob? Journal of Gang Research, 10(4), 13–23.Find this resource:

                                              Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.Find this resource:

                                                Asbury, H. (1927). The gangs of New York: An informal history of the underworld. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.Find this resource:

                                                  Baird, A. (2012). The violent gang and the construction of masculinity amongst socially excluded young men. Safer Communities, 11(4), 179–190.Find this resource:

                                                    Baird, A. (2015). Duros & gangland girlfriends: Male identity and gang socialisation and rape in Medellín. In J. Auyero, P. Bourgois, & N. Scheper-Hughes (Eds.), Violence at the urban margins (pp. 112–133). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (1.) Although it is more accurate to use the terms “female” and “male” when referring to categorizations based on perceived biological attributes and the terms “young women” and “young men” when referring to gender identity, performance, or expression, these terms are used interchangeably throughout this article, to reflect the ways in which they have been used in gang scholarship. In future research, it is advisable that young people are specifically asked their gender identity (and sexual orientation) in order to use terms that accurately and respectfully describe them.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (2.) Greenberg (2012) gives numerous examples of intersex conditions, including chromosomal variations (e.g., Klinefelter or Turner Syndromes); gonadal variations, including Swyer syndrome; and hormonal variations, including XY infants with complete androgen insensitivity (CAID). Even at the genomic level, sex is not binary (McCarthy & Gartner, 2014, p. 4).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (3.) Thus, some argue that sex is not “biological” but rather socially constructed (i.e., based on what attributes are considered to constitute being male or female) (McCarthy & Gartner, 2014).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (4.) It is telling that lower-class males are often referred to as “boys” in these texts, infantilizing them.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (5.) And what does this say about young men? That men are hypersexual creatures not able to resist the lure of women and therefore easily duped?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (6.) One exception is W. Miller’s (released in 2011 but written 50 or so years earlier) discussion of gender-typed practices: “While all of these behavioral practices [i.e., home-making, dress, and adornment, and attributes such as being led in dancing, showing affection to one another, and speech patterns] are associated with femininity in our present society, none are intrinsic to women either as a physiological entity or sexual object . . . As attributes of ‘femininity,’ therefore, these practices are to a large extent culturally arbitrary in that they are regarded, in our time and under specified conditions, as ‘feminine,’ but in other cultures at present and in our own in the past all have been seen as appropriately ‘masculine.’ The ruffles, powdered wigs, silk pantaloons and stockings, long waved and perfumed hair of the 18th-century French ‘gentleman’ represent a particularly well-known example” (p. 650).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (7.) And he quickly moved on to relay that this girl later, at the age of 11, succumbed to gendered pressures (ceasing her involvement in masculine activities) after falling for a boy who had recently moved to the neighborhood (Thrasher, 2000).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (8.) Brotherton (1996) later illustrates these focal concerns among young gang-involved women, questioning the extent to which these are “masculine traits,” even if they manifest in slightly different ways, such as variations in females’ autonomy by culture and gang type.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (9.) Comparing across studies, it is more difficult to identify consistent findings regarding within- and between-sex similarities and differences; this is due to studies not including the same measures, to inconsistent operationalization of “risk,” and to methodological differences such as use of cross-sectional versus longitudinal data and bivariate versus multivariate analysis (Peterson & Morgan, 2010, 2014).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (10.) “Hegemonic” femininity is often referred to instead as “emphasized” femininity, to recognize that in patriarchal systems of gender ordering, there is a hierarchical quality to “hegemonic” masculinity and femininity, with the latter asymmetrically subordinated (see, e.g., Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (11.) Variations in female gang members’ adherence to traditional gender normative scripts are evident in Moore and Hagedorn’s (1999) racial/ethnic comparisons: when asked their opinions about the role and importance of men in their lives, 75 percent of African American gang females but only 43 percent of Latinas agreed that “the way men are today, I’d rather raise my kids by myself” (pp. 185–186). Likewise, while 29 percent of Latinas agreed that “all a woman needs to straighten out her life is to find a good man,” no African American females endorsed that statement (p. 186). In another study, female gang members who stressed their sexual autonomy tended to be African American, older, and in independent all-female cliques (Schalet et al., 2003), mirroring Moore and Hagedorn’s (1999, p. 186) finding that two-thirds of African American females but only 39 percent of Latinas agreed that women should have as much sexual freedom as men.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (12.) It is important to note, however, that some young women, including some Puerto Rican and Dominican females in Brotherton and Salazar-Atias’s (2003) study, do not self-identify as “American,” proudly retaining ties to their cultural history, even while rallying against gendered cultural constraints.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (13.) For Sanders (1994), gang membership, aggression and violence are expressions of young men’s conventional, rather than “oppositional,” values; he argues that, with limited or constrained outlets for expression, gang members’ violence is a means for them to express such values as loyalty and honor, values not in opposition, but also held by men in other social strata. In addition, Hagedorn (1998a) traces the treatment of masculinity in the gang literature and highlights similar notions of masculinity across class and occupational levels; he uses his typology of male gang members to illustrate comparable “types” among college-educated, middle- and upper-class, and males of other race or ethnic, cultural, or class backgrounds.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (14.) The placement of this section on masculinities is not to suggest that the idea of ganging as a response to exclusion is a “new” one—indeed, this was an argument posed by many of the earlier scholars whose work is described in the prior section entitled “Historical Accounts of Gang-Associated Females and Male Gang Members, Late 1800s–1960s.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (15.) This is much like young black females’ additional need to circumvent and resist black female typescripts: welfare queen, hood rat, whore-like Jezebel, etc. (Wing & Willis, 1997).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (16.) This is an issue not just in gangs, but in peer groups in general, in workplace groups, etc. However, given the portrayal of gangs (by media, law enforcement, the public, and by gang members themselves, especially males) as male-dominated, aggressive, and even hypermasculine in nature, issues of gender can be heightened.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (17.) These authors caution readers not to take their suggestions and conclusions out of context: they suggest that exclusion of females is not unique to the gang context, and that it appears more common among younger than older males (Bowker et al., 1980, p. 517).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (18.) An illustrative example is the work of Newbold and Dennehy (2003), who argue that females’ backgrounds of abuse led them to low self-worth and to gangs for the protection of a strong male, preconditioned them to accept degrading and abusive behavior from their fellow male gang members, and locked them into the gang lifestyle.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (19.) While these works were not about gangs per se, each dealt with masculinity and crime: one delves into the interwoven issues of drugs and violence, specifically drug robbery, that drive lifecourse shifts for young men in a Dominican community in the South Bronx (Contreras, 2013); another illuminates the effects of constant police surveillance on black neighborhoods and specifically black men as a result of the war on drugs; and the third describes the systems by which young Black and Latino men are criminalized and controlled (Rios, 2011).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (20.) Perilous masculinity is defined by de la Tierra (2016) as “the constitution of manhood via avenues full of ominous risk” (p. 379)—that is, masculinity occurring in desperate, disadvantaged communities and characterized by “constant scheming, male chauvinism, and savage violence,” an enterprise “fated to ruin” (p. 380).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (21.) As defined by Ball, Buist, and Woods (2014), “Queer criminology is a diverse array of criminology-related researches, critiques, methodologies, perspectives, and reflections. These projects might engage in some way with the slippery notion of ‘queer,’ focus on how people experience or perform sexuality and gender (with particular attention to those whose lives fall outside of what is considered to be ‘normative’), or challenge other normative orderings and the criminological methods that support and perpetuate them. These studies might also include empirical projects that chart the experiences of queer populations within criminal justice institutions. Most often, these studies would lead to critiques of mainstream criminology, further theoretical reflection, and political projects that seek to address injustice and inequality” (p. 2).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (22.) The documentary Out in the Night details how the intersections of race, gender identity and sexual orientation were used to criminalize them.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (23.) See Lin (2011) for an example of femininities and other identities (based on class and race) situationally performed.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (24.) Two recent examples include that Oregon has become the first US state to issue a gender-neutral driver’s license and state ID card (O’Hara, 2017), and a baby born to a transgender parent in British Columbia, Canada has been given a gender-neutral marker (“U” for undetermined) on their official health card and a similarly designated birth certificate may follow (BBC News, 2017; Oliver, 2017).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (25.) The question should also be posed that if such care is given to considering gender in a multiracial feminist understanding of gang involvement, should not equal care be given to considering the intersections that make “gang” itself a gendered, raced, classed, etc. determination?