Birds and sluts

AuthorLoretta Trickett
Date01 January 2016
Published date01 January 2016
Subject MatterArticles
Birds and sluts: Views on
young women from boys in
the gang
Loretta Trickett
Nottingham Law School, Nottingham Trent University, UK
The sexual abuse of young women by gang members in the UK is a subject of concern. The
Coalition Government has outlined its commitment to ending gang violence and as part of this
overall enterprise has pledged several million pounds to supporting initiatives aimed at young
women at risk of sexual violence by male gang members. These initiatives were developed in
response to reports that the sexual exploitation of young women in the UK had become ‘nor-
malised’ within the gang context. This article examines possible reasons for the ‘normalisation’ of
such abuse. Based on extracts from interviews with male gang members living in Birmingham,
England, the author argues that understanding the version of masculinity enacted by the young men
was crucial to explaining their attitudes towards young women. Indeed, it is only by encouraging a
redefinition of masculinity based on providing young men with the tools and incentives to negotiate
masculinity differently that we may see them rejecting the gang and with it, sexual abuse. While the
article makes suggestions for future policy initiatives in the UK around reducing sexual abuse
against women by gangs, the suggestions may be helpful in non-gang contexts.
Gangs, honour, masculinities, sexual assaults, women
Background: masculinities, gangs and sexual abuse
Whereas the history of gang research in the UK is relatively new compared to the USA, there can
be no doubt that the ‘gang’ label has become commonplace, partly because of the lack of a stan-
dardised definition (Hallsworth and Young, 2008). This can lead to lazy assumptions made about
gangs and offending, evidenced by the English riots of 2011 in which the government was forced to
Corresponding author:
Loretta Trickett, Nottingham Law School, Nottingham Trent University, Chaucer Street, Nottingham, NG1 4BU, UK.
International Review of Victimology
2016, Vol. 22(1) 25–44
ªThe Author(s) 2015
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0269758015610850
admit that the initial link between gang members and the riots was greatly exaggerated (Lewis
et al., 2011).
While the respondents discussed here self-identified as being in a gang, the factors that they
drew upon correlated with the Centre for Social Justice’s (2009: 3) definition of a gang as:
‘A relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of young people who:
1. see themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group; and
2. engage in a range of criminal activity and violence.
They may also have any or all of the following features:
3. identify with or lay claim over territory;
4. have some form of identifying structural feature; and
5. are in conflict with other, similar, gangs’.
Typically, where young women and UK gangs have been considered, there has been a focus on
victimisation (see Batchelor, 2009). There is growing evidence that young women with gang ‘con-
nections’ are frequently subjected to sexual and physical violence within the gang, especially if
they are deemed to have transgressed their expected gendered roles or gang boundaries (see Firmin,
2010, 2011). The paradox here is that the minority of young women who recognise some benefits
from gang membership, such as gaining ‘status’ or ‘feeling protected’ may actually be exposing
themselves to a greater risk of sexual abuse and physical violence, both from their own gang mem-
bers and from rival gangs (see Firmin, 2011). Specifically some studies (see Heart Programme,
2013) have also highlighted that gang initiation rituals for women are sexualised and that some are
expected to be ‘sexed-into’ the gang by ‘agreeing’ to have sex with several gang members.
Furthermore, there can be no doubt that any sexual abuse by gang members that we do know
about represents only a small proportion of the overall amount, given the poor levels of reporting
gang-related sexual violence. Inevitably, this makes any evaluation of government initiatives to
reduce incidents of sexual assaults problematic.
In this article, the author turns her attention to how masculinity within the gang context is ‘oper-
ationalised’ through a focus on the attitudes and behaviours of male gang members towards the
women with whom they are acquainted. This can help to improve our understanding in order to
build better policy solutions in the future. This is necessary given that policy responses in this area
have largely focused on how women can help themselves to avoid victimisation rather than putting
the emphasis on how masculinity is interpreted and operationalised. In large part this can be
explained by the bulk of gang research being on male-on-male violence (Bullock and Tilley,
2002; Heale, 2009; Pitts, 2007) and how men relate to other men, within both their own and rival
gangs (Gunter, 2008; Hallsworth and Silverstone, 2009; Trickett, 2011), rather than affording a
detailed consideration to the role of masculinity in the sexual abuse of young women with gang
The Children’s Commissioner Inquiry (Berelowitz et al., 2013) on young people’s understand-
ings of sexual consent, highlighted concerns about attitudes demonstrated by some young men
towards young women. Yet there have been few concrete suggestions about how we should deal
with this within the gang context. Indeed, as part of the Commissioner’s inquiry, a further study
(Beckett et al., 2013), which focussed specifically on the victimisation of gang associated women,
reported that both male and female respondents felt that change was unlikely due to the ‘normality’
26 International Review of Victimology 22(1)

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