Catch the gang members, end the rapes? It’s not that simple
While researching sexual violence in gangs in 2008, a youth worker told me a particularly shocking story about a young boy whose mother had found drugs under the bed. She told him to take the drugs to the police, which he did. As a result, she was raped by the boy’s gang. No action was taken: she was too scared to press charges.
Despite what last week’s headlines might say, systemic sexual violence isn’t really about gangs at all. Street gangs are not half as organised as people think. They certainly have power and their name carries a weight, but only in the way any group of men with a common purpose can have over a community. To reduce the issue to being about “gangs” suggests it’s merely a law and order issue that can be policed away. Catch the gangsters, end the rapes. It’s not that simple.
Of course the perpetrators must be arrested and jailed. But in the long term, gang rapes are symptoms of far bigger social problems: what we’re tackling here is the rise of hypermasculinity in certain areas of the inner city. Between 1980 and 2000, poor and rich households became less likely to live together and crime became geographically focused in the poorest areas, usually those with a high proportion of social housing. They became synonymous with the many problems faced by those new tenants, such as mental illness, drug dependency and poverty. On top of this, poor academic performance and unemployment are self-perpetuating. And the nastiest byproduct of this dangerous mix is crime.
By 1992, the chances of a resident in the lowest crime neighbourhood being assaulted were barely measurable. Residents in the highest crime neighbourhoods, by contrast, were likely to be assaulted twice a year. They also experienced four times the rate of personal crime than those in the next worst category. In these areas you get gangs, to protect from or facilitate crime. The horror of rape is just one among many crimes in these places.
What this means is that while the worst perpetrators can be taken out of circulation, those who do community work in these areas know it’s not just a small group of callous individuals they’re fighting – it’s a mindset. Talking about gang members in her area, another youth worker told me: “They beat up a girl, slashed her with a knife, because they think she’s been dressing provocatively and flirting with their men.” And how old is she? “Oh, 12,” they say. “And they don’t think they’ve got issues. What can you do? It’s the way of life here – you keep everyone around you down. Make sure no one has a better life than you.”
But I also remember meeting the sister of a gang member. As a sibling, she had a different relationship to the men than other girls. She was treated with respect, hung out with her brother and his mates when they drank £200 bottles of champagne in clubs. But what made her different to the other girls wasn’t her status as an honorary gangster. It was the fact she had eight GCSEs. She told me: “The guys in my ends … it means something for a girl to achieve what I did. They like to be able to say to the other people in their crew, ‘My girl’s at university.’ It’s something different.”
How do you stop gang rape in the long term? It’s the boring stuff – balanced economic growth, greater financing for education starting in the classroom, work by housing associations, health workers, statutory and voluntary sector social workers engaging with families – little things that don’t create a single headline, but work.