The faces of gangsters -- on television, at the movies and in the obituary column -- are almost always male. But a new book, "8 Ball Chicks: A Year in the Violent World of Girl Gangsters" (Anchor), examines the role of young women in urban gang culture. The book's author, Gini Sikes, spent two years on the streets of Los Angeles, Milwaukee and San Antonio chronicling the violent lives of dozens of young women.
Sikes' claim that the number of girl gangsters is rising is corroborated by Brian Riley of the Milwaukee Police Gang Crime Division. Her finding that girl gangs operate essentially as auxiliaries to male gangs is supported by detective Robert Borg of the San Antonio Police Department's Youth Crime Division. "Basically the girls are property," he said.
Salon spoke with Gini Sikes about the world of girl gangs, what attracts -- and repels -- female gang wannabes, and how degrading the whole experience turns out to be.
Why the title "8 ball Chicks"?
The name comes from a gang in San Antonio. One of the ways a female gang can form is through a ladies auxiliary. In San Antonio I met the Eight Ball posse, a boy gang, and eventually they introduced me to the Lady Eights which was the girl gang. The boys referred to them as the "8 ball chicks." I liked the name because of the expression "behind the 8 ball," meaning being in a tough position, which many of these girls are.
How many girl gang members are there in the U.S.?
It's hard to get good numbers. Justice Department figures say there are 650,000 gang members nationwide. The rule of thumb is that 10 to 15 percent of those are female.
So there could be as many as 100,000 girl gang members. Why don't we hear very much about them?
Traditionally, cops and social workers have ignored them because they believe women don't pose as much of a threat. I think law enforcement overestimates the numbers of young, minority males -- based on such things as how they dress and where they hang out -- whereas they tend to underestimate the number of girls.
For example, one night I was driving in South Central and I was pulled over by the police and made to get on my knees because I was hanging out with boys who were wearing gang colors. I'm sure that had I been with girls in the same environment, wearing the same clothes in the same neighborhood, they would not have pulled me over.
While researching the book you practically lived with girl gangsters in three cities -- San Antonio, Milwaukee and Los Angeles. What did they do all day?
Ninety percent of the time they did nothing. They would go to "ditching" parties where a group of kids would skip school and hang out. Their neighborhoods had little to offer -- no recreation centers or youth programs. Often if the cops know you are affiliated with a certain gang they won't let you hang out in certain places, like parks. So there really is nowhere for these kids to go. And there are no midnight basketball programs for girl gangs.
Even if there were, do you think these girls would participate? Wouldn't that seem uncool?
I think they would participate. They need and want hands-on attention from adults.
We associate young male gangs with crime. Is it the same with girl gangs?
It's incremental. Girls join gangs to be accepted. Often girls that don't fit in can find a place in a gang. Gangs will accept fat girls and girls with acne -- as long as they can fight well. Once a girl is in the gang it becomes very seductive because people are now scared of them and that gives the girl power. They start to "act out." This leads to criminal activity because you can't just hang out in a gang forever -- you have to prove yourself. You have to fight or sleep with a bunch of guys in the gang.
Are the crimes the same?
The same as male gang bangers -- assaults, robberies, carjackings, joy rides, drive-bys. The girls don't commit as many murders, but they do disfigure other girls with razors. If a girl has to stay home because she's pregnant or has a young child sometimes she will run drug rings.
You portray girl gangsters as just as violent and emotionally disturbed as male gang bangers. What are some of the differences?
Girls tend to have a worse home life. Many of them came from homes where their father or stepfathers were molesting them. No one was listening to them so they would run out on the street and pound on the first person who triggered their temper.
One main difference between girls and guys is that with the girls there is a real acceptance of homosexuality. Homosexuality exists among male gangs, but it is not acknowledged. I knew some gay Latina gang members who looked indistinguishable from the guys down to their boxer shorts. Some can fight as well as the guys. Gay females also have longer gang careers because they don't get pregnant and drop out of gang life.
So getting pregnant curtails gang activity.
Biology is destiny in the gangs. For Latinas, one way out of the gangs without being punished is to get pregnant, because girls who have babies and continue to run around on the streets are looked down upon. I'd say the majority of girls I interviewed are now mothers. Once a girl became pregnant, they would try to find work and try to change their mind-set. They want to give their children a better life than they had, but they often can't get out of their neighborhoods.
But some girls wanted to be in gangs, even with children.
Right. Two of the girls I know lost their babies from an initiation rite known as the "jump-in" when you are beaten by three to five people for the count of 50.
What other initiation rites did you observe?
Sometimes you need to prove yourself by committing a particular crime. Then there are sexual initiations. Sometimes at a party a girl would be drunk or have something spiked and she would agree to have sex with maybe three guys but then five more would jump in. She would have no recourse because what is she going to say to the police? "I said yes to three but not to eight"? There isn't much sympathy for these girls, because getting into a gang by having sex is considered the coward's way in because all you have to do is lie back and spread your legs.
What if a girl wants to get out without getting pregnant?
If you decide to leave you must endure a "jumping out" where you are beaten more severely than when you were initiated.
Do any of the women you met go on to have careers?
Most are mothers. If they have family members that can care for their kids, they can work part-time. One of the girls in the book now works at a nursing home and another one at a factory. They really take pride in making it.
You've been criticized for changing the names of the girls you interviewed because people said they couldn't verify the stories.
I changed the names for two reasons: First, these girls were admitting to criminal activity and they weren't going to tell me anything if I used their real names. Secondly, girls tend to grow out of criminal activity sooner than boys, so I felt it wasn't fair to stigmatize teenage girls for the rest of their lives. I had two researchers working with me and we tried to verify everything we could either through police records or by talking to other kids. When I couldn't verify an incident, I tell the reader.
What was the most disturbing thing you personally found while writing the book?
How devalued the girls were. Male gang members would sometimes demand that girls have sex with a rival gang member just to get more information on them. If the female refused, because she didn't know the guy or because she just didn't want to do it, she could be beaten for insubordination. They were in a real Catch-22 situation.
This devaluation wasn't just in gangs, but in big urban high schools, too. So many girls were suffering and no one was paying attention. I don't think a lot of these girls would have become so violent if one person along the way had listened to them or taken them seriously. But they were invisible. They looked around them and saw that the only people who received attention were boys who were beating on people. So they would emulate that.