Girls, boys and gangs: beyond villain and victim

Right wing thinktank the Centre for Social Justice is the latest body to turn a concerned gaze upon the issue of girls’ involvement with gangs. This is one of those stories that seems to surface every few months and is reported every time as a shocking, scandalous new exposé.

In truth there is little or nothing in the CSJ report that wasn’t reported in the Deputy Children’s Commissioner’s report in November last year, or by Channel 4’s investigation in 2012 or by Carlene Firmin of Race on the Agenda (ROTA) in 2011 and 2010.

It was Firmin whose work really deserved to be considered groundbreaking, and is still shocking today. She interviewed 350 girls who were directly involved in gang culture or gang-affected communities, who reported endemic sexual exploitation and rape alongside experiences as victims, perpetrators and conspirators in various violent and serious crimes.

Firmin’s work with ROTA was a milestone because, at least as far as the public and media narrative was concerned, it marked the end of a decade of textbook moral panic and folk devils about girls and gangs – gleeful tabloid tales of knife-wielding girl gangs roaming the streets like XX chromosome droogs. As the work of Susan Batchelor has convincingly shown, there is little evidence that girl gangs, in any meaningful sense, have ever existed in the UK. That is not to say that girls are not involved in gangs, but the nature of that involvement remains opaque.

The ROTA reports highlighted how a lack of serious research and investigation into the extent and nature of girls involvement with gangs was hampering provision of necessary support and exit services. Subsequent research has added nothing to this dearth of meaningful data, indeed the new report quotes Patrick Regan of charity XLP saying:

“The biggest issue with girls and gangs is that we simply don’t know the full extent of what is going on. Everything seems to be indicating that we are only looking at the tip of the iceberg and the current data fails to reflect the majority of the girls’ involvement.”

Into this vacuum has slipped a new narrative that risks taking on the character of a whole new moral panic. Over the past four years, discussion of girls in gangs has been strictly limited to the position of victim. Part of this is about social and economic victimisation, with reference to childhoods in care, or abusive families or social exclusion, slum housing and poverty. Overwhelmingly, however, the headlines have focussed on sexual exploitation.

There are many horrific accounts in these reports of gang rapes, punishment rapes, revenge rapes and more. The anecdotal evidence is plentiful enough that no one should doubt that youth gang culture is sheltering some appalling sexual violence, even if we really have no idea about the true extent of the problem. Alongside that, however, there is a rather salacious subtext that is exoticised by a glossary of street talk – “links”, “line-ups”, “wifeys” that pays scant interest to issues of consent, agency, motivation and intent. The assumption seems to be that a sexually active young woman from a poor background is, de facto, being exploited.

I spent the best part of a decade doing community media projects in a notoriously gang-affected area of South Manchester. I worked with and alongside young (and sometimes not so young) people who were inside, outside and exited from gangs, including work with convicted young offenders. I saw a lifestyle and culture that is entirely built on exploitation. The street gangs exploit the vulnerability, fear and hopelessness of brutalised and neglected young people just like themselves. Older drug dealers and thieves to manage their businesses by exploiting the aggression, anger and territorial habits of teenagers and their clawing, desperate desire for some kind of status, respect or validation.

Within that, it is all but impossible to untangle who is exploiting and who is exploited, who is the villain and who is the victim. The reality is that almost everyone involved meets either description from one day to the next, or at the same moment. People do horrible things, commit horrible crimes, as a way to avoid becoming victims of horrible crimes. All of this is true for boys just as much as it is for girls.

The perfect illustration of this is contained in the CSJ report. In the section on sexual exploitation, they provide testimony that on occasion, “female gang members in their late teens are being pressured to have sex with young boys in gangs, sometimes as young as 10, as part of the initiation process of those boys into the gang.”

Both in the report itself and the attendant media coverage, this anecdote was presented purely as an example of girls being exploited by gangs. It does not appear to have occurred to anyone that what is being described here is not just the sexual exploitation of a young woman but also a crime of serious child sex abuse against a young boy. In the reporting of this one piece of evidence we see the male victim of a serious, psychologically traumatising crime being entirely erased. Within the narrative the boys are instrumentalised to the point of irrelevance – they only feature as incidental objects. Am I the only one who finds this shocking? And am I the only one who thinks that our willingness to overlook the brutalisation of young boys might be a bloody big part of the problem?

As I see it, we have made significant progress in how we consider girls in gangs. Yes, at times the media can be patronising and romanticise away the agency of young women who willingly choose to exercise disturbing violence, brutality and cruelty, not least to other young women. It is, however, better that we err on the side of compassion and understanding of how they ended up behaving like this.

What I struggle with is our unwillingness to apply the same rational framework, the same degrees of empathy and sympathy to young boys who are similarly victimised, brutalised and vulnerable. A paradigm which holds all gang-involved young women to be innocent victims in need of rescuing and all gang-involved young men to be vicious, sexually exploitative criminals is not only infantile and inaccurate, it is actively obstructive to producing the shifts in policy and culture that could help to keep safer young women and young men alike.

How to be a douchebag

There’s a marvellous scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket when the brutal drill sergeant played by Lee Ermey asks the raw recruits what they know about (Texas spree killer) Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald. He goes on to praise their marksmanship, points out that they learned to shoot in the marines, and tells his young charges that before they leave the camp, “you will be able to do the same thing.”

I was reminded of this scene when reading Clive Martin’s piece in Vice today entitled How Sad Young Douchebags Took Over Modern Britain. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the vicious, murderous accuracy of the sniping, I just felt deeply uncomfortable about the morality of the choice of target.

Lined up in Martin’s telescopic sights were the young men one sees in bars and clubs, primped and pumped up with bench-presses and anabolic powders, inked with tatts and soaking up admiration, primarily of their own gaze. They were variously described as ‘erections in vests’; ‘a Calvin Harris remix of a Springsteen song that doesn’t really work’ and ‘Ken dolls dipped in tea and covered in biro.‘ Like I say, you have to admire the sniping.

Beyond the creative insults, there is some genuine insight. Late in the piece Martin acknowledges:


But while it’s easy to scorn the banality – and the vanity – of the modern British douchebag, they’re only products of their environment. An environment that has very little to offer them any more, other than gym memberships, intentionally ripped clothes, alcohol and creatine. The institutions that gave British men a sense of wellbeing have been ripped apart. Nobody trusts the police any more; nobody wants to join the army because no one believes in its wars; traditional industries have been decimated and the only thing to replace them are stifling, mind-numbing positions in service and retail. 

Because of this, British men have tried to reimagine masculinity, in a hyper-realised, childish, desperate way. A new kind of machismo, built on fake bravado and vanity. British men are looking up to faux-hawked, peacocking, rich maniacs like Mario Balotelli for inspiration, because they really have nowhere else to look. Their bosses hate themselves and their dads hate them.

I can’t help but look at this emerging culture and wonder if they’ve basically retreated from a world that doesn’t want the young British male any more.

Boiled down, what we have here is Diane Abbott’s speech on the crisis of masculinity rehashed with added abuse for a hip, sneering audience, the MPs description of a Viagra and Jack Daniels generation served anew as ‘Monster cocktails and Creatine.’ Like her, the piece picks out a hugely salient but tiny minority and demands that they represent the grand themes of a generation. Where they differ is in their concerns. Abbott at least presumed to be concerned about the actual harm caused by her phantasms of moral panic – particularly the violence, abuse and exploitation of young women, but also the harm done to these men themselves. The Vice article does not even begin to make such accusations. There is no suggestion that the young men under discussion are abusive, criminal or violent, indeed they are mocked and denigrated for being fundamentally ‘soft’ under their muscle mass. Their only offence, it seems, is aesthetic. The author slates them as douchebags and arseholes, not because they have done anything to harm anyone, simply because they offend the author’s delicate sensibilities.

On first reading, I understood the piece as an exercise in arrogant, elitist, class-based anthropology. On closer inspection, I realised it was worse than that. At no point does the writer indicate that he has ever talked to the men he describes, ask them what motivates them, what their interests are. Does he even know that they are the ‘sons of the miners and the metrosexuals’ left in ‘mind-numbing positions in service and retail’? For what it is worth, the two guys I’ve known who most closely fitted the stereotype on display here were middle class kids with degrees, working on the creative design side of the media. Go figure. What we are presented with here is not social anthropology, but a sneering freakshow.

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the social consequences of a post-industrial neoliberal society, in which the traditional gender roles that once operated simultaneously as safety blankets and straightjackets have been ripped away. One manifestation of this might well be a superficially puerile, hedonistic narcissism that is more likely to nourish self-destructive depression than fulfilment or social progress. Another might be an individualistic, scornful self-righteousness, cultural snobbery and deeply divisive cultural circus sideshow peddled by Vice magazine.  

There’s more than one way to be a douchebag.  

Getting into bed with Christian fundamentalism: Behind the APPG report

In the wake of Mary Honeyball MEP’s efforts to push the whole of Europe towards adopting the so-called ‘Nordic model’ of criminalising the purchase of sexual services, the British media gave generous coverage yesterday to a new report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.

Most of the papers obediently parroted the line that after hearing expert testimony from 413 different witnesses and organisations, the MPs were recommending the ‘legalisation‘ of prostitution but the criminalisation of buying sex and tougher policing of pimps. The current law, they reported, is an inconsistent mess which (pretty much) nobody thinks effective.

I have no intention of raking over the Nordic model debate yet again. I will quickly point out that to make the provision of a service legal but the purchase of the same service criminal would strike me as the ultimate example of an inconsistent mess. I would add that from what I have heard and read from sex workers themselves, the single greatest hazard to their safety is probably the legal bar on joint working and shared premises, which arises directly from efforts to combat pimping and brothel-keeping. Every sex worker I’ve heard comment on yesterday’s report seems in agreement that the proposals would put them at greater risk and further marginalisation, and I see no reason to argue.

I would note too that yesterday’s report, as a piece of research, is pretty dreadful. There is no attempt to record, report, quantify or evaluate the full range of evidence and opinion submitted to the inquiry, leaving a strong impression that the committee had simply cherry picked the snippets of testimony which fitted with their pre-ordained positions and ignored everything else. While the report admits to receiving contrary submissions, there is no attempt to explain or justify the route from evidence to recommendations.

Perhaps the most troubling detail is barely mentioned in the report itself. The All Party Group which funded it is made possible by the provision of a secretariat and expenses from a charity called CARE – Christian Action Research and Education, which spends more than £400,000 per annum purely on ‘influencing public policy.’ This not only includes supporting the All Party Group on prostitution, it also involves providing (at the last count) a dozen free interns for sympathetic MPs.

So who are CARE? To quote the Telegraph:


Care describes itself as a “mainstream Christian charity bringing Christian insight and experience to matters of public policy”. A closer look at its website appears to contradict the claim to be “mainstream”. The organisation’s published doctrinal basis is distinctly fundamentalist and among other things talks of “the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture and its consequent entire trustworthiness and supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct”. In other words, the Bible is the literal truth.

CARE are furiously and proudly homophobic, to the extent that one MP (a gay Christian) once described them as ‘a bunch of homophobic bigots.‘ They were heavily involved in lobbying against the introduction of gay marriage and against the repeal of Section 28, while they believe in prayer as a ‘cure’ for homosexuality.

Perhaps most disturbing is their position on abortion. They directly fund the network of CareConfidential crisis pregnancy centres in the UK, where counsellors were recently filmed undercover claiming abortions would increase chances of breast cancer and could predispose women to becoming child sexual abusers.

At this point, allow me to step back for some perspective. For those unfamiliar with British parliamentary process and convention, All Party Parliamentary Groups are not formal, official bodies. Unlike (highly influential) select committees, they have no official remit, no official authority, not even a budget (which is why they go cap in hand to ‘charitable’ lobbyists to pay the bills.) All it takes is 20 MPs or peers with a shared interest to decide to form a group. Consequently there are APPGs on everything from greyhound racing and crown green bowls to jazz appreciation. The report published by the APPG on prostitution yesterday carries no authority and does not compel the government to act in keeping with its recommendations.

However, what we have seen is a major new offensive in a long-running propaganda war. Few people reading the newspapers yesterday will have appreciated that the APPG is a self-selecting cabal, dancing pre-planned steps of religious and ideological conviction, to a tune played by bunch of extremist, fundamentalist bigots. They will be unaware that the recommendations of the APPG are, surprisingly enough, all but indistinguishable from the policy positions previously laid out in CARE’s own documents. What readers of the press across the political spectrum, from the Mail to the Independent to the Guardian will believe is that a group of MPs has spent a year collecting and examining expert testimony then concluded that the Nordic model was the best approach to take.

This is a profoundly dishonest and disingenuous contribution to the debate. It is no longer a shock to find leftwing and / or feminist politicians jumping into bed with rightwing religious fundamentalists, accepting their favours and cash for the cause. Dworkin and McKinnon were doing the same with Reagan’s pals on the fundie right back in the early 80s. However it is important for democracy that if these unlikely bedfellows are going to be engaged in such unholy relations, they do so in the full glare of sunlight, not skulking in the shadows.