Hidden Girls – A Documentary on the Exploitation of Girls in Gangs

Gangs in the UK are increasingly ‘recruiting’ very young girls, as young as 10, to hold and run drugs and weapons for them and, for the even more unfortunate, to use as sex-slaves.

It seems that girls are very much the victims within gangs, as they have very little chance of moving up the gang hierarchy. They may well make it to the status of ‘youngers’ but it seems that’s where their progression stops – the best they can hope for is to be in the front line running drugs and weapons and recruiting more girls into sexual exploitation.

They have almost no chance of becoming elders, the people who run local gang cells.

If you want a thoroughly depressing watch, then Hidden Girls on BBC3 (available on iplayer) is for you.

The documentary focusses on two female victims of gang exploitation, exploring how they got involved with the gangs, what gang life was like and how they got out of the cylce of exploitation.

The main method used is semi-structured interviews with the two victims, and also some other professionals who work in the field.

Both victims had very unstable home backgrounds from a young age – one talks of how she experienced her mother (not herself) being abused constantly by her father, and when that relationship ended her mother eventually ended up with a new partner who was a gang member and her house became a base for drug dealing, she was roped into the gang that way, eventually ending up holding drugs and weapons for the gang, from when she was 12.

She doesn’t recount too much about her life as a gang member, but she ended up in what she thought was a ‘loving relationship’ as a teenager with a gang member in their 20s, and I dread to think what kind of abuse she suffered, although this isn’t talked about explicitly.

She went through years of self-harming but eventually managed to get out through finding a place in a ‘safe-house’ with a key worker to support her.

The other victim talks about how she was (basically) neglected at home with there frequently being no food or other amenities – washing her hair with cold water and fairy liquid was normal.

She ended up hanging around with a gang, from the age of 11, because she enjoyed the banter and jokes, getting giving stuff for free, and eventually being asked to hold weapons and drugs.

It sounds like she avoided sexual exploitation herself, but only because she had an older girl friend in the gang who advised her that if she wanted to avoid the dreaded ‘line-up’ ritual (where several male gang members have sex with one girl at once) she had to bring in other young girls and persuade them to be the sex-slaves.

She now regrets all the victims she created and runs Out of the Shadows – an organisation aimed to help young people out of a life of crime.

The documentary also talks about how social media is facilitating the sexual exploitation of young girls, although the links to gangs in relation to social media aren’t really explored.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This post has primarily been written for students of A-level sociology and this material on female victims in gangs is mainly relevant to the Crime and Deviance topic.

More specifically it is relevant to the topic of gender and crime – it is support for the view that female criminals (because these victims are also criminals) usually come from a background of abuse and neglect at home.

It also reminds us just how much gangs are a male phenomenon, with females being victims within the gang structure.

So there is obvious relevance to the topic of victimology here too, these are good examples of hidden victims.

This topic is also worth exploring for research methods – according to the woman who set up Out of the Shadows it is very difficult to access these female victims while they are victims – they tend to keep quiet about their exploitation and suffer in silence, so methodologically this means there is no reliable data on the extent of female victimisation in gangs and it might only be possible to explore this from a historical point of view, once they are out.

Needless to say this is also a sensitive topic, so an interesting one from an ethics point of view.

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Can religion lead gang members away from crime?

The short answer is yes: ex gang members who join a religious ‘support’ programme as a way out of crime have lower re-offending rates. However, the re-offending rates of those who quit such programmes have higher reoffending rates than those who never took part at all!

This is according to some recent research summarized in this interesting Thinking Allowed podcast. The research summarized is clearly relevant to both the beliefs in society module and the crime and deviance module.

The podcast starts off with a discussion of what gangs are, focusing mainly on how uncritically the term is used.

There’s an especially interesting discussion on labelling as applied to gangs and how naming a gang can sometimes be enough to bring it into existence.

There is also commentary on how the gang label is typically applied to groups of young people, and how it has racial connotations, being applied more to black youth.

The podcast then moves onto routes into gangs, outlining how various ‘causal factors’ have been identified through research, such as poverty, deprivation, and childhood trauma.

However research on causes is a bit 1990s, and the focus today is more on routes out of crime, or what criminologists call desistance

Desistance: Routes out of Crime

This episode of Thinking Allowed finishes off with a summary of Professor Ross Deuchar‘s work on the routes out of gangs.

He has spent time with gang members who have served their time for gang related offenses and in a liminal phase, trying to transition away from gang life, and his research has a real global focus, he’s researched desistance in Scotland, the US and Asia.

Previous research of his highlighted the fact that traditional, or hegemonic masculinity played a big part in gang members criminality – much of the violence was about playing out a hyper masculine role.

His research shows that religious groups offering therapeutic support to ex gang members have a higher success rate than usual in helping ex gang members to desist from crime.

He suggests this might be because the focus on spirituality (rather than dogma) allows for a deepening awareness of self an others and it helps ex-gang members learn how to be men in different ways to previously.

There is a lot more to this podcast, and I suggest you check it out, click the link above to find out more!

The nationwide expansion of drug gangs

Drug gangs are expanding their operations from large city centres such as London, Birmingham and Manchester into smaller towns and rural areas. To do so they are using a new business model referred to as ‘county lines’ – dedicated mobile phone drug deal lines which local drug dealers in smaller towns can use to order drugs from the suppliers in the city centres. According to a recent report by the National Crime Agency, there are over 1000 established county line networks which are each capable of making profits of £800, 000 a year.

These lines are so profitable that gangs increasingly resort to violence to protect them, so this county line model of drug gang expansion probably goes a long way to explain the 50% increase in knife crime since 2015. In fact, a spike in knife crime in a small town or city is believed to be an indicator that a new drug line has been opened up.

How county lines work

Drug gangs in larger cities establish branded mobile phone lines using ‘burner phones’ which are disposable and anonymous, and these are then used to send out group messages to the local dealers around the country offering what drugs are for sale, which is mainly heroine and crack cocaine. Frequently there are special offers such as two for the price of one deals. The drugs are delivered by runners who also collect payment from the local dealers.

Children and drug lines

School-aged children, typically aged 15-17, but as young as 11, are usually used to deliver the drugs and collect payment. The charity Safer London estimates that 4000 children from London are involved. Sometimes these children might stay away in a drug-hub for an extended period, which is known as ‘going country’ or ‘going OT’ (out there).

county lines.png

The children recruited are usually vulnerable, having been excluded from school or from broken families, and many are drug users themselves. They are roped into the gangs by the lure of financial reward, or some might be debt bondage because of their drug habits. Once in, they are exposed to a violent lifestyle and effectively take all the risks for the upstream dealers.

NB – from a legal perspective, the use of children as drug mules now counts as child trafficking, so anyone caught being involved in this is likely to get a very lengthy spell in jail.

Cuckooing

A particularly insidious aspect of these drug networks is a process known as cuckooing…. Where a new local recruit’s house in a rural or coastal taken over by a drug dealer from one of the main centres and that house is turned into a local dealing hub, used to store and possibly manufacture drugs, and sell drugs.

One way this can escalate is that the local dealer is allowed to get into debt, and then has their house taken over as a means to repay this.

Such victims will often be drug addicts with mental health issues and are also likely to be in poverty.

Countering the problem of drug gangs and drug lines 

This is an enormous problem, and its growing fast: 75% of police forces believed new lines had been opened up in 2017 and it’s estimated that the 1000 lines in existence are worth £500 million a year. With that kind of coverage and that amount of money involved, tackling this isn’t going to be easy!

A new National County Lines Coordination Unit has recently been established so the 43 police forces in England and Wales can easily share information, and the police are using anti trafficking and anti-slavery laws to punish the dealers.

In a week of raids in January police arrested 600 people and referred 600 children and 400 adults to safeguarding authorities. More than £200 000 in cash and 140 weapons were also seized.

drug gangs.png

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is obviously highly relevant to the crime and deviance specification. Probably the most obvious links are to right and left realism, and to my mind it’s a great example that proves the limitations of the right realist approach – the nature of this crime is that it’s hidden, and so right realist crime control techniques will probably be ineffective in controlling it.

It seems to offer support for left realism – relative deprivation and marginalisation are the root causes, and maybe addressing these are the only way we’re going to see a reduction in drug related crime in the future?

Sources

NCA 2018 report on drug gangs

NCA county lines report 2017

The Week, 9th Feb 2019

 

 

Sociological Research on Gangs

In the aftermath of England’s ‘summer of violent disorder’ in 2011, the British Prime Minister David Cameron was unequivocal in apportioning blame: ‘At the heart of all the violence sits the issue of the street gangs. Territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent, they are mostly composed of young boys, mainly from dysfunctional homes’.

A few days later, Cameron declared ‘concerted, all-out war on gangs and gang culture. . . a major criminal disease that has infected streets and estates across our country’

Unfortunately for David Cameron the image he is painting of gangs is largely nonsense, at least according to to this recent Thinking Allowed Podcast which looks at a recent piece of research on a gang in Glasgow, the main aim of which was simply to explore what gang membership actually meant to the gang members (rather than doing what David Cameron did which is spouting nonsense based on media stereotypes).

glasgow gangs

The research is by Alistair Fraser – ‘Urban Legends: Gang Identity in the Post-Industrial City (first chapter for free). He’s based at Glasgow University and spent 4 years embedded with a gang known as the Langview Young Team – working as a social worker and and outreach worker, spending time hanging out with various gang members (mostly losing at table tennis apparently) and living as part of the local community for 18 months.

He researched one gang – The Langview Young Team (YTM) – a shifting cast of 14-16 year white males who had all grown up in a small territorial area without travelling outside much.For context on Glasgow gangs this article by a local paper is worth a quick read.

Some of his main findings were:

  1. The idea that the gang is like a club which you’re either in or out of and which affects every aspect of members’ lives wasn’t true – rather the gang was a fluid and shifting source of identity for members.
  2. Membership wasn’t fixed or static or stable – its membership was diffuse and shifting. It was not a coherent group, and it was actually quite hard to tell who was a member because there were no initiation rituals.
  3. The gang was something which many people grew up with but grew out of.
  4. The gang was contingent and situational – it was based mainly on a sense of place, linked to structural exclusion and physical immobility linked to living in a post-industrial area in decline (lack of other opportunities).
  5. Violence existed, but less than you might expect.
  6. Status was mostly gained through constant battles of one one-upmanship, often linked to games of football and other games.

Identity in the gang was rooted in two things – in physical locality and also to a sense of local history – membership passed down from older to younger members – young people basically inherited gang membership by virtue of living their whole lives in one area.

Changes in the community meant that there was declining space available for young people to gather this (and possibly the rise of mobile technology) related in young people retreating from the street, which means that there is possibly a decline in gang-identity.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that Fraser argues that that the typical media-representation of gangs as tight-knit groups who demand a kind of ‘master-status’ commitment from members is misleading. He suggests that there are a such a wide-variety of gangs that we shouldn’t lump them all in the same category – we really need new concepts to describe the variety of different types of gang that are out there (and maybe something a little more up to date than Cloward and Ohlin’s ‘three types of subculture.)

Very finally, something else which was discussed was the relevance of the self-fulfilling prophecy – if officials label a diffuse gang of people as a gang, the leaders emerge claiming to be leaders of it!

Brief Evaluation/ Uses

A very useful piece of research that can be used to slate the relevance of consensus subcultural theory – clearly things have moved on!

Very useful example of a piece of Interpretivist ethnography (what does membership mean to the members?)

Of course it is only gang – so Cameron may be right about gangs in London, they could be different!?!

 

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