An exploratory study of gang-affiliated young men's perceptions and experiences of sexuality and gender relations.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Gang violence (Demographic aspects)
Gangs (Sexual behavior)
Women (Crimes against)
Authors: Fleury, Evelyne
Fernet, Mylene
Pub Date: 03/22/2012
Publication: Name: The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality Publisher: SIECCAN, The Sex Information and Education Council of Canada Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 SIECCAN, The Sex Information and Education Council of Canada ISSN: 1188-4517
Issue: Date: Spring-Summer, 2012 Source Volume: 21 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 980 Legal issues & crime
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Canada Geographic Code: 1CANA Canada
Accession Number: 302109615
Full Text: Abstract: The literature on gangs frequently associates them with gender inequality and violence against women. Some recent studies that have addressed the sexual practices of gang-affiliated young men have painted a portrait of their romantic and sexual experiences that is incomplete because violence and similar issues are emphasized to the detriment of overall affective and sexual experience. The perspectives of such young men is largely absent. The present study used a qualitative analysis of interviews with gang-affiliated young men to explore their perceptions and experiences of gang life in terms of sexual exploitation, violence towards young women, gender relations, and romantic and sexual relationships. Our goal was to uncover the underlying affective, sexuality-related, and identity-related aspects of their relationships with women. Our findings revealed some paradoxical differences between their self-reported experiences and their identified perceptions and aspirations for a better life.


Few studies have adequately investigated the etiology of sexism, sexual exploitation, or aggression in gangs. The available data come from studies on young women who associate with gangs (Chesney-Lind, Shelden, & Joe, 1996; Dorais & Corriveau, 2006; Fournier, Cousineau, & Hamel, 2004) or studies that do not specifically address gang-related sexuality (Danyko, Arlia, & Martinez, 2002; Decker & Van Winkle, 1996; Hamel, Fredette, Blais, Bertot, & Cousineau, 1998; Perreault & Bibeau, 2003; Sanders, 1994). To our knowledge, Totten (2000) is the only author who has considered the viewpoint of gang-affiliated young men on violence in romantic relationships. Most studies depict a fragmented portrait of the sexual and romantic experiences of gang-affiliated young men where violence is at the forefront to the detriment of a broader overall picture of their experience. The literature reviewed below contextualizes the perceptions and experiences of gang-affiliated young men in regard to their sexuality and gender relations.


Many studies have described the backgrounds and social environments (suburbs, family, school) experienced by gang-affiliated youth (Covey, Menard, & Franzese, 1992; Goldstein, 1991; Hamel, Fredette, Blais, Bertot, & Cousineau, 1998; Maxson, Whitlock, & Klein, 1998; Wood, Furlong, Scozzari, & Sosna, 1997). Collectively, such studies can help us to understand the processes of gang affiliation and disaffiliation experienced by young men.

It should be noted that there is no established consensus on the definition of gangs, gang members, or gang activities. Therefore, it is difficult to assess the extent of criminal gang activity and related issues such as delinquency, violence, and sexual exploitation. Moreover, gang members have different images and develop different types of relationships within the various groups to which they belong. Hebert, Hamel, and Savoie (1997) defined the term "gang" as "a community of persons (adolescents, young adults or adults) who share a common identity, who regularly interact in small or large groups, and take part in criminal and/or violent activities" (p. 41).

Family environment and violence against women

The family environment predictors of gang affiliation are complex and cannot be easily generalized. In many cases, deunification (e.g., immigration, separation, foster family) and parents' personal problems (e.g., alcoholism, mental health) have deprived many gang-affiliated young men of their parents' presence (Danyko et al., 2002; Hamel et al., 1998; Maxson, Whitlock & Klein, 1998; Patton, 1998). Many gang-affiliated young men come from single-parent families and have been brought up by women (Danyko et al., 2002; Hamel et al., 1998; Patton, 1998). Although they may speak about their mothers with respect, this respect does not extend to other women (Patton, 1998). The father's violence toward his wife or children has impacted the family experience of many gang-affiliated young men (Danyko et al., 2002; Hamel et al., 1998; Patton, 1998). All the gang-affiliated young men met by Totten (2000) who were violent against women mentioned that their parents adhered rigidly to traditional family and gender roles.

In many other cases, parents' personal behaviour is not considered a root cause of gang affiliation, or at least not the main one. Many studies have pointed to multiple predictors of gang affiliation such as economic marginalization, poverty, peer influences, school, individual characteristics, experience of victimization, and community conditions (Hill, Hawkins, & Battin-Pearson, 1999; Thornberry, Krohn, Lizotte, Smith, & Tobin, 2003; Thornberry, Lizotte, Krohn, Smith, & Porter, 2003).

Gender relations and sexuality in gangs

Stereotyped sex roles, including domination over and violence towards women, are learned in families, and they appear to crystallize in gangs (Totten, 2000). As is the case with violence and delinquency, sexual conquests and insensitivity to young women also result in greater gang status and help to maintain a masculine image for gang-affiliated young men (Dorais & Corriveau, 2006). Nevertheless, a reputation for masculinity is never permanent, and must be continuously reaffirmed (Miller 8,: White, 2003).

Whether or not they are exploited, women become a central priority for gang-affiliated young men (Girard & Tetreault, 2005; Palmer & Tilley, 1995; Perreault & Bibeau, 2003). The prestige and status associated with gang affiliation appears to be attractive to some young women. Dorais and Corriveau (2006) note that, regardless of the qualities and appearance of gang-affiliated young men, gang membership increases tenfold the possibility of having sexual relationships with young women. This attraction persists even when the young women know that the members they are with have sexually abused other young women (Palmer & Tilley, 1995). Some young women approach gang-affiliated young men and offer themselves as sexual partners (Dorais & Corriveau, 2006; Palmer & Tilley, 1995; Perreault & Bibeau, 2003).

Relationships between young women and gang-affiliated young men are characterized in the literature as involving seduction, manipulation, and violence (Miller & White, 2003; Perreault & Bibeau, 2003). The most virile and violent young men are perceived to be the most respected. Generally, young women are placed in an inferior position (Chesney-Lind et al., 1996; Miller, 1998). Unless these young women are protected by a gang member (e.g., brother, boyfriend), they may become regular victims of psychological, physical, and sexual violence perpetrated by the members of their own gang (Miller, 1998). However, it seems that the role of the girls is changing. Some girls now occupy central positions and create their own niche of criminal activities (Chesney-Lind et al.). Individually, not all young men are involved to the same extent in violence towards young women. Some young men initiate violence, whereas others take part in it mainly to avoid being rejected. Those who premeditate their acts are more conscious, detached, and centered on the advantages, and less sensitive to the well-being of the young women. Others seek the acceptance of peers through their first violent act. Subsequent acts would bring secondary benefits and advantages (Perreault & Bibeau, 2003).

Conflicted views, double standards, sexual prowess, and insensitivity

Gang-affiliated young men are characterized as having a negative view of women (Chesney-Lind & al., 1996; Miller, 1998; Patton, 1998; Perreault & Bibeau, 2003; Sanders, 1994; Totten, 2000) and embracing sexual stereotypes (Girard & Tetreault, 2006). The sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, and violence experienced by a substantial number of young women who associate with gangs is thought to stem from this perception of women (Fournier et al., 2004; Patton, 1998; Sanders, 1994). As is the case in other social groups, a majority of gang-affiliated young men report negative impressions of young women who engage in one-night stands (Dorais & Corriveau, 2006; Miller & White, 2003; Perreault & Bibeau, 2003). Because relations with multiple partners and hypersexuality bolster the masculine image and serve as a model for masculine behaviour (Dorais & Corriveau, 2006; Miller & White, 2003), there is peer pressure for gang members to be sexually active (Totten, 2000).

At-risk sexual behaviours

At-risk sexual behaviours are associated with gang-affiliation (Voisin et al., 2004). Often occurring at parties, sexual relations are usually preceded by the consumption of psychotropic substances (Brooks, Lee, Stover, & Barkley, 2009; Crosby, Salazar, & DiClemente, 2004; Silverman et al., 2006; Voisin et al., 2004). In addition, young women are frequently intoxicated, voluntarily or not, when they engage in group sexual relations or aggressive and exploitative relationships (Fournier et al., 2004; Sanders, 1994). Compared to other troubled youth, gang-associated young men have more sexual partners and more frequent sexual behaviours (Crosby et al., 2004; Palmer & Tilley, 1995; Raj et al., 2007; Voisin et al., 2004). They are less likely to use condoms, and consequently more likely to be involved in a pregnancy or to contract a sexually transmitted infection (STI) (Voisin et al.).

Sexual aggression and gangbangs

Sexual aggression and collective rape (known as gangbangs) are crimes that are seldom reported by young male gang members (Perreault & Bibeau, 2003; Sanders, 1994). When gang-affiliated young men address the subject, they do not speak openly, preferring instead to report anecdotes or the experiences of their peers. Sanders (2004) noted that perceptions of sexual aggression among such young men do not correspond to public or clinical perceptions. In general, gang-affiliated young men consider that young women take part in a game where they know the rules. Furthermore, they emphasize that "good" girls are either not invited to their parties, do not attend, or leave before the sexual "games" start. Because many young women who are associated with gangs share these perceptions, the extent of sexual aggression is likely to be underestimated (Fournier et al., 2004).

Sexual exploitation

Pimping contributes to the identity and status of gang-affiliated young men (Dorais & Corriveau, 2006). Gang-affiliated young men who devote themselves to pimping generally target vulnerable young women (Dorais & Corriveau, 2006; Fournier et al., 2004; Perreault & Bibeau, 2003) and Perreault and Bibeau (2003) stress that sexual exploitation requires more than threats to maintain young women in that situation. Pimps learn skills from their peers such as seduction and "love-bombing" (e.g., overwhelming a young woman with attention and friendliness) (Dorais & Corriveau; Perreault & Bibeau).

Violence in romantic relationships

According to Totten (2000), young men who are violent towards women display some confusion about the components of a healthy egalitarian relationship and that those who are considered marginal (e.g., gang-affiliated) are generally more violent than those who are not gang-affiliated. Fournier et al. (2004) found that women who reported being victims of violence in their romantic relationships identified jealousy, possessiveness, control, and obedience as factors that tainted their romantic relationships with gang-affiliated young men. In some cases, such young men may consider young women as their property (Dorais & Corriveau, 2006; Girard & Tetreault, 2006).

The present study

The literature on gang-affiliated young men tends to emphasize violence and related factors but does not capture the perspectives of the young men who live and seek acceptance in this environment. The present qualitative study sought to explore gang-affiliated young men's perceptions and experiences of sexual exploitation and violence against women, gender relationships, sexuality and love.



Participants were recruited from and interviewed at the Centre jeunesse de Montreal--Institut universitaire (n = 3) or community resource centres (n = 7). Given that the study population was considered marginal, difficult to reach, and generally wary about institutions and authority, the collaboration provided by trusted social and community workers was essential. We therefore used the expert sorting method, which meant asking people who were familiar with the milieu to recruit the participants (Angers, 1996). The previously cited definition of "gang" (Hebert et al., 1997) was adopted for the present study but gang membership was determined by the perceptions of the social and community workers we consulted and by the young men who agreed to participate.

Conceptual framework

Grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) was utilized for this study. It aims primarily to understand the meaning of an event by collecting data, determining key points, grouping them into concepts and categories, and from these, generating conceptualizations as patterns emerge (Paille, 1994). The process does not begin with a pre-established conceptual design. Instead, the concepts emerge from the data collected in the field. Supported by inductive logic, new concepts, assumptions and theories were generated from empirical observations and grounded within them (Dorais, 1993).

Data collection and analysis

Five topics were covered by the interviews: (1) gang experiences; (2) family models; (3) masculinity; (4) relationships between males and females and gang-related sexuality; and (5) suggestions for intervention. Interviews lasted from 45 to 100 minutes and were conducted in French. The interview framework was validated by a criminologist with expertise in gangs.

Data were recorded on audiotape and transcribed verbatim. Data were analyzed according to grounded theory procedures (Strauss & Corbin, 1997; 1998). Analyses were run using ATLAS/ti v.5 (PC software). As proposed by Laperriere (1997), an initial open and exhaustive coding of all the interviews was carried out. Thus, data were deconstructed, extracted, and broken down into meaning units (Deslauriers, 1991; L'Ecuyer, 1987). Categories were then developed inductively from the meaning units. This categorization was accompanied by theoretical and analytical reflection. All meaning units and conceptual categories were reorganized and the unifying links were identified. These links, grounded in the empirical data, were continuously remodelled throughout the analysis process.

Inter-judge reliability was determined by having another researcher approve the process and review the analysis (Deslauriers & Kerisit, 1997) in order to ensure the application of appropriate procedures (Deslauriers, 1991) and the relevance of the suggested conclusions (Laperriere, 1997).

Ethical considerations

This study received the approval of the ethics committee of the Departement de sexologie at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal and was conducted with the support and collaboration of the Centre jeunesse de Montreal--Institut universitaire. Participation in this study was voluntary. At the time of the interview, written consent was obtained. If individual names or precise locations related to illegal or criminal acts were mentioned, the researcher was required to immediately end the interview and inform the authorities. Participants were also informed of this. Responses were treated anonymously and confidentially. All participants' names are fictitious and were chosen by the participants. Each participant received a compensation of $20.


Sample characteristics

Ten young men (18-25 years old; mean age 20 years), affiliated or formerly affiliated with criminal or violent gangs, took part in individual semi-structured interviews. For the eight participants who specified it, the average duration of their affiliation with a gang was three years. At the time of the interview, six participants maintained regular social contacts with gang members but were not involved in violent or criminal activities. Three participants were continuously affiliated, and only one participant had definitively broken ties with a gang (Table I).

Eight participants had received ongoing services after a youth protection evaluation. Whether related to gang affiliation or for other reasons, seven participants had committed offences and had been referred under the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA). The mean age at the time of first placement was 15.5 years. At the time of the interviews, one participant was staying at a youth centre and two others were on probation: one under the YCJA and the other after serving time in prison for assault (Table 2).

One participant had been found guilty of sexual assault and reported taking part in group sexual activities. Another had been recently accused of sexual assault, but his romantic partner had subsequently withdrawn her complaint. One participant had served a prison sentence for assault on his former romantic partner. Another had sexually exploited young women by pimping (Table 3).

Six participants were in a relationship at the time of the interview. Only one lived with his partner and was taking care of a child. Two were fathers but had separated from the mothers (Table 4).

Conceptual analysis

The results obtained in the analysis were grouped into three conceptual categories: (1) Absent, stereotyped, or violent family; (2) Maintaining a masculine image through violence, criminality, emotional insensitivity, and sexual prowess; and (3) the need for support and sexual education to learn how to express their masculinity non-violently and to engage in healthy, egalitarian sexual relationships. The three conceptual categories, with their associated themes and sub-themes are summarized in Table 5. The documentation for these categories, themes and subthemes is presented below.

Category 1: Absent, stereotypical, or violent family models

The young men generally came from a traditional, stereotypical family (7/10) in which the man was the provider and the mother took care of the home. Almost all of them have witnessed (8/10) or have been a victim (5/10) of family violence. Immigration, separation, placement in a youth centre and parents' problems (i.e., alcoholism) had deprived many young men (7/10) from their father's model or other males' models. Violence or the absence of a male model impacted the familial experience. This category had two themes.

Defined by opposition to a violent father

Although they admitted having suffered from their father's absence or from violence, half the participants wished to resemble their father. Four others distanced themselves from the paternal model, although in practice, they perpetuated their father's domineering or violent behaviors towards women.

When I was a kid, my father--often under the influence of alcohol--was looking at my agenda and if I was late in anything he would smash my face.... One day ... he got angry and he started smash my face like I was a dog.... Pah! Pah! Pah! He kicked me with his fists and his feet. Man, I stood up--PaP! ... We got into a fight. I was bleeding ... my father too. I went to my room, I locked myself in. My mother came in to talk to me. I said, no, morn, sorry but him, he doesn't care. ... I'm his son, not a dog. Why is he talking like that? I'm sick of it! ... Another day, there was a birthday at home, and then everybody left. My father wanted to go but my mother didn't want to let him leave. My father got angry, he said, "OK, you're my wife, not my mother." He started to hit her in front of everybody, including his own friends. I saw that nobody was doing anything.... I called the police, the police came in [laughing].... My male model? I don't know. (Mexique, 22) My dad beat my mum. Me, in my relationship, I don't want us to be like my dad and my morn ... because I like the person who's with me and if I love her, I won't hurt her, I won't beat her, or I won't cheat on her.... (Pantera, 21)

Family messages about sexuality and gender relations: absent or incomplete Only two participants reported that they had received information about sexuality: the first from his father about STI/HIV and the second from his mother about respect toward women.

My mum never spoke to me about that. She just said, "You never hit a girl, that's it, you don't even touch them with a flower petal, you can't touch them." She never told me how to treat them. So for me, I have a pretty aggressive nature. When there's something that I don't like, I will say it and not in the best way. (Alex, 22)

I've never talked about sexuality with my dad.... With his father, we do "be careful." On some aspects, I learned by myself. My mother, it's only, "Be careful, protect yourself." (Francois, 18)

Category 2: Maintaining a masculine image in a gang through violence, criminality, emotional insensitivity, and sexual prowess

All the young men reported that in a gang, violence towards young women was accepted and even encouraged. The results also suggest that violent behaviour towards women varied across gangs and across gang members. Whereas some gang-affiliated young men were highly sexually active and engaged in sexual exploitation, others had difficulty approaching young women. Although the experiences differed, the perceptions and norms related to sexual roles were common to all participants. This category has eight themes most of which have two or more sub-themes.

The macho male sub-culture and conflicting views of women

All participants reported that male supremacy prevailed in their gang. Yet they also held conflicting views of women. On the one hand, they idealized, dominated, and desexualized the women they cared for (mother, sisters, girlfriend). On the other hand, they devalued young women, used them for their own pleasure, and sometimes sexually exploited or assaulted "easy" girls.

I don't like it [when my girl] comes to the park with me. Because girls that hang out in that park, they aren't seen as good girls.... They're whores and fuck, you go with them to just chill, not to have something serious. (Mexique, 22)

Peer influence

Seven participants mentioned the influence of peers on their consumption habits as well as their delinquency behaviours and behaviours towards women. Participants expressed their admiration for peer models. Like them, they wished to obtain status, money, valuable objects, and women quickly and without too much effort. Peers sometimes explicitly encouraged violence, delinquency, and the sexual exploitation of women.

Ever since I was a kid, I always thought about money and that I wanted money.... My cousins, they always had pretty girls.... I started imitating them. They talked all sweet to girls, all gentleman-like. Just until they wanted to pimp them, then they started doing their shit. That's how I learned to talk to girls; you have to tell them what they want to hear.... It's just that the guys are too manipulative. It's brainwashing what they're doing [laughs]. There's nothing you can do against it. (Max, 19)

Opportunities for and obstacles to sexual encounters

Most participants (8/10) reported that gang affiliation provided opportunities for sexual gratification.

Opportunities for uncommitted sexual encounters In the gang, sexual relations were distinguished from committed romantic relationships. Often occurring at a party, sex was usually preceded by the consumption of psychotropic drugs.

In general, it's true, there are some who could exchange girlfriends. There are some who have sex lives, it's like two, three, four girls.... In reality, it's rare that it doesn't work. Sexual relations: girls like it, sometimes tripping out with guys. (Pop, 24)

One guy who drinks alcohol, who's drunk and the girl is also drunk, it's more just for fun. It's more to feel close. It's just for one night. (Francois, 18)

They trip out. More guys, more girls. And they exchange girls. It's like if you're getting a glass of water for someone and he just keeps passing it on: "Yo, I'm done with her. Yo, you go, man." That's it! And yeah. No respect, and they don't care, it's what's they see, that's what they're gonna do. (Will, 19)

Obstacles to sexual encounters

One participant mentioned that certain gangs were unable to attract young women and that he was not very sexually active when he belonged to a gang.

There are girls that say, "I'm gonna chill." ... What they're looking for is to have fun, sleep with a guy, after they sleep with another guy. Like, I've never really experienced [that]. When you're in a gang, you don't have much of a sexuality, you aren't really active. (Tempo, 19)

Risk taking and STI/HIV

More than half of the participants (6/10) reported unprotected sex during gang-affiliated sexual encounters.

The people that do gangbangs, they don't use protection. Well, in any case, that's what the girls told me. To me they seemed dirty. It's for that reason that I never wanted to try it, because I could catch AIDS from another guy.... The girls, they're stupid.... Seems to me that a girl who goes out on the weekend, if she knows she's going to hook up, she would take some condoms. (Max, 19)

Proving one's virility through insensitivity and violence

In gang life, violence is central and a principal way to express masculinity. A majority of the participants (8/10) reported the existence of implicit rules that required insensitivity toward young women. Most participants (7/10) reported that to prove their virility they needed to be sexually active.

Being insensitive

Within the context of the gang, all participants felt that they had to demonstrate toughness toward young women and to hide their sensitivity.

We have to prove that we're tough with the girls.... If you're weak, you don't have to show that you're weak. Otherwise the others, they'll treat you like you're the lowest.(Pantera, 21)

More than half of the participants (6/10) described the insensitivity of their relationships with young women. They indicated that they had to remain distant, insensitive and refrain from demonstrating empathy toward young women.

In a gang, there's no love towards a girl [laughs] ... When you're in a gang, you learn that you shouldn't love a girl. You can't say, "Okay, I'm gonna go out with that girl, she's gonna be my girlfriend forever." ... When you're in a gang, you become cold-hearted. (Tempo, 19)

Being sexually active so as not to lose face Most of the participants (7/10) reported that if a young man refused an opportunity for sex his virility might be questioned.

Guys rarely, really rarely [refuse having sex]. They could say, "Yo, a girl I don't even know if she's infected with something. Yo, ten guys on one girl ... I'm not down with that." He moves. After [the others say to him], "Yo chicken (you're a little scardy), pussy hole" stuff like that.... Since he was treated like a pussy, for sure it's a straight up battle. It's a serious disrespect. Like, he could shoot the other guy just 'cause he was treated like a pussy hole. Like taunts or stuff like that. (Will, 19)

Actively participating in or being a silent witness to violence toward young women

All participants reported that violence toward young women was accepted within their gang.

Not opposing violence even when in disagreement The majority (7/10) perceived themselves as silent witnesses even though some felt uncomfortable with the behaviour or disagreed with it but none openly opposed it out of fear of peer rejection or violence.

Me, personally, [sexually assaulting a girl] isn't my style: "Wow! Calm down you guys." But for sure (if you said that) you're gonna get told off or start a fight. (Alex, 22)

Minimizing their behaviours

At first, almost all participants denied that they were or had been a member of a gang. They also denied any behaviour associated with gangs (i.e. drug use, violence and crime). But many young men reported engaging in psychological or physical violence (6/10) or sexual exploitation (1/10). Regardless of whether or not they recognized their responsibility, all minimized their actions or projected the blame onto their peers or the young women themselves.

I have a lot of problems with the police. For fights, aggressions, assault on a cop, breaking of bail conditions ... a lot of shit. Now I got [a problem] for conjugal violence, because of my wife. It was just a slap. But a slap, for them, is already enough. For me it's nothing. It was a way for me to calm her down because she had given me a slap too. (Mexique, 22)

I have too much respect for me and the girls, you know.... I find disgusting to make dance a girl that hasn't any resource, and then take the cash.... I'm still seeing this girl [the girl he pimped] and my opinion remains the same. It's a girl that's very limited with life. She only tries to find boys who would love her, to find masculine affection, but it doesn't work. Boys all know she's stupid and everything. Christ, she put my name on her ann, her leg, she almost attempted suicide. I made her lost her mind. So, she probably has big affective problem. Any guy could have done so [pimp her]. (Max, 19)

Within gang culture, sexual exploitation was considered to be a legitimate way to make money. Participants reported that young men who sexually exploited women showed no empathy toward them.

There's no remorse in that kind of business. You have no feelings, you can't have feelings. Me, I surely had too many. That's why I stopped.... If I'm gonna scam, I'll sell drugs. I'll make myself more cash. Well, not more cash because the girls, it's about $500 to $1000 a night. It's just that it's shitty. You just make the girl fall in love with you and then you send her out to go dance.... It's like a sale. (Max, 19)

Having a confused view of consent According to a number of participants, general, legal, and societal norms related to consent are not espected in the gang culture.

The majority are consenting but they're drunk. It's happened where one couldn't remember what had happened. But there were never any complaints or anything.... Since they were all drunk, I think that they just sort of let it happen. (Alex, 22)

They think only of their pleasure. The girls have no choice. They can't say, "Oh, no!" and just close their legs. It's like a collective rape, that's exactly what it is. [Except the guys] see it more like a game. Cat and mouse. It's fucked up. (Max, 19)

Romantic relationships and paternity

Like many young men in other social groups, those affiliated with gangs want to find love and some of them also want to have a family.

Maintaining a romantic relationship Some of the participants spoke about the challenge of maintaining relationships within gang culture.

A guy who's in love with a girl, there's gonna be jealousy. When you send a girl out to dance, for sure you're not sending her to a club where it's $10 a dance. You're gonna look for a club where the girl can hook up with the client for $80. A guy who's in love with a girl will be jealous, he's not gonna want to send her out dancing. So it's better if you get yourself a girl that you won't fall in love with. (Max, 19)

Peers sometimes create conflicts in order to break a couple up because in their view romantic relationships tend to limit the young men's investment in the gang.

Loverboy. He's always with his girlfriend. Sometimes you'll say, "Yo, are you coming with us?" Answer: "Oh, no, I'm gonna check up on my girl." It's like he's saying, "Oh no, you're a loverboy.... You're just here to screw around." They go to the movies, they do activities together.... Then the others [those who don't have girlfriends] have to go collect money. "Okay, I'll check up on you later, I'll call you, ciao!" (Will, 19)

Being in love with a young woman who is not associated with a gang

Without admitting it to their peers, the majority of the participants dreamed of being in love (5/10) or were in love (4/10) with a young women who was not associated with a gang which could become a source of conflict.

With girls, I prefer that it's calmer.... She has the right to have fun, that's for sure. It's a girl, it's human. But, it's more to stay at her place. It's more for staying at home.... She's going to love me like I am: hard with my feelings. (Pantera, 21)

They gonna laugh at him, saying: "Yo, why you don't make her dance [pimping], you know?" Something like that. Sometime they don't even show respect for your girlfriend. Like: "Yo, give her to me and you'll see, I'm going to make her dance." Sometime they have no respect and you get mad. (Will, 19)

Having difficulty attracting young women who are not associated with a gang Some of the participants (6/10) reported that the "good" women were not interested in gang-affiliated young men because they didn't like the associated images of drug use and violence.

When you're in a gang, there are girls that don't like it. Like if you're in a gang, you're a player. You're not just seeing her. ... When you're not in a gang, she's going to have more trust in you. (Nellyville, 18)

Distancing or disaffiliation

Most participants (8/10) said that committed romantic relationships and paternity had motivated them to distance themselves or disaffiliate from a gang.

So if she's sincerely interested in you and you are too, it seems to me that you're going to have to make a change. It's what happened to me..... It's because of her that I stopped the first time. And that I started going to church and became Christian. Slowly, but surely, I succeeded in staying two years sober. (Alex, 22)

All my friends, the most of them, they all stopped because of it [paternity]. Maybe the same thing will happen to me. I want my baby. (Mexique, 22)

Now, I'm more adult. Now, I don't react. I have my family already, I have a son. So I think of him more than of myself. I don't want him to be like I was. I don't want him to react, whether he's on the streets, whether he's smoking, drinking. I prefer that he goes to school and he plays sports. It's for that reason that I don't want to know anything about it. (Pantera, 21)

Violence in romantic relationships Several participants reported that as much violence occurred in romantic relationships with gang-affiliated young women (4/10) as in relationships with young women who were not gang-affiliated (3/10).

Violence in gang-related romantic relationships

Four participants talked about the violence in their romantic relationships. Violence generally occurred in public (at a party or on the street) and in the presence of gang members. Three of these four participants mentioned that real or anticipated infidelity could lead to violence by the young men.

Sometimes, everyone spoke a lot about her [ex-girlfriend].... Sometimes I drank too much and I was too drunk. Then a bunch of stuff that people were telling me so I'd jump on her. Sometimes I would push her, stuff like that. (Loco, 19)

Violence in romantic relationships with young women who are not associated with gangs Three participants explained that violence toward young women was often motivated by jealousy or infidelity. One of them stated that negative comments by peers could also give a motive for violence.

Me, yeah, I can go out. My girl, she has to stay home. You have to be tough because on the streets you learn so much stuff so that after, you don't really trust other people. It hardens your heart. It crosses my mind, you gotta behave like a severe man. (Pantera, 21)

Category 3: The need for support and sexuality education

When questioned about possible ways to improve their gender and sexual relations, half the young men brought up disaffiliation from gangs.

Discussions with significant adults

Half of the participants believed that adults could play a major role to help young men become aware of the negative consequences of gang affiliation, violence, and consumption habits. They felt it was important for adults to speak to them about their future. One specified that adults should inspire trust, stimulate motivation, and be there for young men when problems arise. Another proposed talking about family relationships with gang-affiliated young men because, according to him, these relationships were the cause of the problem as well as part of the solution.

Also talk to them about how it happens in a family relationship. Because they often have parents that beat them all the time. When you have violent parents, you're better off being with a gang than your parents.... And if possible, talk to their parents, to pay them, to give them more attention, more time for them. Because they often don't have the time. (Tempo, 19)

Peer influence

One participant mentioned the importance of getting credible, trustworthy people involved, such as family members or young men who had formerly belonged to a gang.

Well, it's gotta be guys who have experienced it that they go see. Like, let's say I would go see a big gang guy, a leader would say, "What's he talking about?" Like, if it's a guy that talks like him, it's a guy that's really changed, he's gonna know that it's real.... He needs to see an example. It needs to be someone close so that he takes it seriously. (Francois, 18)

Receiving sexuality education

Two participants proposed interventions aimed at reducing violence in romantic relationships as well as sexual aggression. One proposed dealing with violence by increasing young men's awareness about the future consequences (e.g., infections, imprisonment). Some proposed that young women could be encouraged to denounce violence.

With the guys, they cannot be violent. Violence does nothing.... Giving women more respect. To talk to them, what they're thinking of doing later. If they' re thinking about having a family, that they don't do that. (Tempo, 19)

Two young men raised the need for information about STI/HIV. They suggested that significant adults could provide support, not only by educating them, but also by helping them become aware of the potential consequences of their sexual behaviours.

You have to talk to them about protection. I don't know if it's a money problem.... [Social or community workers] should go talk about it and say, "Guys, you really need to protect yourself because viruses propagate really quickly." Protecting themselves, they have to talk about it. Sometimes we don't talk about it with them and we want them to learn on their own. They're not going to learn on their own. You have to talk to them about it. (Tempo, 19)


The literature reviewed for the present study documented the association of gang affiliation with sexual stereo-typing, insensitivity, sexual exploitation, and violence against women. We anticipated that gang-affiliated young men's perceptions, experiences and issues related to sexuality and gender relations extended beyond violent behaviours. Our interviews with young men who had been or were currently associated with gangs provided insight into those issues and expanded our perspective. The participants found it difficult to talk about their personal experiences, particularly when discussing sexuality and gender relations. Several admitted that they were addressing these subjects for the first time with an adult. Generally, they dissociated themselves from all violent acts towards young women, even if they had participated in domineering gang behaviours or been accused of violence associated either with a gang or in a love or sexual relationship. They revealed general confusion about the concepts of violence and consent and acknowledged the influence of gang expectations on their public actions and the way they portrayed themselves.

Most participants followed implicit gang rules that fostered insensitivity, dominance, or violence towards women. To prove their virility, they engaged in multiple sexual encounters or group sexual aggressions, sometimes against their will. When they had sexual relations, the young men described their sexuality as deprived of intimacy (gangbangs, relations without attachment, sexual exploitation). Objects of desire were segregated: love without desire for "good" girls, and desire without love for "bad" girls. The erotic scenarios of gang-affiliated young men, like those of other youth, were influenced by their environment. The gang standards and values described by the participants included: male domination, emotional insensitivity, sexual double standards, use of woman as objects of pleasure, and use of women for exchange or exploitation (e.g., pimping). Some criminal gangs appeared to provide relatively frequent opportunities to take part in sexual activities involving domination, lack of consent, or violence.

In contrast to these overt and expected attitudes and behaviours, the majority of our participants dreamed of being with a young woman who was not associated with a gang, and who held traditional values. Yet their criminal, violent, and sexual activities prevented this type of young woman from being interested in them.

Our findings illustrate the gap between the sexual experiences of gang members and the committed romantic relationships that the majority of the young men hoped for. An intimate relationship requires a certain amount of sensitivity and emotional proximity (self-expression, listening, and empathy). These attributes are not valued by gangs or, in some cases, by the gang members' families. Several of the young men had difficulty developing these relational skills. Generally, committed romantic relationships appeared to be incompatible with affiliation to a criminal gang. It is therefore possible that several of these young men will be unable to commit to a relationship until they reach adulthood or decide to leave the gang.

Study limitations

This investigation was designed as an exploratory, qualitative study but, in retrospect, triangulation methods (Laperriere, 1997) would have broadened and diversified our perspective on the topic. The lack of empirical saturation, the small sample size, and the homogeneity of the participants (e.g., recruitment areas, ethnic origin, age) suggest that generalization of the findings should be done with caution (Pires, 1997). While the social and community workers we consulted were helpful, they may have selected young men with whom they had a good relationship. As a result, young men who had not been met by social or community workers (and might therefore have been more disposed to criminality and gang affiliation), may have been underrepresented. When they were addressing sexuality and violence towards women, the young men in our sample were often evasive and tended to express more ambiguous and contradictory statements. It is possible that these topics were consciously or unconsciously censored because of social desirability.

We used systematic theoretical sampling to maximize transferability of the results. However, the problems cited above related to recruitment, the lack of empirical saturation due to the limited number of subjects, and sample homogeneity made it impossible to paint a complete portrait of the issues studied. Strategically selected variables allowed some diversification of the cases covered. Moreover, the detailed description of the methods could help other researchers establish the extent to which the characteristics of the studied population are similar to those of other populations (Deslauriers & Kerisit 1997). Data on the antecedents of violence and violence towards women should have been gathered, and should receive particular attention in future studies. Given the importance of the identity-related, emotional, and sexual aspects addressed in this study, a deeper understanding could have been gained had we examined a broader sample.

Concluding observations and insights for future research

Further studies should be conducted on sexological, emotional, and relational issues among gang-affiliated young men. Given the diverse experiences reported here, we need a rigorous examination of such topics as the degree of commitment to the gang among gang-affiliated young men, their violent and sexual behaviours, and their relational needs. Whether they have committed violent acts or were passive witnesses, sexuality education would be an essential component of any support offered to this population of young men. In addition to prevention of violence and reduction of recidivism, appropriate sexuality education could also enable them to express their masculinity in non-violent ways and engage in egalitarian romantic relationships. It would be beneficial to incorporate sexuality education into interventions intended for young men engaged in criminal activities and gang-associated violence. Moreover, such programs should extend to their family and peers and to other re-adaptation milieus such as school, community, and judiciary. Sexuality education programs should allow gang-affiliated young men to ask questions and get answers, particularly concerning masculinity, peer influence, healthy and egalitarian relationships, paternity, and STI. The process should also enable them to reflect and develop critical thinking skills, thus enabling them to question their exploitative behaviour, determine clear limits, clarify their needs and desires, and identify appropriate ways to satisfy them.

We know little about the sources of formal sexuality education and counselling available to gang-affiliated young men. We found that even very sexually experienced young men can feel discomfort talking about sex. During the interviews for this study, some questions were followed by lengthy silences. Subsequently the young men opened up and shared intimate, hitherto unexplored aspects of their experiences. It would appear that young men prefer listening to significant adults who believe in and support them, regardless of their problems. Given the experiences and gang-related insights of these young men, social and community workers must be prepared to listen, gain their trust, and create safe environments for learning.

Community workers can encourage young men to reflect on their sexuality, romantic relationships, and paternity. They can also help young men to clarify their needs and find ways to satisfy them that do not harm others. Lastly, interventions should allow young men to achieve many things: explore alternatives to gang affiliation, identify opportunities for self-development, take pride in themselves, and become non-violent men both in and outside the gang life.

Acknowledgements: This study received financial support from the Faculte des Sciences Humaines of the Universite du Quebec a Montreal and the Centre de Recherche Interdisciplinaire sur la Violence Familiale et la Violence Faite aux Femmes (CRI-VIFF). For generously sharing their stories, warm thanks goes to Will, Tempo, Francois, Nellyville, Pop, Mexique, Alex, Pantera, Loco, and Max.


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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Professor Mylene Fernet, Departement de sexologie, Universite du Quebec a Montreal, CP. 8888, Succursale Centre-Ville, Montreal QC H3V 3P8. E-mail:

Evelyne Fleury (1) and Mylene Fernet (1)

(1) Departernent de sexologie, Universite du Quebec a Montreal, Montreal QC
Table 1 Gang-related disaffiliation, social ties, and

Average duration of affiliation           3 years
In touch with gang-affiliated peers       N = 5
In touch with gang-affiliated peers and   N = 3
  sporadic repeated offenses
Affiliated                                N = 1
Disaffiliated                             N = 1

Table 2 Youth protection and criminal justice

Mean age at first placement                15.5 years
Child Youth and Protection Act             N = 8
Youth Criminal Justice Act                 N = 7
Incarceration                              N = 1
No Child Youth and Protection Act, Youth   N = 2
  Criminal Justice Act, or Incarceration

Table 3 Offences

Guilty of armed robbery                     N = 3
Guilty of assault and battery.              N = 2
  One had been incarcerated
  for conjugal violence.
Guilty of fraud and sexual assault          N = 1
Charged with sexual assault: the            N = 1
  girlfriend filed a complaint of assault
  and battery
Admitted to being guilty of sexual          N = 1
  exploitation and drug trafficking

Table 4 Life with partners and fatherhood

In a relationship   N = 6
Single              N = 4
One child           N = 2
Current pregnancy   N = 1

Table 5 Three overarching conceptual categories with related
themes and sub-themes *

Category 1: Absent, stereotypical, or violent family models

            * Defined by opposition to a violent father

            * Family messages about sexuality and sexual
              relations; absent or incomplete

Category 2: Maintaining a masculine image through violence,
            criminality, emotional insensitivity, sexual prowess

            * The macho male sub-culture and conflicting views of women

            * Peer influence

            * Opportunities for and obstacles to sexual encounters
              Opportunities for uncommitted sexual encounters
              Obstacles to sexual encounters

            * Risk-taking and STI/HIV

            * Proving one's virility through insensitivity and violence
              Being insensitive
              Being sexually active so as not to lose face

            * Actively participating in or being a silent witness to
              violence toward female youth
              Not opposing violence even when in disagreement
              Minimizing their behaviours
              Having a confused view of consent

            * Romantic relationships and paternity
              Maintaining a romantic
              Being in love with a young woman who is not
              associated with a gang
              Having difficulty attracting young women who are
              not associated with a gang
              Distancing or disaffiliation

            * Violence in Romantic Relationships

              Violence in gang-related romantic relationships
              Violence in romantic relationships with young women
              who are not associated with a gang

Category 3: The need for support and sexuality education

            * Discussions with significant adults

            * Peer influence

            * Receiving sexuality education

* Five of the eight themes for Category 2 have sub-themes.
All sub-themes are highlighted in unboided italics in the text.
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