The summer sun glowers in the sky, its rays bouncing off buildings and giving everything a sci-fi, apocalyptic quality. We have forgotten this kind of London.
Cars throbbing with deep bass pass by. People wander aimlessly, the oppressive mugginess robbing them of any real ambition. In some parts of London, the tension rises with the heat: the urban surroundings seem to hold their breath, perhaps waiting for the more familiar rain and breeze.
Sweat trickles down the face of a girl talking to me. She is dressed, like all of her friends, as a carbon copy of Rihanna – scanty shorts, high-top trainers, designer sunglasses, enormous gold earrings. She looks older than her 15 years.
She leads what she describes as a “crew” (I agree to keep its moniker a secret). She and her “crew” avoid the term “gang” because they dislike its negative associations with criminality, although this “crew” sometimes commits crimes (“Mostly robbery and dealing”).
Having spent several weeks investigating the little understood world of female gang culture, one thing I know for sure – this is an arena where any label is dangerously simplistic.
She is explaining something to me in a weirdly sing-song tone completely at odds with what she is saying. It interests me, because it confirms how readily (and at such a young age) the girls are adopting and internalising labels that are both negative and imply male ownership. It also says a lot about how the girls view each other. As one academic told me “girls in gangs very rarely operate on the politics of a sisterhood”. In fact there is fierce internal conflict, frequent reports of girl-on-girl betrayal and of course competition to be the most (sexually) attractive to the men who orbit their world.
“There are wifeys, girlfriends, skets and hood rats,” she says. “We are called worse things, but let’s not go into that. Wifeys and girlfriends are what you want to be. It means you’re special to your man. You will get respect. If he is respected, no-one will f*** with you. You also might get stuff.”
“Like what?” I ask.
“Presents,” says another girl, sporting so much red lipstick it makes her look like she has been punched.“Presents,” she emphasises, noisily chewing the hell out of some gum.
“So what’s better? Being a wifey or a girlfriend?” There is a loud debate over the relative merits of the accolades. The general consensus is that either one is pretty great.
“So what about skets and hood rats? What’s the difference?”
There is further loud debate. Either term is pretty unflattering: you are considered, in the estimation of this lot, unworthy of little else but being passed around the men as a kind of cheap sexual currency. “But seriously, is there any difference?” I ask.
“A sket will probably have more STDs,” shrieks another elaborately dressed girl. “A hood rat will probably have more kids.”
I ask the questions to this (comparatively) tame bunch carefully. Over the last few weeks, I have learnt to ask in general, not specifics. You don’t ever frame questions in the personal: were you abused? Have you been raped? Do you commit crime? Where are your mum and dad? You begin with “Do you know of. . . .?” Sometimes you get the truth. Sometimes, you suspect, you get exaggeration or lies. Sometimes you get personal anecdotes told with curled lips and glittery eyes and sometimes it’s somebody’s “friend”.
But I do feel it’s OK to ask them why they don’t consider themselves to be “gang members”.
“A crew is more about protection. A gang is more about crime,” says a girl in a lurid sports hoodie and crop top who looks pregnant.
“Who do you think you need protection from?” I ask.
“Other crews,” says the girl.
I push the girls a bit on the subject of how they are treated by the men in their world. They’ve been happy enough to discuss guns (“handled ’nuff guns”), drugs (“sometimes we take them, but we mostly deal them. Junkie girls are always skets”) and stealing (“I was 11 during the London riots, but yeah I was there and I held some stuff”).
Mention the widely reported dangers men can represent to these girls – exploitation, rape, pimping – and the curtain goes down. They simply won’t be drawn on the subject.
I end with something safer. “Do you think you might end up in a more serious gang, committing more serious crimes?”
The gum-chewer snaps her wad and looks at the burning sky. “Probably, yeah,” she says listlessly. “What else is there to do?”
Whether you think these girls sound like a bunch of kids play-acting a role they will probably grow out of, or an actual menace to society, the government takes them and those like them very seriously, particularly since the London riots of 2011. A Home Office Report released shortly afterwards read: “Gangs and youth violence have been a blight on our community for years. The disorder in August was not caused solely by gangs, but the violence we saw on our streets revealed all too vividly the problems that sometimes lie below the surface and out of sight.”
In his book One Blood, John Heale defines male street gangs as: “A group of about 10 or more individuals who have a name and a who claim an allegiance to a geographic area, but the reality is that it’s a lot more messy.”
The group of girls I met match the numbers and geographical fixation of Heale’s description, but only hint at how “messy” this world can be.
A few days later, those blanks are filled brutally in by some older girls, to whom I am introduced by a well known DJ on the grime music scene of east London.
“The ‘gang’ girls are proper insane,” he tells me. “If they want to run with the men they have to be twice as hard, twice as violent. Maybe 10 times. These girls are OK, but promise me you won’t go anywhere with them, meet anyone with them or ask them anything that pisses them off.”
Over the next few days, I speak to several different young women. They are scary and tough: hardened by unimaginable suffering and trauma throughout their lives. And also hardened by the crimes – and some of them are unspeakably awful – they choose to commit. They believe the are powerful: (“Every little bitch hood rat dreams of being me one day.”) Layla* (co-author of the books ’Fam and How I Escaped a Girl Gang) asserts: “In my day (she is the grand age of 25 and long removed from the scene) I was easily as powerful – and making as much money as the men and had a similar girl rival. But that was unusual.”
But for the most part, men rule their roost, men control the action and men cash the cheques. And yes, men rape at will. These girls might fight, handle weapons, commit crimes and all the other things they tell me, but they live lives where fighting for equality is the least of their problems.
“Rape is used for everything,” says Melody inspecting her “badass talons”, never making eye contact. “It’s used in initiation. It’s used for fun if people are bored. It’s used if you refuse to do something. If you f*** something up. Anything. I’m not even going to tell you what happens if you snitch. But it’s used for revenge. If someone wants to get to a rival in another gang, they might gang rape, like, [a male gang member’s] sister or their girlfriend. I know a girl who got gang raped by 12 men.”
Did she report it to the police?
Melody’s look is eloquent. The answer is no.
“How do you feel about this casual use of rape and sexual violence against girls?” I ask Lia, a seriously pretty girl whose appearance belies her hair-curling stories about slayings and shootings and gang rapes. She declines to answer. “Have you ever seen a rape taking place?”
“Yeah,” she says, in the same flat tone. “Sometimes they deserve it, though.”
I ask the girls about the often-discussed use of girl gang members as “honeytraps” to lure unsuspecting males and females into places where they are usually met with acts of terrible violence and retribution from rival gangs – or sometimes their own – for some slight or other.
“I did some terrible things,” says Margaret, a woman several years clear of her previous life, “but the honey trapping was the worst. I still can’t sleep some nights thinking about it. The newspapers always make the girl out to be the demon of the piece, but girls have little choice. You do what you’re told.”
Margaret was heavily involved with what she describes as an “incredibly violent and notorious gang”. She came from a home where serious physical and sexual abuse were commonplace, was failed by the care system, failed by the school system and turned to crime and eventually the more structured lawlessness of gang life.
Margaret escaped the gang when she fell pregnant. “[My son] James was the first thing that ever belonged to me who would love me. I didn’t want to mess up his life as well.”
The step up from the noisy girls dressed like Rihanna to the tales of Melody, Lia and Margaret is steep, but Margaret can well understand how quickly and easily this progression can happen, often without the girl realising before it’s too late.
“Street time isn’t like real time,” says Margaret, “like being at school or doing your GCSEs, which feel like a long time. [In a gang] you wake up one day and four years have passed. You were 14 a minute ago and now you are 18. You might have a criminal record, a drug habit, a baby. You’ve probably been knocked around, raped. You have no qualifications. Where do you go from there? Your childhood has vanished.”
The academics I spoke to (who wished to remain anonymous because of their close dealings with vulnerable women, police and the Government) agree that a high proportion of girls susceptible to gang culture usually come from backgrounds of abuse, violence, neglect and trauma. Somewhat tragically, the girls often find the same cycles of abuse in gang culture that they have run away from.
However, despite all this, there should be a wariness about the total victimisation of the girls who move in these circles. Many I spoke to, both in the present and retrospectively, find something deeply appealing not to mention profitable about that way of life.
As Jamie tells me over the telephone (I never meet her), she “loves the fear and respect of others, the adrenaline and the money. I came from shit. This is the life I have chosen.”
And she is by no means the only one. It is almost inevitable, in my time researching this, that I hear the cliché “live by the sword, die by the sword”– and I do, over and over again from many different lip-glossed mouths. And as unbearable and silly and as trite as all clichés are, this one in particular is said with a degree of pride.
The girls’ names have been changed to protect their identity.Reuse content