The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 28, 2015

Let girls be girls: Growing up too soon in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty

This year, policymakers and the media have paid long overdue attention to tackling rape on college campuses and addressing the needs of boys of color growing up in distressed places. Now it’s time to  expand our attention to another group whose needs intersect with  women in college and disadvantaged boys of color in profound and startling ways.

All teens growing up in neighborhoods marked by chronic poverty and disadvantage are at risk for a range of poor outcomes, but girls who live in these communities also face repeated gender-specific risks like sexual harassment, exploitation, pressure, and sexual violence. 

For the past several years, a group of us have built an evidence base about a phenomenon we call coercive sexual environments (CSEs). We have summarized our efforts in a report that builds a case for increased attention on this important issue.

What makes a CSE?

In high-poverty, chronically violent areas, coupled with a lack of strong community connections, a neighborhood phenomenon can emerge that has different effects on male and female youth. Some communities develop a pervasive CSE in which harassment, domestic violence, and sexual exploitation of women and even very young girls become part of everyday life.

As one adolescent girl from our study points out:

“If I went to a neighborhood where men didn’t treat females disrespectful, I would be like, ‘Wow,
are you serious?’ Like, you know, I would think that that was foreign because I’m so used to, you
know, something else. When something greater comes it would just be like real foreign to me. So,
I believe growing up in a different situation and environment, it affects who you become.”

—Kenesha, youth interview, Moving to Opportunity study

But, this neighborhood CSE does not occur in isolation. Rather, for girls from neighborhoods of chronic disadvantage, such as public housing communities, the phenomenon grows out of the broader context of historic and ongoing racial segregation, as well as cultural and societal norms that encourage gender-based sexual harassment, threats, and violence. CSEs begin with these societal norms, which shape how girls and women are perceived and treated wherever they live. 

Growing up in a CSE

We still have more to learn about CSEs and how they affect young people’s lives. While our current research has identified CSEs as measurable phenomena affecting the health and well-being of girls of color from distressed urban places, we have not yet identified other places where they may flourish. However, we suspect that they may be present wherever poverty and social disorganization is found, be it in war-torn regions across the globe or other historically disadvantaged communities in the United States. 

What we do know is that growing up in a chronically disadvantaged urban community afflicted by CSE contributes to consequences for the girls who live there, like early sexualization, sexual exploitation, and having to endure sexual harassment and violence.

Using place-conscious strategies to fight CSEs

Fortunately, our research has also turned up some promising “place-conscious” solutions to CSE that various actors are already advancing. Because this environment can be properly understood only in the context of the pervasive patterns of sexual and racial discrimination embedded in the larger culture and history of the United States, these comprehensive approaches to CSE are vital. We need to avoid stigmatizing the girls, boys, men, and women CSEs afflict and not suggest that they, their families, and neighbors are solely responsible for finding solutions.

Place-conscious approaches recognize the importance of place and focus on the particular challenges of distressed neighborhoods, but they are less constrained by narrowly defined neighborhood boundaries, more responsive to the realities of family mobility and change, and more attuned to larger geographic and systems-level conditions and opportunities.

There is already a national movement forming to highlight issues relating to “marginalized girls” in the criminal justice system and in communities. The campaign, spearheaded by the National Crittenton Foundation, seeks to bring policy attention to the issues facing young women and girls. The campaign is also calling for a trauma-informed approach to services for young women and girls that recognizes many of them have suffered sexual violence and abuse and provides the appropriate services to enable them to recover and become healthy adults. The White House has responded to the campaign with a report on the challenges facing young women and girls of color.

The evidence base is building and the need to address these issues for women and girls is becoming increasingly apparent. It is time for policymaking and program funding to ensure girls and young women coming from these neighborhoods get their best chance at healthy and productive lives.

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