People living in poor inner-city communities have to cope daily with levels of violence and drug trafficking that most of us in more affluent neighborhoods can barely imagine. The families we interviewed in Chicago and Los Angeles this past summer who live in public housing or rent with Housing Choice (Section 8 ) Vouchers in poor neighborhoods readily talked about shootings and fights and boys they knew who had been shot and died. But getting them to talk about the sexual violence and harassment that girls experience was harder—not because it was a sensitive subject, but because it was so ordinary.
Dating violence is so common and so visible that the people we interviewed no longer find it shocking. And men and boys in their communities commonly make sexual comments to girls, try to grab them, and pressure them for sex. Girls aren’t safe at school either, where they risk being called “cold” or “gay” if they ignore the teasing or “fast” or a “ho” if they respond.
Living with daily harassment, coercion, and dating violence takes a toll on girls growing up in these communities and may contribute to the high rates of depression and other health problems there. Our earlier research found that girls whose families used special vouchers to move to less poor neighborhoods were less depressed and anxious than those who stayed behind. When we asked some what was different in the new environment, they talked about how much better they felt getting away from the sexual pressure and harassment.
Keisha, a 12-year old girl growing up in public housing in Chicago, said this about what it meant to be treated like a “little girl” in her new community:
Because [I] look at me like as a little girl, so like when I was in [my former public housing development] they looked at me like …a grown lady. 'Cause I got—I got body parts that men like…..So, then when I moved over here [to this new development] I noticed that people looked at me like—they were (friendly) and hey, they know me as a little girl.
—Keisha, 12 year old girl living in public housing in Chicago, August 2008
But not every girl can move to escape sexual torment. Most poor families can’t afford to live in a better, safer place. Given that, we need to treat sexual coercion and harassment of girls as seriously as more visible gun violence and drug trafficking. For both, we need to come up with both criminal justice and community-building solutions that will help improve the lives of our most vulnerable youth. If we don’t, chances are these young girls and their children will face the same limited prospects that their mothers have.