Academic journal article Cityscape

Coercive Sexual Environments: What MTO Tells Us about Neighborhoods and Sexual Safety

Academic journal article Cityscape

Coercive Sexual Environments: What MTO Tells Us about Neighborhoods and Sexual Safety

Article excerpt


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

Young women like Kenesha, growing up in low-income, racially segregated, urban communities, view the world through a lens shaped by decades of poverty and racism. The risks for youth of growing up in concentrated poverty and disadvantage are well documented: developmental and cognitive delays; poor physical and mental health; and the likelihood of dropping out of school, engaging in risky sexual behavior, and becoming involved in delinquent and criminal activities (Brooks-Gunn and Duncan, 1997; Ellen and Turner, 1997; Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn, 2004; Sampson, 2012; Sampson, Morenoff, and Gannon-Rowley, 2002; Sampson, Sharkey, and Raudenbush, 2008; Wodtke, Harding, and Elwert, 2011). In many of these neighborhoods, inadequate or nonexistent local institutions, such as poorly performing schools, inadequate health care, and a weak labor market, compound negative outcomes. Concentrated disadvantage contributes to lowered expectations in many areas (Anderson, 1991; Edin and Kefalas, 2005), including respect. As Kenesha suggests, it is more than the challenges and risks young girls face; it is an environment of concentrated and chronic disadvantage-"it affects who you become."

Neighborhoods mired in chronic disadvantage suffer a range of social ills, including high rates of violent crime, social disorder, and domestic violence (Kawachi, Kennedy, and Wilkinson, 1999; Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls, 1997). In these disadvantaged communities, chronic violence is pervasive, both within and outside the home (Benson and Fox, 2004; Hannon, 2005), both stemming from and helping to perpetuate low levels of collective efficacy; that is, "social cohesion among neighbors combined with their willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good" (Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls, 1997: 918). In the Urban Institute's previous work, we have theorized that when disadvantage and violence are great and collective efficacy and social control are minimal, a gender-specific neighborhood mechanism can emerge that has differential effects on male and female youth. To be specific, some communities develop what we have termed a coercive sexual environment (CSE), wherein harassment, domestic violence, and sexual exploitation of women and even very young girls become part of everyday life (Popkin, Acs, and Smith, 2010; Popkin, Leventhal, and Weismann, 2010; Popkin and McDaniel, 2013). For girls in the inner city, experience with early and coerced sex can combine with structural deprivations to promote a life trajectory marked by school dropout, early motherhood, little or no connection to the labor market, and unstable family formation (Dunlap, Golub, and Johnson, 2004).

Earlier work addressed the question of why outcomes for inner-city male and female youth were so strikingly different in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD's) Moving to Opportunity (MTO) for Fair Housing Demonstration Interim Impacts Evaluation, with girls faring unexpectedly better in terms of mental health and engagement in risky behavior (Briggs, Popkin, and Goering, 2010; Popkin, Leventhal, and Weisman, 2010). That work suggested key differences in how neighborhood safety matters for male and female adolescents, with girls in high-poverty, high-crime communities also coping with pervasive sexual harassment and constant fear of sexual violence-in essence, a CSE (Briggs, Popkin, and Goering, 2010; Popkin, Leventhal, and Weisman, 2010). This article builds on this earlier research by exploring what a CSE looks and feels like to those experiencing it and by creating a measure that can be used to learn more about the relationship between a girl's environment and her experiences of harassment. …

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