Coercive Sexual Environments Exist Differently For Justice-involved Girls in Rural Places

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rural: Girl sits in tall grass, head down on folded arms

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Imagine: You are 15 years old. Your mother, deep in drug debt, sends you to give a strange man $10. But somehow you know he expects more — your body. The world judges you as reckless, promiscuous, and inconsiderate of others. 

—Kenjdra, in state custody

Kenjdra is an example of a low-risk female youth who was placed in Kansas juvenile correctional facility. (In this context, “low-risk” refers to a youth with few risk factors known to predict recidivism.) Kenjdra was a youth I worked with while employed as a psychologist at the state’s only female juvenile correctional facility. 

rural: April Terry (headshot), assistant professor at Fort Hays State University, smiling woman with long blonde hair, earrings, necklace, pink blazer, white polka-dotted top

April Terry

This excerpt comes from one conversation, spurred by a 12-page document that revealed a 10-year timeline of abusive experiences. She did not enter the facility due to a violent crime. Rather, after being shuffled through more than a dozen out-of-home placements, she was adjudicated for disrespect for authority, sexual “acting out” and a series of other minor offenses. Like other girls faced with a rigid sexual double standard, Kenjdra exceeded the court’s threshold of patience, and she was committed to prison for running away from (an abusive) home. 

After being out of the clinical realm for several years, my first encounter with this Urban Institute piece on coercive sexual environments (CSE) immediately took me back to my work with girls. The writers defined coercive sexual environments as a phenomenon that emerges in communities that are racially segregated, high in poverty and crime, and low in collective efficacy. These scholars have studied CSEs in urban areas. 

What remained unknown was whether coercive sexual environments exist in nonurban communities, and if so, how they may mimic or diverge from characteristics found in studies of the city. Local cultural expectations and norms must inform our understanding of CSEs and gender-specific mechanisms that perpetuate disadvantage and violence for girls, and, in turn, how this may create a pipeline into the juvenile justice system.

Sexual danger in rural areas

To address the deficit on rural locations, I have spent time interviewing incarcerated girls and women — most previously residing in frontier and rural areas in the Midwest. From these interviews, and conversations with community actors (e.g., judges, school personnel and law enforcement), findings support the emergence and maintenance of CSEs in nonurban areas. 

The effect on certain girls and young women is complex and multifaceted. At-risk girls in frontier and rural CSEs quickly learn their place within the community structure. All at-risk girls, but especially those labeled as outsiders, feel a lack of acceptance from these small communities. Such exclusion results in a series of maladaptive coping mechanisms that are viewed as deviations from demands of the local gender norms. 

Eventually, characteristics of the local CSE change who they are. It becomes a matter of survival; they relinquish parts of their self to be perceived of any value, even if worth lies in their sexualization. Most of all, these girls learn to keep quiet about assault. In frontier and rural communities, family reputation blocks the reporting of sexual assault in almost any situation, but girls without community ties additionally understand that they will be blamed and further outed. Close-knit communities work hard to protect their own and to maintain the reigning ideology and status of the community at large.  

In summary, dirt road communities take on a character distinct from urban streets. It is clear that gendered rural pathways to the deep end of the juvenile and criminal systems begin with one of three paths: no-name, low-name; doubt and distrust; and lack of local capital. It is obvious that lack of a “good” family name and reputation in frontier and rural communities sets girls up for a life of hardship. A last name, one word, can change one’s entire life. 

Second, young girls said rejected girls weren’t safe in their rural communities. Even within locales described as close-knit, girls experience poly-victimization at the hands of “trusted” community members. Lastly, a lack of community interest in helping no-name girls like Kenjdra, coupled with nonexistent or sparse community resources, fast-tracks a path for (certain) girls into prison. Community workers are fully aware of pitfalls and spotty services and help along the way, but they lack community support for change. Eventually, they adapt or leave. 

There remains room for positive change. First, most community professionals are aware of the severe disadvantages of at-risk girls within their communities. On an individual level, they exert daily effort to work around and within this unfair dynamic. Second, the girls and women, as well as community actors, referenced the heavy influence of schools and churches in their rural areas. Both institutions represent active and well-respected organizations in the community. They uphold institutions where education and training can take place — they can serve as powerful community resources for all, and especially for outed girls and their families. 

Lastly, juvenile services in each state can work to provide state initiatives for positive change. With research supporting gender-responsive approaches, now is the time to secure the needed money to implement much-needed community change. We need to work towards community assistance for girls like Kenjdra, rather than a life behind bars. 

April Terry is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Fort Hays State University. Her scholarship is broadly focused on four lines of research: juvenile corrections, gender and crime, rural criminology, and gender-based violence; she is most interested in studying the gendered nature of crime specific to juvenile justice-involved girls. 

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