Caught in the Welfare Web: Sex Codes Among Inner-city Youth—A Sociologist’s Report

To walk the street of America’s inner city is to observe many pregnant young women already with one or two children. Their youthful faces belie their distended bellies. The streets are noisy and alive with sociability — yells, screams, loud laughter, and talk, car screeches, rap music, and honking horns. Everybody knows everybody here, and as best they can, some try to watch out for others. Many, however, have their hands full merely watching out for themselves. Like aluminum siding at an earlier time, decorative iron bars have become a status symbol in the neighborhood, and residents acquire them for downstairs windows and doors as protection against thieves and “zombies” (crack addicts). And they show real concern about any stranger who seems at all questionable.

Now and again, a young boy appears, dressed in an expensive athletic suit and white sneakers and carrying an expensive boom box with the bass turned up loud as he walks to the beat of rap music, his pose of self-preservation serving as a kind of dare, demonstrating to others that he has enough nerve to walk up and down the neighborhood streets with such an expensive item. On certain street corners or down certain alleys, small groups of boys “profile” in stylized poses, almost always dressed in expensive clothes that belie their status of unemployed. They leave others to the easy conclusion that they “clock” (work) in the drug trade. A common view on the streets is that the families of some of these boys “know about” their involvements, because they “get some of the money” for help with household expenses. “Corner men” talk of parents’ tacit acceptance or willing ignorance of their youngster’s drug dealing, expressing their worry about the boy, the random gunshots that sometimes come from a passing automobile, the occasional drug wars that sometimes start up spontaneously, and the possibility of his arrest by the police, not just because of the prospect of incarceration but because the family in some cases has come to rely on the drug money.

Almost any denizen of these streets has come to accept the area as a tough place, a neighborhood where the strongest survive and where, if people are not careful and streetwise, they can become ensnared in the games of those who could hurt them. When the boys admire another’s property, they may simply try to take it; this includes another person’s sneakers, jacket, hat, or other personal item. In this sense the public spaces have an air of incivility about them, particularly at night.

Street Culture and “Decency”

Essentially, residents of the underclass neighborhood divide their neighbors into those who are deemed to be decent and those associated with the street culture. The culture of decency consists of close and extended families, characterized by low income by financial stability. It emphasizes the work ethic, getting ahead, and “having something.” Decency is the principle by which others are judged. The family unit, often with the aid of a strong religious component, instills in its members self-respect, civility, propriety, and often, despite prevailing impoverished living conditions, a positive view of the future. Many such decent families become so concerned for their children that they leave the neighborhood. Those who cannot afford to leave try to accomplish socially what they cannot accomplish otherwise: to isolate their children from children of the street. Decent local role models, sometimes through direct mentoring, allow young people to observe the possibilities and opportunities available for people like themselves.

To negotiate this setting effectively, particularly its public places, one must to some degree be streetwise, demonstrating the ability to see through troublesome situations and to prevail. Thus, to survive in the setting is to be somewhat adept at handling the streets. But to be streetwise also is to risk one’s claim to decency, for decency is generally — on the street — associated with being “lame” or “square.” Thus, young people of the neighborhood while growing up must walk something of a social tightrope. For example, youths who go away to college are during their times at home challenged by their street-oriented peers with the mocking question, “Can you still hang?” — that is, “Can you still handle the streets?”

Many youths who observe the would-be legitimate role models around them somehow conclude that the models are unworthy of emulation. Conventional hard work seems not to have paid off for the old, and the youths see the relatively few hard-working people of the neighborhood struggling to survive. At the same time, through unconventional role models, a thriving underground economy beckons to them with enormous sums of money, a type of thrill, power, and prestige. Streetwise and impoverished young men can easily deal in the drug trade, part-time or full time. They may even draw their intimate female counterparts along with them, “hooking them up,” and casually initiating them into prostitution.

Traditional female role models as paragons of decency have also diminished in number and authority. Mature women, often grandmothers themselves, once effectively served the community as auxiliary parents who publicly augmented and supported the relationship between parent and child. They would discipline children and serve as role models for young women, exerting a certain degree of social control. As the neighborhoods became increasingly infested by the drug culture, ordinary young mothers and their children became immediate casualties. As this deterioration of the neighborhood feeds on itself, decent and law-abiding people become so demoralized that those who are capable leave, while others succumb to the street.

The Problem of Inner-city Teenage Pregnancy

The lack of family-sustaining jobs denies many young men the possibility of forming an economically self-reliant family which is the traditional American mark of manhood. Partially in response, many young black men form strong attachments to peer groups which emphasize sexual prowess as proof of manhood — with babies as evidence. These men congregate on street corners, boasting about their sexual exploits and deriding conventional family life. The enveloping group encourages this orientation by extolling men who are able to overcome the sexual defenses of women. For many, the object is to gain women’s sexual favors free of conjugal ties. Desirous only of immediate self-gratification, some boys want to father babies merely to demonstrate their ability to control a girl’s mind and body. A sexual “game” emerges as girls are lured by the (usually older) boy’s vague but convincing promises of love and marriage. At the same time, the “fast” adolescent street orientation presents early sexual experience and promiscuity as a virtue. When the girls submit, they often end up pregnant and abandoned. However, for many such girls who have few other perceived options, motherhood — accidental or otherwise — becomes a rite of passage to adulthood. Although an overwhelming number may not actively be trying to have babies, many are not actively trying to prevent it. One of the reasons may be the strong fundamentalist religious orientation of many underclass blacks which emphasizes the role of fate in life: If something happens, it happens; if something was meant to be, then let it be and “God will find a way.” With the dream of a mate, a girl may even be indifferent to the possibility of pregnancy, even if it is not likely that pregnancy will lead to marriage. So the pregnant girl can look forward to a certain affirmation, if not from the father then from her peer group, from her family, from the Lord, and ultimately from “aid” (as neighborhood residents refer to welfare) from society.

Thus, if or when it becomes obvious that a young father’s promises are empty, the pregnant young woman has a certain incentive to settle for the role of single parent. A large part of her identity is provided by the baby — a symbolic passage to adulthood. The baby is under her care and guidance, and for many street-oriented girls there is no quicker way to grow up. Becoming a mother can seem to be a means to authority, maturity, and respect. But it is a shortsighted and naive gamble, because the girl often fails to realize that her life suddenly will be burdened and her choices in life significantly limited.

In these circumstances, “outlook,” including a certain amount of education, wisdom, and mentoring from decent role models, becomes extremely important. The strong, so-called decent family, often with a husband and wife, sometimes with a strong-willed single mother helped by close relatives and neighbors, may instill in girls a sense of hope. Such families can hope to reproduce the relatively strong family form. Such families are generally regarded in the neighborhood as advantaged. Both parents, or close kin, are known as hard workers who strive to have something and who emphasize the work ethic, common decency, and social and moral responsibility. Though the pay may be low, the family often can count on a regular income, giving its members the sense that decent values have paid off for them.

A girl growing up in such a family, or even living in close proximity to one, may have strong support from a mother, a father, friends, and neighbors who not only care whether she becomes pregnant but also are able to share knowledge about life beyond the neighborhood. The girl may then develop social mobility or at least forego pregnancy. If so, she has a far better chance to develop a positive sense of the future and a healthy self-respect; she may even conclude that she has a great deal to lose by becoming an unwed mother. Contributing to this outlook are ministers, teachers, parents, and upwardly mobile peers. At times a successful older sister sets a standard and expectations for younger siblings, who then may strive to follow her example.

The sexual conduct of inner-city youths is to a large extent the product of the meshing of two opposing drives, that of the boys and that of the girls. For a variety of reasons tied to socioeconomic situations, their goals are often diametrically opposed, and sex becomes a contest between them. To many boys, sex is a symbol of local social status: sexual conquests become so many notches on one’s belt, so to say. Many of the girls offer sex as a gift in bargaining for the attentions of a young man. As boys and girls try to use each other to achieve their own ends, the reality that emerges sometimes approximates their goals, but it often brings frustration and disillusionment and perpetuates or even worsens their original situation.

In each sexual encounter, there is generally a winner and a loser. The girls have a dream, the boys a desire. The girls dream of being carried off by a Prince Charming who will love them, provide for them, and give them a family. The boys often desire sex without commitment or babies without responsibility. In view of their poor employment prospects, it is difficult for the boys to see themselves taking on the responsibilities of conventional fathers and husbands. Yet the boy knows what the girl wants and plays that role to get sex. In accepting his advances, the girl may think she is maneuvering him toward a commitment, or that her getting pregnant is the nudge he needs to marry her and give her the life she wants. What she does not understand is that the boy, despite his claims, is often incapable of giving her that life. For in reality he has little money, few prospects for earning much, and no wish to be tied to a woman who will have a say in what he does. His loyalty is to his peer group and its norms. When the girl becomes pregnant, the boy tends to retreat from her, although, with help or pressure from family and peers, she ultimately may succeed in getting him to take some responsibility for the child.

Sex: The Game and the Dream

The lore of the streets is that there is a contest going on between the boy and the girl even before they meet. To the young man, the woman becomes, in the most profound sense, a sexual object. Her body and mind are the object of a sexual game, to be won for his personal aggrandizement. Status goes to the winner, and sex is prized not as a testament of love but as testimony to control of another human being. Sex is the prize, and sexual conquests are a game whose goal is to make a fool of the young woman. The young men describe their successful campaigns as “getting over” young women’s sexual defenses. To “get over,” the young man must devise a “game,” whose success is gauged by its acceptance by his peers and especially by women. Relying heavily on gaining the girl’s confidence, the game consists of the boy’s full presentation of self, including his dress, grooming, looks, dancing ability, and conversation or “rap.” The rap is the verbal element of the game, whose object is to inspire sexual interest. It embodies the whole person and is thus extremely important to success. Among peer-group members, raps are assessed, the assessment is, in effect, the evaluation of a boy’s whole game. Convincing proof of effectiveness is the “booty”: the amount of sex the young man appears to be getting. Young men who are known to fail with women often face ridicule from the peer group, having their raps labeled “tissue paper,” their games seen as inferior, and their identities devalued.

After developing a game through trial and error, a young man is ever on the lookout for players — that is, young women with whom to perfect it. To find willing players is to gain affirmation of self, and the boy’s status in the peer group rises if he can seduce a girl considered to be “choice,” “down,” or streetwise. On encountering an attractive girl, the boy usually sees a challenge: he attempts to “run his game.” The girl usually is fully aware that a game is being attempted; but, if the young man is sophisticated or “smooth,” or if the girl is young and inexperienced, she may be duped.

In many instances the game plays on the dream that many inner-city girls evolve from their early teenage years. The popular love songs they listen to, usually from age seven or eight, are imbued with a wistful air, promising love and ecstasy to someone “just like you.” This dream involves having a boyfriend, a fiancé, a husband, and the fairytale prospect of living happily ever after with one’s children in a nice house in a good neighborhood — essentially the dream of middle-class America. This dream is nurtured by television soap operas, or “stories,” as the women call them. The heroes and heroines may be white and upper-middle-class, but such characteristics only make them more attractive. Many girls dream of being the comfortable middle-class housewife portrayed on television, though they see that their peers can only approximate that role.

When she is approached by a boy, the girl’s faith in her dream clouds her view of the situation. A romantically successful boy has a knack for knowing just what is on a girl’s mind, what she wants from life, and how she hopes to obtain it. The young man’s age — at times four or five years older than the girl — gives him an authoritative edge and makes his declared readiness to “settle down” more credible. By enacting this role he can shape the interaction, calling up those resources he needs to play the game successfully. He styles himself as the man she wants him to be, but this identity may be exaggerated and temporary — until he gets what he wants. Essentially, he shows her the side of himself that he knows she wants to see. For instance, he will sometimes “walk through the woods” with the girl: he might visit at her home and go to church with her family, or even do “manly” chores around the house, showing that he is an “upstanding young man.” But all of this may only be part of his game, and after he gets what he wants, he may cast off this aspect of his presentation and reveal something of his true self, as he flits to other women or reverts to behavior more characteristic of his everyday life — the life centered on his peer group. The girl may refuse to accept reports of the boy’s duplicity; she must see for herself. Until she completely loses confidence in him, she may find herself strongly defending the young man to friends and family who question her choice. The young woman may know she is being “played,” but, given the effectiveness of her boy’s game, his rap, his presentation of self, his looks, his age, his wit, his dancing ability, and his general popularity, infatuation often rules.

Aware of many abandoned young mothers, many a girl fervently hopes that her man is the one who will be different. In addition, the girl’s peer group supports her pursuit of the dream, implicitly upholding her belief in the young man’s good faith. When a girl does become engaged to be married, there is much excitement. But seldom does this happen, because the boy, for the immediate future, is generally not interested in “playing house,” as his peers derisively refer to domestic life.

While pursuing his game, the boy often feigns love and caring, pretending to be a “dream man,” and acting as though he has the best intentions. Ironically, in many cases the young man does indeed have good intentions. He may feel profound ambivalence, mainly because such intentions conflict with the values of his peer group and his lack of confidence in his ability to support a family. At times, this reality and the male peer group’s values are placed in sharp focus by his own deviance from them, as he incurs sanctions for allowing a girl to “rule” him or as he gains positive reinforcement for keeping her “in line.” The group sanctions its members with demeaning labels such as “pussy,” “pussy whipped,” or “house-husband,” causing them to posture in a way that clearly distances them from such characterizations. At times, however, a boy earnestly attempts to be the “dream man,” with honorable intentions of “doing right” by the young woman, of marrying her and living happily ever after according to their version of middle-class propriety. But the reality of his poor employment prospects makes it hard to follow through.

Unable to realize himself as the young woman’s provider in the American middle-class tradition — which the peer group often labels “square” — the young man may become even more committed to his game. In his ambivalence, he may go so far as to “make plans” with the girl, including house hunting and shopping for furniture.

In many cases, the more he seems to exploit the young woman, the higher is the boy’s regard within the peer group. But to consolidate his status, he feels moved at times to show others that he is “in control,” which is not always easy to accomplish. Many young women are independent and assertive, and there may be a contest of wills between the couple, with arguments and fights developing in public over the most trivial issues. She is not a simple victim, and the roles in the relationship are not to be taken for granted but must repeatedly be negotiated. To prove his dominance, the boy may attempt to “break her down” in front of her friends, “showing the world who’s boss.” If the young woman wants him badly enough, she will meekly go along with the boy’s performance for the implicit promise of his continued attentions, if not love. A more permanent relationship approximating the woman’s dream of matrimony and domestic tranquility is at stake in her mind, though she may know better.

As the contest continues and the girl hangs on, she may seem to have been taken in by the boy’s game. But in this contest, anything is fair. The girl may play along, becoming manipulative and aggressive, or the boy may lie, cheat, or otherwise misrepresent himself to obtain or retain her favors. As one male informant said:

They trickin’ them good. Either the woman is trickin’ the man, or the man is trickin’ the woman. Good! They got a trick. She’s thinkin’ it’s [the relationship] one thing, he playin’ another game, you know. He thinkin’ she alright, and she doing something else.

In the social atmosphere of the peer group, the quality of the boy’s game emerges as a central issue, and whatever lingering ambivalence he has about his commitment to acting as husband and provider may be resolved in favor of peer-group status.

In pursuing his game, the young man often uses a supporting cast of other women, at times playing one off against the other. For example, he may orchestrate a situation in which he is seen with another woman. Or, secure in the knowledge that he has other women to fall back on, he might start a fight with his steady to upset her sense of complacency, thus creating dynamic tension within the relationship, which he uses to his own advantage. The young woman thus may begin to doubt her hold on the man, which can lower her self-esteem. The boy may think he is fooling the girl, and when he is confident of his dominance he may “play” the young woman, “running his game,” making her “love” him. Some young men will brag that they are “playing her like a fiddle,” meaning they are in full control of the situation. Though his plan sometimes backfires and he looks the fool, the young man tries to prove he “has the girl’s nose open” — that she loves him. He aims to maneuver her into a state of bliss, showing that she, not he, is the “weak’ member of the relationship.

During this emotional turmoil, the young girl may well become careless about birth control, which is seen by the community, especially the males, as her responsibility. She may believe the boy’s rap, becoming convinced that he means what he says about taking care of her, that her welfare is his primary concern. Moreover, she may want to believe that, if she becomes pregnant, he will marry her, or at least be more obligated to her than to others he has been “messing with.” Perhaps all he needs is a little nudge. Yet the girl may think little about the job market and the boy’s prospects. She may underestimate peer-group influences and the effect of other “ladies” that she knows or at least suspects are in his life. If she is in love, she may be sure that a child and the profound obligation a child implies will create so strong a bond that other issues will go away. Her thinking often is clouded by the prospect of winning at the game of love. Becoming pregnant can be a way to fulfill her dream.

For many women, when the man turns out to be unobtainable, just having his baby is enough. Sometimes a woman seeks out a popular and “fine” or physically attractive young man in hopes that his good looks will grace her child, resulting in a “prize” — a beautiful baby. Moreover, becoming pregnant can become an important part of the competition for the attentions or even delayed affection of a young man, a profound if socially shortsighted way of making a claim on him.


Up to the point of pregnancy, given the norms of his peer group, the young man could be characterized as simply “messing around.” The girl’s pregnancy brings a sudden reality to the relationship. Life-altering events have occurred. Because she is pregnant, he could be held legally responsible for the child’s long-term financial support. If the young couple were unclear about their intentions before, things may crystallize. She now considers him as her mate. He has to decide whether to claim the child as his or to shun the woman.

However, for the boy to own up to his girl’s pregnancy is to defy the peer-group ethic of “hit and run.” Other values at risk of being flouted include the subordination of women and freedom from formal conjugal ties, and some young men are not interested in taking care of somebody else when doing so means having less themselves. In the social context of persistent poverty, the men devalue the conventional marital relationship and view women as a burden — and children as even more a burden. Moreover, a young man wants “to come as I want and go as I please,” indulging his freedom and independence. Accordingly, from the perspective of the peer group, any male-female relationship should be on the man’s terms.

A double standard is at work, and it holds that, for any amount of sexual activity, women are more easily discredited than men. To be sure, there is a lot of promiscuity among both the young men and women. As a result, doubt about paternity complicates many pregnancies. In self-defense, the young man often chooses to deny fatherhood; few are willing to “own up” to a pregnancy they can reasonably question. Among their peers, the young men gain ready support; a man who is “tagged” with fatherhood has been caught in the “trick bag.” The boy’s first response, though he may know better, is to attribute the pregnancy to someone else.

Upon giving birth, naturally the young woman wants to identify the father of her child. She may, out of desperation, arbitrarily designate a likely young man as the father — especially if he is employed. There are often charges and countercharges, with the appointed young man usually denying responsibility and easing himself out of the picture over time or accepting it and playing his new role of father only part-time. Sometimes there is an incentive for the woman not to identify the father, even though she and the local community know “whose baby it is.” This incentive is the prospect of a check from the welfare office — which is much more dependable than the irregular support payments of a sporadically employed youth.

To be sure, many young men are determined to “do right” by the young woman, to try out the role of husband and father, to establish a family. Such young men often are only marginal members of their peer groups. They tend to emerge from nurturing families with positive outlooks and religious convictions. Locally, they are viewed as decent people. In addition, usually these men are employed, have a positive sense of the future, and tend to enjoy a deep and abiding relationship with the young woman that can withstand the trauma of youthful pregnancy. But, a young man may rationalize his marriage as a “trap” the woman has tricked him into. As one young man said in an interview:

My wife done that to me. Before we got married, when we had our first baby, she thought, well, hey, if she had the baby, then she got me, you know. And that’s the way she done me. [She] thought that’s gon’ trap me. That I’m all hers after she done have this baby. So, a lot of women, they think like that. Now, I was the type of guy, if I know it was my baby, I’m taking care of my baby. My ol’ lady [wife], she knowed that. She knowed that anything that was mine, I’m taking care of mine. This is why she probably wouldn’t mess around or nothing, ’cause she wanted to lock me up.

The Baby Club

Without a strong family, girls often form a close-knit group of “street girls” to fill their social, moral, and family void. With the help of her peers and sometimes older siblings, the girl raises herself. On the street, she plays seemingly innocent games, but through play she becomes socialized into a peer group. Many of these neighborhood “street kids,” with little parental supervision, are left to their own devices, and regularly stay out late at night, sometimes as late as 2:00 a.m., even on school nights. By the age of ten or twelve, many girls are aware of their bodies and, according to some residents, are beginning to engage in sexual relations with very little knowledge of the long-term consequences of their behavior.

Such street kids become increasingly committed to their peer groups, and survive by their wits, being “cool,” and having fun. Some girls may begin to have babies by age fifteen, and soon other babies follow. In the minds of many, at least in the short run, this behavior is rewarded.

As the girl becomes more deeply involved, the group helps shape her dreams, social agenda, values, and aspirations. The “hip” group operates as an “in crowd” in the neighborhood, although more conventional people refer to its members as “fast” and “slick” and believe they have “tried everything” at an early age. Girls raised by strict parents are considered by this hip crowd to be “lame” or “square” and may suffer social ostracism or at least ridicule, thus further segmenting the neighborhood. The street peer group becomes a powerful social magnet, drawing in those only loosely connected to other sources of social and emotional support, particularly the children of a weak and impoverished ghetto family headed by a single female. When some of the group’s girls get pregnant, it becomes important for others to have a baby, particularly as their dream of “the good life,” usually with an “older man” of twenty-one or twenty-two unravels. They may settle for babies as a consolation prize, enhancing and rationalizing motherhood as they attempt to infuse their situation with value. Some people speak of these girls as “sprouting babies.”

The young mothers who form such baby clubs develop an ideology counter to that of more conventional society, one that not only approves but enhances their position. In effect, they work to create value and status by inverting the values of girls who do not become pregnant. The teenage mother derives status from her baby; hence her preoccupation with the impression that the baby makes and also her willingness to spend inordinately large sums of money to that end.

Having come to terms with the street culture, many of these young women have an overwhelming desire to grow up, a passage best expressed by the ability to “get out on her own.” In terms of traditional inner-city experience, this means setting up one’s own household, preferably with a “good man” through marriage and family. Sometimes a young woman attempts to accomplish this by purposely becoming pregnant, perhaps hoping the baby’s father will marry her and help to realize her dream of domestic respectability. But there are an undetermined but growing number of young women, unimpressed with the lot of young single men, who want to establish households on their own, without the help or the burden of a man.

Sometimes a pregnant young woman, far from feeling victimized, will take charge of her situation, and sue the man for her own ends, perhaps extracting money for his “spending her time.” At parties and social gatherings, such women may actually initiate a sexual relationship thereby exerting control of the situation from the start. Some men say that such “new” women are “just out to use you” to become pregnant “for the [welfare] check, then she through with you.” Consistent with such reports in the economically hard-pressed local community, it is becoming socially acceptable for a young woman to have children out of wedlock — supported by a regular welfare check.

In this way, persistent poverty affects norms of the ghetto culture, such as the high value placed on children. Babies may become a sought-after symbol of status, or passage to adulthood, or proof of being a “grown” woman. There may be less a question of whether as of when the girl is going to have children, for she may think she has little to lose but much to gain by becoming pregnant.

Under some conditions, the male peer group will pressure a member to admit paternity. Most important is that there be no doubt in the group members’ minds as to the baby’s father. When it is clear that the baby resembles the young man, others may urge him to claim it and help the mother financially. If he fails to acknowledge the baby, group members may do so themselves by publicly associating him with the child, at times teasing him about his failure “to take care of what’s his.” As one young man said:

My partner’s [friend’s] girlfriend came up pregnant. And she say it’s his, but he not sure. He waitin’ on the baby, waitin’ to see if the baby look like him. I tell him, “Man, if that baby look jut like you, then it was yours! Ha-ha.” He just kinda like just waitin’. He ain’t claimin’ naw, saying the baby ain’t his. I keep tellin’ him, “If that baby come out looking just like you, then it gon’ be yours, partner.” And there on the corner all of ’em will tell him, “Man, that’s yo’ baby.” They’ll tell him.

In a great number of cases, peer group or no, the boy will send the girl on her way even if she is carrying a baby he knows is his. He often lacks a deep feeling for a woman and children as a family and does not want a married life, which he sees as giving a woman something to say about how he spends his time. This emphasis on “freedom” is generated and supported in large part by the peer group itself. Even if a man agrees to marriage, usually he considers it only a trial. After a few months, many young husbands have abandoned their wives and children.

This desire for freedom, which the peer group so successfully nurtures is deeply ingrained in the boys. It is, in fact, nothing less than the desire to perpetuate the situation they had in their mothers’ homes. A son is generally well bonded to his mother, something she tends to encourage from birth. It may be that sons, particularly the eldest, are groomed to function as surrogate husbands because of the high rate of family dissolution among poor blacks. Many young boys thus want what they consider an optimal situation. In the words of peer-group members, they want a “main squeeze” — a steady and reliable female partner who mimics the role their mothers played, a woman who will cook, clean, and generally serve them, with few questions about the “ladies” they may be seeing and even fewer questions about their male friends. The boy has grown accustomed to home-cooked meals and the secure company of his family, in which his father was largely absent and could not tell him what to do. He was his own boss, essentially raising himself with the help of his peer group and perhaps any adult (possibly an old head) who would listen but not interfere. For many, such a life is considered to be too good to give up in exchange for the “problems of being tied down to one lady, kids, bills, and all that.” The young man’s home situation with his mother thus competes effectively with the household he envisions with a woman his peer group is fully prepared to discredit. To “hook up” with a woman, to marry her, is to give her something to say about “what you’re doing, or where you’re going, or where you have been.” For many young men, this is unacceptable.

In endeavoring to “have it all,” many men become part-time father and husbands, seeing the women and children on their own terms, when they have time, and making only symbolic purchases for the children. In theory, the part-time father retains his freedom while having limited commitment to the woman and the little ones “calling me daddy.” In many instances he does not mind putting up with the children, given his generally limited role in child rearing, but he does mind tolerating the woman, whom he sees as a significant threat to his freedom. As one man commented about marriage:

Naw, they [young men] getting away from that ’cause they want to be free. Now, see, I ended up getting married. I got a whole lot of boys ducking that. Unless this is managed, it ain’t no good. My wife cleans, takes care of the house. You got a lot of guys, they don’t want to be cleanin’ no house, and do the things you got to do in the house. You need a girl there to do it. If you get one, she’ll slow you down. The guys don’t want it.

Sex, Poverty, and Family Life

The basic factors at work here are youth, ignorance, the culture’s receptiveness to babies, and the young man’s resort to proving his manhood through sexual conquests that often result in pregnancy. These factors are exacerbated by persistent poverty. A primary concern of many inner-city residents is to get along as best as they can. In the poorest communities, the primary financial sources are low-paying jobs, crime — including drugs — and public assistance. Some of the most desperate people devise a variety of confidence games to separate others from their money.

The economic situation in the ghetto life encourages both men and woman to try to extract maximum personal benefit from sexual relationships. The dreams of a middle-class lifestyle nurtured by young inner-city women are thwarted by the harsh socioeconomic realities of the ghetto. Young men without job prospects cling to the support offered by their peer groups and their mothers and shy away from lasting relationships with girlfriends. Thus girls and boys alike scramble to take what they can from each other, trusting only their own ability to trick the other into giving them something that will establish their version of the good life — the best life they can put together in their environment.

The people involved in these circumstances are very young — mainly from fifteen years old to their early twenties. Their bodies are grown, but they are emotionally immature. These girls and boys often have no very clear notion of the long-term consequences of their behavior, and they have few trustworthy role models to instruct them. Although middle-class youths and poor youths may have much in common sexually, their level of practical education differs. The ignorance of inner-city girls about their bodies astonishes the middle-class observer. Many girls in the ghetto have only a vague notion of where babies come from, and they generally know nothing about birth control until after they have had their first child — and sometimes not even then. Parents in this culture are extremely reticent about discussing sex and birth control with their children. Many mothers are ashamed to “talk about it” or feel they are in no position to do so, since they behaved the same way as their daughters when they were young. Education thus becomes a community health problem, but most girls come in contact with community health services only when they become pregnant — sometimes many months into their pregnancies.

Many women in the black underclass emerge from a fundamental religious orientation and hold a “pro-life” philosophy. Abortion is therefore usually not an option. New life is sometimes characterized as a “heavenly gift,” an infant is sacred to the young woman, and the extended family seems always to “make do” somehow with another baby. Usually a birth is praised, regardless of its circumstances, and the child is genuinely valued. Such ready social approval works against many efforts to avoid illegitimate births. In fact, in cold economic terms, a baby can be an asset, which is without doubt an important factor behind exploitative sex and out-of-wedlock babies. Public assistance is one of the few reliable sources of money, and, for many, drugs are another. The most desperate people thus feed on one another: Sex and babies may be used for income; women receive money from welfare for having babies, and men sometimes act as prostitutes to pry the money from them.

This lack of gainful employment not only keeps the entire community in poverty, but also deprives young men of the traditional American way of proving their manhood — supporting a family. They must thus prove themselves in other ways. Casual sex with as many women as possible, impregnating one or more, and getting them to “have your baby” brings a boy the ultimate in esteem from his peers and makes him a man. “Casual” sex in therefore fraught with social significance for the boy who has little or no hope of achieving financial stability and cannot imagine himself taking care of a family. The boy has gotten what he wanted, but the girl learns that she has gotten something, too: The baby may bring her a certain amount of praise, a steady welfare check, and a measure of independence. In this inner-city culture, people generally get married for “love” and “to have something.” This mindset presupposes a job, the work ethic, and, perhaps most of all, a sense of hope for a better future economically. When these factors are present, the more wretched elements of the portrait presented here begin to lose their force and eventually are neutralized. For many who are caught up in the web of persistent urban poverty and become unwed mothers and fathers, there is little hope for a good job and even less hope for a future with a stable family life.


  • Elijah Anderson

    Elijah Anderson is the William K. Lanman, Jr. Professor of Sociology at Yale University.

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