North Dakota defies the stubbornly high national unemployment rate of 7.3% with an unemployment rate of 3%. This is generally attributed to the fact that it sits on the Bakken oil field, which is ripe for extraction of natural gases. With their high employment rates, fracking regions draw what the National Geographic calls “refugees from the recession” – itinerant, predominantly male populations who abandon meager local prospects for the promise of steady work.
In her piece for Buzzfeed, stripper and blogger Susan Elizabeth Shepard, describes how within the stripper community, Williston, North Dakota was whispered about as “a secret stripper gold mine”. Far from glamorizing the phenomenon, she emphasizes the exhausting nature of the work, dispelling inflated myths of the per-night earnings, and draws a bleak portrait of oil boomtown life. With dust settling into her skin and the local Walmart completely selling out of bread, the town has a frontier atmosphere. Although she only works as a stripper, she notes it is an “open secret that some of the traveling dancers were working after hours.” Still, she avoids ascribing the popularity of the town’s two strip clubs to any sort of cultural phenomenon. She rationalizes that “[e]very Super Bowl/Olympics/national political party convention brings stories about sex workers coming to town” and ultimately follows the rationale that more men simply means a demand for more strippers.
The New York Times employs the same argument, arguing “what the oil boom has not brought [...] are enough single women.” Describing the phenomenon as a simple function of gender ratio is tempting but too reductive. The confluent phenomena of large gatherings of men and high demand in the sex industry is not unique to fracking sites. In the summer of 2012, sources ranging from tabloids to fairly reputable news organizations gleefully reported that sex workers flocked to Tampa for the Republican National Convention. And the Cannes film festival is known to be a veritable hot-bed of prostitution as producers and show business insiders descend. The examples listed above certainly involve large groups of men coming to a spot and the sex work spiking, so in that respect, they seem similar to Williston. However, they are not situations in which men are stranded in a new place with a skewed gender ration, and yet sex workers are still clearly in high demand. So is it fair to attribute that explanation to the Williston oil workers when it clearly is not a factor in the virtually identical activities of their more elite counterparts?
Inherent in the gender-ratio argument is an assumption that men are “grossly sexual beings, defined by aggressive desires for release and horniness that they can’t control”, as Kevin Carty put in his column for this publication. Carty’s sarcasm encapsulates some fairly sophisticated and complex arguments in the study of gender and sexuality. Roxana Galusca, an associate professor at the University of Chicago, summarizes the ideas of Judith Butler, the preeminent queer theory scholar, in the context of sex work. Basically, Galusca paraphrases Butler’s model wherein “gender works through a process of normalization, producing [...] sexual regulations”. Galusca extends this to assert that approaching “sex as violence is itself a symptom and a normative discourse produced by the regulatory apparatus of gender”. That is, establishing men as libidinal subjects who feel themselves unable to contain their sexual impulses is the obverse of establishing women as sexual objects who must either be protected or prevented from exercising their sexuality. In Williston, this discourse plays out insofar as the justification for a sort of supply-and-demand reasoning for sex work implies that men are beholden to certain sexual impulses; if not enough women are present, they must “vent” their sexual frustration on sex workers.
It would feel more accurate to conclude that the demand for sex workers reflects a societal institution of gender disparity rather than an inevitable biological behavior arising from given demographic conditions. However, the narrative that surrounds the phenomenon in North Dakota supports a simple supply-demand model for sex work: The Huffington Post reported that “the law of supply and demand apply to everything – even stripper salaries”; Slate concurs that “[a]n inflow of oilmen [...] pushes stripper wages up”; Maya Rao writes for The Awl that “woman here is in high demand” and drives the metaphor as woman-as-commodity further when she concludes that women are “in demand as much as the oil”. Cute as these sorts of similes may seem, they sublimate the cultural contortions that turns women into widgets in the first place. By using the language of capitalism to critique the treatment of women, they do more to bolster that discourse than break it down.
On top of these semantic issues, the sex industry isn’t the only thing that has seen an increase since the oil boom began in Williston; sexual assault has also spiked. The New York Times reports that women claim to feel unsafe in the area, and both The New York Times’ piece and Shepard’s Buzzfeed story contain separate anecdotes where a woman is nearly abducted by a male assailant. Here lies the major issue with the discourse that news sources have chosen to describe the sex work boom in Williston: even though there is some justification for describing sex work like any other industry, those justifications implicitly encompass the increased sexual violence that is also taking place in Williston. Thus sexual assault and intimidation are essentially justified in terms of market forces.
This is callous enough, but The New York Times goes even further and concludes its story by reporting that one Williston woman’s parents advised her to “stop wearing the skirts and heels”. The implication is that with the insufficient “supply” of women, tempting men with a hint of sexuality is too dangerous. This is almost a textbook example of victim-blaming, in which victims of sexual assault or aggression are construed to have been asking for it based on non-verbal cues, such as clothing, demeanor or profession. This sort of rhetoric flares up in large-scale rape cases. While covering the alleged rape of 14-year-old Daisy Coleman, known in the media as the Maryville case, an expert witness on Fox News said, “What did she expect to happen at 1am in the morning after sneaking out?” The example in the New York Times article is a variation on the same concept; the woman is cautioned that she should adjust her behavior because this will either tempt or invite sexual aggression from men. It is not the man’s responsibility to not rape women; it is the woman’s responsibility to not ‘ask for it’.
It may seem redundant to point out the commodification of female flesh in the industry of sex work. However, the issue at hand is specifically the rationalization that it is a simple function of the influx of men that creates conditions fertile for exploitation and predation. Critically absent from this discourse is a question as to why the men in Williston engage in this behavior. Ara Wilson, an associate professor of women’s studies at Duke University, points out that the definition of capitalist markets as “benign vehicles” that merely channel “wants, needs, and desires” overlooks the fact that “desires can be fostered and created.” Anybody can see how a sense of necessity did not precede the existence of consumer goods like smart phones, jewelry, or the millions of toys produced each year. However, with sex work, it’s taken as a given that desire precedes the market, and Wilson notes that a discussion of the creation of desire for sex work “remain[s] surprisingly unexamined”.
To begin to work against the deeply-entrenched rhetoric, it would be necessary to further examine the construction of consumer desire in this context, and this discussion would necessitate commentary far outside the realm of economics. Daunting as this is, the discussion is necessary given how news sources across the board invariably echo the same argument. It’s as if they are so swept away by the concurrent economic story that they cannot bear to move to far from that framework. Or maybe they too are so struck by the ancient cultural referents available to this specific narrative that they forget to update their discussion of sexual politics to the standards of the 21st century.