WOMEN IN FOSSIL FUEL BOOMTOWNS
Canada and the United States are working on some of the world's largest resource extraction projects of the modern era. With these projects come enormous changes to landscapes, economies, social structures, and more. Of these, social changes appear to go least noticed; perhaps because it is difficult to see our own change, or perhaps because it is difficult to be aware that women are suffering at the hands of the fossil fuel industry. This webpage intends to identify the violence being committed by men against women as a direct result of this industry, as well as the actions being taken by the law, by communities, and by women, in response.
Man Camps: These ‘camps’ function as temporary housing for mainly male oil field workers due to housing shortages in mining or drilling areas. There are many different versions of these camps, and most include amenities such as laundry, cable, pool, etc. (Lyons). They usually are situated in rural areas, and may resemble the photos below. These camps are marked by large numbers (thousands) of single men in a concentrated area, most of who are from outside of the local community. These camps are easily identified sources of harassment and violence against women.
Boom/bust: “alternate periods of high and low levels of economic activity in the business cycle,” (Mirriam-Webster).
Prostitution: the act or practice of exchanging sexual relations for goods, services, and/or money.
Trafficking: “Human trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery involving the illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain…. Traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to lure their victims and force them into labor or commercial sexual exploitation,” (Merriam-Webster). Prostitution is one motivation for trafficking.
Homelessness: “Homelessness is a temporary condition that people fall into when they cannot afford to pay for a place to live, or when their current home is unsafe or unstable” (Merriam-Webster). In the context of this topic, an example of an “unsafe or unstable” home may be a woman remaining in an abusive relationship/household for economic necessity, or a woman engaged in a sexually exploitative agreement in exchange for shelter.
Terror: “Something that causes very strong feelings of fear” and/or “violence that is committed by a person, group, or government in order to frighten people and achieve a political goal” (Merriam-Webster).
Coerce: “to compel to an act or choice” or “to achieve by force or threat" (Merriam-Webster). One aspect of this definition is acting out of necessity, including economic necessity.
Violence: “intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force… clashing or jarring quality" (Merriam-Webster). Violence may be coercion, harassment, terror, or otherwise non-physical.
Violence Against Women
The forms of violence that occur against women are numerous, especially in resource extraction zones. Extraction-related violence against women includes domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, prostitution, coercive stripping, trafficking, disappearance, murder, homelessness, poverty, infertility, sexually transmitted disease/infection, wage inequality, and so on. Combined, these forms of violence leave women feeling unsafe in their communities, in their work and school, and in their homes—and where else do women live their lives? Combined, these forms of coercion and violence create an atmosphere of terror for women which, in and of itself, is a form of violence.
Poverty and homelessness is quite often where violence against women begins, as these situations leave women vulnerable. In these extraction areas, poverty and homelessness act as unique forms of violence against women, as they occur for unique reasons essentially boiling down to cost of living vs. wages (Rolbin-Ghanie). Looking at the graphs, one can see that the cost of housing in Williston, North Dakota, the center of the oil fracking industry, doubled from 2000 (pre-boom) to 2014 (mid-boom), both in home values and in average rent:
Looking at the graphs, one can see that the most common occupations for men in 2014 (mid-boom) were the jobs brought in by the fossil fuel industry, which often pay upward of six figures. Construction and extraction,” “sales and related occupations,” and “repair, maintenance, and installation” rank as men’s top three occupations. The top three occupations for women were the very same jobs they may have had pre-oil: “office and support,” “personal care and service,” and “education, training, and library.” This conflict in compensation is compounded by the fact that these most common occupations for women are already low-wage jobs. As of 2015, unemployment in Williston was only 2%, but job distribution is a critical component of poverty and homelessness. In short, the cost of housing is rising drastically, while women’s wages are not.
As a wide-ranging series of actions, sexual violence is facilitated by poverty and homelessness. As women are forced out of their homes (or else find themselves struggling to stay in them), they are often left scrambling for financial, mental, and/or emotional security. As a result, many women become vulnerable to trafficking, rape and assault, and becoming engaged in domestic violence situations. Women may also find themselves involved in prostitution and stripping. It is important to note that sexual violence is greatly underestimated – it is estimated that 70% goes unreported (RAINN).
Rape, domestic violence, and prostitution occur everywhere, and affect all women. In Williston however, all three forms of violence skyrocketed between 2000 and 2014 (Bureau of Criminal Investigation). Looking at the graphs below, one can see that rape increased by over 165%, domestic violence increased by over 386%, and prostitution (influenced by trafficking) increased by 1,675%.
The Loonie Game demonstrates another alarming trend in these forms of violence, aside from increasing numbers. This game is played at Canadian strip clubs, and it involves men throwingone-dollar coins (called “Loonies”) at dancers in the hopes of winning a cheap prize, such as a small stuffed animal. Men often aim for the dancers’ genitalia, nipples, or otherwise painful areas; men sometimes heat the coins with lighters in order to burn the dancers. These coins can, and often do, break skin (Lamoureux). This game is a visceral demonstration of how long standing forms of sexual exploitation are becoming increasingly violent and humiliating. This is where the second definition of “terror,” comes in to play: these acts are no foreplay, but rather a demonstration of power and the ability to control. This easily classifies these forms of sexual violence as a “violence that is committed by a person, group, or government in order to frighten people and achieve a political goal.” When we consider governmental inaction as action, the definition of terror is complete.
Trafficking has become an epidemic in resource extraction areas, particularly on and around reservations, as on North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Reservation. Preying on the vulnerable, traffickers most often pursue poor, young women; in fact, the average age for children entering the world of sex trafficking is 12 years old (Webley). Traffickers then “groom” their victims—that is, manipulating their targets to make them more easily influenced. Grooming techniques often include drug use and addiction, sexual abuse, threats and/or blackmail, and emotional manipulation (for example, appearing as a boyfriend or concerned friend who is working with the victim, rather than working to exploit them). As the U.S. Department of Homeland Security states, traffickers “look for people who are susceptible for a variety of reasons, including psychological or emotional vulnerability, economic hardship, lack of a social safety net, natural disasters, or political instability. The trauma caused by the traffickers can be so great that many may not identify themselves as victims or ask for help, even in highly public settings.”
There are many complications in the trafficking industry that make effective legal solutions difficult to come by. Legal gaps between Native and non-Native law enforcement have made reservations a safe haven of sorts for non-Native offenders, as Tribal Police cannot take action against them, under the Major Crimes Act. Similarly, anti-trafficking laws passed in states cannot cover reservations—this is the case in North Dakota, where the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes on the Fort Berthold Reservation are left to fend for themselves against non-Native traffickers. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has recently been amended to allow Tribal Police to arrest non-Native perpetrators of domestic violence, but not of trafficking.
There are also several complexities within communities that make trafficking difficult to see or handle. Youth are often involved in the industry, and end up in Child Protective Services when caught. Naïveté in many communities allows trafficking to be dismissed under the umbrella of prostitution. Emotional manipulation, as mentioned above, means that many victims do not report and/or are not willing to testify against their traffickers. Drug availability influences the prevalence and severity of these cases (in that more drugs means less trafficking and vice versa), making them difficult to track independently. This points to the larger issue that is men viewing and using women as consumable to stimulate pleasure, as a commodity on par with recreational drug abuse. For all of these reasons, the tremendous amount of trafficking brought in by male workers is very difficult to address (Krause).
Illness is a tremendous byproduct of the sexual violence being committed by men against women. Sexual violence results in large amounts of unprotected sex, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In Alberta, syphilis has exploded; over a ten-year period, it has increased by more than tenfold (Cutler). Syphilis and STDs are especially dangerous for pregnant women. On the Fort Berthold Reservation 30% of youth from the Three Affiliated Tribes, ages 11-13, test positively for sexually transmitted infections--which, again, largely occur as a result of sexual violence.
Amidst all of this violence, drastically increased over the duration of resource extraction, there are several pressing questions. A very important component of this violence is who is being most impacted. While all women are capable of being subjected to violence, it certainly does not affect all women equally. A second important component is the law—where is it in all of this? For many reasons, the law appears to be absent. Finally, how are women responding? What actions are being taken by communities and by individual women in response to the violence that is plaguing their communities?
Who is impacted? As mentioned in above, all women are affected by sexual violence, but it is absolutely critical to consider race, class, and trauma in any analysis. As previously stated, grooming is a very important part of trafficking; this is true of other forms of sexual violence, as well. For this reason, poor women, women of color, and previously traumatized women or girls are targeted most frequently. Native women in particular experience extremely high rates of sexual violence—both in extraction areas and beyond; in fact, even before resource extraction is are introduced to an area, Native women are raped at twice the United States average, largely by non-Native men. With legal gaps making reservations essentially lawless for violent criminals, with poverty rates that far surpass the national average, with historical trauma from colonialism, genocide, and mass rape, with substance abuse issues on reservations, and with a much higher likelihood of individual previous trauma, Native women are at a dramatically increased risk for experiencing sexual violence. Historical trauma is the number one indicator of likelihood of being trafficked (Dalrymple).
Where is the law? Despite steadily rising rates of violent crime over several years, law enforcement has yet to catch up. In part, this is due to the fact that much boomtown crime happens on reservations, and thus is difficult to handle with the previously mentioned legal gaps. Logic, however, would suggest that those gaps could be covered over the many years that this violence has been inflicted. For women’s issues in general (making it especially relevant here) the law is often ineffective or even actively working against them. Women may struggle with trusting the law after it works only to hurt them. Over a six-year period in the United States, more than 1,000 officers lost their badges for sexual misconduct; women may not report an assault for fear of being assaulted again, re-traumatized and left without a course for action (Sedensky). Even if this fear were no concern, the reality is that the law does not take sexual assault of Native women seriously. “The federal government often declines to prosecute crimes on Native American land. In 2011 alone, the Justice Department filed charges in only about… 35 percent of sexual assault cases on reservations nationwide” (Webley). This lack of action is true throughout the United States; countless states have decades-long backlogs of rape kits to be tested.
Assuming, however, that the officer did not assault the woman, and that the report resulted in action, women still have reason to be wary of the law. In 2014, Alberta Justice Robin Camp openly ridiculed the victim in a rape trial of which he was the judge, speculated that she was lying, and told her that the rape was her fault. His comments included, “sex is very often a challenge… Sex and pain sometimes go together, that—that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” “why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?” and “is there not a possibility that a very unhappy thing happened here? Two young people made love, and somebody came afterwards and poisoned the girl’s mind?” all of which were made during the trial. Camp only faced repercussions because two law professors in the audience complained about his conduct (Hopper).
ll of the above example go to show how deeply enmeshed rape culture is in our legal systems. If a woman wants to report sexual violence, she must hope that she is not first assaulted by her officer, her report is taken seriously enough to see action, and that her judge does not minimize or condone rape.
Women’s responses to these dramatic social changes take several forms. In North Dakota, gun and knife purchases have increased as women arm themselves for both in- and out-of-home protection (MacPherson). Women are altering their routines including when and how they go out, so as not to be caught out alone after certain hours (Sargent). Further, women are starting and joining organizations committed to fighting violence against women in their communities. The Fort Berthold Coalition Against Violence (FBCAV) on the Fort Berthold Reservation is an example of women coming together to make changes. Loren’s Law, named after a leader in the community who was killed in an extraction-related accident, was designed by the Fort Berthold Coalition to combat trafficking, prostitution, and other violence (Dalrymple). Several other women and groups are taking similar legal action, getting involved in both law and politics. Across the United States and Canada, women are uniting to take action against violence that the law is unable, or perhaps unwilling, to address, and connecting this epidemit to its root cause of fossil fuel expansion. Women such as the President of the Quinault Nation Fawn Sharp, MHA Nation member and FBCAV leader Sadie Young Bird, and community member and Fort Berthold activist Kandi Mossett stand as reminders that women are powerhouses of resiliency and inspiration.
In conclusion, fossil fuel-based economies have very unique social effects. As a result of these economies, women experience great violence. The law has failed these women, and thus they are stepping up to the plate for themselves, their families, and their communities.
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Bureau of Criminal Investigation. (2015). Crime in North Dakota, 2014. Office of North Dakota Attorney General.
Cutler, L. (2008, November 25). Rate of syphilis jumps in McMurray. Fort McMurray Today.
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Sargent, J. (2014, January 13). Running on fumes in North Dakota. New York Times.
Sedensky, M & Merchant, N. (2015). Hundreds of officers lose licenses over sex misconduct. AP: The Big Story
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