The Midwestern region of the United States is experiencing an oil and gas boom as companies flood to the region to take advantage of oil deposits. The explosion of interest in the region’s natural resources mimics that of other resource booms throughout history as oil and gas workers, mostly men, turn up in droves, compete for limited housing opportunities, and change the social landscape overnight. The changes they’re causing in regions like South Dakota are going to reverberate for years, and possibly generations, long after they’ve come and gone, stripping resources from the earth and passing on to new job opportunities elsewhere around the nation and the world.
In communities suddenly inundated by oil and gas workers, it’s not just housing that’s started coming at a premium, with housing rates being driven up astronomically by desperate workers looking for shelter. The whole cost of living is going up, and not just in the economic sense. Crime is also on the rise, with violence against women being a particular concern in many boomtowns — even more troublingly, some of this development is concentrated around reservations and Native communities and Native women could bear the brunt of sexual violence, as they have been doing for centuries.
So what do you think? Is rape a reasonable price to pay for oil and gas development in the Midwest? The government and the companies involved seem to think so, as the issue isn’t being adequately addressed by any number of government agencies, let alone oil and gas firms. Thanks to a largely peripatetic lifestyle, workers can commit domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape before drifting on their way to the next oilfield, making it difficult to track them, prosecute them, or penalise them — but that doesn’t mean government agencies and their employers shouldn’t be trying.
Even as oil drillers are exploiting resources so quickly that infrastructure can’t keep up with them and they’re being forced to burn off huge amounts of natural gas, their workers are exploiting the communities they stay in. It’s a troubling pattern that has repeated throughout the history of resource booms, with primarily male workers assuming that women are provided for their pleasure and entertainment, and officials sometimes doing little to stop them.
Is this a culture we want to foster, let alone one we want to live in? Myths about male sexuality often make it seem like such things are inevitable, because men are ‘incapable of controlling themselves’ or ‘need women’ to feel complete, but such comments are, in addition to being gross, an insult to men. No person has the right to impose himself on another person simply because he wants sex or feels lonely or is looking for more meaning in his life, and furthermore, men are perfectly capable of keeping it in their pants. They just don’t feel the need to when society effectively gives them a wink and a nod of permission to violate women, exerting power and control over women in the marginalised communities they come into contact with.
This isn’t about sexuality and whether male oil and gas workers are withering away in the frozen wastes. It’s about a show of power, it’s about cultural constructs surrounding masculinity, it’s about positioning some women as weak and vulnerable, as easy targets. In a heavily male environment, considerable social pressures can develop, encouraging men to behave in abusive ways to cement their ingroup status; thus, the man who rapes is one of the guys, the man who doesn’t, or worse still, actively defends women, is not a member of the team, and is not to be trusted.
There are ways around these harmful structures. In the long term, changing the way we raise boys and acculturate young men will obviously have a huge impact on how they interact with women and other genders. Dismantling racist power structures in society will shift norms insisting that some people are superior to others thanks to the colour of their skin, and will eliminate the norms that position women of colour as easy targets for white men. Both of these things are important long-term goals, but they do nothing for suffering women and girls now, which is why oil and gas companies need to act more aggressively.
They need zero tolerance policies for rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, and other instances of violence against women. These policies need to be clearly spelled out as a condition of employment, with oil and gas companies structuring work assignments to make it easier to track and monitor their employees so they can’t commit crimes in one locale, vanish, and then reappear to get a new job in another. More funding needs to be provided to tribal law enforcement agencies as well as those off-reservation to investigate crimes against women and address the epidemic of rape and violence against women that tends to follow in the wake of oil and gas workers. Communities need to make it clear that they won’t tolerate such violence, and that they will act to unify in solidarity with their women and girls.
It’s because of things like this that we needed VAWA. It’s because of things like this that we need organisations fighting for the bodies and lives of women and girls. Many people seem to think that rape is just part of the price tag for cheaper oil and gas in the United States, and it shouldn’t be. The fact that so many people and organisations are involved in a conspiracy to make it so is revolting — are we really this determined to ‘eliminate dependence on foreign oil’?