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he streets of Cologne, Germany seem far from the windswept plains of North Dakota. Yet surprising parallels can be drawn. In our work, we’ve been exploring a sex panic that has unfolded in rural Western North Dakota, in the context of the biggest oil boom in the region’s history. While the circumstances are very different than those of Cologne, both became occasions for the ordering of social and political life, and opportunities to see societal anxieties laid bare. In North Dakota, workers, mainly men, have flocked to oilfield jobs, which tend to be well-paying but risky. Many lost their previous jobs or homes in the 2008 economic recession, part of the shifting up of economic precarity to include more and more workers and families. Crew camps housed migrant workers by the thousands, while an even larger number crowded into existing housing stock in Williston and surrounding communities, enduring extortionist rents higher even than those found in Manhattan. There are many stories to tell about about the oil boom, but local, national and international media have focused almost obsessively on the strip clubs, prostitution, and sex trafficking that is presumed to have arisen in response to this influx of "unruly" working-class men, far from families and friends, with time and money to spend.
Countless representations of Williston, ND, the epicenter of the boom, describe it as a man’s world, “an oil town where men are many and women are hounded.” The oil boom has even been described as synonymous with a “man rush,” or even an “amazing bachelor boom.” The geographic focus of these reports has been two adjacent strip clubs near the center of the city. The clubs are often presented as tawdry, forbidden locales, frequented by lonely men and employing conniving and opportunistic women. One article that had a significant role in launching the sex panic quotes a waitress as saying, “They work like four days on, four days off, 24 hours, with no break, no alcohol. So when they have days off they're gonna' drink, and when they drink they want to play." Others point to the money made by the women, some citing figures of more than $1000 a night. At the height of the boom, it was rare to find any story that did not at some point circle back to these sites, implying a direct relationship between the large number of transient men, hypermasculine work, high salaries, immoral and opportunistic women, and particular kinds of violence: human trafficking, fights outside strip clubs, fights over girlfriends, and coercive prostitution rings.
As part of our commitment to opposing sexual violence and other forms of oppression, we are compelled to ask what discourses of sexual panic actually do in particular sites, whether in Germany, North Dakota, or Australia. Researching and writing about sex panics traverses delicate territory. We recognize that North Dakota’s oilfields, like the streets of Cologne, are frequently sites of violence. But in seeking to understand this violence and its effects, we ask how these sites are drawn into larger social and political projects. Elizabeth Povinelli (2011) points out that sex panics not only serve a moralizing function which seeks to discipline both male and female bodies, but also create a centering and normalizing effect even as they proliferate relations of power. Ultimately, sex panics are occasions for political orderings. In the framing of the events in Cologne and in North Dakota, this normalizing effect begins with an effort to localize and contain a certain kind of spectacularized violence. In both situations, efforts are made to label particular events—and sites—as exceptional, or as aberrations from the norm. Hypervisibility and invisibility go hand in hand. In North Dakota, bar fights, prostitution, and sex trafficking are posited as exceptions to a wholesome heartland culture disrupted by migrant workers. Likewise, as the national media focuses on a stretch of downtown Williston, the sexual violence pervasive across the country—in workplaces, colleges, and households—is safely ignored…look at North Dakota, the wild west with its deviant men!
Locally, people are encouraged to rally around established norms—in the case of North Dakota, the white heteronormative nuclear family, which is seen as essential for "stabilizing" a mobile male population. This legitimizes the targeted policing around what appears to be the source of the problem, i.e. strip clubs, conniving or victimized women, and the "dangerous masses" of working-class men. Local planners and politicians reach for a white heteronormative imaginary, rolling churches and shopping centers, a new FBI field office, increased police presence, and a shiny new multi-million dollar recreation center, into a pervasive infrastructure of normativity. Yet the solutions proposed may be no less violent. For example, women are far more likely to experience domestic and sexual violence in the heteronormative households that are so lauded, than to be victims of sex trafficking or attacks by itinerant men. Queer sexualities are only driven further underground. And, employed in an unregulated oil industry with no job security, long hours, and rampant subcontracting, men are far more likely to experience workplace accidents that maim and kill, than bar fights or random criminal violence.
What comes to be policed are worker’s bodies—of all genders—not a predatory oil industry that uses up and lays waste to bodies and land alike. At the same time, a moralizing focus on sex work and illicit sexual behavior hides from view conditions that engender violence, and are themselves violent: growing economic precarity, the pervasive degradation of women, and histories of dispossession and displacement that have disrupted indigenous communities and livelihoods across North Dakota and the Upper Midwest. These remain hidden and are allowed to continue unchallenged. Instead, women—many of them indigenous—are portrayed as opportunistic and morally corrupt, or victimized and powerless; they are to be shamed or to be protected, depending upon which side of the divide they fall. The larger structural violence of resource frontiers and settler colonialism escapes the frame, allowing a racialized sexual violence to be continuously policed, but its enabling conditions never addressed.
 While the image of thousands of single men with money was frequently invoked, interviews with dozens of workers suggests that a large number remained precarious, with no job security and wages that were inadequate to pay for much more than food and rent. Likewise, many workers recounted long work days—16 hrs or more—and explained that they rarely if ever went to town.
Povinelli EA (2011) The part that has no part: enjoyment, law, and loss. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 17(2-3): 287-308.