Commentary: North Dakota's oil boom has put pressure on women

  • Article by: MAYA RAO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 3, 2013 - 8:54 AM

North Dakota has seen an influx of mostly male workers, which has altered many local women's sense of security.

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An oil well near Watford City, North Dakota pumped oil from two miles below the surface in the Bakken shale formation.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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I was barely a moment inside Wal-Mart, studying the cucumbers and avocados, when a middle-aged man came up to say hi.

We started talking about the oil boom sweeping Williston, N.D. He said his co-workers were losing it out here in the middle of nowhere. Maybe he would lose it, too.

“You gotta really be focused on your sh--,” he said. “And it’s hard. And on that note, that’s why you should let me take you to dinner.”

I declined. He called later that evening to ask me on a date. He said he’d take me to Pizza Hut. I invented other plans. He phoned twice more.

Other women in Williston had warned me this would happen. They said they couldn’t go anywhere alone without receiving an offer of some kind from an oil worker. The 24-hour retailer on Route 2 was the worst. The parking lot was crammed with cars bearing license plates from dozens of states, any time of day, as guys poured in from all over the country to make their fortune.

Working in Minneapolis, I’d come across stories about the wild impact of the discovery of billions of barrels of oil in western North Dakota. The high-paying jobs. Once quiet farm roads now straining with traffic. Crime. Rents on par with Manhattan.

And another remarkable effect that came into focus only when I visited Williston myself: an influx of men — single and married, overworked and lonely, men with big dreams, men who keep their heads down, men who cause trouble — has made it an overwhelming place to be female.

The ratio of men to women is nearly a legend. Some say it’s two or three to one. One drunken man on the dance floor at DK’s Lounge and Casino swore up and down that it was 153 to one. Whatever the number, a woman here is in high demand.

Too much competition

I drove 10 hours west from Minneapolis after a friend of a friend, Ben Harp, helped set me up with a place to stay and offered to show me around. He told me to meet him in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

“You should see what I’m hitting on,” was the first thing he said to me.

In a country accent, the young oil worker from Idaho relayed how the night before, he was out at a bar called Champs, drunkenly flirting with a 53-year-old woman, when she punched him in the face.

There was too much competition anyway. “You have to be alpha to the max around here,” Harp said.

He didn’t even go out much anymore because too many guys at the bars were eager to get into fights. It wasn’t worth it.

We picked up a friend and then headed to Applebee’s for dinner. “That’s the hotspot,” said Harp. “It’s got the cutest chicks in town. The food’s terrible, and the service sucks, but … there’s no other place to go.”

Later in the night we headed to one of the town’s two strip clubs. They sit right next to each other on Main Street, near the train tracks. Dancers are flown in from all over the country to work a week or so before being rotated out for new ones.

At Heartbreakers, we ran into Crystal, a twenty-something woman whom Harp knew. Five guys were pursuing her, she said with a roll of her eyes. Some offered to take her on shopping sprees to outlet malls two hours away in Minot. But why bother?

“It’s a fat girl’s paradise,” said Crystal, who is thin.

Role reversal

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