Reflections on the new F-Word

I spent the weekend in South Texas at a generous friend’s ranch. It just happens to be located in the Eagle Ford Shale. In the handful of times I’ve been there, it keeps getting busier each time. It’s not the place where the average Texan, let alone the average cosmopolitan, would care to put down roots, but it has a beauty of its own if you have the eyes to see.

Moreover, there’s a beauty in seeing that Americans still make, deliver, install, and transport material goods. I do nothing of the sort, and regularly wonder whether I create anything of genuine value or not. I suppose I do, and I don’t wish to trade places with the roughneck or the truck driver, but nor do I wish to denigrate their work—ever—or their character without just cause.

A journalist friend wrote me a few weeks ago to ask whether I had any thoughts about an article that appeared in the New York Times on January 15, in which the writer discusses the particular sex-ratio problem that has rapidly arisen in towns in the heart of hydraulic fracturing country.

For those who didn’t see it, the article describes the “stifling and dangerous environment” that has emerged with so many single men—1.6 such men per single woman. Not exactly two boys for every girl, I realize, but the ratio is skewed. In North Dakota as a whole, about 58 percent of their unmarried 18-to-34-year-olds are men. Indeed, that’s just about as skewed—in fact—as the nation’s universities, wherein 57 percent of students are women.

As someone who’s written about sex-ratio effects on relationship formation, I find the natural experiment fascinating. The sex-for-money exchange is in full view in the article, and it’s expensive, far more so than in areas where the imbalance is either old (think Alaska), far more modest (which is ideal), or reversed—where you find women competing for men’s attention and sex is cheap. Life in the Gold Rush was no picnic, either. It was no doubt even more extreme in its sex-ratio disparity, and—sadly—didn’t carry the reality of wealth to those who are willing to work hard, as the f–cking boom has, just the chance at striking it rich.

But the Times story seemed far more dedicated to making f–cking seem like a terrible thing. It not only rapes the environment, but it serves indirectly to raise fears of the same among women.

A few days’ worth of my own observations about life near Carrizo Springs, Texas—probably about the same as that of the Times writer in Williston, North Dakota—revealed little more than this: people who want to work, who can endure the hardships of long days and short nights, cramped and expensive housing, and who can avoid the hazards that accompany life in “boom” towns, can earn a remarkable living and—if scrupulous—can save considerably for the future.

It’s not a life for the faint of heart, to be sure. And it cannot be easy. Crime no doubt has risen, in step with the population. Nevertheless, bars and nightclubs—prominently featured in the article—have always carried an element of risk for both men and women. (I still recall my father’s quality advice: “Son, nothing good happens after midnight.”) Strangely, though, the reader is not treated to a declaration of actual crime rate increases. Instead, we see we see classic journalese: “Prosecutors and the police note an increase in crimes,” which may mean the increase was too negligible to document it in print with numbers. I don’t know. I presume crime has increased. The author spent most of his ink talking about fear of sexual assault and near-experiences of it.

The reader is treated to multiple references of vigilante justice in the article, which we cosmopolitans know nothing of anymore. Such justice is simply assumed to be skewed, prone to historical and contemporary misuse, or—like the rest of the article—bad for women. Maybe. Maybe not.

A friend of mine recounted her experience in a Los Angeles Starbucks wherein she was vocally sexually harassed by another customer, only to watch fellow patrons pretend they didn’t hear anything. She asserted to me that it could not have occurred in her hometown south of Houston. Somehow I doubt that would happen in Williston, either, which of course contains no Starbucks. The only Williston Starbucks franchise is in Vermont, where they’ve banned the f-word.

Predictably, readers of the Times piece—and its spinoffs—seem horrified. As if the acquisition of their gasoline, electricity, or heating oil has ever been a clean, safe, and socially-organized process. I’m not against renewable energy. No, just against false assumptions about how any of it comes to be. Mass energy production is a messy business.

What the article—and the reality itself behind the piece—suggests is not simply that community sex ratios matter (they do), but that rapid sex-ratio change lends itself to an elevated degree of social (and hence sexual) instability, at least temporarily. There is more angst and uncertainty about expectations and behavior. It reminds me of Kai Erikson’s book Everything in its Path, about the challenges of rebuilding community after an earthen dam gave way and the resulting flood wiped out a West Virginia town. Rapid change is hard on community.

Nevertheless, I remain ambivalent about the Times piece. Such journalism continues to stroke cosmopolitans’ obsessions about where they live (and where they don’t), and to stoke their concerns about masculinity and the male working class in America. Indeed, this is a group of men who cannot catch a break. We’ve written of their vulgar ways, their underachievement, and their flight from marriage. I’m not disputing those. But when finally the market offers them an economic ray of hope in return for their mobility and hard work, leave it to us to bash them from another angle.

In an energy-thirsty nation, one in which we have watched living wages fail to keep pace with globalization and technology, let’s cut the working man of America a break. Neither your iPhone nor your Prius runs on will power.

 


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