Gender Relations in a Nearly All-Male Town

Betsy Wilkinson, a bartender in Williston, ND / Photo by Brad DeCecco

Betsy Wilkinson, a bartender in Williston, ND / Photo by Brad DeCecco

The oil boom has brought thousands of male workers to this part of North Dakota, which creates all sorts of interesting gender dynamics. I’m fascinated by the effects of mono-sex cultures, both male and female-driven, and being a woman in Williston has certainly been an interesting experience. On friend swears the ratio of single men to women is 79 to 1. I’d put it more at 10 to 1, but either way, it’s noticeably off-balance.

The phenomenon of thousands of men working long hours in a remote place, with many making six figures, has led to a growth of prostitution and a busy strip club scene. Once a small town cop, Watford City’s 28-year-old Police Chief Jesse Wellen has led multiple prostitution stings, and it’s not difficult to spot sex workers in the night clubs or by some of the local hotels. Domestic violence has also risen dramatically. “It’s a call we receive a lot,” says Wellen. “If you’re living in a camper, things tend to escalate because of the small environment and you have the whole family living there.”

Amber Kehoe, a 19-year-old who works at a nearby gas station, carries a knife on her hip at all times.

Dating can be a challenge for both genders. Betsy Wilkinson, a local bartender in Williston, refuses to date herself, but hears story after story about what it’s like for her friends. “Nobody is really themselves in Williston,” she says. “They could be the worst person in the world back home or they could be married with five kids. You can be whoever you want to be here.”

She also told me about the growing occurrence of the man camp “walk of shame.”  “Girls are like unicorns at a man camp,” she explains. “They get up and of course they’re, like, a hot mess, and it’s five or six in the morning and the dude’s going ‘Hey, you need to get out of here before anybody gets up.’ Well, everybody’s already up and having breakfast and they’re walking out carrying their bra, and as soon as one person sees them, the guys just all do that deer in the headlights.”

Of course, there’s also the pickup lines she hears. One guy offered to buy her a Harley if she went to dinner with him. “Most of the pickup lines are, ‘I’ll buy you anything you want, let’s go.’ I’m like, ‘sorry, I’m not a Williston girl, that does nothing for me, I earn my own money.’ It kind of throws guys off. They panic, because they don’t know what else to offer you. They usually just get deflated and walk away.”

The local strip club / Photo by Brad DeCecco

The local strip club / Photo by Brad DeCecco


4 thoughts on “Gender Relations in a Nearly All-Male Town

    • I wouldn’t say I’ve felt physically threatened, but I have heard lewd comments, and men trying to chat with me from their car windows. The subjects I’ve interviewed have for the most part been incredibly respectful and I don’t want to misrepresent them – there are so many good people out here. But I think in any situation where there’s a high concentration of men, particularly men who come from families where they learn that being “masculine” means using violence and objectifying women, a lot of unhealthy behaviors can surface. I always tell subjects that I’m working on a book about the oil boom and most people have been receptive.

      • Probably you make you contacts, etc. with an escort–esp at night, but then I wouldn’t need to advise you on that. I think it takes a certain amount of courage to do what you are doing and to explore these subjects which many of us would be curious about– they work out in such an unbalanced situation. Thanks for the response.

    Come and Check out my blog about our lives in the Bakken! Just started it the other day and thought that I could share it with you =)
    Great article by the way! Yes, I make sure to have my pepper spray on me at all times up here. I had heard about a woman being attacked in Minot the other day, and it really put me on edge. Always have someone with you, or if you work, always have someone walk you to your car. I mean, this can happen anywhere, not just the Bakken. I feel like where I used to live back in California was more dangerous than here, but you are right. The men up here are more desperate, they go stir crazy and this place seems to make them do things they would have never done before.

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