Trafficked Lands/Fractured Bodies: Sexual Violence, Oil, and Structural Evil in the Dakotas (@theTable: Planetary Solidarity)
By Hilda P. Koster.
The oil development in North Dakota has brought thousands of unattached male workers to previously sparsely populated rural areas. These workers are often housed in so called “man-camps” which have become launching pads for sexual predators and a lucrative market for sex-traffickers. My contribution to Planetary Solidarity offers that the extraction industry, and our collective fossil fuel frenzy, not just puts the earth and climate under siege, but also wages a war on women’s bodies. What happens to the earth, happens to women also. Indeed, my chapter offers that rather than a by-product of the fracking industry, the assault on women’s bodies is intrinsic to its violent character. Yet not all women are equally at risk.
In the Bakken oil fields, Native women are especially vulnerable when it comes to sexual assault, rape, and trafficking. It is pertinent therefore that we theorize the connection between the exploitation of women’s bodies and the earth not in terms of bodies in general, but in terms of ‘multiple violations’ of concrete bodies. From the perspective of Native women’s bodies, fracking and trafficking is a matter of gender-based colonial violence. Following the important work on structural evil by Cynthia Moe-Lobeda (Resisting Structural Evil, 2013), I further argue that we use structural violence theory to name fracking and sex-trafficking as sin. While sin has been used to demonize women’s sexuality as the source and location of sin and, hence, has often served to legitimize violence against women, understood through the lens of structural violence, sin-talk is a powerful tool to condemn the predatory practices of the extraction industry as going against God’s justice making love.
Fractured Lands: Rape of the Earth
Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is a violent technique by which tons of fracking fluids, consisting of unknown chemicals, are pumped into the ground under extremely high pressure, shattering the shale rock formation so as to release oil and gas. While hailed as the source of US energy independence, fracking rips apart the subsurface geology of the earth and keeps the US hooked on climate endangering fossil fuels. Fracking also is an enormous drain on the planet’s freshwater supply. Not only do fracking operations require tons of gallons of water—2-8 million of gallons to frack one well—water used in fracking becomes so highly contaminated that it cannot be repurposed. Such consumptive use of water at a time when one fifth of the world’s population lives in areas experiencing water scarcity, which often affects poor regions of the planet the hardest, not only is unsustainable but also a grave injustice (see Christiana Peppard’s Just Water, 2014, 153-57). Fracking wells further leak methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. And gas produced by oil wells is often simply flared off, which, besides being wasteful, releases carbon dioxide into atmosphere, endangering the climate even further.
Trafficked Lands: Assault on Women’s Bodies
Fracking also is an assault on women. According to researchers of the University of North Dakota at the height of the oil boom in western North Dakota, from 2008 till 2014, dating violence increased by 72 percent and domestic violence by 47 percent, exceeding numbers that can be explained by population growth only. The Bakken oil-field has further seen an explosion of sex-trafficking, which is a particularly vicious form of sexual violence since it entraps women in relationships of sexual servitude. Typically a trafficker “owns” several women and girls who are kept in a relationship of emotional and financial dependency and whose bodies are sold online. Due to the nature of trafficking, women and girls caught up in the sex-trade often go undetected and unaided because of their mangled credit records and other issues that make it difficult to reach out for help.
In the Bakken oil-fields, the bodies of socially, culturally, and economically disenfranchised women are being raped, abducted, and trafficked. American Indian women and girls are especially vulnerable due to intergenerational trauma, poverty, and drug-abuse. In addition, Native women have very little legal protection. Notwithstanding the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) by the Obama administration, non-domestic sexual crimes committed by non-Native perpetrators on Indian lands still cannot be persecuted in tribal court. What this means is that sexual assault of American Indian women usually goes unpunished. As a result, most American Indian girls are twice as likely to experience sexual assault before the age of eighteen, which only adds to their vulnerability to be recruited by sex-traffickers. As Lisa Brunner, program specialist for the National Indigenous women’s Resource Center, remarks:
Extractive industries treat Mother Earth like they treat women…. They think they can own us, buy us, sell us, trade us, rent us, poison us, rape us, destroy us, use us as entertainment and kill us. I am happy to see that we are talking about the level of violence that is occurring against Mother Earth because…what happens to her happens to us.
Fracking and Sex Trafficking as Structural Evil or Sin
I wager that the doctrine of sin, understood as structural violence, is a powerful diagnostic tool for addressing the injustices and violence perpetrated against the earth and women’s bodies. In her important book Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation (2013) Cynthia Moe-Lobeda defines structural violence as “the physical, psychological, and spiritual harm that certain groups of people are experiencing as a result of the unequal distribution of power and privilege” (72). Structural violence is pervasive and often deadly for those with little or no access to power and privilege. Sex-trafficking clearly is a manifestation of structural, gender based violence. It intersects with race and ethnicity in so far it forces the dominance of white heterosexual males. Yet, in so far sex-trafficking targets American Indian women it also is an expression of ongoing colonial violence: it undermines and further destroys the well-being and resilience of Native communities.
Structural violence is nourished by cultural violence—that is, “the ideologies, institutional policies and practices embedded in society that appear natural, normal inevitable, or divinely mandated” (77). It is this type of violence that makes that the violence done to the earth and women simply is widely ignored. Drawing on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Moe-Lobeda further explains that it is the “wicked nature of evil” that it often appears “disguised as light, charity, historical necessity or social justice” (78). Thus, the damages done to Native women and the earth by our relentless pursuit of fossil fuels are covered up by the perceived good of energy independence and economic growth. It is this very moral oblivion itself that Moe-Lobeda identifies as deeply sinful; it is what makes, us, the relatively privileged, complicit in the violence and injustices perpetrated against vulnerable women and the earth.
Structural violence theory, then, is a helpful lens for ‘seeing’ the intrinsic connection between the violence done to the earth and the violation of women’s bodies by sex-trafficking. It also allows sin-talk to do its critical work of social diagnostic. For when God is love and God’s love is a justice making love, perpetrating injustice and violence block God’s aim in and with the world. Connecting sin to structural violence is helpful also because it allows us to see how we as a society are to blame for the structures that re/produce the rape of the earth and women. What is required of us, then, is to develop a critical moral vision that disrupts our moral oblivion and passivity. This vision may emerge when we listen to and stand in solidarity with indigenous people—like the water protectors at Standing Rock—who call us back to our rootedness in the soil, our dependency on clean water and unpolluted air, and our kinship with other animals and the earth.
Hilda Koster is an Associate Professor of Religion at Concordia College, Moorhead, MN. A Native from the Netherlands, she holds a BA and M.Div. from the University of Groningen, a Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and earned her doctorate from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. Dr. Koster’s publications on Christian theology, eco-feminism and environmental ethics have appeared in Theology Today, The Journal of Religion, Anglican Theological Review, Scriptura, and the edited collection Christian Doctrines for Global Gender Justice (Palgrave, 2015). She is the co-editor (with Grace Ji-Sun Kim) of Planetary Solidarity: Global Women’s Voices on Christian Doctrine and Climate Justice (Fortress Press, 2017) and The Gift of Theology: The Contribution of Kathryn Tanner (Fortress Press, 2015) which she co-edited with Rosemary Carbine. At Concordia Dr. Koster has directed the Environmental Studies Program and is the recipient of the Omicron Delta Kappa excellence in undergraduate teaching award.
Next: Rosemary P. Carbine, “Imagining and Incarnating an Integral Ecology: A Critical Ecofeminist Public Theology” (Part 6)