By Marfa Public Radio Staff
For the last several months, Marfa Public Radio has been working behind the scenes on a project that many West Texans have caught wind of by now: Texas Monthly‘s Boomtown.
The podcast, produced in partnership with Imperative Entertainment, brings listeners into the heart of America’s most productive oilfield — the Permian Basin. It explores the lives of people directly affected by the boom and bust cycles that have defined the the region for nearly a century, from roughnecks and executives, to barbers, waitresses, and sex workers.
Below, listen to two episodes of Boomtown that Marfa Public Radio’s Sally Beauvais helped report and edit — alongside freelance journalist Susan Elizabeth Shepard and the staff at Texas Monthly — that explore a different kind of boom in the Permian Basin.
Episode 5: Boobtown
From Christian Wallace, Boomtown’s host:
For more than a century, every time a new oil and gas boom gets under way, it’s followed by a boom in another industry: sex work. Young men flock to the oil patch during a boom to rake in more money than most of them have ever seen. Many of these guys are single, and those that are married often leave their families behind and send paychecks home. This creates a certain market for those who sell sex. In the 1920s, when West Texas boomtowns were little more than glorified campgrounds, the women who provided these services were called “camp followers.” Today, sex work isn’t the only way to make a fast buck off of lonely oilfield workers. Feminine charms are also valuable in the service industry. Over the next two episodes, we explore several ways that some women are cashing in on the boom.
To tell this story, journalist Susan Elizabeth Shepard takes over hosting duties. Susan worked as a stripper while attending the University of Texas in Austin. After she graduated, she started traveling the country, working at clubs on an unofficial circuit. In 2007, a friend tipped her off to the oil boom in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale Formation. Over the next six years, she danced at a club in the small boomtown of Williston. While most of the cities and small towns Susan worked in had a lot in common, Williston was different. She chronicled her experiences working there in an essay for BuzzFeed, “Wildcatting: A Stripper’s Guide to the Modern American Boomtown.”
In the first of two episodes, Susan and her reporting partner, Sally Beauvais of Marfa Public Radio, take us behind the scenes to speak with baristas at a lingerie coffee shop, as well as the manager of a locally owned “breastaurant” and a dancer at one of Odessa’s two strip clubs.
Episode 6: A Thin Line
From Christian Wallace, Boomtown’s host:
In our second of two episodes focusing on sex work in the Permian Basin, guest host Susan Elizabeth Shepard returns to speak with advocates and law enforcement who work directly with both sex trafficking victims and those who sell sex consensually. She is joined again by reporter Sally Beauvais of Marfa Public Radio.
As Susan explains in this episode, there are many misconceptions about sex work, and about trafficking—and strongly differing opinions about everything from the legal rights of those who sell sex consensually to who is actually a victim and who is not.
Susan takes us to an office in downtown Midland to meet Lisa Bownds, who is in the process of opening The Village, a shelter for female victims of sex trafficking. The 25-acre property outside of Midland is a dream of Lisa’s that’s been years in the planning. In 2016, Lisa formed Reflection Ministries, a faith-based trafficking outreach program, in part because of her own experience as a trafficking victim. Bownds tells Susan that The Village will provide housing for twenty trafficking victims when it opens in February—and hopes that in the next few years it will expand to house up to one hundred victims.
While there is no hard evidence to support claims of major spikes in trafficking in the area, Lieutenant John Sikes of the Odessa Police Department tells Susan the boom has led to a definite uptick in sex work. As the manager of the OPD’s Intelligence Division, John oversees the vice unit—and as a lifelong Odessan, he’s accustomed to the ebb and flow of crime that comes with booms and busts. Thefts and burglaries rise during hard times and the number of prostitution charges climbs with every boom. It makes sense, he says: “This is where the money is.” While John says he’d rather go after “the sharks” and put traffickers behind bars than make one hundred prostitution cases, those cases still get made.
Researcher and activist Terra Burns tells Susan that she thinks the best way to fight trafficking is to decriminalize the selling and buying of sex. An Alaska native, Terra has experienced oil booms firsthand as a sex worker. The experiences she shares with Susan epitomize the complicated realities of sex work. She says that some of the same polices enacted to protect the women involved can ultimately end up harming them. While Lisa and Terra both want to protect trafficking victims, their positions are at the root of two different approaches to fighting trafficking and highlight the complexity of the ongoing debate over sex work.