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.
Their first stop is Boomtown Babes in Odessa, a coffee shop that claims to serve the “Basin’s Breast Coffee.” To compete with the energy drinks that many rig hands tend to guzzle to power them through their twelve-hour shifts, customers can order drinks with up to eight espresso shots. And, like the roughnecks they serve, the baristas take home good pay for their busy shifts: between $300 and $600 for nine hours of work. The women who work there tell Susan it’s a good gig. It provides money to pay the bills while affording them more time with their families. But they say the work does come with some drawbacks.
Next, Susan and Sally visit the Odessa breastaurant Bottoms Up. The restaurant’s investors saw opportunity in the Permian Basin. They poured their money into a new restaurant with 28 flat-screen TVs and what might be the largest granite bar top in West Texas. And they capitalized on their mostly male customer base by having their servers sling beer and wings in skimpy outfits. They named their private event space in the back Club Crude and hung a sign on a wall that reads, “Odessa: No Dry Holes.” Right now this tongue-in-cheek expression is mostly true for the Permian’s drilling rigs. With more barrels of oil flowing out of the region than ever before, the breastaurant is also booming.
While most of the women who work at Boomtown Babes and Bottoms Up are locals, the dancers who work at the two strip clubs on the outskirts of Odessa are from all over the country. Susan and Sally visited the clubs and spoke with Phoenix, who started at Rick’s Cabaret as a dancer and is now a waitress. Rick’s and Jaguars Club cater to the entire Permian Basin, a region with lots of little towns and the sizable populations of Odessa and Midland—not to mention thousands of itinerant oilfield workers. To meet these demands, the clubs are big, about the size you’d find in metropolises like Austin or Dallas. Back when oil hit $100 a barrel, one dancer said the women dancing in these clubs could take home between $3,000 and $10,000 in a single night. “The money was being thrown at you,” she told Susan.
Like in any industry, there are rules and regulations. But unlike, say, with oil and gas, strip club regulations tend to be a patchwork of city, county, and state laws that can vary wildly from place to place. In Odessa, for instance, even the janitors who work at strip joints are required to carry a Sexually Oriented Business (SOB) card at all times while they’re on the property. Lately, officials in Odessa have increased the regulations for SOB workers. Concerns about trafficking have spurred tighter restrictions on sexually oriented businesses around the state. In our next episode, we’ll talk with two survivors of sex trafficking who now advocate for victims—and who have different ideas about how to help them.
Editor’s note: Our original plan for Episode 5 was to air our conversation with business journalist Bethany McLean. We’ll get to that conversation later in the series, but we wanted a chance to address some of the recent developments in the Middle East in that episode—stay tuned for it later in the series.