Why the language of fracking demeans women and nature and closes off debate

April 24, 2012 § 3 Comments

The recent recommendation by government advisers that “fracking” for shale gas is safe to resume is bad news for anyone concerned about climate change. But is the way this issue has been framed – the language and metaphors through which it is represented – a help or a hindrance?

The term ‘fracking’ is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, the process by which rock fissures are forced open with a mix of water and chemicals to release gas trapped deep below the earth’s surface. It is also a euphemism – popularised by the 1978 TV series Battlestar Galactica – for the word ‘fuck’. Geoscience and associated industries remain male-dominated (only 8% of US geology professors are women for example) so the term was almost certainly adopted into the industry by men, easily drawn to a sanitised expletive which at a deeper level expresses disturbing but not uncommon ideas about the relationships between men and women and the relationships between humans and the rest of the natural world.

The term and its connotations have been happily adopted by protestors and the media alike. The main campaign organisation calls itself Frack Off! and the headlines are a sub-editor’s dream – “Fracked off!” “Fracking hell!” “What the frack!”

What lies behind the metaphor however is a view of sexual relations that is aggressive and demeaning to women. In contemporary usage the word ‘fuck’ belongs in a family of expressions like ‘bitch’, ‘slut’ and ‘getting laid’ which objectify women, disregard their experience and try to ensure their subordination. This is the language of inequality, hierarchy, dominance and sexism.

So the young geologists joking about ‘fracking’ play into a view of the earth and its natural resources as a woman to be similarly objectified and exploited. She is to be explored, controlled and penetrated. Once used – damaged and polluted – she can be abandoned and virgin territory sought.

The protestors adopt a similar language of domination, this time framed as masculine ownership: “Get your fracking hands off my village.”  “Frack off our land.” It’s the voice of the young man squaring up to his rival, or the patriarch seeing off the invader who has dared to make an advance to his women.

Unconsciously the narrative shifts from a rational consideration of fossil fuels and climate change to a fight about ownership of women’s bodies, expressed from each side through the male voice.

The idea of the earth as female or maternal has long been a rich metaphor for poets, painters and writers struggling to express the complexities of human relationships to the other-than-human. In the impoverished language of ‘fracking’ it reaches a new low however, normalising male dominance and locking the debate into an argument about whether or not the procedure is harmful rather than one about the necessity to abandon all fossil fuels, however they have been extracted.

Words matter. Their associations take us into conceptual fields that close off or open up further debate and creative thought. It is difficult once an issue has been framed to shift its parameters. But perhaps we should try. Hydraulic fracturing anyone?


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§ 3 Responses to Why the language of fracking demeans women and nature and closes off debate

  • Helen says:

    Sorry, but I find it a bit patronising when I am told certain things are supposed to be demeaning to “women”, because that includes me- and you absolutely cannot speak for me, nor can you speak for a large number of other people who happen to be female and, I’m sure, couldn’t give a toss. I am speaking for them because they are abundant, even if they do not encompass our entire gender.

    Much of the time I find I am not in the least offended by things I am told are supposed to be demeaning to me. Sexism should be combated wherever it causes damage to someone’s existence but as for “sexist” street names or mining techniques, that is nothing but but absurd.

    If you as a person are offended by the term “fracking” then I would be inclined to think that you don’t have enough problems in your life!

  • rorandall2 says:

    My point is not about whether or not particular individuals find particular terms offensive or not in relation to themselves – clearly there are differences in this – but about how language frames the way we think about an issue. In this case a complex issue is framed through a metaphor which views women and nature as subordinate to male control. Protestors’ responses have echoed the original metaphor by replying in the language of macho challenge. My point is that this defines the debate narrowly and unhelpfully.
    There’s an interesting article about the significance of sexist language here.

  • […] why are women more likely to reject the idea of fracking? Psychotherapist, Ro Randall suggests that the language of the oil industry may play some part. She says the word ‘fraking’ […]

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