September 24, 2013

Burning Man is “an annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self- expression and radical self-reliance.” For those that do not know, it is a weeklong event help in the Black Rock desert of Nevada, whereby participants set up camp for a week to participate in workshops and activities organized by theme camps, relax, explore theme camps and enjoy the many interesting art installations.

It is also an extremely sex-positive event, with many theme camps promoting non-heteronormative sexual activities and workshops for BDSM and masturbation for single people and couples. It’s a fantastic environment for exploration if you are comfortable doing so. That being said, while Burning Man’s openness and mandate for radical inclusion create an extremely positive environment for sexually active people, it does not exist in a vacuum and sexual assault or non-consensual sexual activity are still concerns.

In such an open, sex-positive environment there is a pervasive idea that everyone at Burning Man assumes everyone is up for sex all the time. But this is untrue. The Bureau of Erotic Discourse is “B.E.D. is a team of volunteers dedicated to raising awareness of sexual assault on the playa.” They have signs up throughout Black Rock City (I thought the ones inside the doors of the port-o-potties were most effective) advocating consent and communication. Many residents of Black Rock City (BRC) are well versed in what consent means and how to ensure effective communication with a sexual partner so that all parties are comfortable.

“I think the the thing about consent is that it needs to be explicit,” explained one member of my camp. “It needs to be offered, you need to understand that it’s happened. You need to have a complete green light that you’ve seen that tells you that it’s okay to move forward, and as soon as someone shows you the red light, you have to stop no matter what. It can be as simple as a no or it could be someone crying or someone really uncomfortable. You should always continue to check in to make sure they’re okay with what’s happening.”

My personal experiences and the experiences of those around me this year did not deviate from this process. However, after investigating further I found that members of my camp had, unfortunately, met with quite the opposite.

While attending this year, one participant (who I will call Rosie) shared her experience with me. A four time burner (as of this year), she was sexually assaulted during her third burn, when she awoke to someone with whom she was sharing sleeping space attempting to digitally penetrate her. While Burning Man does have a number of resources for reporting and discussing sexual assault including the Black Rock Rangers, Medical and Emergency Services and Bureau of Erotic Discourse (BED), that does not mean that a patriarchal tendency to forgive perpetrators of sexual assault (especially when inebriated) does not exist in Black Rock City (BRC). For Rosie, that meant senior members of her camp shrugging off his drunken actions and her having to camp for the rest of the week with this individual and see him again this year. Rosie chose not to press charges with local police or report the assault to the Black Rock Rangers. She is likely one of many not to do so. “I think that people in the festival environment are really unwilling to go and say something to someone if something has happened,” she says, “because this is a culture of drugs, this is a culture of partying. This is a culture of we’re all getting really fucked up […] So I think it creates this misperception of ‘Oh, this is just a place where this shit happens, it’s normal and I shouldn’t take it personally.’”

Especially at Burning Man, where there is an expectation that one will push one’s own boundaries. In terms of survival, you kind of have to. For seven days you are living in a harsh desert environment surviving with only what you have brought with you. That in itself tests your limits, now factor in the free flowing alcohol and the propensity for nudity and tutus. It is an opportunity for you to wear and say and try things you might be too shy to do in your every day life. Everything from going topless (or bottomless) on a bicycle to a bit of blue lipstick, Radical Self-Expression is one of the Ten Principles of Burning Man and is practiced extensively. Ironically (considering the sheer amount of photos taken) I think generally there is a feeling that choices made at Burning Man won’t haunt you in the real world. What happens in Black Rock City, stays in Black Rocky City. “I think that’s one of the major shortcomings of festival culture…” explains Rosie, “That there is this idea, I think, this prevalent idea that like you kinda get a free pass.”

I agree that no one should be shamed about glittery nipple pasties or any other wardrobe choice on the playa but if rape culture extends to the playa so should the appropriate consequences.

Unfortunately, as with any partying situation, the environment is often used to explain away the perpetrator’s behaviour and fabricate the victim’s culpability. Allow me to take this opportunity to say that whether at a rave, frat party, experimental post-adolescent phase or at Burning Man, drugs or alcohol are not an excuse for committing sexual assault.

As Rosie explains, “I think when it comes to sexual assault that is something that that person would do anyway, maybe it just comes more easily because of substance use but that is part of the person.”

On the other hand, drugs can be used as a tool to take advantage of what is meant to be a sex-positive, body-positive, generally positive environment. As I asked around my camp I an anonymous anecdote was shared hearsay about someone recruiting help to painstakingly decorate an Art Car (or Mutant Vehicle) only resist all company upon its completion so the owner could allegedly use the car to have sex with drugged women. Unfortunately this particular story was based largely on circumstantial evidence, or my informant would have reported the individual to the Black Rock Rangers and the local police. I pray that this story is a perverse rumour, but that is exists is a reminder that despite Burning Man’s unique environment, rape culture is still pervasive and women are still required to police themselves and their behaviour to ensure personal safety.

While I definitely felt safer biking around BRC at night than I have other cities, the freedom of being able to get up and go when and where I wanted on the playa (novel for a woman of colour living in an urban environment) my temporary freedom was soured by the stories of other women’s experiences at Burning Man. Despite the many messages advocating the practice of consent, and the BED motto that, “Communication is the best lubrication,” sexual safety is a concern for Burning Man participants (especially considering that BRC residents are often inebriated at all hours of the day and night).

So what does this mean for feminists operating in the States or feminists that attend or want to attend Burning Man? It doesn’t mean that you should avoid the playa. We should not add Burning Man to the list of activities that women must deny themselves as part of navigating a patriarchal society. Instead, we should add Black Rock City to the list of places that require a feminist revolution. I had hoped that by entering an inclusive, sex-positive space I was leave rape culture behind. Sadly not. At least not in its entirety. As long as these stories exist there is work to be done. Even at Burning Man.
For more information about:

Burning Man and attending next year:
The Bureau of Erotic Discourse:
Black Rock Rangers:
Nevada State Law regarding sexual assault: Who to call if you’re in Nevada and are sexually assaulted: sexualassault_nl.html

Originally published at Because I Am A Woman blog.