A Rape In Black Rock City
A Guest Post by Clarisse Thorn
This is an article about sexual assault at the Burning Man arts festival, and the issues that surround this topic at Burning Man. It includes accounts of a particular assault.
I am writing this post as a feminist, as someone with extensive experience in the BDSM community, and from the perspective of a 2-year Burner with many many Burner friends. If you’d like to know more about my background, or if you don’t know much about Burning Man, it might help to read my review of Burning Man 2012. You can find my previous work about BDSM and sexual communication at my blog or in my books.
I want to acknowledge up front that there are a number of social justice issues at the festival, some of which I summarized in my review, and some of which were recently highlighted when the “Cargo Cult” theme was announced for Burning Man 2013. You can find a petition to change the theme here. There is also a response to the controversy from one of the Burning Man Volunteer Coordinators on the Burning Man website here (although the Burning Man organization is careful to note that this coordinator does not speak for the organization).
But, with that having been said: I care about Burning Man, and I also want to emphasize that it’s a beautiful, unique event with dedicated organizers and an extraordinary community.
* * *
I’ve heard a lot of longtime Burners say that Burning Man 2012 felt more rapey than previous Burns. I haven’t been around long enough to have an opinion, but while I had plenty of awesome conversations with awesome guys on the playa, I also handled a number of invasive guys. Many folks have pointed out that Black Rock City may be a temporary city, but it’s still a city — over 50,000 people attended in 2012. As with any community, our community will have to deal with both predators and clueless people.
* * *
These issues were highlighted in September, right after Burning Man 2012, when a thread popped up on the biggest Burning Man forum called “Serial Rapist On The Playa.” The original post was written by a Burner named Miss R. Here’s an excerpt:
Thursday night my daughter (who is 19) and I went riding our bikes to a few art installations. We were sober. She decided to go see Burn Wall Street but I was tired. She took off on her bike. On the way to the installation it began to rain. She ducked into Want It Camp.
12 hours later she arrived back to our camp hallucinating and having been given an IV at the med tent.
She had been found behind Emerald City, face down and overdosing. The rangers assumed she had gotten drunk or taken drugs. Several hours after returning to our camp bruises appeared on her neck and it was obvious from other signs that she had been sexually attacked.
She IDENTIFIED her attacker -a DJ from Want It- and he had an accomplice.
There are NO rape kits on the playa nor forensic nurses. Because my daughter did not want to be taken to Reno, questioned for a 9th time (she had already given descriptions and a report to the Pershing County officials on the playa) she was told no charges could be filed. When a victim is taken from the playa to Reno they are given a rape kit there, all of their clothing taken for evidence and then they’redischarged; with no way back to the playa, their belongings or place to stay. If the victim is in shock and still under the influence of dosing they are not able to make a rational decision or find help either.
There were two other women reporting the same drugging, strangulation and rape that night.
This was my 7th Burn. Made sure my daughter was 18 before she was allowed to attend, and she is no dummy. She has been going to school and living in San Francisco for a year, I told her BM was safe. So she accepted a glass of water (she thought) from a DJ and bouncer at Want It.
Miss R also wrote a post on her blog. I corresponded with her by email, and she told me:
From my understanding there is more rape on the playa than is reported, and many cases -such as my daughter’s- are kept quiet. … Pershing county District Attorney was still unable to provide a police report after more than a month. The sheriff Dept, after my calls to them first, offered no help, and had no idea which policeman had been working with my daughter.
She was told that no charges would even be FILED as there was no evidence.. No One from the DA or Sherrif’s office offered any type of resources for us; i.e. counselling, STD testing, etc. we never DID get a copy of a police report.
which brings me to the Med Tent. My daughter was brought in by passers by. The med tent hooked her up to an IV for fluids, and immediately diagnosed her as a party girl who had too many drugs. Meanwhile she was covered with bite marks, strangulation marks around her neck and was clearly delusional. She told them she had taken no drugs but was dismissed.
I understand how many cases the med tent gets, and god knows how many idiots go out there and do it to themselves. As a long time Burner I do understand the pressure on all of the people who volunteer to work with 50,000 crazed Burners. My hats are off to them. [But] if the staff at the med tent had taken 5 more minutes to examine my daughter the rape would have been evident and she would have been treated with more than fluids. As it was, she was sick, hallucinating and did not even know she had been raped for 24 hours after the attack.
Please made it known in your article that if it were not for the Black Rock Rangers [the Burning Man safety patrol], we would never have known the identity of the rapist. Even though my daughter identified the man who led her to the rapist DJ, the Rangers were unable to convince the DA to attempt any type of prosecution. Two Rangers took the time to drive my daughter and myself past the camp where the incident took place. From the back seat, which was darkened, my daughter identified the man to the Rangers. These two amazing people pulled around the corner from this camp, called the police to meet them, and questioned the leader of Want It.
Want It was an Esplanade camp that had a good record with Burning Man. My daughter and I belong to a prominent Esplanade camp. She accepted what she believed to be a glass of water, from their DJ. She did not ask for a cocktail or anything else. In fact she did not ask for the water. It does go to show that one should never accept anything from another camp. Defeats the purpose of Burning Man culture in a way doesn’t it? We belong to Spanky’s Wine Bar. we are there TO provide not just a fun experience but serve wine to customers.
* * *
Burning Man has several different official outfits that handle various issues around the playa, one of which is the Black Rock Rangers. I spoke by phone with their Operations Manager, Curtis Kline, whose playa name is Tulsa. He told me:
What the Rangers are really good at is figuring out what’s really going on. If a participant at BM sees something that they are uncomfortable with — if, for example, a vulnerable participant is with someone who is creepy — then the Rangers are really good at interacting with those participants to find out what’s really going on. We have the training, skills, and experience to tell the difference between something unusual or strange, as opposed to something that has the potential to turn into a really bad situation. We also have a direct line to law enforcement or mental health [a branch of the Burning Man organization's Emergency Services Department], so we can escalate to one of those groups if necessary.
In my very first Ranger shift, 2000, one of the tasks they gave me was — we went into camp after camp on the Esplanade [the main street of Black Rock City] and we would be looking into the shadows for people who we thought might be vulnerable and engaging them in conversation. Whether they were alone or with someone, we’d be engaging them in conversation and trying to figure out what’s going on, reunite them with their friends if necessary. We’d also look for the creep factors in anyone they might be hanging out with.
There’s also a hierarchy within the official Burning Man organization called the Emergency Services Department, and I spoke by phone directly to Joseph Pred, who founded ESD and serves as its Operations Chief. Joseph outlined the procedure for handling sexual assault, which involves liaising with law enforcement and putting survivors in touch with counselors and other supporters in the ESD Mental Health branch. He noted that “in a typical year, the average number of sexual assault cases we see is six, and maybe one case per year falls under stranger rape, which involves gathering evidence like rape kits.”
The Burning Man organization releases yearly Afterburn Reports, and you can read the ESD section from 2011 here. (The 2012 report has not yet been released.)
* * *
One of the interesting things about Black Rock City is the fact that it’s a huge but temporary city that only recently became a city. Burning Man only moved to the desert two decades ago, and it has accrued both official hierarchies and community organizations as part of its swift expansion (the population was 250 in 1991; 1,000 in 1993; and 25,400 in 2000). There’s a lot of emphasis on the various civic responsibilities of Black Rock City citizens. ESD Chief Joseph Pred told me that:
This isn’t just a law enforcement issue. Part of what we’re going to do to highlight Burning Man as an extraordinary place is reaching out to the community. We’re going to reach out to young men, veteran Burners, and the community as a whole about what consent means. We want to really focus on education … one of the things that makes Burning Man great is that the community really cares about the outcomes. It’s not like going to a concert; the community really cares what happens to everyone else.
And Tulsa, of the Black Rock Rangers, said that:
If we encounter a situation where we think the participant is in danger, then we will take some kind of action to protect the participant. Our first resource is always the community. We will try to find someone in the community who can help us to protect that vulnerable person. If a crime has been committed, then we will certainly call in law enforcement and have them talk to the participants. But if it’s just a creep factor, then our first action will be to try and find their friends or someone they know. Failing that, I’ve been in more than one situation where someone nearby is already interested in helping that person — for example, a nearby group of women who might help a vulnerable lone woman.
The root of where safety is going to come from at Burning Man is from the community itself. Of the huge number of participants at Burning Man, we have a very small number of Rangers. I always tell my friends — keep an eye out, keep an eye out for people who are vulnerable and for the creep factor. I think we have the logistical infrastructure in place to provide for our participants.
The Burning Man community is loosely organized into “theme camps,” which are groups of people who camp together and offer something theme-y to Black Rock City. Some camps display art; some offer food; some offer knowledge by hosting classes; some host dance events; some give performances; and so on. While many camps talk about consent, sexual consent is the entire focus of the Bureau of Erotic Discourse (BED), which was founded in 2005.
BED organizes an assortment of events whose documentation can be found here. Their workshops on consent are well-advertised and open to all; they post fliers in all the Port-A-Potties at the festival (which is no small task). One clever handout called Negotiating Beyond The Norm is reminiscent of some BDSM consent discussions. It features an adorable list of ideas for how to communicate unusual sexual desires, including sample statements like: “I can’t believe that we’ve been sleeping together for two months and this is the first time I’ve heard about this fantasy. I would absolutely love to act this one out with you, my little vampire.”
BED also has a handout about sexual assault at Burning Man. I emailed with Dr. Placebo, a core member of BED, and he told me:
One question we get asked a lot at the workshops is “How many rapes happen at Burning Man?” We have wondered about this ourselves, and our best answer is:
1. We don’t know for sure.
2. Rape is underreported.
3. Even one is too many.
* * *
Response to the September event
On the forum thread that followed Miss R’s post, there were responses from ESD Chief Joseph Pred, as well as from members of BED. There were also several other personal testimonials. I asked Joseph about the thread when I spoke to him, and he told me that Miss R had received bad information; “the information was given to her erroneously by law enforcement, not Burning Man staff.” He stated that Burning Man staff would provide a change of clothes when rape survivors go to Reno to report, if necessary (not all rape follow-ups require the survivor’s clothes to be taken for evidence). He further told me that Burning Man staff would provide safe rides both to and from Reno as necessary, and that “we will be training Pershing County law enforcement on the sexual assault practices currently in place so they are aware of all procedures and resources in the days before the event starts. This training is being done at request of law enforcement.”
The Burning Man Public Relations Manager, Megan Miller, told me by email that “a couple of working groups were created to follow up on this issue. There are a couple of cross-departmental ones internally that I’m involved in, which have begun to examine what we learned from this year and what we can do better in the future.” She also wrote a blog post soon after the forum thread went up, in which she reiterated the general call to action towards the community. Furthermore, in the blog post, Megan addressed the question of rape kits:
We’ve recently received a few inquiries as to why Burning Man does not conduct sexual assault forensic exams (commonly referred to as “rape kits”) on site. Organizers have examined this several times, each time facing the reality that this type of exam requires specialized training and equipment not designed to operate in desert conditions, and which could produce legally questionable results if not performed in an appropriate facility. There are only three designated facilities in the entire state of Nevada that regularly perform these exams. The closest to Burning Man is the Northern Nevada Medical Center in Reno.
In various coverage since the discussion started, a lot of people have suggested that rape kits should be offered despite the difficulty. I spoke to a Burner and consent activist named Kitty Stryker by email, and she wrote to me:
I’m frustrated at Burning Man’s reluctance to find radical ways to utilize rape kits on the playa …. Are you really telling me we’re a community that can build an entire city in a couple weeks, with a medical center that can set bones, internet access, recycling, radio stations, and we can make art that blows people’s minds, but we can’t figure out how to take a rape kit sample on playa and get it to Reno for processing? I don’t believe that. If it was a priority, I suspect we could find a solution.
I am not a forensic examiner, but I am a trained advocate for sexual assault survivors, and I’m familiar with the challenges of administering rape kits. Even in a major city with great facilities like Chicago, rape kits are long and complicated processes, and one of the most complicated parts of the process is the “chain of evidence.” There are important laws about, for example, how the kits must be stored and kept under observation by trained professionals at all times. If rape kits are administered in sketchy circumstances, then they become questionable in court, and are worse than useless. It’s also worth noting that Nevada in particular, where the Black Rock Desert is located, has tough certification requirements around administering rape kits; these minutes from a June 2012 State of Nevada Victims’ Rights sub-committee contain a lot of relevant information.
I would, of course, personally feel happier if it were possible for rape survivors to choose to receive rape kits on the playa. It may be possible that there is a radical solution here; I hung out in a sauna one night on the playa in 2012, and if you ask me, a camp-out sauna at night in the Black Rock Desert means that anything’s possible. But it’s obviously crucial that rape kit evidence be valid if it is taken.
Part of the problem is not just the biological viability of the evidence; it’s the social viability. Will a jury — a group of 12 individuals with all the biases that individuals in our culture often have — trust the evidence of a rape kit that was taken in the midst of a legendary arts festival, even if the kit was administered in technically ideal conditions? I would love to believe that they would, but given that we live in a culture where survivors’ stories are questioned in the best of conditions, I believe that getting a Black Rock City rape kit allowed as evidence in court would be an uphill battle at the very least. (I’ll talk about this more in the Analysis section, which is coming up next.)
Of course, difficulty gathering evidence and getting a conviction is old news for consent activists in the “default world,” too — i.e. everywhere outside Black Rock City. Thus, anti-rape activists focus a lot of effort on community response. So I was glad to see the “mayor” of Camp Want It (the camp whose DJ was named by Miss R in her original post) respond on her thread:
My name is Jason. This is not my playa name, but my REAL name – as this is a very REAL situation at hand. I am the head steward (or “mayor”) of Want It. I was just made aware of this thread by fellow camp mates. Myself, along with a few other core planners in camp, were apprised of the situation on Sunday, 9/2 when we were approached by rangers to discuss what happened. We were stunned to hear of what happened and we cooperated with the rangers as much as we could. We even agreed to give the rangers access to search individual personal spaces within camp to see if they could locate any of the victim’s missing personal belongings. None of the girl’s items were recovered during their brief search. However, the rangers told us they would be back later that day, or the following day, to further discuss. We never heard from the rangers again. We have since been trying to piece together information and facts from that night with the intention of approaching the lead investigating ranger (whose information we have). Till now, we had no idea whether our camp was still implicated in, or associated with, this case. We also were never given any indication of the victim’s identity or where she was camped… until this ePLaya thread.
This was my 13th year at Burning Man and my 10th year with Want It. Want It has always striven to provide a safe camp for both our own camp mates as well as for our guests. Please know that we are taking this matter VERY seriously and that we will do whatever we can to help the authorities, the victim, and the victim’s friend’s and family. We also ask that the community please withhold any judgements against our camp, performers or guests until all the facts have been made clear. Such accusations have the ability to destroy the reputations of those who have nothing but the purest and best of intentions. We ask that if anyone in the community has any information that may help us, then please contact us or the victim’s family/friends immediately.
I followed up with Want It through their Facebook page, where there has been a bunch of commentary. I wasn’t able to get in touch with Jason, but I spoke to an organizer named Charles Smith, whose playa name is Princess. He told me that:
one individual accused of the rape is a member of our camp. however, all of his time can be accounted for by multiple people of both sexes. I can respond to all of the claims but it’d be our word vs. her/the mothers word and that’s just not something we can do. no way that we want to drag a victim through that sort of thing
no charges were filed. he wasn’t even asked to leave and we were prepared for that. they asked to search things and we gave them open access to everything, including our personal spaces as we had absolutely nothing to hide. we got all the info back to the rangers and didn’t hear anything definitive back. through others in the org we heard that they caught someone and were prosecuting, hoping he’d turn on his partner. they were not part of our camp. this is technically hearsay of course, but so much on the playa is.
the community as a whole seemed to be outraged that there are no rape kits on the playa. I also heard and saw some people attacking the mother for things like leaving her newbie daughter alone on the playa and not taking her daughter off the playa to get help after it happened, all which i/we felt were inappropriate. there were also more than a few that went after us and as a result there’s a good possibility we may carry this label for awhile. once such a accusation is made it’s really impossible to un-do it. I’m a bit surprised that the forum allowed her post naming a camp, knowing what such a thing can do. Again, what’s been done is done, we can only work harder towards making our camp a safer place.
I asked after plans to make Want It safer, and he responded:
While we have not finalized next years plans we do have a outline with goals in the works to improve safety in and around our camp with basic things like lighting strips around the perimeter of camp, and patrols to make sure we don’t have any unwanted creepers back there, as well as more monitoring of people that are in our lounge as guests.
when I say monitoring guests I mean, watching out for creepy guys, strange behavior, etc… and looking out for guests that may be asleep or passed out and so on to make sure if they need medical care they get it. if they need a safe spot to rest, they’ll have it. not a matter of intruding, but we need to warn people that are acting inappropriately. we chased several people out of camp this year.
and i myself dealt with someone that drifted into the back of the bar one night. i thought that she’d maybe had too much of something and invited her to sit on a stool to the side of the bar so that she could be comfortable and get herself oriented
as some time went on it seemed like maybe she was on a heavy roll or possibly tripping. i’ve been out there 10 years now and seen quite a bit of that type of thing. she got cold so i grabbed a fur of mine and moved her into the lounge where it was warmer and sat her a sofa within my sight. she was a little agitated, but once i went over and sat with her she calmed down. she said she couldn’t figure out where she was or how she got there. she was a newbie, and that sort of thing happens. over the next couple of hours it came out that she’d possibly been drugged.
i asked if she was ok physically and she said yes, but needed some time to get her wits together. she wanted to walk across the playa back to her camp, but it was still dark out so i kept her with us and introduced her to some friends, made sure she had water and a bit of food and a little bit later when it was light out she took off (safely wrapped in my fur). she did come back every day after that and ended up having a good burn despite the rocky start
so, i guess i’m telling you this because i saw something firsthand and we heard about people getting drugged at other camps on the playa. the creeps are out there.
* * *
This is a complicated story, but it doesn’t have to be as complicated as we make it. The community should keep pressing the Burning Man organization to deal with these situations better in the future, but I do believe that the organization is dedicated to finding solutions to the law enforcement problems. Still, the truth is that — as everyone throughout this event kept saying — the community is going to have to step up for this one.
If we lived in a culture that placed a higher priority on consent at all times, then this would be a different story with a different set of incentives and realities. But we don’t. Furthermore, Burning Man is a subculture with particular social vulnerabilities within the larger culture. Those social vulnerabilities are going to make official organization and law enforcement hard.
* * *
I see a lot of the issues with sexual assault at Burning Man as related to issues of sexual assault within the BDSM community. Both communities contain lots of good-hearted and honorable people, but both communities are also uniquely vulnerable because of how rape culture shapes the context in which our subcultures exist. I mention this because I think that we can share tactics and ideas. I hope that even BDSMers who are unfamiliar with Burners will be willing to look at the similarities, and vice versa.
Here are three big factors making us vulnerable:
Firstly, both the BDSM community and the Burning Man community have a strong emphasis on sexual exploration, on respecting people’s sexual preferences and identities. This is at odds with the larger culture and it means that both communities tend to be leery of judging sexual events negatively, because we’re so accustomed to being ill-judged for consensual acts.
Secondly, and relatedly, both communities feel lots of anxiety about outsiders’ judgments. Like many BDSM groups, the Burning Man community discourages taking pictures of Burners without permission. In fact, every Burner signs a waiver that gives copyright of their photographs partly to Burning Man, and one reason for this is to protect attendees from having their presence at the festival known to the public against their will. A commenter on a recent Facebook thread stated:
Burning Man can be twisted against you, in legal situations. Trust me, I know. Why do you think I’ve had a billion fake profile names. I just recently posted an actual picture of my face. You can’t trust most of the general public to understand what we do.
This means that community members are often leery of reporting crimes. It’s important to note that this anxiety is also often accurate, in that outsiders often have odd reactions to community members; fear of outsiders’ reactions is not “just paranoia,” it’s quite sensible.
Thirdly, there’s heavy drug culture — which is much more strongly present in the Burning Man community than the BDSM community. My impression is that at least 50% (if not more) of BDSM spaces are deliberately free of drugs and alcohol. That kind of thing can still be found among some BDSMers, though.
Perhaps in part because of our particular vulnerabilities, both the BDSM community and the Burning Man community have large contingents pushing for extremely careful consent practices. At Burning Man, this is spearheaded by BED. Among BDSMers, this push has been reflected in the work of BDSM-feminist writers like myself and Thomas MacAulay Millar at this very blog; Tracy Clark-Flory wrote an overview of one larger initiative in early 2012 for Salon.
Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault. These vulnerabilities are not our fault. However, they are still vulnerabilities, legally and socially — and predators know that they exist.
* * *
Predators, Clueless People, and Benefit of the Doubt
At one point, in 2012, a friend distributed a stack of red and yellow cards to my group at a dance camp. They were “creeper move” cards, which were originally developed by a journalist named KC to use at the hacker conference DefCon. The yellow cards say:
Creeper Move! If you have received this card, you have done something mildly inappropriate to the person who handed it to you. Your intentions might have been good, but before future engagement make sure that you are being respectful and mindful of people’s boundaries.
The red ones say:
Creeper Move! If you have received this card, you have done something wildly inappropriate or otherwise harassed the person who handed it to you. You should be happy you got the card and not a punch in the face. Check yourself — you might not be this lucky twice!
I am a fan of these cards, as I’ve often wished that there was clearer feedback for people who screw these situations up. My personality often inclines towards giving people — all people — the benefit of the doubt in such situations. The cards certainly are not perfect, though. Indeed, right after I received a stack of them, a dude came up to me and my friends and aggressively started grabbing us, talking over us, etc. I was so entertained by the juxtaposition that I started laughing; one of my friends got flustered trying to explain why I was laughing, and in all the commotion we forgot to give the dude any creeper cards.
The other thing about giving the benefit of the doubt is that an overall problem of sexual violence — in any culture — is the fact that predators thrive within the unclear situations that might legitimately be accidental. There are definitely predators reading this article, and for them, all the painstaking feminist analyses of rape culture are not warnings. To a predator, our analyses are road maps for how to get away with committing rape. So it kind of freaks me out when I write this stuff down publicly. Yet it’s an important step towards dealing with it.
Predators, as a general rule, spend more time thinking about the habits of their prey than prey spends thinking about predators. They are specialists, after all. The prey has to specialize in order to understand them in return. As Thomas MacAulay Millar has noted at this here blog, research supports the argument that:
The major difference between the incarcerated and the non-incarcerated rapists are that the former cannot or do not confine themselves to tactics that are low-risk to them. The undetected rapists overwhelmingly use minimal or no force, rely mostly on alcohol and rape their acquaintances. They create situations where the culture will protect them by making excuses for them and questioning or denying their victims. Incarcerated rapists, I think, are just the ones who use the tactics that society is more willing to recognize as rape and less willing to make excuses for.
* * *
The first social vulnerability of Burning Man — unwillingness to judge sexual events negatively — probably played a role in the medical tent’s failure to notice their patient’s trauma. The second vulnerability — outsiders’ judgments — probably played a role in the fact that charges weren’t pressed. The third vulnerability — heavy drug use — is the biggest one, and its dimensions shape the story from start to finish. (We also have all the normal victim-blamey dynamics, like people who blamed Miss R for leaving her daughter alone on the playa. I presume I don’t have to spell those out.)
I am not sure what it would take to get someone convicted for rape in Black Rock City. It seems possible that the justice systems of the default world simply won’t serve that function for us, no matter how much training we give them. I would like to see more realistic conversation about this in the community; if it’s true that we can’t rely on the legal system, then we have to think carefully about what that implies.
Like BDSMers, Burners who want a safe environment will have to build it among the community, with people who are familiar with our culture. This will indeed involve watching for strange behavior, as the Rangers already do, and as the organizer of Want It described. We’re known for weird behavior, so we’re the best ones to figure out how to look for weird behavior among our weird behavior. Let’s keep that up.
But, as those of us who research rape already know, the majority of these crimes don’t happen with weird strangers; they happen with people the victim already knows. And as I already pointed out, predators are on the lookout for cultural gaps to exploit. So the only real long-term solution is to change the culture.
There are two components to changing the culture. The first is that we call out the people who violate boundaries, even when they’re our friends. It’s relatively easy to watch for outsiders who behave oddly. It’s much harder to talk about community members who hurt people. Maybe Creep Cards will help with this, but sometimes stronger measures will be called for.
To that end, I recognize that what Want It camp has gone through was painful for the whole group. But whether their campmate is guilty or not, this is part of the Burning Man community process of incentivizing good behavior. We as a community are making it clear that no, we’re actually not as vulnerable as we might appear. (Readers will probably be unsurprised to know that similar issues around naming abusers have surfaced in the BDSM community; Tracy Clark-Flory has a good summary of that, too, including quotes from Thomas.)
A sex activist and Burner friend of mine named Pepper Mint, who camps with Poly Asylum, wrote to me by email that:
I can also confirm that the playa felt extra-rapey this year. I got a total of three reports of harassment directly from friends. And it was underscored for me because someone asked my camp (pre-playa) to exclude her rapist who hangs out in poly circles. After being asked to leave our (and the other poly) camp, said rapist dude then proceeded to stalk her all over playa, threaten lawsuits, and try to get law enforcement involved on his side.
Much like with BDSM, I don’t think we can rely on the authorities or even the wider community to help protect people. As you can probably guess from the above, I’m a strong advocate of naming names, and having a culture where doing so is acceptable. That’s the only way I’ve seen actual progress in sexual minority communities around sexual assault. Naming people may in fact sully some reputations incorrectly, but it’s important to remember that the vast majority of accusations are correct — the highest estimates put false accusations at 10%, or 1 in 10. I have yet to see a false accusation, and I’ve thrown a lot of folks out of parties at this point (though admittedly very few for full-on sexual assault). I’m okay with the occasional guy having to explain some inaccurate stuff to his social circle if it means that rape actually carries a social cost in our communities. I’m even willing to be that guy.
Pepper suggested that in such cases, everyone in the community should at least know the identity of the accused. I think it’s worth asking: What are the implications of enabling that information to remain secret? When we recognize that predators exploit gaps in the culture, how can we narrow those gaps? How should the wider Burning Man community handle Want It Camp in the future?
The second part of changing the culture is bigger and more long-term, and that’s moving towards a more constant process of consent during sexual interactions. I thought this comment was good, left by Caleb on one of the many relevant blog posts:
Our tribe loves sex, and we have developed at Burning Man an incredible space where sexual diversity is truly allowed to flourish. But the way we think and talk about it is off point. Whatever your appetites and practices, the only thing that actually matters when it comes to sex is consent. Period. Get consent early and often, because that is what it means to PARTICIPATE. Otherwise you are just a consumer, just like in the default world. This is what our principles demand, and we need to enforce it culturally the same way we enforce LNT or radical self-reliance — namely by COMMUNICATING with and ACCULTURATING people who don’t seem to get it, whether they are our campmates, friends, or strangers on the street.
… I take issue with the idea that the rapists among us aren’t burners, or are somehow “other.” Anyone who doesn’t make consent the most important thing about every single sexual interaction could be a rapist under the right circumstances, and I think that most men and many women among us have at least experienced that disconnect (even if we got lucky and consent was actually present). Getting consent is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, and if we don’t teach it to our community and remind our citizens to practice it, then people will continue to rape, just like they do everywhere else in our society.
What does learning and practicing consent look like? It can look like safewords or pre-sex conversations or lots of other sex signals, including the BED handout I mentioned about Negotiating Beyond The Norm — but it’s not just about sex, not really.
Learning and practicing consent looks like asking out loud before you take a picture. It looks like asking before you give a hug, whether verbally or non-verbally (for example, by opening your arms and raising your eyebrows). It looks like checking in with friends and partners if they react in a way you didn’t expect. It looks like monitoring your and your friends’ intoxication levels. It looks like apologizing when you screw up. It looks like demanding accountability when other people screw up. It’s having an ongoing conversation that includes active response from the partner (even if those responses are non-verbal).
I’m not going to claim that these issues aren’t complex and difficult. Here, I’ll bold it: these issues can be incredibly complex and difficult. A lot of my previous writing has focused on the complexities and difficulties of consent and community dynamics around it. I know there’s lots of nuance in the world. I know that verbal communication is hard and that non-verbal communication is a big thing. I know that practicing good consent goes against a lot of hardcore cultural expectations and, sometimes, it’s hard for other reasons too. I know. But although consent can be complicated, we’re responsible — all of us — and these questions are too important to walk away from.
[Updated to add:] It may be helpful for us to look at approaches to community justice that have been developed by other communities that feel they can’t rely on law enforcement. Terms of art include “restorative justice” and “transformative justice.”
As a final note, I want to add a heartfelt wish that Miss R and her daughter will be okay. My thoughts are with them.
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Because this is an article about sexual assault at Burning Man, I will note for the sake of completeness that there are many important issues around intoxicants and consent. I think Burners have an opportunity to shed particular light on the question of how to have consensual sex while intoxicated, just as some BDSMers have taken the opportunity to shed particular light on consent during sexual encounters that are calculated to push boundaries. These are important conversations! However, these are not conversations that I feel comfortable having in the context of recent events at Burning Man — because what happened here was a calculated assault by a predator, and I don’t want to distract from that.
Comments will be moderated by Thomas, not Clarisse.
[Ed. note: My mod policy is to only allow discussion that I think moves the ball forward. I will not approve rape apologist comments. I also will not approve comments that use the post as an excuse for open-ended or unrelated bashing of Burning Man. While I'm not a burner and have no loyalty to the event or the organization, people's attacks on of defense of the event in general or its culture would likely crowd out all other conversation.]