I’ve been to That Thing Out In The Desert, otherwise known as Burning Man, for 4 years. In theory, I love it, and I love what it stands for. I love art, and freedom, and creation, and silly costumes. I love community building, and trading supplies, and being in the moment.
But I’ve also worked with the Bureau of Erotic Discourse teaching about sexual assault and consent at Burning Man. It’s a problem. BED was founded because Burning Man as an organization didn’t really do enough to teach people about sexual assault, sex and substance use, and consent- so a grassroots effort was created. I’m still baffled that BED isn’t a formal art of the infrastructure of the BORG, considering how sexual assault seems to be a pretty consistent issue.
(Correction from Russell Atkinson from BED:
“In 2013 BED became an official part of ESD, the Emergency Services Department of the Burning Man organization. We had more presence than ever, and we had substantial support from the Org. We had a full sheet on BED given to every participant at Greeters.
The downside is that with all of the material out there we still had significant problems with sexual assault and harassment. The sleazy groping photographer is only one of the examples”.
I’m glad to hear this, especially as I remember that there was initially some concern with the way ticket sales have been working that BED core members might not make it out there).
Which brings me to exhibit one, the “photo project”, “Man Grabs 100 Boobs at Burning Man“, that went viral. This was defended strongly, mostly by men, as “art”, often silencing women who spoke up to say how the photographer didn’t give them the opportunity for informed consent and sometimes didn’t respect their consent for the photo to begin with. One woman said “This guy walked up to a friend at Nexus and was like “Can I take a picture of you.” She replied okay and he put his hand out and said for her to pretend like she’s coming at him or fighting him off, so she did and it APPEARS like he’s grabbing her boob, but isn’t. He never mentioned anything about a project. She’s in the pics. What a slimy douche.” Another woman said, “I regret to say that I am one of the hundred. The picture was taken on the second day at BM and I was so filled with a sense of generousity and euphoria of being at BM, when an Asian photographer approached me and my friend and asked if he could take a photo we said “sure”. The initial photograph was just a pretext to the second one where he asked if he could put his hand in front of the camera for an art project. This seemed a bit weird but I didn’t think it would be harmful so agreed. He did the same to my friend but cupped her breast – she was topless. I then realised that he was some perverted guy who clearly had little success with women and was using this project as an opportunity to grope women and that he had only approached us because my friend was topless. We didn’t sign any consent form for this to be distributed publicly and we are really upset that the images are circulating round the internet.”
One of the things that was really ignored in the original discussion is that there are totally different social consequences for being a topless man in public vs being a topless woman in public that really has a lot more to do with our ideas of female purity, female nudity, male entitlement, nudity as sexualized, catcalling, body shaming, etc. Women have lost their jobs and access to their children for blogging about sex, never mind getting rape and death threats. For these photos to be ethical, the women in them need to be in a space to give informed consent, knowing where the photos are going to end up, and preferably signing a release. And then, there’s the fact he specifically asked at least one woman to look like she was fighting him off while he grabbed her- to me, that encourages rape culture (and if you’re unclear the difference between rape culture and rape, read up here). Never mind his lack of model releases means he can’t know for sure if the women are over 18- when I brought this up, men told me that touching breasts wasn’t sexual enough to worry about the person being 18. That worries me too, tbh, not just because of age of consent issues, but sobriety issues. Who decides what’s “sexual” in these situations? Who should?
The photographer spoke to one group of Burners to defend his “art project”, saying “The core concept of burning man is “radical self-expression”. Apparently, in the pictures, ladies are all cool, confidence and relax (Some of them might look frightened but that’s just because they would like to present it in a different way)”. When asked why he didn’t take photos with men if it wasn’t about groping women’s breasts, he replied “I personally don’t consider grabbing male’s chests as an inspiring and attractive project”. Not really surprising, is it?
There were Burners within the thread who weren’t slutshaming/victim blaming, though. I particularly want to highlighy one excellent response:
“Regardless of what it is they choose to do, respect is the key to Burning Man. You should respect peoples’ expression, their space, their emotions, their experience, their resources, etc., and part of respecting them is acknowledging them as people with agency; in this case, the agency to choose to or not to wear clothes, or to be groped or not groped by whomever approaches them. By taking pictures of people being groped and posting it on the internet, it’s kind of taking away their humanity and agency, and portraying them as objects to be vicariously groped by anyone who views them. At that point, they no longer get to control when they are no longer comfortable with the way they are being observed, they no longer get to choose who they are comfortable with sharing their presence, and they no longer have the agency to challenge conventions. Their image has been fixed right back into the conventional space where boobs are meant to be groped, naked time equals sexy time, and it’s all a big, spectacular deal. The net result is not a challenge to convention or an advancement of respect, but, if anything, the opposite.”
Then, I have Exhibit 2, “Early Crime States from Burning Man 2013“. I was horrified to read this, which says how crime stats are going down at BM before saying “The only concerning standout crimes were sexual assaults, one of which was a rape that occurred on the open desert, the victim was held at gun point and abused by two others”. This article finishes with a chirpy “To the future of fancy-free partying!” which I feel is completely ignorant and inappropriate. Last year there was a big discussion about rape at Burning Man, and time and time again, we see that the community is going to have to step up to make this a safer space. If we want to create a consent culture, too, we need the cooperation of the police, who need to focus less on arresting people for drugs and more on helping people who are victims of crimes. We need to talk more about date rape, and take that seriously, as well as violent rape. A more serious article points out “If you can build a city in the desert for 70,000 people in a month, with extremely experienced medical personnel, you can find a way to get rape kits on the Playa. What are you afraid of, BMOrg? The rapists, or the statistics?”
We have, among all the good things, a Burner culture where women feel unsafe because they’re being sexually assaulted, roofied and raped, mind, and where “oh, rape kits are too complicated to have on Playa” is just accepted… this isn’t exactly happening in a vacuum- one where people of colour feel disgusted by the way their cultures are appropriated and white people say “we’re just expressing ourselves, get over it!”- one where artists struggle to afford to get in while the upper middle classes use it as a networking place- have at it. People will fight tooth and nail to “freely express” racism and misogyny at Burning Man because they feel they have a right to their “art”. It’s really sad that people would rather defend their right to do things that are painful and potentially harmful to others than to support a culture of intersectional awareness. That’s not the Burning Man I fell in love with. That’s not the artistic community I want to be in.
We’re able to set bones on the playa, put 18 wheelers on top of each other and set them on fire, and create/destroy a city of 60,000 in a couple weeks. I’m pretty sure we can find a way to provide rape kits on the playa at this point, and it’s past time for Burning Man to take it seriously. We need to show that our theme camps are safe spaces for people in trouble to come and get support rather than ridiculed and blamed. We built this city on better values than the world at large- let’s make it better, rather than a mirror in the dust.