Consent and Sexual Harassment at Burning Man: What You Can Do to Help

[This is the third in a series of blog posts addressing sexual assault, sexual harassment, and the importance of consent in the Burning Man community. It was compiled with the invaluable assistance of Bonnie Ruberg, a six-year Burner, university instructor and a queer community organizer in the Bay Area, and Gigi-D L’Amour, a founding member of and volunteer coordinator for the Bureau of Erotic Discourse.]

Black Rock City is a place where we go to be ourselves. We travel to the playa to feel “at home” in our community, our experiences, and our bodies.

Unfortunately, sometimes the public spaces in BRC don’t feel welcoming or even safe for some Burners because they receive unwanted sexual attention when they walk down the street. Sometimes they get catcalled. Or poked and prodded. People on bullhorns shout at them to take off their tops for bacon and get surly if they refuse. Moments like these are unfortunate but they happen — probably more often than you think.

What is sexual harassment? At its most basic, sexual harassment can be defined as unwanted sexual advances or sexually-charged remarks made toward another person. It can happen to all types of people, and it can occur between friends and acquaintances as well as between strangers. Sexual harassment is harmful because it makes those who are harassed feel targeted and vulnerable. Harassment that doesn’t seem sexual can still make a person feel uncomfortable in their body. Remarks about someone’s gender, race, age, body type, physical ability, etc. also have the potential to be deeply hurtful.

And harassment doesn’t just happen to women. LGBTQ folks and folks who are transgender or genderqueer also often find themselves on the receiving end of hurtful comments and inappropriate behavior. Men can be harassed, too. Everyone deserves to feel welcome and respected in Black Rock City. That’s what Radical Inclusion is about — that’s what Burning Man is about.

Making Black Rock City a more welcoming and respectful environment is a responsibility we all share. Here are some simple guidelines you can follow to help prevent sexual harassment on playa.

5 Easy Tips for Helping Prevent Sexual Harassment at Burning Man

1. Do not make unsolicited sexual remarks or comments about someone else’s body.

However it’s intended, unsolicited sexual comments about somebody else’s body may not feel like a compliment to the person you’re saying them to.

2. Don’t touch anyone without their enthusiastic consent.

Respecting personal boundaries is key. This also goes for touches that aren’t intended to be sexual.

3. Don’t take photos of someone without their enthusiastic consent.

You might be surprised how often fellow BRC citizens seem to think this doesn’t apply to women they find attractive. No amount of clothing (or lack thereof) makes it okay to snap a photo without asking, period.

4. Don’t treat someone else’s body like a commodity without their enthusiastic consent.

Ever been to a bar camp where men drink for “free” but women have to flash the servers? Using other people’s bodies like currency is a form of objectification, and (unless they’re into that) it’s not cool.

5. Always take “no” for an answer.

Sometimes, the friendliest, sexiest thing you can do is respect someone else’s boundaries. If they say “no thanks” to any of the above, don’t push the issue and don’t get mad. Rather, say “thank you” for their clear communication of what they do and don’t want.

Each and every one of us is responsible for helping make Black Rock City a safe, welcoming place for all its citizens. Keep these tips in mind and share them with your friends and campmates. Everyone can be part of the solution!

Consent

We also need to remember the importance of consent. Consent is something so ubiquitous and seemingly obvious that people assume they understand it. Unfortunately, that’s not a safe assumption, and mistakes about consent cause serious harm.

Consent is an agreement between two or more people to engage or not engage in specific activities together. Consent is not just about sex, it’s needed before acting on any desires involving others. It’s an important practice for creating and participating in healthy interactions and relationships. How does one become a highly consensual person? Here’s a step-by-step guide.

1. Know the difference between what is yours and what belongs to others.

This seems straightforward: my body is mine, and your body is yours. But have you ever had the impulse to pinch a baby’s chubby cheeks, or swat a friend’s ass? You saw it, it seems irresistible, it’s right there, so it is yours to touch, right? No, it is not. Gaining consent is key.

2. Know what you want, and what you don’t want.

Many of us struggle with knowing what we want and don’t want. The first step is knowing that it is okay to have desires, all kinds of desires. It is also okay to not want certain things, even things as seemingly casual as hugs. Get to know yourself. There are no right or wrong answers about what we desire, but until you know, you cannot communicate.

3. Ask for what you want from a person who is able to consent.

To consent under the law, one must be of a legal age of consent (over 18 in the U.S.) and physically able to consent (not unconscious sleeping, or too intoxicated). The last one can be tricky, so it is generally better to wait until everyone involved is pretty sober. Next, you need to ask for what you want. This can be scary, because you might hear “no” and feel rejected or embarrassed. But this gets easier with practice.

4. Listen to the answer.

After you have asked for what you want, you need to wait to hear a response. Silence is not consent. If the person does not respond, wait until you hear an answer. Let the other person know that you will not proceed unless they tell you “yes”. If they respond “no”, accept the no. Do not try to talk them out of their no or persuade them to change their answer. No is the answer.

5. Show gratitude for any answer but especially “no”.

A true master of consent not only accepts the answer but shows gratitude for the answer. It is easy to show gratitude for affirmative answers, but it’s even more important to show gratitude when someone says no. Saying no can be hard. People often fear being seen as uncool for saying no. We must remember that saying no is part of Radical Self-expression! Next time you hear “no”, say “thank you”. It may sound odd, but when we encourage others that no is a beautifully valid response we help them feel safe enough to say yes as well.

6. Keep checking in.

Even after one has received a yes, a master of consent keeps checking in. Check to make sure each new action you take is okay before you take it. Be aware of a partner who becomes still or silent; check in and make sure they still consent. Some people become still or silent when they are scared or feel traumatized. You may have done nothing wrong, but the person you are with might suddenly feel unsafe for some reason. Check in, stop what you’re doing, and wait for your partner to verbally confirm they still consent.

7. Stand up for consent.

Lastly, as masters of consent, we should always be aware of those around us. We are often confronted with situations that seem questionable. You can and should check in on others, even strangers. Do you feel safe? Are you okay? Do you need to find a safe place or a friend? Is everyone here fully consenting? These are all good questions to ask in uncomfortable situations. Be willing to help a person in a non-consensual situation get to safety, whether it’s to the Rangers, ESD, or their camp.

Practice these principles, and soon consent will become second-nature to you. It’s a lot of work to be a master of consent, but consensual relations are so totally worth it.

Top photo by NK Guy

About the author: Burning Man

Burning Man

The official voice of the Burning Man organization, managed by Burning Man's Communications Team.

7 Comments on “Consent and Sexual Harassment at Burning Man: What You Can Do to Help

  • Erez Rabinovich says:

    Even though I’m not gonna be at the playa this year I wzntad to say A big thanks for the people who took the time to writ this article.

    Thank you guys :)

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  • Erica aka tickles says:

    What about making consent one of the principles? I’ve heard this from several sources but not heard any feedback from BMorg. Also, what about rape kits or access to local police/hospital for kits if an assault has occurred?

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  • Buttercup says:

    Great education for on and off the playa. Thanks!!

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  • Joseph says:

    This topic is always troubling to me. I love enjoying an environment where people, especially women, enjoy the freedom to express themselves sensually and sexually without judgment. And creating that environment requires that other people refrain from unwelcome aggression and harassment.

    I totally agree that requiring women to flash body parts in exchange for anything is deplorable conduct. Especially bacon.

    That said–I need to consider that the idea of radical self reliance includes the concept of each person knowing his or her boundaries and learning to express those boundaries in a firm and unambiguous manner.

    And I agree that men can play a huge roll in this, by showing gratitude and respect to women who do express their boundaries.

    For we men who enjoy the feminine energies of sensuality and sexuality, we are doing ourselves a favor by expressing gratitude to women who know how to state their boundaries.

    And an even better thing we can do is to encourage them to express their boundaries. And tell them we appreciate it when they do.

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  • blossom says:

    Heeeey, fabulous folks. I really appreciate this article.

    I’ve burned twice, back in ’08 and ’06 (seems so long ago now!) and both times felt lucky to be party… With that said, it is too easy to experience sexual harrassment/assault… and I think I’m a tough guy IRL.

    First, I’m happy to share an orgasm story for an omelette, and I’m ok with you recording it.. I’ll happily wear nothing and feel good about you doing the same. But touching me is the boundary where it is a whole different beast, and why this article is so important.
    Two quickies, Numero Uno: Human body wash rocks, but this old guy stuck his finger inside me (!) Heads up, folks, this could happen to you. If it does, don’t let it go by. I didn’t say anything at the time and later imagined how many other lovelies were fingered without permission by him. I wish I’d slugged him on the spot and called it out. Oh well. & Number T2o: This guy invited me into a trailer in a dust storm. I didn’t notice four of his friends following us- dust storm! Lucky my super awesome friends followed me and helped out. Don’t be a victim. Stick with your friends, be ready to defend yourself, and do everyone else a favor and say something. Look out for others, know your boundaries..

    Most of all, have fun. This is the most “wholesome” community I’ve ever been involved with. SO much love, y’all. <3

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  • It certainly wasn’t representative of the women I knew who attended the event and helped create it. I would say that this sort of imagery creates an idea in the larger public eye that Burning Man is full of hot chicks who are ripe for picking up. There are definitely men who attend solely for that reason, who suffer the same sort of rejection they do in the default world. If they are lucky, they will have some sort of experience that will change their perspective on something, but sexually I would guess that it reinforces the worldview they arrive with, and most of them don’t get laid.

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