Discussions about consent often get really heavy. (I know I fall into that mode myself.) But do they have to be? How do you spread awareness of consent at a radical and playful event like Burning Man? And do we make a mistake when we keep the focus narrowly on sexual violence, without addressing all the ways, large and small, that our consent can be violated? This year at Transformus X, an new effort called the “11th Principle” set out to explore this, and in so doing not only did some really creative things, but also revealed tensions between consent culture and the principles of the Burn.
Transformus is one of the more popular regional Burning Man festivals, held every year near Asheville, NC. (Though at ~2,000 people, it’s still less than 5% of the size of the “Big Burn” in Nevada each August that is the official “Burning Man.”) In July, I went to Transformus with my house-family, including my sweetie Wonder and my dear friend Reyes. Reyes has already written on DDP about Transformus, and the post office we organized there, in her unique and captivating way. If you want a picture of how magical and transformative the event can be, go read her post. I’ll wait.
This post is less about my personal experience, and more about the efforts of the 11th principle to spread consent culture at the Burn, and the challenges they reveal. In the interest of full disclosure, I want to make clear I had no organizing role in the 11th principle effort. I was there an observer and a participant. This post draws on what I observed at Transformus, along with webpages, Facebook comment threads, talks with the friends I traveled with, and an interview with Lauren, one of the core organizers for the Transformus Consent Working Group, on August 18.
Make no mistake: Burning Man has a consent problem. Says Wonder on his experience at the Big Burn in 2011: “I went to the Burning Man with a friend who was very clear that she had basically been raped at Burning Man multiple times by men who locked her in an RV. This is the reality of the situation. People go to Burning Man and have their consent horribly violated…There’s less of that at Transformus in part because it’s so small, but it’s far from perfect.” In 2012 there were several rapes at Burning Man, including one of an underage girl, that garnered a fair bit of media attention. For an extremely well-researched, nuanced, and though-provoking discussion of what exactly happened in 2012, why, and how to make things better, I encourage you to read Clarise Thorn’s article on the Yes Means Yes Blog, “A Rape In Black Rock City.” In 2012, “after the rapes at Black Rock City, and people getting dosed [at Transformus], it was obvious that there was a massive need for getting consent culture into events like this.” And so the Transformus Consent Working Group was formed. But to capture people’s imagination, it needed a name.
What’s in a Name?
Burning Man is and the many Regional Burn offshoots are all defined by the “10 principles”—Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy. First codified in 2004, they have become foundational; you can read more about them here.
It’s a common joke in burner circles that “x or y should be the 11th principle.” So in order to really put the spotlight on consent, “calling it the 11th principle just made sense,” says Lauren. As the 11th Principle FAQ says:
We thought long and hard about what to call the ideas that had formed among our group. It certainly wasn’t a rule (those are for breaking, right?) nor necessarily a guideline. Principle seemed the best fit for the ideas we were trying to portray (regardless of the other ten). We also felt it might just be important enough to stand alongside those currently out there.
With the support of the Transformus Board of Directors, in 2013 consent was added as the 11th Principle at Transformus for the first time, “despite some push-back from principles purists.”
Consent, From All Angles
From the start, the 11th principle team was looking at consent culture through a broad lens. Obviously educating people about why and how to ensure enthusiastic consent for sex is always at the top of the list. The summary statement on for the 11th Principle makes this clear:
We value the transformative experience of sensual and consensual touch, play, and interaction. We believe that consent plays a vital part in our connectivity and community. Ensure all sides are mutually consensual prior to physical encounters, be they physically affectionate encounters (ie hugging, groping, spanking); be they sent-sual encounters (ie any smelly, oily or other substances applied to the skin); or be they sexual encounters. Consent must be clearly granted from an individual who is clearly in control of their faculties enough to grant it.
But consent is about more than just touch or even smell. In our culture our consent is actually violated in lots of ways, large and small, every day. Many, such as the coercion embedded in employer-employee relations, are blessingly banished at a Burn. But new problems creep in.
One problem that was a large motivator for this project was that of “dosing” –giving someone drugs without their consent. This is usually done by putting it in a food or drink and gifting it to someone. Most everyone’s heard of roofies. But this sort of thing is more common at the Burn, in large part because malevolent intend isn’t required. “Some people think getting someone messed up is a practical joke—they aren’t trying to take advantage of anyone,” says Lauren. And of it’s a Burn, which runs entirely on a gift economy with no monetary transactions, and where gifts are given to friends and strangers alike without the expectation of receiving anything in return. So taking candy from a stranger is actually pretty normal! Thus, it’s important to both to encourage people to always ask what was in the food the took, and to have people honestly and transparently disclose this.
People tend not to think about photography as a consent issue, but it is, especially at an event like Transformus. After all, not everyone wants a photo of themselves at a Burning Man event spattered across the internet. For this, the 11th principle team got thousands of little rubber bracelets in bright orange that said “No photography.” The flexibility was fabulous—I could stick it in my pocket when I was handing out a the Post Office or cooking at my theme camp, and pop it on when I was wandering around naked or having public sex at (aptly-named) camp Pretty Titty Bang Bang. Awareness and distribution were challenges, however—when I arrived and checked in, the volunteers at the gate not only failed to mention the bracelets, but had also positioned the bracelets off the side, at the opposite end of the registration table from the sign explaining the bracelets. Had I not known the bracelets in advance, I might never have noticed them.
Communicating the Message
Overall, the approach of the 11th principle team was not to lighten the topic of consent, per se, but rather to try to make the topic interesting and engaging. Thus, it was important to at least somewhat match the irreverence of the Burn culture itself.
The 11th principle team hosted a workshop on enthusiastic consent, which I attended right upon arriving at Mysteria, and later, a survivor’s circle. The workshop was excellent…if mostly attended by people who probably knew it all already. However, the main education that the 11th Principle team did at Transformus came in the form of written and graphical materials. I’ll highlight some in this section. At an event where organized mass events are rare and scheduling is difficult, this approach–of setting things up and then disappearing into the background, makes a fair bit of sense.
All attendees to Transformus received a digital “Survival Guide,” and consent got a shout-out in the “civic responsibility” section:
This year you will see posters and messages from a group named “The 11th Principle: Consent”. These are a reminder that for Transformus X and for every year after we are raising the awareness of consent issues. The concept is simple and has the support of our whole community: if you intend anything that will alter the experience of another person at Transformus, you are obligated to get their consent. Whether this is in a sexual context, or involving video or photography, or anything else it is not ethical or acceptable to do it without the recipient’s knowledge and sober consent. Period. We call on all members of our community to respect this rule and to help others respect it. [emphasis original]
The 11th principle was legit listed on the large central sign with all the principles, and on the series of principles signs as one entered the festival site. This was awesome.
Also listed was a “12th principle: Volunteerism.” This was odd, and I’ll come back to it.
The Omnipresent Toilet Anti-MOOP Signs
The one place where I can guarantee EVERYONE encountered the 11th principle was when using the toilet. Every single port-a-potty on the site has a sign on the inside of the door, branded with the 11th principle logo and an amusing quote, reminding people not to leave things behind that they shouldn’t. This is a fairly common ask, but framing it in consent terms is not. There were many variations, but the most common and memorable sign asked: “Did this port-a-poty consent to your MOOP?” MOOP, stands for “Matter Out Of Place,” e.g. detritus, trash, or forgotten belongings. Your discarded trash is MOOP. But so is your favorite jacket, if left where it is not supposed to be. Like, say, a toilet.
“If You See Something, Say Something”
The 11th principle also put together a useful guide for running interference in order to disrupt potential consent violations. As the introduction says:
If you see something, say something! In an effort to make Transformus a consensually transformative experience for all Mysterians, 11th Principle: Consent brings you this handy guide to responding to perceived nonconsensual encounters. We’ re invoking the principle of Communal Effort, encouraging fellow participants to speak up when they see a violation in progress and to advocate for those who feel a violation has taken place. [emphasis original]
It’s a pretty good guide, structured into “Do” and “Don’t.” You can probably use it in your own life! Download the 11th Principle Interference Guide our website or from Facebook. (I also feel much more positively about this use of the “if you see something…” line than the frequent use of that tagline by government authorities.)
According to Lauren, the “running interference” flyer was actually used in some Ranger trainings. (Rangers are volunteers who patrol the festival in order to keep people safe and be non-confrontational mediators–exactly the sort of people who need this resource.) I sure hope so! All I know is that is wasn’t used in mine Ranger training, since during my “training,” no trainers showed up and it became just a (still useful) knowledge exchange between more and less experienced participants.
Buttons and Condoms
The 11th principle also made lots of buttons reminding people to respect consent, which I was happy to see lots of people wearing, sparking yet more conversations.
In addition to the standard button set above, they also made a pair of buttons–available in many colors–to remind people and that costumes (or lack thereof) do not an invitation make. For example, a lot of men wear kilts au natural, and it is shocking how many women seem to think this it is okay to just reach up under the kilt to cop a feel, without asking! Men have boundaries too, and their consent can be violated too! And just because someone is entirely naked does not mean you can touch them either, of course!
And, of course, what would a consent campaign be without branded condoms?!
Finally, a number of clever flyers were designed and distributed to theme camps. I think this gem really says it all…
Points of Tension and Transformation
Looking at the interaction of consent culture with the culture of Transformus or other similar events, a number of critical challenges and tensions emerge.
Radical Inclusion vs Radical Self-expression
There is an inescapable tension in the way some Burning Man principles relate to others–in particular, the tension between Radical Inclusion and Radical Self-expression.
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
In principle, there need be no conflict here. The conflict is created in part because people defend their “right” to engage in hurtful, slut-shaming, or rape-culture-enabling language as their self-expression. Indeed, some people even defend unwanted physical advances on others as self-expression! And people say we can’t evict such actors because we need to be radically inclusive. Yet their own behavior limits the potential inclusivity of the community. If people feel uncomfortable or violated, they will leave and may not return. As I have argued before, no space can be safe for everyone–being maximally inclusive actually requires excluding harmful or predatory people.
Things get even tricker when on the internet, where people have an easier time being trolls and not taking responsibility for their words. Prior to Transformus, the facebook group experienced a lot of debate about consent, and a fair number of commenters saying insensitive, misogynist, or rape-culture-soaked things. In some cases, these people may in fact be different in person; in other cases, they may be marginal figures who weren’t going to actually show up at Transformus at all. Either way, I know at least one person who stayed away from Transformus in part due to this issue. Amanda Marcotte has argued that misogynist trolls on the internet aren’t just out for the laughs–that they have an agenda of silencing their opponents. In this case though, says Lauren, “if their agenda was to push back on consent culture, it backfired. We got new volunteers every time.” And despite the negative feedback the 11th principle organizers got online, they received only positive feedback at Transformus itself.
Self-expression and inclusion will always have a tension. But some resolution can be found if people were be truer to the full wording of the self-expression principle, which includes always respecting others’ rights and liberties. And sometimes that means talking less, and listening more.
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
Brining consent culture to the Burn does unavoidably challenge the radical self-reliance principle. In the crudest form, radical self-reliance can shift into only really caring about yourself. The temptation to blame others for their own problems and not get involved is always strong in our culture, and the self-reliance principle of Burning Man, while well-intentioned, can exacerbate this. But in a more nuanced form is still is challenged by consent. Radical Self-reliance implies that, at the end of the day, you are responsible for you and only you. But “consent requires that you check-in with someone else, not just yourself. It’s a small but important tweak to the way a Burn is often experienced,” says Wonder.
The 11th Principle differs sharply from its closest counterpart at Black Rock City, the Bureau of Erotic Discourse (BED), in their opinion on whether it is possible to consent while intoxicated. From the 11th Principle FAQ:
We are aware that different other movements have some fairly strong opinions about how Alcohol relates to Consent. We feel that its important to acknowledge the grey area that this presents and address this in the last part of our Principle “Consent must be clearly granted from an individual who is clearly in control of their faculties enough to grant it.”
The B.E.D., as I understand it, takes a firmer line that it is not possible to consent while under the influence of substances, especially alcohol–that consent can only be established between sober people. However, such a position may not be realistic in the environment of Burning Man or Transformus. And if you set too high a standard, people who don’t think they can meet that may stop listening to you entirely. Which means you loose as part of the audience some of the people you most need to reach. Hence the 11th Principle’s flexible take. That said, opening up this big grey area has its own dangers. Where do you draw the line?
Or maybe it’s all semantics? After all, the B.E.D. states that “no unconscious, incapacitated or underage persons can give legal consent,” and further, advises burners:
Do not have sex with an intoxicated or stoned person… not only is it technically against the law, but it is potentially very hurtful to that person. And what fun it that??? If you have made a sober pre-agreement with a partner and go get fucked up, thats cool… but do not pick up a drunk, high hottie and take advantage! Be smart, take care of your partner, cover your butt, get sober … Remember to leave that person better off than they were when you met.
Honestly, the difference here is not actually so great. “Clearly in control of their faculties” and “Not incapacitated”/not “drunk, high” differ more by degree than by type.
In her postscript to her article on rape at Burning Man, Clarise Thorn muses that perhaps “Burners have an opportunity to shed particular light on the question of how to have consensual sex while intoxicated.” Maybe that’s so. Maybe it’s in fact not possible. But it seems like a conversation worth having.
About that 12th Principle…
Transformus this year had not 10, not 11, but 12 principles. The 12th was “volunteerism,” and was added after the 11th principle of consent was added. Now obviously volunteering is crucial to the success of Transformus. But most people I spoke with felt that volunteerism was already captured in “Communal Effort” and “Participation,” and people didn’t understand why it needed to be a new principle “Transformus, like every Burn, is a participant-driven event,” says Wonder. “The performers are the participants. This is a classic case of volunteerism. It’s all part of getting money out the way of human interaction. So having a separate principle for it is just not needed.”
Keep in mind that it’s a big deal for the Transformus Board of Directors to add an 11th principle to the 10, which have been around for a decade, are common to all Burns, and pretty sacrosanct. But it’s worth doing when there is a crucial issue of importance that the community must grapple with and that is not encompassed by any existing principle. Consent fits this bill to a tee. Volunteerism…not so much.
I suspect that it was added in part as a response to problems the Transformus organizers were facing getting enough volunteers, and more generally establishing planned volunteerism (as opposed to spur-of-the-moment, immediate participation) as an ethic. Now, Transformus does rely on volunteers, and yet shortly before the festival, only a third of the attendees had signed up for a volunteer shift. And adding one principle probably lowered the bar to adding a another. But part of me also thinks volunteerism was added in order to minimize or downplay the significance of adding consent as a principle. And even if that was not the intent, that was definitely the effect. Having a 12th principle added in the same year as the 11th principle definitely did seem to undercut the degree of attention consent got.
The Importance of Being Irreverent
One of the big questions raised by the 11th principle effort is: does humor help the message about consent, or dilute it? And relatedly, since inanimate objects like a port-a-potty can’t actually consent, does pretending they can trivialize the message?
These were the questions running through my head during the Temple Burn on the final night of Transformus.
In contrast to the wild celebration during the burning of the “man,” the Temple Burn is a quieter, more somber affair, as the temple commemorates those who are no longer with us. It also is a mourning for the end of the festival itself. This year, it had poured for hours prior to the Temple Burn, so it was only thanks to pyrotechnics that the structure burned at all.
As the temple neared the end of its slow burn, the fire response team, resplendent in their firefighting gear, circled the temple with armed long sticks, pushing tall upright pieces into the fire, so that they wouldn’t fall outwards and land amongst the crowd. One corner of the structure was stubborn. For at least 15 minutes, it refused to budge to flames or force. After the first few unsuccessful attempts by the fire response team to knock down the tower, people began to yell.
“Did you get the wood’s consent?” and “The wood does not consent!” and so on.
At first I was upset. The wood can’t consent–it’s a piece of wood. It seemed to me that the onlookers were making fun of the very concept of consent.
But in conversations afterwards, I realized there’s an alternate perpective. Lauren: “I wasn’t offended, because clearly I’d done my job…it helped bring the issue into the public eye even more. I know people take it seriously. But sometimes a good joke is a good joke.” So what if someone wanted to make fun of it? The mere invoking the language of consent reveals that more people are using and thinking in these terms.
Language has power. Jokes have power. They shape and frame the way people think and approach situations, for good and for ill. And just as we should always push back on language that supports rape culture, so too should we celebrate the invoking of consent culture, even when it gets silly.
Because if we can’t laugh together, then what are we fighting for anyway?