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.