Building Consent Culture in a Temporary Autonomous Zone

I’m standing in the middle of the woods surrounded by art, music, and people dressed (or undressed) in a style of their choosing. The atmosphere has a festival feel to it, but there are no headlining bands or vendors. The roughly 2500 people around me are not spectators; they are participants. We came for different reasons but are united by a love for free expression, experimentation, community, and building a large work of art just to burn it into ash.

I greet an inquisitive-looking participant as they approach our structure to get out of the sun. “Welcome! May I interest you in one of our current offerings?” The participant reads the sign: “Currently offering… Spankings! Cupcakes! Drinks! Back rubs!”

The participant states they would like a cupcake.

“Very good choice, I made them myself. I have blue velvet, the red velvet are vegan, and the funfetti are gluten-free. Also, there are no intoxicating substances in anything.” They choose the blue. “Would you like some icing on that? I have blue and red.” They choose red. “And.. what may I draw on your cupcake? Are you okay if I touch it myself? Is there anything you do not want drawn on your cupcake?”

The negotiation bit seems a bit much for a cupcake, but I’m not just talking about cupcakes. I’m teaching about consent.

Our installation is called Choose Your Own Adventure, and we’re set up at an event in the mountains of North Carolina. The event is a Burning Man-sanctioned regional event, a smaller and more locally-focused version of the annual thing in the desert that attracts tens of thousands of participants annually under the uniting culture of “art, communal effort, and innumerable individual acts of self-expression.” Ours is one of many regionals that takes place worldwide throughout the year, a closer (and for many of us, more accessible) opportunity to gather with our community united by the ten principles that guide our events.

Or should I say eleven principles?

Our little crew giving out consensual cupcakes, spankings, and the like is a part of a project called “The 11th Principle: Consent!” for just that reason… we believe consent is important enough to stand with radical inclusion, decommodification, and leave no trace (to name a few). We exist to educate all burners – virgins and veterans alike – on the whats, whys, and hows of consensual interaction. We use participatory education because, let’s face it, who comes to something like this to be lectured? Participation is, in fact, one of our ten uniting principles, and so it is a major tenet of our work.

The other major tenet of our project is the very real fact that consensual interaction does not just encompass sex. In our several years in operation, we’ve identified five categories of activities where prior consent is required: touch, sex, kink, giving gifts, and photography.

A Little History

We first began discussing the 11th Principle in the Fall of 2012. This was the year of the highly publicized drugging and subsequent sexual assault against several participants at Burning Man.

We had our share of issues at our event in the Southeast that year: a number of participants reported being dosed (given intoxicating substances without consent). Others complained of having scented oils smeared on their bodies also without consent, incurring several bad reactions that in one case required first aid.

Non-burners were quick to point the finger at the “lawless society” we set up at Burning Man and regional events, stating that rape culture is real regardless of where you are, and “what do you expect to happen?” That didn’t sit right with us. For one, we found such a dismissal outlook to be appallingly similar to any other run-of-the-mill victim blaming out there, except these claims were coming from self-purported feminists who really should know better.

And so, being the participatory community that we are, we set out to take responsibility for the problems facing our community. By simply starting the conversation, other complaints came out of the woodwork: participants of all genders complained of non-consensual physical contact as a response to their costumes (a corset or a kilt, for example). Others discussed the problems they have had with non-consensual photography or the non-consensual posting of private photos on social media. And thus, the 11th Principle was born!

The Specifics

The 11th Principle has strived to maintain a ubiquitous presence at our home burn in NC and around the Southeast region. We have been fortunate to have enthusiastic support from the board of directors, including designation as an official “team” since 2014 with all the benefits that comes with it: space to set up our installation, a budget, access to the event’s volunteer signup system, and greater visibility overall.

We help educate on consensual interaction down at the Greeters station, we hang educational fliers in each porta-john, we give gifts of buttons and condoms/dams with clever messaging, and we host the activity in our aforementioned Choose Your Own Adventure installation.

Several theme camps host consent-related workshops and other relevant events. And the larger theme camps have consent liaisons who help educate camp members on keeping an eye out for questionable activities, including how to intervene if they perceive a violation in progress.

The event as a whole has started giving out red “No Photography” wristbands that can be put on or removed at the wearer’s whim. While we obviously encourage verbal consent for a photograph, these wristbands add an extra dimension to obtaining consent for photography. Photographers are encouraged to blur out a person’s face if they appear in the background wearing one of these wristbands. (And yes, people do call other people out when they see a wristband wearer in a picture on social media.)

Participants have started bringing consent-related gifts to increase visibility and keep the conversation alive. An active supporter of our mission has been bringing two-sided “Consent Cards” for several years now. These cards have a green side (“This is my enthusiastic consent!”) and a red side (“NOOOOPE. Please stop.”) Again, while we uphold verbal consent as the best way to communicate, these cards are particularly helpful while getting down at a loud sound camp or in other areas where verbal communication is more difficult.

Consent and “The Big Burn”

There is another consent-focused group that has been working inside of and around Burning Man for well over a decade. The Bureau of Erotic Discourse (BED) has been an inspiration to us at 11th, but their efforts focus specifically on sexual assault prevention and tend to leave out the non-sexual and non-kinky aspects of consent.

While our Southeastern group is unable to be regularly hands on at “the Big Burn” in any consistent manner (it’s expensive, y’all), we’ve been glad to add to the voice BED brings to the table and keep Burning Man as an organization on point when it comes to consent education and advocacy. Dutch Owen, an 11th Principle supporter and board president of our Southeast regional, participated in a consent panel at Burning Man’s Global Leadership Conference in both 2014 and 2015. In 2014, Burning Man’s communications team used both 11th Principle’s vision statement and BED’s input to draft the consent policy in the survival guide and tip sheet. This is given to every participant entering Black Rock City:

Consent is the cornerstone of a healthy community. It’s simple: whether it’s a potential sexual encounter, physical touch of any kind, something requiring permission that will radically alter the experience of another person, or involving the recording of someone’s image or voice, you are responsible for getting verbal consent before engaging. It is neither ethical nor acceptable to proceed without that person’s awareness and clear consent. Period. All Black Rock City citizens are expected to understand and to help others understand the importance of consent.

Burning Man opens its gates this week coming. I’ve been impressed with the increased dialogue about consent overall, but shortcomings persist. Earlier this month, Voices of Burning Man posted a blog series on sexual assault prevention and response. The first entry concludes with a promising statement: “…ultimately we believe our focus should be on education and prevention. The best outcome is to stop assault from happening in the first place.” Unfortunately this statement lacks substance other than recommending participants use a “buddy system” for preventing problems (sound familiar?).

The second post in that series, however, lays out a specific escalation procedure that should be adopted by all festivals, universities, and other institutions:

We have … been told the best course of action to ensure the highest likelihood that any evidence collected will help identify a perpetrator and secure a conviction is to transport the assault survivor to Reno for an exam by a Nevada Sexual Assault Response Team. This year (for the first time), the Burning Man organization will offer to pay for flight transport of survivors to and from Reno, greatly decreasing the examination time and facilitating a speedier reconnection with friends and family.

The piece goes on to detail the exact location of resources available to someone who needs them as well as describe the escalation procedures should an assault be reported.

Still, this particular series lacks a specific trajectory of how Burning Man plans on continuing to advocate for and build consent culture on the Playa. I’ll go ahead and say it’s a work in progress, but while the second blog promises “additional posts coming soon,” that series seems to have been abandoned as the event kicks into gear… for now.

Bringing It Back

Burn life is, for most of us, not just an opportunity to become a different person for a short week or weekend. Rather, the events are spaces where we feel most at home and can bring new experiences and insights back into the world with us. These experiences range from the deeply personal (a new relationship forged, new wisdom obtained, fresh inspiration for your art) to the big picture (being more mindful about your footprint, hooking in with Burners Without Borders, exploring alternative energy options with Black Rock Solar).

I can’t help but believe that, through 11th Principle and similar efforts, we are not just making our community safer but also beginning to create that ethereal concept known as Consent Culture. Though we’re obviously still affected by and under the jurisdiction of the “default world,” burns are about as close to a temporary autonomous zone as I’ve seen so far. These spaces are ripe with opportunity; new ideas and possibilities are born a little more easily, minds are a little more open, and people more readily receive ideas that would seem very radical most anywhere else.

But despite the overwhelming tone of “new possibilities,” we have much to overcome in our own community first. We must first address the aforementioned problems from individuals within our community and rape culture’s standing influence on us all. Organizers of Burning Man and regional events must believe that it is in their best interest to acknowledge sexual assault or dosing than to shush conversations over fear of legal ramifications. Language like “small steps” and “we don’t want to freak out the insurance company/law enforcement/etc” is not uncommon.

We need to realize a very important truth that more and more festivals are coming to realize: it is far safer to have open and frank conversations about consent than it is to gloss over a tough reality. If it is truly safer for an event to cover up a problem like rape, that event probably shouldn’t exist at all.

I’m optimistic about the future of Burning Man and burn life in general. (I wouldn’t be a continued participant if I wasn’t!) The feedback the 11th Principle has received on both a local and international scale has been overwhelmingly positive, and our movement is spreading like, well, a large fueled fire! Folks regularly tell me that learning how to burn with consent has made them more mindful about giving and getting enthusiastic consent in the rest of their lives. We’re nurturing a little spark of consent culture, letting it catch, and bringing some embers out to you to light your own.

Lauren "Ranger Cervix" Guy is a dirty burner and advocate of all things safe, sane, and consensual. She is one of the founding members of 11th Principle: Consent!, a crew of Southeast burners that work to build Consent Culture from within the Burning Man community.

Ranger Cervix is a dirty burner who really likes hearing the word Yes.

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