He grabbed her ass, and she swatted his hand. They stood at the ice slides, where liquor poured down a block of ice with grooves cut into it to splash drinkers with chilled alcohol. The bartender cheered as her friend slurped cold rum. Neither noticed the townie sexually harassing the scared Black teen, who was trying to escape him.
I caught a glimpse of them between the blinking parade of LED lit crowds—he leaning in, her backing up. I quickly walked to the ice slide.
“Big man,” I stared him down. “She doesn’t want you touching her.”
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He shrugged awkwardly and slinked away. When I turned, her friend pulled her to a bar filled with costumed partygoers doing karaoke. I did not feel heroic. I felt a sick heaviness that he’d target more women.
Each festival I go to creates a euphoric bubble, and inside glimmers utopia. Here is an ephemeral world of libertarian hedonism, where minimal intervention in one’s pursuit of joy is the dominant value. Sexuality is freed. Creativity celebrated. Pleasure for pleasure’s sake opens our bodies like a treasure chest.
But utopia has inherent dangers. Experimentation can transform into self- destruction. Open sexuality also opens a space for predation. Pleasure can overrule solidarity. For those in the counterculture, who envision a post-capitalist world—we must look at the dark side of the festival.
Like Moths to a Flame
“I love me.” He pops E.
“I love me not.” He pops LSD.
“I love me.” He swigs rum.
“I love me not.” He swallows more E.
His eyes are red, cracked marbles. He stumbles out of his tent toward the center of the festival. My friend is hurting. The divorce broke him. The drugs numbed him. The day job drained him. I watch him spiral down, down, down.
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He’s not the only one seeking escape at Burning Man. I see near coma-like people sprawled out on a camp’s inflatable couches or an art car, any vehicle remade by the imagination into, say, a dragon snorting fire on wheels. I see friends or friends of friends, or strangers blasting their brains with drugs. The bright glow of chemicals banishes, however briefly, their pain. God knows it did for me.
Utopia has inherent dangers. Experimentation can transform into self-destruction. Open sexuality also opens a space for predation. Pleasure can overrule solidarity.
In the libertarian hedonism of the festival, drug experimentation is sacrosanct. Whether ecstasy, mushrooms, LSD, weed, ketamine, DMT, or a bump of coke, we spin our brains on a chemical roulette wheel for the big win. The score is what French writer Romain Rolland described in a 1927 letter to Sigmund Freud as the “oceanic feeling” where the self evaporates. Many of us willingly, joyfully destroy the “self” because it comes with the weight of society. The lies we tell others and ourselves to maintain our egos, the endless work, and the nonstop comparing of ourselves to others; it leaves us hollowed out. We walk around with painted faces, depressed and anxious.
At the festival, when LSD dissolves on my tongue, the masks I wear to survive melt, and free emotion bathes everyone in heavenly light. Strangers become as intimate as family. The glory we carry within us is at our fingertips.
The next morning, I am ready to go home. Some are not. I see them stuff overloaded cars with camping gear to speed to the next festival. They refuse to return to, what Burners call, “the Default World,” or what most accept as “the real world.” I don’t blame them. But I do worry. They gulp down LSD and E until their souls harden into a permanent state of nirvana. They hurl their lives like rocks over a lake and bounce across the surface of the world.
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They chase transcendence even if self-exploration reverses into self-destruction. Sometimes, I wonder if I, too, should abandon the Default World and follow them. But then I see them clutching their drugs like a life preserver. Or I hear of an overdose. When they happen en masse, ODs make headlines. And under the headlines are countless bad trips; it could be a person screaming for help or hyperventilating or loopy walking in front of art cars. Compassionate folk, thankfully abundant in the counterculture, have created harm reduction organizations like DanceSafe, to test drugs for purity, and The Zendo Project to ease psychonauts out of the mind’s abyss. Staff will sit with someone going through a difficult trip, offer a safe space, and talk through residual fear and confusion to reduce any negative consequences of the drug—that’s the foundation of harm reduction.
Drug abuse and at the extreme, overdosing, is an inherent risk of the festival. While drugs are how we cleanse the “doors of perception,” guiding us toward a spiritual truth, if we don’t integrate it into our lives, it’s a truth that can kill.
The news of a man who jumped into a fire at a festival called Element 11, traveled through the Burner community fast. It was an ugly omen. Three years later, a man leapt into the blaze at the 2017 Burning Man. In the toxicology report, no drugs were found in his system. Maybe the only drug left to take, to offer freedom from this world, was that flame.
Ring in the festival! The wild, orgiastic dancing, the playful lap dancing on strangers, the ass smacking, deep French kissing, twerking, butt pinching, bare breast shaking, nude trampoline jumping, public fucking, and Tantric workshops; all of it brings us back to our bodies. And we love it.
In the libertarian hedonism of the festival, sexual openness is seen as a carnal right. Whether it is the Orgy Dome at Burning Man, the fun pole dancing at Playa de Fuego, or the Orgasm Hut at PEX; flesh rubs flesh to ignite. Sexual heat melts the shame instilled in us like a cybernetic implant by a capitalism that sells false and unattainable images of beauty. Nearly every ad, TV, or cell phone screen shows a celebrity perfect body. Who doesn’t judge themselves? Who doesn’t at some point want to be desired for who they are?
Compassionate folk, thankfully abundant in the counterculture, have created harm reduction organizations like DanceSafe, to test drugs for purity, and The Zendo Project to ease psychonauts out of the mind’s abyss.
But predators come. Rapists, stalkers, and abusers use the blurry lines of the festival to re-enact scenes of power and slip away into the chaotic LED night. Heads moving like shark fins, they hunt the parties that move like schools of blinking multicolored fish. Sometimes, predators were there all along. It could be a campmate or the guy who visits a lot. It could be a friend of a friend. It could be an ex.
Years ago at Playa de Fuego, I looked for Rainbow; she was rolling hard on E when I saw her dancing with a tall man in a plastic Viking hat. It looked strange: She flopped in his arms like a rag doll. Her eyes were half closed as he groped her and dragged her to the tents in back of the DJ set. I ran to them.
“She’s fucking out of it,” I said. “Fuck you,” he snarled. “Consent,” I screamed.
An ugly violent disgust flared between us before he let her go. I took her back to camp to sleep it off. Sitting next to her, I held my head. Jesus. Jesus.
Two years later, on the Playa, the hard flat desert where Burning Man is built, I thought of Rainbow; she wanted to come to the Burn, but never made it. She’d been sexually assaulted before we met through a friend of hers. When she told me, her limbs locked like steel vices. She buried that night in her body with drugs, lovers who hurt her, and pills. And then she killed herself. Pills.
Predators can be driven by insecurity or rage, revenge, or sadism; so much of the damage they do is unreported. Shame and fear choke their victims; and when women do report the crime, they may not be believed or far from rape kits that have equipment to collect DNA evidence from the body or clothes. Across the world, from Sweden to the UK to the United States, the festival churns out mostly women and some men, who were raped or assaulted.
They are grabbed while dancing, given spiked food and drinks, or wake up groggy and covered in bite marks.
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So I was thankful to see in the Default World, sex educators like Britta Love giving workshops on consent. In Burner World, a group called the 11th Principe: Consent was started in 2012 by Jaime Chandra to spread consent education. They encouraged the Burning Man organization (teasingly called the Borg) to adopt it as the next principle. The Borg balked, but did include the language in the pre-Burn booklet. Alongside them, the Bureau of Erotic Discourse glues stickers on camps and porta potties at the festival. They declare, “Ask First,” and give clear guidelines on consent before and during sex.
The literature will stop some assaults as the drug-fueled sexual demand zigzags through some guy’s neurons and, like a pinball machine, lights up the word consent. A few predators will read it as a personal challenge.
There’s a Cop in Your Head
The police circled a dusty Burner, who stood slack jawed as they rummaged through his bag. The crowds parted like a herd leaving one behind to the jackals. I leaned on my bike and saw a contrast with New York City protests, where activists pull activists out of the grip of cops trying to score an arrest.
In the libertarian hedonism of the festival, pleasure can trump solidarity. Which is odd. At the Burn or at PEX or the regionals, strangers feed each other, enjoy music, build art, and make love. The crowd is a churning kaleidoscope of people, going in and going out in geometries of chance. Until the police come.
When cops pull over a car, I’ve yet to see a group of festival goers video them. When cops raid a tent, I’ve yet to hear of a camp fighting back. When cops bust someone for drugs, I have yet to witness the party stop. We sacrifice a few members of our tribe to a police quota as long as the event is allowed to exist.
One time at Burning Man, I lifted my bike over the trash fence, the pink plastic mesh fence that stops trash from being blown deep into the desert, and where Burners gather to dance or watch the sunrise. Pedaling hard, I beelined to the horizon. A ranger truck sped to me. He pulled up.
“Do you have a ticket?” he asked.
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“Sure.” I showed it. He opened his mouth to give me the warning about going outside Burning Man’s trash fence.
“I know…I know. I’ll go back.” Pointing at the desert, I smiled. “Love this party. I do. Damn thing is I can’t stop wanting to leave it to see what’s out there.”
He turned his head. Together we stared at the vastness. Wind whistled along the hard cracked playa.
“Me too, brother.” He tugged at his uniform. “Me too.”
Riding back I realized, I was freer at Occupy Wall Street and a Black Lives Matter march than at Burning Man. In the revolutionary festival of protest, no one needs a $400 ticket. Everyone can come. The streets are playgrounds. The real world can be remade in real time. The contrast struck me hard.
So many of these bubble-like utopias pop and we, shocked at how good humanity can be to itself, stagger blinking back to society. But only a few of us can afford to come. We are transformed by a vision we cannot live every day. The festivals are the future imprisoned by privilege. Everything we will be, someday, briefly exists in it.
When the people of the world seize control of history again. And the festival escapes the desert and rural forests, beaches and private islands, to bring wild joy into the public square; maybe we can be honest about its dark side. Every light causes a shadow, but they still dance together.
Nicholas Powers is a poet, journalist, and professor. His book “The Ground Below Zero: 9/11 to Burning Man, New Orleans, Darfur, Haiti to Occupy Wall Street” was published in 2014. His writings have appeared in Truth Out, The Raw Story, The Indypendent, Vibe, and The Village Voice.
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