2011 was my first burn, but it wasn't my first festival. There are some things that I see at burning man that make me cringe sometimes, but everyone burns their own way. That said, there are predators at burning man. I met one this year in 2012. He was in my camp. He actually is a member of E-Playa and he'll probably read this. I'm not going to name him because that's how witch hunts start, but I am going to tell the story of how his presence in my camp affected me:
There was a man in my camp this year that made me uncomfortable. He was polite to my face, but I didn't like the way he looked at me, it made me feel like a pair of tits and ass attached to a vagina and that's it. Body parts. Not a person.
When he came by my tent and said, "Oh, so this is where you are." I felt a cold shudder go up my back. I couldn't tell you why, other than the fact that he made me feel uncomfortable.
I avoided interacting with this person alone as much as possible. When we were in groups, his language was always polite, but again, the way he looked at me always left me unsettled.
When he was drunk that little veneer of politeness went away and he became a sexual harassment machine.
He went from one woman to another, trying to grope them, fondle them and kiss them.
When they told him NO his response was,
"Oh come on!"
or, "What, don't you like me?"
When they pushed him away, he smiled or laughed and pushed back harder.
He pressed his size and strength advantage to the point where I wasn't comfortable in my own camp, so I left for the night. I figured he'd pass out drunk at some point. It was no use trying to reason with him when he was this wasted because he didn't respect me, or any woman apparently. He made some mention as I left the party, as to whether or not I was going to bed and that maybe he'd come join me later.
That pissed me off. What an entitled prick!
I left camp. I don't know if he did go by my tent at some point, but I wasn't in it. I wouldn't be for most of the night.
When I came back to camp around 4am, he was sleeping it off somewhere, but I didn't feel comfortable that he knew where my tent was, and that I was in it ALONE. I didn't sleep with my ear plugs in and I kept my hammer--yea, the sledge I'd used to pound my stakes in--at arms reach. If anyone came through that tent flap I was going to give them a crack.
Because that's what being afraid does to you.
That's what happens when you don't feel safe at the burn, in your own camp, in your own tent.
The next morning I felt silly. I told myself I was all wound up from the night before and some bad social interactions. He wouldn't try to rape me...
The next morning, I was stopped by another woman in our camp who had a similar bad interaction with him the previous night. She was pretty shaken by it. I had been second guessing myself earlier. I didn't want to believe what happened had happened, not in my camp. And my trying to gloss it over was my self defense mechanism so that I could actually get some sleep. But the fact that she was standing right there and telling me, "Hey, this happened to me too, it's bad, someone needs to talk to that guy because his behavior is not OK," made it real. After all, if I didn't interact with this guy, I wouldn't have to remember his grip as he tried to force me onto the bulge in his lap. I wouldn't have to remember waking up every couple of minutes as someone walked by my tent, reaching for my hammer like a teddy bear to chase the monsters away.
So that morning she and I both talked to him about it. And his excuse was "I was drunk last night."
That was his "Get-out-of-personal-responsibility-free-card."
Is that all it takes? "I'm sorry officer, I didn't mean to crash the art car into that scaffolding and kill that guy, but you see, I was drunk so it's not my fault!" Yea, bet that works wonders when you're sitting in Pershing county jail.
This guy made me and several other women in our camp come to the realization that one of us might have to violently defend our bodies from him at some point that night. He took our sense of safety away.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault don't just harm the immediate victims, it harms the whole community because it robs everyone of their sense of safety. If you live in a situation where you don't feel safe, there really isn't a 100% fix unless you remove the unsafe element. If that unsafe element is a person, then you can potentially move. But what does that mean for a camp? What does that mean for burning man? Do they side with the guy since he's not done anything too "illegal?" or do they side with the women who don't feel safe so long as he is there? Should we all sleep with hammers in hand and knives under our pillows?
That which does not kill you makes you stranger.