Burning Man, the annual music and art festival, is known for its totems of community and self-reliance, plus high admission costs and the wealthy tech giants it attracts. It runs for a week in Black Rock City, Nevada. Many "Burners," or attendees, see the event as an opportunity for self exploration, often fueled by psychedelic drugs.
It's billed as an escape from the “default world," but there is a dark side. Burning Man has a history of mismanaging sexual assault allegations. Four days before the festival was scheduled to kick off, a man was arrested for sexual assault and false imprisonment at the site.
Nicole Karlis, a news writer at Salon, has led two investigations into the culture at Burning Man, and how it fosters this kind of behavior.
“What I found is that sexual assault on the playa at Burning Man is definitely more common than what people think, and that is in part due to the self-policing system that they have they have,” she says.
The festival of 70,000 attendees is managed by volunteers and paid employees that make up Burning Man’s own Black Rock Rangers and Department of Public Works. They get help from from about 24 rangers from the Bureau of Land Management, but it’s up to the Burner to determine a crime. Karlis says that system has led to a concerted effort to suppress claims of sexual assault.
“If someone is sexually assaulted on the playa, that it's up to them to find a ranger to report it to. And from there they report it to their supervisor. And from there, it's determined if that can go to law enforcement or not,” says Karlis.
She says some women told her they were sexually assaulted at Burning Man, then were ignored or dismissed by festival officials.
Since Karlis' investigation, the organization created a “Survivor Advocacy Center” that will be open throughout the festival's run. There, advocates will help survivors speak with law enforcement. However, they won’t offer rape kits.
"Burning Man has really stood its ground and saying we are not going to have forensic exams on the playa,” Karlis says. “I interviewed a third party source from the National Sexual Violence Research Center, who was telling me that...they can have the right forensic trained officials on the playa, they can have a refrigerator to preserve the evidence, and then take it to the appropriate place after the festival if needed.”
Karlis believes that the feel-good, free spirited branding of Burning Man is directly responsible for the attacks and silencing of survivors.
“That's not to say that the community is all full of predators. I think more things can be done to prevent these assaults and these injustices from happening," she says.