When the dutch burning man organisation asked for volunteers to help make the decomp party a safer space by advocating consent, I sent them an email with suggestions saying I would be happy to volunteer. I got a generic thank you message claiming they would contact me with more details. They never did. Despite that I still decided to do what little I could in face of massive sexual harassment this party suffered from. Read on for some tales including self defense and intervention tips which I would love to get more feedback on.
———This might be triggering for some. ———————-
The Playa Provides
At the very beginning of the party as I was putting my costume on someone offered me a gift. ‘We made badges of all the 10 principles of burning man, well actually 11. This year we also have a consent badge, do you want to be an angel of one of these principles?’ He asked. Guess which one I chose? And so, the playa provided me with a very useful tool, my makeshift little badge.
During the night I realized the people violating consent could be fit in broad categories on a ranging scale. Despite wanting to punch all of them I kept violence mostly to the bare necessity preferring to educate and get people to realize their behavior was hurtful.
The “nice yet insensitive” – these people model others as they model themselves. All of us have been guilty of this at some time. It is a natural statistical mistake. For some men if something doesn’t bother them it’s hard for them to Imagine it will bother women. These people are quick to apologize once called out and open for deeper discussion on these topics.
Example 1: I facilitated a consensual massage circle with 2 others when some guy sat by me and touched me on the shoulder.
“Ask before touching,” I told him in a neutral tone.
“Oh, right sorry, I thought touching you on the shoulder would be ok. But I should ask, you are right. Can I touch you?”
“What type of touch?” (Negotiating specifics is a good thing especially if you don’t know each other)
“Just join the massage circle, I’ve never seen this in a party”.
“Sure, this is burning man and for me it’s part of the culture to be able to gift physical fun as long as its consensual,” I explained and we continued to discuss this.
Example 2: There was a nude woman volunteering to be a live art piece others can draw on. She was being ‘pimped out’ by some guy. “Can I ask her if she gives consent for me to draw on her?” I ask.
“You don’t need to she’s a living art piece,” he said. I cringed, this is a very similar idea for an art project I suggested to the burning man organisation. Just imagine how awesome it would be to get people to practice asking for consent in this fun interactive way instead of silencing this woman’s voice and telling people to do what ever they want.
“She is alive so I’m going to ask.” She thanks me for asking and I draw on her shoulder. I see a friends of mine is using his spit and finger to fix some of his drawing. “You know you should probably ask if she’s ok with that. Being ok with people drawing on you with brushes isn’t the same as people using some of their saliva on your skin.”
“Hmm, I’d be ok with it but you are right I should ask,” he said and proceeded to ask the model. Do not be afraid to call out on your friends too. If they are the good guys they will be happy to remodel and make sure they are not hurting someone.
“The over privileged” – These are people who’s parent’s never taught them to ask for permission before taking other’s toys. The walk around believing the world was made for their enjoyment. They don’t want to hurt anyone but their enjoyment comes first.
Example 1: Before I left the living sculpture, I saw a woman take some black tape and without asking tape the model’s mouth shut. Both me and the model seemed shocked by that. “You know, you should probably ask before doing that, maybe she doesn’t want that?” The model nodded and took the tape off. To my shock the woman laughed, and took the tape off the model’s hands and taped her mouth shut again. The model took the tape off again and said it’s not comfortable. She didn’t need me to help her but I was still deeply disturbed by this woman’s actions. “You know by taping her mouth you are really changing this art piece from something very beautiful and special to just another image objectifying and silencing women which is also very triggering for some. “Oh yeah I didn’t think about that,” she admitted.
Example 2: A woman was on a couch, lying on top of her chosen partner for the night and making out with him, her back was towards the room. A guy passed by and reached out to her with a long slow creepy “caress”.
“Do you know her?” I asked in a friendly voice.
“No,” he answered.
“Do you think maybe you should ask her before touching her?”
I can see his red alarm go off and he begins to get very defensive. “I didn’t touch her butt, just her back. I didn’t mean it that way…”
I engage with the female, presumably friend, he is with. “A lot of women really don’t like to be touched by strangers, right?” I ask her.
She nods “yeah, you should ask,” she says cautiously.
With his friend now siding with me he retreats and apologizes (although it’s not me he needs to apologize to) and says he will make sure to ask next time.
example 3: A guy took a close up picture of me while dancing. “you know you should ask me if i’m ok with you taking my picture.” I pointed out.
“oh yeah, I saw the signs”, he says dismissively.
“And?” I persisted and he goes on the defense.
“you can’t see your face in the pictures.”
“I don’t know that and for some people it might make them feel unsafe.”
“This is a public space,”his aggression started getting higher.
I engage with another man standing besides me “No, this isn’t. It’s burning man and we are trying to build a community that is safe for everyone. People come here to take off the masks they have to put on in public spaces right?” The guy beside me answers with a nod.
The selfish photographer’s social brain starts rewriting itself “oh, I guess I should reconsider.” he says slowly somethings sinking in. But is it enough?
Example 4: While standing on line for the party a guy decided to try to bully me because of my non binary gender appearance.
He laughed out load pointed figures and started asking me if I’m a guy or a girl.
“Does it matter?” I smiled.
“What the fuck?” he kept pointing and shouting loudly. Like all bullies he wanted attention so I do the opposite. I engage with others, not sure if they are his friends or not but they were very tense and silent. “I’m a complicated creature. Not everyone can be normal,” I tell them smiling. All of us except him have a good laugh and they start speaking up for me. “Yeah, we should all just do what’s good for us.” one says. The bully is still trying to get attention “But why? why do that?” he asks. One of the people started to intervene on my behalf. “It’s ok, I can tell him”. I looked at him, some parts of my brain actually managed to muster up some compassion for this fearful attention seeking creature, he really was afraid of me. I came close and while holding his gaze openly I whispered into his ear “Because life is too short to be just one person”.
His behavior totally changed. “I’m sorry, case closed” he said and went quite muttering to himself “I get it now, I get it”. Honestly I don’t think it really mattered what I told him it was more about me totally lowering my defenses, somehow projecting this notion that he has nothing to fear from me, despite my difference I would be kind and friendly if he did the same.
The hungry rapist creeps – These are people that are starving for some semblance of power, cowards at heart looking to take by force that which should only be given freely.
Example 1: I was dancing in the corner when I see a man approached a woman dancing near me. He stepped into her space uninvited. She stepped back into the wall cowering, putting up her hands defensively. He tried to kiss her and she moved her head sideways trying to push him off her.I jumped in between them stationing myself so I can still see him but providing her with some space. “Do you know this guy?” I asked her.
“Yes, he’s my friend.” she answered.
“Do you want him to touch you in this way?”
“No, I just want to dance,” she said.
I turn to the guy. “You should ask before you touch people.”
“She’s my friend”, he tried to move past me towards her but i’m faster then him and I blocked his way.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I pumped up the aggression and used my crazy eyes. He mirrored my actions and pumped up his chest. I break the formation and changed my body position moving faster and stranger then he’s probably ever seen. My hands were still in front of me if I needed to use them but they are hanging as if I was a strange puppet on strings. “She doesn’t want to kiss you.” I say with my head tilted side ways and a crooked smile.
His chest deflates he he isn’t sure how to react. “you are giving me bad vibes, let me talk to my friend”, he tries to reach around and grab her.
I fake on the most overly flirtations and sexually aggressive smile and put my hand around him. “Oh really? I didn’t mean to give you bad vibes.” I shoved my bearded side of the face towards him as if trying to kiss him.
“Don’t touch me!” he retreated freaking out.
I took a step back too. “Oh you are right. I’m so sorry I should have asked before I touched you,” I smiled his brain goes into freeze mode again and I can see this recalculation, him starting to understand he like the creep I was to him.
I talked to the woman again, showed her my make shift badge and told her she can ask me for help if she needs it. I made sure she wasnt’ dependent on this creep to get home and told her to be careful because if he doesn’t respect her boundaries here he will not respect her boundaries in other places. She thanked me and said she will talk to him. They sit down and talk I continue to dance while watching them. I also talk to another person beside me, explain the situation and tell him that if that creep harasses her again I might need his help to get security so we can kick this guy out. Honestly this was probably the hardest thing for me to do that night. My big feminist ego doesn’t want to ask for help but it is 100% the right move, so do not be ashamed to use it. The creep moved away. I talked to the woman again, gift her a blinky finger LED and did some shadow boxing example of what I would like to do to creep guys. She laughed and told me that he is a friend that just wants more from her and she explained to him she isn’t interested. I urged her to be careful and told her if i’m not around she can ask anyone else for help because there are a lot of good people in this party.
But this isn’t the end of creep guy. Later that night someone caressed my arm while I was moving on the dance floor. When I realized it was him I jumped forward and pressed a blinky toy forcefully into the corner of his eye. He let out a yelp of pain and I could see real fear on his face. “You do not touch me” I said keeping pressure on his eye doing everything I could to hold back from doing actual damage. I gave him a little shove and moved back looking at him like the despicable pathetic animal that his is. He puffed up his chest trying to save his bruised ego. But I’ve learnt that once they are really afraid of you they might keep barking but they will stay away from your bite. (Unless they are there with friends in which case get the fuck out of the place because trouble is coming).
None of my actions were perfect, nor would I advise anyone to necessarily take these specific courses of action. Self Defense is based on what characters you feel safe and able to bring out of yourself. I do hope the men and (woman) I interacted with will have some changes in their behavior, become better allies, more considerate of others or in the case of the creep I hope a small part of his brain starts predicting a woman being able to cause him massive physical damage. Despite the fact that most the harassment I encountered (although not all!) were by men and the women I personally danced with or even cuddled/made out with all asked for my consent, a male friend of mine fell asleep and was woken up by a woman laying down on him and touching him. He was rightfully angry but he did not feel physically threatened. I asked him what would have happened if he had drank too much and couldn’t physically stand up to her. “that would have been bad,” he said a tiny glimpse of the fear so many woman carry around with them flashed on to his face.
What ever course of action you do choose to take I strongly suggest you keep your eyes open and do not let these types of behaviors go unnoticed. If you are intervening on behalf of others don’t presume you know what is going on and ask. I personally regret not asking the women how she would like me to help her before taking control of the situation and I should have intervened by asking her if she can show me were there toilets where or something that would get her away without me needing to resort to more drastic measures. If you do not feel you are able to intervene ask someone else or go get help. Don’t be a silent bystander.
And to the dutch burning man organisation I have this to say. You have utterly failed in making the decompression a safe space. As I have written to you before, putting signs up in the bathroom and entrance isn’t enough! You have paid some private outside security company (the head of security wouldn’t give me the name of the company just said it was his private company!). This company did not manage to deal with the queues and people were almost getting squashed and a woman with claustrophobia collapsed! To my knowledge this security company didn’t do anything to make this a safe space. I talked to another security guy and he said he didn’t deal with any men behaving badly, which mostly means he didn’t look for any. What I describe here is only part of the of the violations of consent I saw or experienced myself so I can only be fearful in estimating the amount of people that felt violated. Dear organizers I know you are working your asses off and I know you mean well but this should be your number 1 priority. No matter how amazing the art, how good the music, if people are getting harassed on your watch at this scale (this is actually a lot worse than the usual parties I go to!!!) you are doing something very wrong. Talk to me I have ideas.
In the meantime here are 3 tips that I’ve compiled based on my studies of brain and behaviour for the past 2 years, training in Martial Arts and self defense for over 20 and previously being part of the Israeli police forensics, investigating violent crimes.
- Break the prediction break the brain
To cut things short, the brain is a prediction machine, if you break the prediction you break the brain.
Sexual predictors or bullies predictions are simple, they are usually not the most creative or intelligent specimens of humanity. They are mostly predicting fear and obedience when they harass. They almost always start with checking your borders, either by a “vague” inappropriate touch or verbally. When someone stands up to them they are predicting the regular “who has a bigger dick” behavior pattern, puffing up their chest, slowly pumping up their adrenaline and meager amount of bravery to get ready for a fight.
To break these predictions create the most unpredictable batshit crazy character. Allow yourself to be anything, from overly nice to overly scary, overly stupid, overly violent, overly sexual or even animalistic or speak gibberish. If you do not respond in the predicted way a momentarily freeze response will occur in your attackers brain. For a brief moment their brain is susceptible to your influence. Which you can use to deescalate, get away or cause serious physical damage if necessary. The moment an attacker begins to take control switch again and do something totally unpredictable.
- Use Your Social Brain
Humans have social brains, massive parts of our self identity are what others see in us. Once conflict arises, get the attentions of others as soon as possible. Engage them in the story you are creating, a story in which your perpetrator isn’t someone to be feared. The situation isn’t about just you and the perpetrator there is an active crowd now, and you can use their attention to divert the story in many ways. See the crowd as good Samaritans and not silent bystanders. The perpetrator must take notice of what’s happening and this destabilized the very simplistic social hierarchy pattern he is used to modeling. If the bystanders are friendlies don’t be ashamed to ask them for help, direct them as you would actors. If the others are the perpetrator’s friends that can still play to your advantage. Give all your attention to one of the friends, if you can tell who is the second ranking in their social hierarchy even better, pay him a compliment “what did this guy do to deserve such a cute friend like you?” Make indirect fun of the perpetrator while speaking to his friends “Are you like the spice girls and he is scary spice?” These type of social hierarchies are just waiting to start ripping each other apart. If you tell a story in which this “second in command” is actually the most powerful and an ally you might just get them to turn on each other. Remember you are smarter than these ass holes they only know how to play one game and it’s a game that is quite easy to play if you really have to.
- Play the Game
For most of us, especially women violence is a language not well understood, and a brain that doesn’t know how to predict violence will freeze when facing it. That’s why I do advocate some real hands on self defense but even without that our imagination is our greatest tool. If you don’t feel you could crush this guy just imagine someone who would decimate this idiot and enjoy it too. Look them square in the eye and see them being crushed. See their nose getting squashed by a fist, an elbow splitting their jaw sending splinterd teeth all over the room, a knee exploding their balls. Whatever gory blood thirsty images your brain can muster, bring them out, and imagine somebody (if not you), enjoying these images. Imagine that someone smile and let your mouth follow that imagination. There is nothing scarier than an unpredictable crazy person who enjoys ripping people’s eyes out. Vocalize your threats if you need to. I once screamed at a guy “I am going to rip your balls out and stuff them down your throat”. Since most men haven’t encountered a woman that can kick their ass it’s not part of their prediction. They do not believe they can come to any harm if they harass women. You don’t have to be able to hurt them just to induce the belief that maybe you can. These are cowards not looking for a fair fight. A friend of mine once got a group of fanatics looking to attack us to run away just by shouting “Dan, Mark, John, let’s kill these fuckers” while running towards them…” there were no Dan Mark or John, just me watching and learning. That same friend got out of a bunch of trouble once by speaking into his jacket lapel and shouting “Detective carter requesting immediate assistance at…”.
Remember even if your lies are found out you can always go back to playing nice, dumb or what ever. A woman in a wheel chair saved her self by relentlessly barking like a dog. You could also play the frightened cooperating person but make sure you have a joker up your sleeve. The earlier you can break the story your attacker is predicting the more able you will be to make a different ending. My recommendation is whatever happens do everything you can to not be moved to another location.
Playing glimpses of this violence loving character while giving the perpetrator a way out that maintains his delicate bruised ego (for instance by suddenly playing nice again or totally making light of the matter by laughing) should be enough to control the situation. If it isn’t and all else fails and you have no where to run, let this bloodthirsty character out to fight and shout and keep shouting! Viciously shred anyone that dares to try to harm you. Go for the neck or eyes, throw what ever you can and try to get to safety. You are so much stronger then you know!