Is There Serious Crime at Burning Man?

I was recently asked a question that surprised, even stunned me.  After watching some YouTube and Vimeo videos about Burning Man, a friend asked me if there was a lot of rape at Burning Man.

Rape at Burning Man?  I’d never heard of such a thing.  Nor had I heard about anything approaching violent crime – unless you consider stealing bikes a violent crime.  So what I told my friend is what I’ve written here for years – that Burning Man is a peaceful and loving environment where we’ve always felt totally safe.

I still believe that’s true – for the most part.  But it turns out that in a city of more than 60,000 people, crime does occur.  And in 2013, there was indeed a rape on the open playa.  That’s deeply upsetting to me, and totally unacceptable.  But the statistical reality is that the crime rate at Burning Man has actually gone down as the population has risen.  Most crime at Burning Man is the victimless variety – use of illegal drugs and underage drinking, for example.  There was the famous arson attack on the Man that occurred a few years ago early in the festival, but we know that the individual involved was a psychologically disturbed individual who tragically took his own life a few years after the incident.

There’s plenty of law enforcement present at Black Rock City – sworn officers from the Federal Bureau of Land Management, the State of Nevada, and the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office. There are also our own Black Rock Rangers who are neither armed nor authorized to make arrests.  The Rangers are there to help anyone in trouble or in need of assistance such as directions or a trip to the medical tent.  The Rangers also have a special group that interfaces with the various law enforcement agencies to try to tamp down tensions between the cops the Burners.  Rangers are an invaluable part of the Burning Man culture, can be lifesavers when you’re lost in a dust storm and are some of the hardest working volunteers at the festival.

BLM Rangers patrolling the playa in their decorated vehicles

BLM Rangers patrolling the playa in their decorated vehicles

So what is the actual crime situation at Burning Man?  Early statistics show that arrests totaled 15 at this year’s festival – down from 20 in 2012, and that there were 50 reports of crimes.  The vast majority of reported crimes were stolen property, but there was that one rape and other apparent reports of sexual assault.

I think I understand why my friend asked about rape after watching Burning Man videos.  There’s plenty of what might be called “provocative” dress at Burning Man – or, it would be provocative in the default world.  But nudity, toplessness, pasties, and barely there tops and bottoms (on both men and women) are so typical at Burning Man that they can’t truly be called provocative.  Most important, rape and sexual assault are not about sex – they’re about power and control.  So it probably wouldn’t matter how you were dressed if you came in contact with a serial rapist brandishing a weapon.  The greatest protection we have at Burning Man is the fact that violence is anathema to the culture of the Burn.  I can’t imagine anyone failing to intervene in an unwelcome sexual assault on the Playa.

But I also have to admit to an impact on me knowing that there have been, and likely will continue to be, a tiny number of violent crimes on the playa. We still have to take personal responsibility for our own safety.  Wandering the deep playa alone – especially at night — is tempting fate.  Going out alone may never be a good idea, for a variety of reasons, including the possibility of losing your way in a dust storm.

Wearing or not wearing whatever you wish has nothing to do with this warning.  Rape is not about love or sex.  Violence is not about the victim’s behavior.  It’s about the behavior and sick mind of the perpetrator.  And in any group of 60,000 people, there will always be a few sick minds.