Burners and Boundaries

I wrote the following this morning in response to a discussion about rape culture amongst my Burner friends in California. This is something I have had a chance to contemplate, deeply, over the past 10 or so years. I think it is an elegant, simple solution to dealing with predators and bullies. I hope you find it useful.


It is no secret that our  members tend to hate rules and boundaries. With that in mind, I would like to make a very modest proposal.

If we want to continue having an environment of permissiveness, fun and wacky, crazy, raunchy, silly social activity, there MUST be a baseline of acceptable behavior. I propose that assaulting people sexually, physically or psychologically, stealing and vandalism are grounds for being ejected from large group activities (people are, of course, free to continue friendships with individuals on their own in small, intimate settings, if that is what they choose).
That leaves things very wide open for all sorts of activities, behaviors and craziness – it allows for most things. But the behaviors named above, while widely practiced in our world, are not considered acceptable, ethical behavior in any society or group anywhere. I do not think it is too much to ask to be able to go to an event or gathering or party and not have to feel in danger because of the presence of another member of the community. I think it is reasonable to ask that a firm boundary be put in place on these things. Without it, all other boundaries, big or small, are invalid. It is simply not possible to have an anything goes environment, and to continue to pretend it does will only result in further deterioration of the social fabric of the group and individuals getting hurt.
Now, of course, there are many in the group who like to test, push, expand and demolish boundaries. I think it is fantastic that we have created a place where people can do these things, and I want to see this continue. And here I am going to propose something radical and unheard-of. It is subtle, but it makes a huge difference in how we interact with each other, and could go a very long way to keeping people from being hurt, intentionally or unintentionally.
It is fine to play on the edge with your own boundaries. But if you want the freedom to do this in a way that involves other people, it is YOUR responsibility to make sure that  others actually WANT their boundaries pushed. We tend to say that it is the responsibility of the person who doesn’t like or enjoy the activity to remove themselves from the situation (see: blame the victim), but I disagree with that. You want the freedom? You take the responsibility for what you do. And it is a very simple, tiny thing to stop and check in with the other person or people.
By adopting this guideline, three things happen: first off, people who want to push the boundaries of others can continue to do so. Second, they get to play with people who want their boundaries pushed. And third, and most importantly, it gives those who don’t want to play the chance to say no, possibly avoiding a situation where the individual opting out could be damaged by their unwilling participation. All of us are raised with almost no instruction about how to set our boundaries, negotiate getting what we want and – most importantly – saying NO. When people get their boundaries crossed because someone else pushed them, we then put all the onus on the person who was injured for not setting firm boundaries in a way that we find acceptable (see: blame the victim again).
This is not about what people are doing. It is about the non-consensual nature of what they are doing. I will tell you, from my own personal experience, when others selfishly and narcissistically set out to provide others with an experience they don’t want, there is no way to predict what the consequences of such actions might be. I’d like to give you a quote from one of the women who psychologically raped me 9 years ago:

“I would like to propose (what seems to be) an unpopular opinion.  There is nothing at all wrong with making people feel uncomfortable.  In fact, I think it is impossible to *make* anybody feel anything at all.

I propose that comfort breeds complacency, stagnancy and other nouns which cause my heart of hearts make a noise that sounds like “Blech!”  Pushing buttons is fine.  Boundaries cannot be breached if they are not tested.  Boundary crossing is bound to happen.  Continuing to cross a boundary after someone has asked you to stop can range from impolite to jail-worthy.  But suggesting that boundaries ought not be crossed at all is unreasonable.”

Apparently what the people being made to feel uncomfortable wanted or needed didn’t factor into the equation. At all. I know for a fact that these people were not bothered in the slightest that I was physically ill for a year because of their radical self-expression; after all I “didn’t take personal responsibility for myself” and remove myself from the situation. This attitude was defended, glorified and excused so many times that I ended up leaving the group, permanently. I know this is an extreme example, but I see people doing crap like this in ways large and small, and those who dare to speak up are shamed, mocked and attacked for not being hardcore enough. Put up or shut up is not a good way to run a community, and smacks greatly of the claim of censorship that people use to justify exercising their freedom at all costs, regardless of the effect it might have on others. If people want to play on the edge that’s fine, but we need to make sure that there is room in the spectrum for those who seek a different experience that might be considered more traditional, quiet, introverted, etc.

My boyfriend is often fond of saying that we claim we want to live in a free society, but what we really want is to live in a narcissistic society where we can do whatever the fuck we want and there are no consequences for our actions. I have seen a lot of that sort of behavior in the nearly 20 years I’ve been involved with Burner culture. At its mildest, it can be merely annoying, but at its most extreme, it can destroy someone’s life. It certainly isn’t practiced by everyone – I do believe that most burners are good people who want to connect, belong and take care of their fellow freaks – but our continued tolerance for the bad apples simply cannot continue.

I know I have just opened a huge can of worms, but as a friend said, it’s like the Berlin Wall of rape culture is currently coming down in our society. It is time to address this stuff head on in our own circles, especially since we tend to think of ourselves as cultural pioneers who are forming new ways of relating to each other. I have conversations about this stuff all the time with my women friends, but I also know none of it will change until men start standing up and speaking out as well. This group is filled with men I love, admire and respect, men who are thoughtful, respectful and protective of their friends. If you are one of those men, please add your voice and thoughts to this conversation.