Blurred and Cropped Version of "Grabbing 100+ Boobs at Burning Man 2013"

Like many Burners (and non-Burners), I was outraged when, yesterday, an image with variations of the title “Grabbing 100+ Boobs at Burning Man 2013” went viral. In light of the public distribution of these photos, I think it’s imperative for the public in general, and Burners in particular, to have a focused conversation about a range of important social issues including the meaning of consent, rape culture, and slut shaming.

I do not know what each woman in the photos consented to and what problems may arise if they are recognized by people they know from contexts other than Burning Man, so I am reluctant to link to or share the image. However, because it is difficult to discuss the issues in question here without making specific references to the content of the photographs and because most of the harm from distributing the image has probably already been done, I have cropped and anonymized a small portion of the long gridded image here.

A photographer named Dong Xiao claims to have produced the image, though this is unconfirmed. He has also claimed to have received an official request from the Burning Man Organization to take down all publicly available copies of the the photos. (Upon entry, attendees forfeit distribution rights to the photos that they take at Burning Man.) However, given the nature of the Internet, it will be virtually impossible to contain the image and attempts to do so may only make it more visible.

Personal accounts of encounters with the photographer are beginning to surface. It appears that the man asked and received permission to grope and photograph the women in the image, but stated only that it was going to be used for “an art project.” No mention was made about posting the photos to the Internet. I had a conversation with one Burner friend who was approached by the photographer. She recounted her experience:

My friend and I were returning to our camp from the steam baths. I was topless and my friend was wearing a bikini. We were biking down A around 8:00 when a young man flagged us down. We pulled our bikes over and he asked if we would help him with his art project. He had a fancy looking camera around his neck. I asked him how we could help, and he said, “I’m trying to take a photo of 100 women while I’m here.” There was a pretty significant pause at this point and he seemed pretty nervous and awkward. Then he went on, “The tricky part is, I have to be putting my hand on your boob in each photo.” He held his hand out low in front of his camera to demonstrate. He really struck me as a shy guy who wanted to grope women but didn’t know how to ask without having “art” as an excuse and a camera as a prop. The general vibe was off-putting–I felt uncomfortable interacting with someone under such transparent false pretenses. So I smiled and said, “I think we’re going to pass. Good luck!” and we pushed off on our bikes. He didn’t object or try to persuade us otherwise. During the exchange, he made no mention of publishing the photos on the Internet. To be honest, I was surprised to see them yesterday. I wouldn’t have thought this awkward kid would have so much visibility online when thousands of photos are taken at Burning Man every day and just sort of disappear into the anonymous din of the Internet unless they’re taken by a well-known photographer.

Another Burner confirmed this account (though suggests less consent was given) in a massive (nearly 500 comment) thread on the official Burning Man Facebook page:

This guy walked up to a friend at Nexus and was like “Can I take a picture of you.” She replied okay and he put his hand out and said for her to pretend like she’s coming at him or fighting him off, so she did and it APPEARS like he’s grabbing her boob, but isn’t. He never mentioned anything about a project. She’s in the pics. What a slimy douche.

In the same thread, a second Burner describes:

As a witness, someone who Dong approached (& declined his request), he asked if he could take a shot of him reaching towards my chest. I hesitated, he said he would not shoot my face, I got a weird pervy vibe from him & declined. He never said the name of his “project”, “Grabbing 100 Boobs at BM”, nor did he try to explain his “project”, only that it was some type of school project.

Predictably, much of the Web chatter consisted of appalling slut shaming and rape-culture fueled gestures of support for the photographer.

The most popular comments on the image at 9GAG
The most popular comments on the image at

Though overtly sexist attitudes were also expressed by some participants in Burner forums, Burners, as a whole, are taking the issue much more seriously and are debating it with concern. Unfortunately, however, much of the conversations in Burner message boards have focused on two issues:

  1. Whether the women enjoyed and consented to being groped (with frequent discussion of what their facial expressions indicate).
  2. Whether this illustrates the need for a ban on photography at Burning Man and related events.

Both questions miss the point.

Starting with the issue of consent: Many people have remarked that the women in the photos appear to be enjoying themselves. Burning Man (like other historical festivals) encourages and thrives on creating an atmosphere of mutual trust and dis-inhibition. It’s not surprising at all that participants (men or women) might consent to playful sexual interactions with strangers. After all, these sorts of interactions (and the security of the environment that facilitates them) are significant part of what distinguishes the Playa from the Default World–that makes Burning Man a place out of place and a time outside of time.

The mistake is to interpret consent to be touched or, even, consent to be photographed while being touched, as consent to have one’s images shared across the Web or posted in a manner so as to make it inevitable that they will be shared across the Web. When it comes to sharing something as explicit as sexual photos (especially as a stranger), nothing less than explicit consent (preferably written) from a person who is unquestionably sober is acceptable. As one Burner in suggested on the official Facebook forum:

Informed consent would require a release, really, as this would be considered sexual enough in nature that you would want to be damn sure everyone was over 18 and aware these photos might end up online.

Perhaps more than anyone else, a professional photographer should understand this. By not disclosing his full intentions, the photographer foreclosed the possibility of ever receiving consent. Denying someone the opportunity to consent to something when you know they may very well decline is, to put it bluntly, rapey behavior.
In the words of another Burner commenting of Facebook:

This guy represented himself deceitfully by intimating that he was doing a legit “project”. Preying on the “participatory” nature of the event & preying on at least 100 young women to want to help with a “project” – not knowing their images would later be plastered all over the internet. I feel for these women, who deserved “full transparent disclosure” when their photos where shot.

Focusing on whether or not the women appear to be having fun in the photos deflects attention away from the photographer and his responsibility to disclose his full intentions and to protect the privacy of the individuals who entrusted him with their images. Expressing one’s sexual agency does not somehow negate one’s right to privacy–a fact that our society seems to have a particularly hard time processing when it comes to women’s sexual agency.

The assumptions of rape culture still seep into discussions of the image within the Burner community, though more subtly. Rather than simply saying “She acts like that she deserves it.” responses often take the tone that “She should have known that if she let herself be photographed it would be all over the Internet.” For example, one Burner said on the Facebook boards:

it should be pretty obvious to anyone than 99% of the photos taken nowadays (at BM or anywhere else) are posted on some website (facebook, flickr, etc), and from there they can be (and will be) duplicated, possibly going viral. we don’t know where the images were initially posted. it’s very hard to locate a source when photos go viral.

And, similarly:

I agree that this is a STUPID project, by the way. But what sort of camera “project” is not posted on the internet in someway?

Such reactions are merely the latest examples of what Whitney Erin Boesel calls the Shame on You paradigm of victim-blaming in cases of privacy violation. She explains:

the control of personal information and the protection of personal privacy are not just individual responsibilities, but also moral obligations… A privacy violation is… ultimately a failure of vigilance, a failure of prescience; it redefines as disclosure the instant in which we should have known better, regardless of what it is we should have known. Accordingly, the greatest shame in compromised privacy is not what is exposed, but the fact of exposure itself. We judge people less for showing women their genitals, and more for being reckless enough to get caught doing so on Twitter.

Through the lens of the Shame on You paradigm, the women whose right to consent is violated are deemed responsible for their own violation because it is their responsibility to anticipate how an abuser might abuse them and to take preventative measures. The logical conclusion of this line of thinking is that women should never consent to being recorded in the context of sexual activity. Thus, as the case in question illustrates, the Shame on You paradigm denies women sexual agency, particularly any sort of exhibitionist expression of sexual agency. In fact, we could go further and conclude that, because portable digital device makes the capture of images an ever-present possibility, the Shame on You paradigm stigmatizes any sort of public nudity for women. In light of these implications of the Shame on You paradigm, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would argue it is consistent with the values of the Burner community.

Turning now to the focus on whether or not photography should be banned at Burning Man. Throughout past decade (during which Burning Man has seen explosive growth), photography and its relationship to the festival have changed. Digital cameras are now in the pockets of almost all who attend, and social media has blurred the line between “personal use” and “public distribution” to such a degree that it has become nearly untenable. So, I respect the impulse to reexamine policies on photography. However, by attempting to make it the central issue in this case, scrutiny is, again, deflected away from the actions of the photographer and the rape culture that normalizes those actions. Banning photography will do nothing to resolve the underlying issue that Default World attitudes about privacy and consent manifest on Playa. In fact, it’s hard to imagine these issue truly being resolved without broader cultural change both inside and outside the Burner community. After all, there will always be Burn “virgins.” And, increasingly, Burning Man has to deal with a contingent of “Burn Tourists” who simply attend to consume the event rather than to participate.

Instead of discussing whether women in these images enjoyed being groped or whether photography should be banned, we should be talking about how to practice two core values of the Burning Man community: civic responsibility and sharing. Both on Playa and on the Web, when someone consents to share something (particularly something of a sensitive nature) with you, you are, in turn, accepting responsibility for the thing shared. Where durable digital documents are concerned, the concept of consent implies a lasting responsibility to respect the privacy of what you have been given access to. As danah boyd and Alice Marwick explain, privacy is something society produces collectively by establishing norms and practices that maintain it. So, we don’t just have an individual responsibility keep private things private; we also a collective responsibility to create social structures conducive to that end.

What the photographer who created this image did is wrong because he failed to live up to his responsibility to protect the privacy of what was shared with him by re-sharing the photos in a way that made it almost inevitable that they reach an audience far wider than what he could reasonably assume the women had consented to. Moreover, in the selfish pursuit personal visibility, he threw the women he photographed under the bus of the slut-shaming ridicule that is pervasive in our culture. An additional problem for the Burner community, however, is that this incident has demonstrated a failure in Burner culture to enforce norms and practices that respect consent and privacy. This makes our community look shameful to the outside world. We need to do better.

PJ Rey (@pjrey) is a sociologist, photographer, and Burner currently based in Austin.