Consent Culture at Burning Man, & What I Saw in the Orgy Dome

I had every intention of getting buck wild at Burning Man. I pictured Bacchanal-inspired parties in the vein of Eyes Wide Shut and mysteriously shaded rooms where the only thing visible was the outline of bodies writhing on top of one another. I had packed my Xaga Curve just in case and pictured myself being brought to ecstasy by some worshipful Burner. Instead, what I was met with was a much more mindful, holistic sexual experience.

Everyone gets a Burning Man guidebook when they arrive, which contains a map of the seven-mile city along with information about the different camps and their various events. As I scanned for debaucherous dealings, I came across bush grooming, bi-curious play, BDSM, polyamorous meet ups, tantric workshops, and everything in between. Trying to plan your Burning Man according to the guidebook is overwhelming, and because the festival is so big and the weather so hot, you pretty much end up hanging out in the surrounding areas of your camp until the sun sets. Lucky for us, we were just one block over from the infamous Orgy Dome.

I know a lot of people who have attended Burning Man, but curiously, none of them had ever entered the Orgy Dome. The Orgy Dome camp, as well as the festival overall, has received its share of criticism in recent years, with multiple women claiming to have been sexually assaulted. Previous years lacked adequate education about gaining consent from a prospective partner, as well as support for victims. In a setting where it is common to take psychedelics and other mind-altering drugs, it’s even more important to provide a safety net.

So even though the 15-minute consent talk that everyone entering the Orgy Dome was forced to endure was a little tiresome, I appreciated their thoroughness. No one is allowed to enter without a partner, and after you’ve been checked in, there are three rooms to choose from. One is a low-pressure room for mingling, where you can stay as long as you like until you’ve warmed up and are ready for action. The next is labeled “Just Us” and is for couples only interested in playing with each other. The final room is “Open For More” and is where just about anything goes, so long as you are respectful and receive an “enthusiastic yes” from anyone you’re hoping to get down and dirty with.

It was about 4am the first time we visited the Orgy Dome. I was about ready for bed, but curious enough to take the dome for a test drive. My boyfriend and I boldly bypassed the “Just Us” room and went straight for “Open for More.” We snuggled into a couch and began a lazy version of foreplay. While our hands and mouths were busy with each other, our eyes scanned the room.

I’ve been to my fair share of kink events and play parties and found the Orgy Dome fairly tame in comparison. For one it was quiet, with only the occasional moan or throaty “Yes!” as a soundtrack. As much as Burning Man champions “free love” even those “Open for More” were selective in choosing their lovers.

Just as we were beginning to get hot and heavy, I changed positions and broke my glasses in half with my knee. Funny, as I’d had a premonition earlier that day that my glasses wouldn’t make it through the week. As it turned out, it was day 2.

Realistically I knew that there was nothing to be done to fix my glasses at 4am and that I should just put it out of my mind until later that morning, but I couldn’t get back into the mood. I kept thinking about how my legally-blind ass was going to bike back to camp.

Only one polite European man asked if he could join us. My boyfriend nodded at me. “It’s up to her,” he said, but exhausted and mentally preoccupied with my glasses I respectfully declined his offer.

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized how much people love being naked on the playa - especially men. I definitely saw my fair share of nude women as well, but men seemed especially eager to parade around in their birthday suits.

That afternoon our entire camp headed across the playa for a DJ set on an art car and happened upon a naked bar crawl. I can say with confidence that I have never seen that many dicks in my life. Dicks of every color and variety, circumcised and uncircumcised, affixed to every type of body you could imagine. It probably would have been terrifying if the majority of them hadn’t been gay men.

We climbed atop an art car resembling a sheep and began dancing on the top deck. Naked men cycled in and out and after a while my friends and I began to feel left out. At first I took off my shirt, silently praising myself for wearing a cute push-up bra. But as I looked around, I couldn’t help appreciating a beauty in the diversity present and how every person, regardless of how their body would be received in the regular world, was proudly celebrating their size.

“Okay!” I announced to my naked dance partner. “I’m going to do it!”

He cheered me on and fumbled to help me unlatch my bra, muttering to himself, “My God, it’s been years since I’ve tried to get one of these things off.”

After my nipples were freed, he reached for the zipper on my shorts, but respectfully backed off when I told him I was going to keep those on for now. My boyfriend disrobed completely, slathering sunscreen on his member as an extra precaution. Another one of my friends, who is normally reserved with her body and sexuality, also took off her top. She remained topless for the rest of the day, and later on told us how liberating it had been to move past that block.

As the week wore on, I witnessed conscious connections prevail over mindless hookups. I saw that same reserved friend open up as she allowed a new romantic prospect to enter her life. I attended a workshop on divine tantric sex that encouraged us to seek pleasure over orgasm and helped us warm up to strangers through prolonged eye contact.

The desire to get buck wild waned and my craving for authentic attachments grew stronger. Sex parties temporarily lost their appeal and it wasn’t until our last full day at Burning Man that we returned to the Orgy Dome.

It was by far the hottest day and we only had a couple of hours to kill before we had to help our camp break down and pack up the Uhaul. We were sipping beer in the shade when we remembered the one place at Burning Man that has air conditioning -- the Orgy Dome!

Our intention was to cool off for an hour before we had to work in the hot sun. We’d only had one shower the entire week, were harboring dust in curious places, and sex was the furthest thing from our mind.

Surprisingly, we seemed to be the only ones with this idea. As we entered the dome, we saw many couples taking advantage of its intended purpose. Not wanting to be obvious that we were just there for the cool air, we found a mattress and loosely spooned one another, pretending like we were taking our time warming up. It wasn’t long before the pheromones hit us and we began to get aroused.

As I scanned the room, I saw many couples engaging in what looked to be sacred, tantric sex. One man was lovingly massaging his female partner and another couple making intense eye contact as they masturbated together. In the past, many of the sex parties I’ve attended were geared towards men, with homo- and bisexuality only being acceptable when it was two women engaging in it for the entertainment of their male partners. The sex was shallow, with people seeming to choose partners based on proximity rather than chemistry.

And so I was pleased to see that Burning Man was ahead of the curve in that regard, and that despite whatever stereotypes persist about the festival being a haven for drugged up hippies, it truly is a place where one can explore whatever they feel most drawn to. It was at Burning Man that I realized that deep, authentic connections are available to us in the most unlikely of places, if only we take a moment to stop and look around.