The morning after it happens, the men at my Burning Man camp say some version of this: Show me who he is, and I will break his arms.
Our unofficial camp leader, a woman a few years older than me, says: “We don’t have to be assholes to him. We can give him a chance to see what he did was wrong and help him be a better person.”
This is what’s wrong with women, or at least what has always been wrong with me. This is what I have always done at least—we try to “help” men become better versions of themselves, which amounts to accepting unacceptable behavior. But I wasn’t playing along anymore. I said, “That was his mother’s job, and quite frankly, she did a shitty job. He’s a sexual predator, and if he comes near me again, I’m calling law enforcement, not a Black Rock Ranger, but the police, and having him removed from the playa.”
And of course, in my own way, I am one of those women-blaming women—his mother’s fault? That’s what I said, but I realize that’s so very wrong, too.
You know whose job it is to make sure he’s a good person?
It’s his own fucking job.
At Burning Man, you’re supposed to resolve your issues with a Black Rock Ranger, someone who can come and negotiate problems on the playa, but I was beyond that. I wanted to call someone with handcuffs and a squad car, someone who could take him away. But would they? I didn’t know.
I know what you’re thinking about Burning Man. And if you haven’t been there, I probably can’t convince you that before this, it felt like one of the safest places I have ever been. But let’s say that stereotypes mean more than my lived experience: I was a woman in a place that wasn’t safe. How safe is the disco, the bar, the streets at night? How safe is the workplace, the classroom, the church?
Any place can be the wrong place. I know that. And I guess I have always known that, but never wanted to accept that knowing and everything that goes along with it.
Until recently, which in my case has come late. I’m 47 years old. When is it finally old enough to know better?
That afternoon, I am riding my beach cruiser across the playa, which is an ancient lakebed, at Burning Man. Wind tumbles into a white cloud on the distant horizon—a dust storm. But I’m not afraid, even though I probably should be. I’m headed for deep playa alone, past the art structures and art cars—the one-eyed cyclops blasting house music and bumblebee, the wooden Phoenix and the wise owl. I know could be caught in a white-out, but I don’t care. I’m too angry to be afraid. And I am thinking, “That fucker!”
But then I realize that I have finally done the thing, which for so many years I could not do—I stood my ground with a man in a way I hadn’t done before.
I know it’s taken me too long to get here, but I think only this: here I am at last.
I had been camping with my friends from my hometown, and our Burning Man “gift” was a bar. My friend Tammy and I were scheduled to bartend, so she stood behind the bar, and I went out onto the street to bark in our “customers”: “Get your drinks here! Organic juice and vodka. Bad advice. Cupcakes,” I shouted into the megaphone. A man in a sarong and a straw hat came walking up, though it was more of a swagger. He wanted a drink and advice. I told him to tell me a problem, and I would solve it.
I love nothing more than to give advice. If I couldn’t solve my own problems, then the next best thing would be to solve someone else’s.
He told me about his neighbor at Burning Man, how he had been with her but didn’t want to sleep with her again. I told him to be upfront with her, that there are plenty of other men, I guessed, who would gladly stand in and become her new Burning Man boyfriend. The man with the straw hat told me that was terrible advice and swaggered up to the bar. I continued shouting pithy slogans into my megaphone.
Yes, I should have realized at that very moment that he was seeing how far he could go with me, because “been with her” and “slept with her” are my translations, my approximation of his language—he had said he fucked her, didn’t he? I’m not sure, but looking back, I think, yes, he must have said it in this way. Even my memory has learned to translate for men.
And this is also where I tell myself I should have known better, but why do I always blame myself?
Because I always have, that’s why.
When my bar shift was over, I poured myself a vodka with organic juice and pulled up a lawn chair next to this man with the sarong and straw hat. We introduced ourselves, using our Burning Man names. I told him I was Sassy. He went by Dizzy. We were about the same age and ended up talking about the music of our youth and then moved onto other aspects of popular culture from the 70s, 80s, and 90s—the Bee Gees, roller skating parties, the time the Brady Bunch stole the Hawaiian idol and were cursed until they returned it. And all those Twilight Zone episodes! It’s fun to remember these things with somebody else, especially with organic juice and vodka in your hand, the sun on your shoulders, the desert stretched out before you.
I want to say this: It’s okay to sit down next to a person and laugh with him. It means nothing other than you are sitting down and laughing. Maybe it’s for myself that I am saying this.
His pupils were pinpricks. I guessed he was on something, but I don’t know how to read pupils. I had to use the restroom, and he said he did, too, so we walked to the porta-potties together. Within minutes, a dust storm tumbled toward us, and by the time we finished in the porta-potties, we ran through a white-out and back to camp for cover. We banged on the door of my friend’s RV, seeking refuge.
By now, Dizzy was complimenting everything from my freckles to my feet, but none of it seemed overly flirtatious—at least that’s what I told myself. He was a massage therapist, and kept telling me that he could see that I was tense. I told him I was married and he was not allowed to touch me. Yes, I said those words: “You are not allowed to touch me.” Burning Man can be a sexually charged place, but also a place that promotes boundaries. I wanted to be clear.
In the RV, Dizzy gave Tammy a shoulder massage, and I felt relieved that his attention had turned elsewhere, told myself he was on something—maybe ecstasy and just wanted to touch someone. It had nothing to do with me.
After the dust storm, I said I was going out onto the playa. The sun was setting and the light would be perfect for photographs. He asked, “Can I come with you?” I told him that I was taking my bike. He said his bike was at a camp next door. I shrugged and said, “Sure, why not?”
We watched a giant marionette strut across the playa, and then stopped at a dome with fish lens eyes holes, and I went inside to take a photograph. Just as I did, Dizzy stood outside in front of the small window and flashed me his dick.
“Seriously?” I said even though no one was listening. I was shocked but then angry. Fuck him, I thought. I have to get away from him.
And I will say this also: His dick was not impressive.
While I was still kneeling at the small window, I deleted the picture off my camera—I wanted to erase him. I came out of the dome, and Dizzy was there, rubbing a woman’s shoulders. I saw this as my chance to escape. I got onto my bike and pedaled away without his notice.
On my way back to camp, I stopped at a party and saw some friends and listened to music. By the time I returned to my camp, it was dark. Dizzy was still there, sitting in our makeshift bar with some of the others. He came up to me and said, “You left because you were jealous, right? You saw me talking to those other girls, and you got mad.”
“I was mad,” I said, “but not because of that.”
“Then what?” He smiled in that way men smile when they are trying to be charming. When they are trying to get beneath our skin.
I stood where I was, not wanting my campmates to hear this exchange, not wanting someone to tell me that getting flashed at Burning Man was no big deal. Hadn’t I had coffee and eggs with the shirt-cocking campmate from next door? I knew this was different but wasn’t sure how to explain it. Dizzy came over to me, into the darkness. We stood in the shadows of an RV, and I said, “You flashed me.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said. But he laughed, as if I was being silly to make such a fuss. Especially at Burning Man.
And then I did that thing I wish I did not do—I told him that we could be friends, that his attention was flattering, but, but, but. The same shit I have been saying for years to men who act like assholes: It’s okay. You’re okay. Don’t worry, I’ll shoulder this again.
As a young woman, I knew my charm was my power. Hadn’t my own mother told me this? To be the wrong kind of bitch was to give up the only power I held. And had I really told myself that we could be friends because we both liked the same episode of the Twilight Zone? That that was enough to make up for the dick flash?
I was guilty of allowing for the erasure of a man’s bad behavior because I had learned it was easier, or maybe just too familiar. And this is where I want to apologize to other women because I have never properly stood up for myself. I have let men think that the lines they crossed—into sexual harassment, assault, predation—have been annoying but on the whole, all right.
But here’s the thing: they never were.
But somehow, I didn’t have the right words—only the shame I felt. Or maybe I was too embarrassed to make a fuss. I mean, shouldn’t I be grateful someone was paying attention to me? Wouldn’t that give me power like my mother had suggested? And if it went badly, as it so often had, wasn’t that somehow my fault?
“Just don’t do anything like that again,” I think I said to Dizzy.
He agreed. We might even have hugged. I hope we didn’t, but I can’t say for sure. By then, I had had a couple drinks. And I was in a hurry, leaving again to cross the playa to Celestial Bodies Bar for my friend Blondie’s memorial. I do know this for sure: Dizzy asked me if he could go with me, and I said he couldn’t. I went to my pick-up truck, got some water, a sweater, more lights for my bike, and I pedaled off.
After Blondie’s memorial, I rode back across the playa to my own camp. By this time, it was near midnight. Dizzy was still sitting at our bar, but I was able to sneak past to my camp without him seeing me. I crawled into the back of my truck and fell asleep.
When I had told my husband my plans to sleep in the back of the truck, he had said, “But it doesn’t lock. Someone can reach in.” I told him this was Burning Man, and no one would ever do that, that I would be completely safe. This was my eighth year at Burning Man, and I had never felt threatened. It felt like one of the safest places I knew. I may have even called my husband silly.
But from a deep sleep, I emerged, thinking I heard someone trying to get into the cab of the truck and then shrugged it off and turned over—maybe one of my campmates came home drunk and mistook my truck for theirs?
Then a few minutes later, someone turned the latches of the shell, opened the window and started to pull down the tailgate. I shot up: “Who’s there? Who is it?”
“Me? Me?” I said. “There is no one here named Me!”
Only my husband, my mother, and sometimes my best gay boyfriend called themselves by the name Me.
“It’s me,” he repeated and then gave me a name I had never heard before. Then said, “It’s me, Dizzy,” realizing I didn’t know his real name.
That’s when I started screaming: “Get out of here!”
After I repeated my screams, he shut the gate and the back window and must have backed away. And I lay there, stiff as a hairbrush, afraid to go back to sleep. And this is what I thought: He can come back and rape me if he wants. I thought about what might make a possible weapon: my Swiss army knife, my lantern, a bottle of wine? I stayed like that, clutching the sheet around my neck, a wine bottle at the ready, terrified until dawn.
The next day, I asked my campmates if anyone had heard me shouting, and no one had. Everyone was wearing earplugs and with BANG, the drum set camp next door, no one had heard me scream.
And then he came back.
The next afternoon, I was putting my things into my bike basket, ready to ride away, and he appeared back at my truck. He said, “I just wanted to apologize for scaring you. I didn’t mean to. Everyone was asleep and I just wanted to see if you wanted to go out on the playa.”
“Listen,” I said. “You did scare me, and you better never come near me again, nor do that to anyone else on the playa. Or anywhere else.”
“I apologized,” he said again, as if he should get a Boy Scout badge for apology.
“I’m glad,” I said. “But you came, uninvited into my camp, into my personal space. Where I was sleeping. I set boundary after boundary with you. Please go away, and don’t come back here again. If I see you near my camp, I’m calling the police.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“Okay,” my voice was now shaking even though I’d rehearsed this in case he came by. “Now go away. If you don’t go away now, I’ll scream. We have a ranger in camp, and I will have him call law enforcement. Not a ranger but the police.”
At that he walked away. Then he stopped, turned around, and walked back toward me. I stared at him, incredulous. I was trying to attach my water into my bike basket with a carabineer, but I was trembling.
“Does that mean you’re mad at me?” he asked.
I laughed. “Mad? Mad? Yes, I’m mad. And I’m going to stay mad. Like forever. Go away.” I pointed out toward the dusty road. “Now. Get out of here. I mean it.”
And it was true: I wasn’t cajoled nor flattered. I was fucking pissed.
And this was new. And I felt something new: a surge of power.
He turned and left, and I hopped onto my bicycle and pedaled away without looking back. I had planned to bike across the playa to visit my friend Jim at Patsy’s, his local gayborhood bar, but instead I headed for deep playa, no longer frightened, only angry.
And then something else happened—the realization that I have finally stood up for myself. Dizzy expected me to try to make him feel better when he came back and asked me if I was angry. And a younger me would have said some version of this: It’s okay. Don’t worry about it, and worst of all, I’m flattered.
I might have complimented him for his courageous act of apology. I’m sorry. Don’t worry. Thank you. I’m flattered.
Flattered. As if all it takes to prove our worth as women is the attention of a man—any man, even one who makes inappropriate advances, who was most probably fucked up on drugs, one who tries to make light of predatory behavior.
And who doesn’t even have a nice dick. It’s okay for me to get that in, right?
After saying, “That’s okay,” my younger self would have scrutinized every detail, trying to decide if it wasn’t her fault, if she hadn’t been the one to blame—like she did with her junior high science classmate who grabbed her crotch during dissections. And for the time she was told she was a “tease” in a Hawaiian hotel room and barely escaped, clothes ripped. And for the time her college genetics professor tried to kiss her in the elevator, and the dean said there was nothing to be done, so she had to accept the failing grade because she said no. And the random pussy grabs in crowded elevators and city streets, the thousand cat calls, and all the rest. Was she too friendly? The neckline of her dress too low? The paint on her toenails too flirty?
My younger self believed that she had to be worthy of his wanting—just enough without asking for too much. And when he crossed the line, it had to be her fault. These memories flip through my mind as I ride across the playa. I pass an art car, blasting tropical music, revelers dancing under papier-mâché palm trees in the hot sun. The echo of a distant drumbeat rolls across the ancient lakebed. I taste the alkaline dust and the smoke from smoldering fires from the previous evening’s burns. And I cringe at all the moments in my life where I acted flattered in the face of sexual harassment.
The etymology of the word “to flatter” comes from the old French flater, which means “to deceive; caress; fondle; throw and fling (to the ground).” A later definition is to give a pleasing but false impression.
So, as it turns out, it always was flattery. But now I finally understood it for what it was: deceit and being flung to the ground.
I rode into the dusty wind, the burden of my shame finally lifted—as if I was seeing my life through another window, and all those past transgressions are no longer mine.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award) as well as four collections of poetry. Her work has been published recently in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, Brevity, and The Rumpus. She teaches for the low residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College and serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate. She lives in South Lake Tahoe, California.