2013 8 May

How My Self-Published Book About Pickup Artists Made Me Famous In Germany

On April 27th, I returned from a week-long trip to Berlin, and I’m still kinda shell-shocked. Over that week, I spent hours every day being interviewed by all sorts of people: Europe’s biggest newspaper, for example. The German edition of Andy Warhol’s magazine, Interview. Four different German television stations. (Seriously. Four.)

This is all because my first self-published book, Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, has been acquired by a “real” German publisher. The German translation of Confessions will soon be available in many German-language stores.

Perhaps oddly, this is my first deal with a traditional publisher. I started out as an obscure subculture blogger/activist, and then people started calling me an expert, and then I started selling articles and getting speaking engagements, but all my books have been 100% self-published and self-promoted until now. I used the constellation of platforms that we now call “social media” to aggressively promote my ideas, but I certainly did not expect my self-published book to captivate Germany. I don’t even speak German!

I am handling such complicated feelings. It is taking me forever to write this. But my first TV interview just aired — the channel is Taff on Pro7, and the German translation of my words has occasioned much discussion on my Facebook wall. Unfortunately the interview cannot be viewed from the USA, but there was also a recent article in a well-respected German newspaper, Zeit. (I hear that Zeit is analogous to the Sunday Times.)

There’s been other coverage too, plus a lot more on the way. So I guess now is the time to put this out into the world.

* * *

Where to begin?

The translation deal began with a piece of fan mail last year, early 2012. The message came from Jennifer Kroll, who bought Confessions on Amazon after the book hit #1 in two categories. She found me on Facebook and wrote: “I don’t think I have ever recommended a book that frequently to anyone before, and I work in publishing.”

We talked, and then we talked more. She flew me to Berlin, and then she flew me to Berlin again.


2014 7 Aug

New Oxford Anthology About Sexuality Features One Of My Best Articles!

One of my blog posts, “BDSM As A Sexual Orientation and Consequences of the Orientation Model,” has been reprinted in the anthology Sexualities: Identities, Behaviors, and Society, edited by Michael Kimmel and published by Oxford.

This is obviously ridiculously cool, and I’m so psyched about it. Unfortunately for me, there was an editorial snafu and my article in the book was mislabeled. The author of my piece is listed as Corey A. Brown. Brown did, in fact, write an essay — but Brown’s essay is a different essay from mine. (In fact, if anyone knows Brown and can connect me, that would be great, as I’d love to coordinate with them about this.)

Of course, Michael Kimmel sent me his regrets, and the error will be fixed in upcoming editions. I’m looking forward to meeting him when he attends the upcoming American Sociological Association conference in San Francisco. I plan to drop by the Sexualities section of the conference, so if you’re a sociologist and you’ll be attending, please say hi!

If you want to get a copy of the Oxford anthology, you can buy it on Amazon.

Plus: The article “BDSM As A Sexual Orientation” is one of my best pieces, and is thus available in my epically awesome collection The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn.

2013 12 Oct

Oral History of BDSM Experience: The Your Personal Kink project at the Leather Archives

Back in 2011, I volunteered semi-regularly at the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago — the world’s only BDSM museum. The museum’s executive director, Rick Storer, knew that I had a strong interest in the history and culture of the BDSM community. He also knew that I was very interested in understanding different people’s experiences and perspectives on BDSM — the good, the bad, the surprising and fascinating.

So one day, Rick and I sat down and developed an oral history project that we named the Your Personal Kink project. Here’s how we described the project’s goals at the time:

The goal for the “Your Personal Kink Project” is to collect information about the experience of people who do not identify as part of the “BDSM community,” but who practice BDSM in their relationships. By “BDSM Community” we mean the wide network of dungeons, educational demonstrations, conventions, club nights, meetups, and other fora that function to socially network, educate, and acculturate many BDSMers.


2013 3 Oct

Extra Book Covers for “BDSM & Culture: 50 Shades of Stereotype”

So, right now I’m telling everyone about my latest book. I mentioned that I’m pretty excited about the cover:

I got this cover by running a design contest at the website 99Designs. (You can see all the entries in the contest here.) But after I announced the contest on Twitter and started telling my friends about it, I was surprised that a few people got upset. One of them linked to this comic that talks about why contests are bad for artists.

To be clear, I have entered many contests in my life as a writer and artist. I’ve won some and lost some, and I don’t think that I have been exploited. But I was already feeling bad about the amount of time that some people invested in my cover contest … and my friends’ comments clinched it. So I started trying to figure out a way that I could make my contest a little better for the people who didn’t win.

One thing I can do is link to the contest itself, so you can all see the extra covers. The other thing I can do is display a few runner-up covers here on my blog, and link to the creators.


2013 22 Apr

Meet me in Berlin

I don’t know why I haven’t written this post before now. I’ve been busy, of course. But I think it’s actually because this all feels unreal. Also, I was trying to update my site design before I got to Berlin, and there were technical difficulties — but it’s done now! I apologize in advance for hiccups while the site transitions.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? Plus, my new site is beside the point. The point is: I’m in Berlin. If you’re in Berlin, then you should totally meet me at the Liberate, 7pm Wednesday evening (April 24th). And the news gets bigger: I have a translation deal with a real German publisher, and I’m in Berlin on a real promotional tour.

Yes indeed — my little self-published book has been picked up by a real German publisher, and my publisher has flown me to Berlin! Check out the German-language cover for Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser:

I laugh with excitement whenever I look at that cover. It is soooo European and amazing! The title is not a direct translation of Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser — it translates instead as Evil Guys?: Out And About With Pickup Artists. A Close Encounter / Experiment.

I’ve only been here in Berlin for a couple days so far, but I have already interviewed at BILD — Europe’s largest newspaper — and I guess that article is going live soon. There’s another interview with me in the April 15th issue of NEON Magazine — I don’t know what the interview actually says because they translated it into German, but my publisher told me it came out great. I’ve also interviewed at FluxFM, an alternative radio station — the sound clip starts with the host introducing me in German, but the interview is in English because I don’t speak German. I have a ton of other interviews this week, including TV appearances. I am both terrified and thrilled.

I’m sharing my terror and thrills on Twitter, as always. If you’re in Berlin, then again, please come meet me at 7pm on Wednesday the 24th. And I’ll write more when I’m less jetlagged. I have a lot to share. I can’t believe I didn’t write about this sooner. It’s just that I was so busy at home, and then I’ve been so busy in Berlin. And this didn’t feel real until now.

2012 7 Dec

The Future of S&M

If you do not define yourself, you will be defined by others — for their use and to your detriment.

~ a friend of mine in the S&M community

* * *

Back in 2008, I had just started writing this blog and curating my sex-positive film series, and I met the seminal S&M writer Gayle Rubin while volunteering at the Leather Archives. I was really excited to meet her. I remember trying to explain that I thought we were at a cultural tipping point about S&M and maybe sexuality in general. She asked where my film series was hosted, and I said I was working with Jane Addams Hull-House Museum — a famous and historic feminist site — at which point Ms. Rubin choked on her coffee. (I don’t know if she remembers this the way I do; maybe she doesn’t remember meeting me at all.)

I thought I was riding a wave, and at this point, I know I was right. My film series was only supposed to go nine months, but it succeeded massively and lasted four years (the final screening will be next Tuesday!). I’ve had other professional success too (buy my book The S&M Feminist!) … but what’s more important is that my topics become more legit every day, and there are lots of other people exploring them too.

Firstly, almost nobody is trying to ignore S&M or shut down public S&M discussions anymore. Secondly, the idea that S&M should be integrated with feminism and other gender/sex subcultures is not very controversial anymore. Not only did Fifty Shades of Grey grab massive sales this year; mainstream feminist speakers actually defended S&M when the commentary rolled around, and Bitch Media ran a series on S&M. There is surprisingly sophisticated knowledge of consent tactics in the mainstream; in late 2009, I even saw an article where the author said that she associated safewords with “humorless third wave feminists.” If I had been drinking coffee, I would have choked on it. Safewords? Humorless feminists? Wow.

The early battles with S&M focused on getting good information out into the world — information about health, safety, best practices, and so on. (You can see my resources list here.) Later battles focused on fighting negative stereotypes about S&M — and people like me focused on feminism. (An example from 2009: my post Evidence That The BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse.) These are still important topics, but I think those of us who write and speak publicly about these matters should start thinking concretely about future messages.

A few years ago, Alan from Polyamory In The News posted his thoughts about this topic for polyamorous people. I’ll adapt his first four points to S&M, because they’re both basic and important:

A. Keep stressing that successful S&M requires high standards of communication, ethics, integrity, generosity, and concern for every person affected;

B. Emphasize that S&M is not for everyone, and that many people will have a better time avoiding S&M;

C. Insist on the part of the definition that stresses respect for everyone and the “full knowledge and consent of all involved”;

D. Expand that to not just “knowledge and consent,” but well-wishing and good intention for all involved.

So, yeah, definitely those. I’ve written about those. A lot. And my own pace of production has already slowed down, because I’ve figured out a lot of the basic stuff for myself, and because I’ve got a lot going on in other spheres.

But even so, I remain committed to serious thinking about this topic. I do have further ideas about the future, and maybe I’m totally out of this world, but I think these are worth thinking about:

1. Intelligent frameworks that show how S&M theory is relevant to other topics. And I don’t just mean the usual suspects. Those of us who know a lot about S&M and feminism already know that tons of recent “groundbreaking” work among anti-rape educators actually originated in the S&M community. That’s important, and I certainly believe that S&M practice can offer crucial insights into discussions about abuse. But we can think more broadly, and we can even break out of gender discourse altogether. This, for example, was one goal of my introduction for Violation: Rape In Gaming — to situate S&M as something that can give us insights about other types of play.

Of course, I don’t think we should talk about all-S&M-all-the-time. That gets boring for everyone. So let’s be smart about this. But when S&M is genuinely relevant, there’s nothing wrong with showing its relevance.

2. Public emphasis on the S&M community that includes public sponsorship, outreach, etc. An ex-boyfriend of mine used to joke that he wanted to see us sponsoring Little League teams. Right now, S&M groups tend to have very little money, and when they have money, they tend to keep it in the S&M community by supporting other S&M projects. That’s cool, but can we do more? Can we make ourselves more publicly available, and make positive contributions to our larger communities?

The S&M social networking site FetLife supports two great S&M organizations, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and the Leather Archives. But what if they took up a holiday season charity collection for at-risk youth or something like that? That would be awesome.

As a side note, this may include more people coming out of the closet. And oh yes, I know how complicated that is.

3. More precise legal and pictorial standards. What, exactly, should happen if an S&M rape case goes to court? How, exactly, can we differentiate between photos of S&M and photos of abuse? This will be extremely difficult, and the S&M community won’t have central agreement on it, but if we don’t start thinking precisely about this then it will be imposed on us from outside. (To some extent, it is already being imposed on us from outside, because S&Mers don’t usually trust the established court system to handle our business.)

The current “answer” (such as it is) has involved a lot of ideas about intentions and personal ethics. To be sure, some really awesome and careful work has been done on those questions, like Thomas MacAulay Millar’s series about abuse in the community, and obviously I’ve written about it lots. There has also been some work done by porn companies, as for instance with the post-scene processing videos that are packaged with some S&M porn. Is it possible for us to give more precise standards for measuring this stuff? I actually don’t know, but it’s worth thinking about.

At the very least, we should know how to explain the difficulties with legal and pictorial issues, clearly and concisely. I kind of tried to warn about this in my science-fiction story “Victory“; I don’t know how successful I was.

4. Speak publicly about the messy stuff. That includes the work about abuse in the community, and also essays like my recent piece I Can Be A Kinky Feminist And A Messy Human Being. It also includes the very edgy stuff, like Mollena Williams’s courageous work on playing with race. By “messy,” I’m not saying we should write without caution or control or compassion. But for a lot of people, S&M can get to some pretty dark places and can sometimes be harmful, and we should acknowledge that.

Can we talk about this without doing gross trauma-porn? Without putting ourselves on display for exploitation? While keeping faith and keeping the other truths of S&M — the beauties and benefits — front-and-center? If so, then let’s.

* * *

2012 30 Nov

[fiction] Near-Future Science Fiction With S&M Plus Moral Questions!

So a few years ago, I wrote this science fiction short story called “Victory,” about S&M and politics with a dash of feminism. When it was done, I felt very uncertain about it, and I left it alone on my hard drive.

And then last week I heard about a fiction contest, and I thought Why not?, and I cleaned up the story and sacrificed it upon the uncertain altar of popular demand.

* * *


A hazy image of a woman, viewed through a screen. This is how I think of the story’s main character, Serena.

* * *

If you like “Victory,” please do me a favor and click “Recommend” at the bottom (you need a Twitter account). Also, send it to your friends! Again, you can read the story here.

Commentary is, as always, welcome.

Image credit to freedigitalphotos.net.

* * *

2012 25 Nov

[storytime] Cat Marnell & “Fifty Shades”: Why I Can Be A Kinky Feminist and a Messy Human Being

This was originally published at The Frisky.

* * *

A few years ago ….

Today, in 2012, I avoid him as much as I can. But my friend (?) Richard used to joke (?) that I only called him when I broke up with my boyfriends. Kinda true, kinda false. Regardless — a few years ago — I don’t even call him this time, I just end up at his apartment for some small party.

He scents the pain in me, and suddenly we’re in a back room, alone. One of the reasons he’s so good at this is that he smells vulnerability like a shark smells blood. I don’t remember whether I ask him to hurt me, or he just grabs me. “Something’s close to the surface,” I tell him, while he leaves bite-shaped bruises on my upper arm. He knows me; he doesn’t leave bruises in places I can’t cover with a t-shirt.

“What is it?” he asks, and I choke on it. I’m already starting to cry. We’ve only been doing this for a moment.

“Red,” I say. The safeword. I’m sobbing. “Red.” Richard stops immediately. “Tears,” I say. “Tears were close to the surface.”

We’re on the floor now. I’m curled up in his lap. I tell Richard that the guy I broke up with last year — the worst breakup in my life — I tell Richard that this other guy met me two nights ago, specifically to tell me that he never cared about me. Almost a year after the breakup, my ex decided to inform me that he lied every time he said “I love you.” He could not have chosen a better way to re-break my heart. Why did he have to do that? Maybe he was doing it defensively, to mess with me … and the thought that he would go to the trouble leads me towards perverse, momentary relief. Then it starts hurting again.

“There are other fish in the sea,” says Richard.

“Thanks,” I say. I’m too devastated to say it with the sarcasm I intend. Yet I’m grateful for the attempt.

Richard’s quiet for a moment. Then he says, “I really enjoy doing S&M with you. Your reactions are so familiar.”

“Even when I break so quickly? Even when I safeword in less than a minute?” I ask. I’m feeling the masochist’s insecurity: I thought I could hold out. I’m so pathetic.

“Even then,” Richard says gently.

It’s these moments that make me think it might be safe to trust him, but the moment never lasts. For years I’m relieved that I never made the mistake of actually dating him, that I don’t rely on him for anything. Every time he stomps on some girl’s heart I shrug and say, “That’s how he is,” with a secret and shameful tinge of pride. And then one day I will realize that I do expect his support, when I’m almost killed in an accident and he outright ignores me. I will feel betrayed and simultaneously blame myself. I’ll decide that we are just fucking done.

But on this night, that hasn’t happened yet, and I’m surprised by how close I feel to Richard. I wipe the tears from my cheeks, then go to the bathroom and wash my face. Pull myself together so I can return to the party. My eyes meet my reflection’s; I’m not sure what I see.

I think I feel better than I did before Richard broke me down, but I don’t have time for genuine emotional processing right now. My chest feels heavy. Did he do me a favor?

* * *

The S&M novel Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, is full of bad messages about romance and S&M. The drugs-and-beauty writer Cat Marnell had a recent and spectacular public breakdown, which has been profiled all over the media. You might think that I’m cynically exploiting Hot Google Trends by bringing the two together — and okay, maybe I am. But for me, they’re similar because they both make me jealous.

Sure, I’m jealous of Marnell’s fragile beauty and James’s million bucks. But that’s the least of it. The writer Sarah Hepola says she’s jealous of Marnell’s writing skill, but me, I’m jealous of what those two get to write. They get to write about a self-destructive edge; about putting oneself in danger.

For the last few years, I have written mostly about S&M. I write about other things, too, but I’ve focused on S&M because I know it well. Because it’s important to me. Because I believe that S&M can be life-affirming and intimacy-building and can coexist with feminism, with justice. Indeed, the available psychological research shows clearly that consensual S&M is not, in itself, harmful.

But as I’ve written about feminism and S&M, I’ve also known the rules about what I get to write. I’m not sure how I internalized these rules, but I know them like I know my face in the mirror. When I write, I’m supposed to emphasize the emotional health of my relationships — both with my lovers, and (separately) with my parents. I’m supposed to emphasize my physical health, decent diet, and exercise habits — although it’s okay to mention it if I’m injured, because that’s not my fault. I’m allowed to mention being an outcast in high school, but God forbid I talk too much about the emotional impact. I must stress excellent communication with my partners. I always, always have to mention safewords.

I am a politician. The arenas for debate are both my mind and my body. The personal is political, indeed.

I didn’t know I was waiting for it until it came, in Cat Marnell’s most recent column: doing S&M and then blaming it on drugs and self-destruction. She writes:

This is amphetamine logic: I am eroticized by pain. And that’s a lie. How turned on could I have actually been?

Marnell describes being hit in the jaw until she saw stars (and by the way, folks, there are safe ways to slap people and then there are unsafe ones; if a person is seeing stars, that’s a bad sign). In Fifty Shades, it’s a similar dangerous narrative: the dominant guy is scarily stalkerish, the relationship is packed with bad communication.

Fifty Shades was written to let people enjoy the hotness without taking responsibility for emotional safety. Without asking the dangerous question of whether S&M might be part of a loving relationship.


2012 20 Nov

[postsecret] Stories of People Whose Partners Cheated

I’ve always had Strong Emotions and Serious Opinions about cheating. But it’s a complicated topic, and I try to acknowledge its complexity alongside my emotional baggage.

Lately, I’ve been featuring postcards from PostSecret, an online community art project to which people send postcards featuring a secret they’ve never told anyone. Last month, I posted a bunch of PostSecret snippets about what it’s like to cheat. There were a lot of interesting comments on last month’s post, so I decided to do a followup: postcards that hint at the complex stories of folks whose partners cheated.

* * *

(Picture of a baby, then text): “I hate that one day I’ll have to tell him that fucking other women was more important to you than we were.”

At first glance, this strikes me as the archetypal narrative of a woman who was cheated on. But I have a lot of experience with polyamory — that is, open relationships — and I wonder whether there’s a different story here. Maybe this woman’s partner was faithful to a monogamous standard, but tried asking for an open relationship. Perhaps they discussed it, disagreed, and then broke up.

Either way, I have sympathy for the person who wrote this postcard. Breakups are hard. I just can’t help wondering whether they broke up over a betrayal or a disagreement.

* * *

“For a scary, intoxicating moment I thought you were telling me you’re leaving your wife. But you meant you are moving away with her.”

This, on the other hand, is the archetypal story of the “mistress.” And as I said in the previous post, I’ve always maintained that it’s almost as bad to be the “cheating facilitator” — i.e. the person who a cheater hooks up with — as to be the cheater themselves.

Yet sometimes I think that the best argument against being a cheating facilitator has nothing to do with the pain you cause other people. Sometimes I think that the best argument against being that person is the amount of pain you can open yourself up to. Especially if you want the cheater to eventually commit to you … despite the fact that they are, of course, already a cheater.

It’s also clear that, for some people, being the cheating facilitator is a painful pattern:

“Always a bridesmaid mistress, never a bride …”

* * *

Aaaand finally:

“I feel guilty for making my husband break up with his mistresses.”

I assume that this writer is female. (If the writer isn’t female, then there’s a ton of other potential stories wrapped up in the card!) The postcard talks about how she feels guilty for making her husband break up with his “mistresses,” which leads me to wonder how long she knew about the situation, and whether her guilt is due to breaking some kind of relationship agreement.

Did they basically have an open relationship for a while — where she overlooked the situation deliberately? And does she feel guilty because she suddenly rescinded that tacit permission?

This is one of the most complicated postcards I’ve seen. I can think of several other readings off the top of my head, but if you folks have thoughts, I’d rather hear them in comments.

* * *

(Please note that there are many PostSecret books available for purchase, including A Lifetime of Secrets, and Extraordinary Confessions From Ordinary Lives, and Confessions on Life, Death and God, and others.)

* * *

2012 13 Nov

[review] Burning Man 2012

This is a slightly longer version of a piece that was originally published at The Point, a Chicago-based print journal on contemporary life and culture. It will also be printed in Issue 6, and here’s the Issue 6 Annotated Table Of Contents.

* * *

BurningManWhen I wake up at the hotel in Reno, my memories are a messy pastiche. I reach for an image to encapsulate my review of Burning Man, but everything I grasp feels like a flat cliché. Dancing beside a fluorescent art deco bus and a fire-belching metal octopus. Bonding with a new friend by solving a maze’s secret doors. Randomly encountering a fake film crew composed entirely of trenchcoated noir buffs, who welcome me into their game. Accepting, with gratitude, the recitation of a poem about self-awareness and another about kissing. Walking to the edge of a desert dance floor to stretch and greet the dawn with an exhausted grin.

Each of these are all of it, and yet the smallest piece. So I’ll start at the beginning.

* * *

I am in a garage with a neuroscientist, a sales executive, a teacher, a bike co-op manager, and some dude whose deal I don’t know. Me, I’m a feminist sex writer specializing in S&M and moonlighting as a new media consultant. We’re loading a truck with toolboxes, barrels, bicycles, and more. This camp’s theme is watermelons; the garage is strewn with watermelon umbrellas, and we pack in a bike rack painted to look like a giant watermelon slice. Unknown Deal Dude doesn’t recognize it for a full minute. “Ohhh! It’s supposed to look like a watermelon!”

“Maybe that’s a sign that the theme has become too abstract,” I say to Bike Co-op Manager.

“Maybe it’s a sign that it’s become abstract enough,” he says serenely.

I wander into the back and pick up a plastic bag full of sequined watermelon pins. “Where did these come from?” I ask the teacher. She shrugs. In the corner, someone is wrapping a cooler packed with dry ice in a Mylar space blanket. The plan, apparently, is to transport an ice cream cake to the desert. Apparently, there will also be many watermelons.

The executive is “working from home” during the 40-hour drive, using a batch of car chargers and a cellular uplink. As he clicks away on his laptop, we discuss the philosophy of social networking sites; the neuroscientist’s latest research on rat brains, and her anxieties about handling her undergraduate mentees; the people in our lives who we wish we hadn’t lost touch with; the ethics of eating human meat; plus the spiritual usage of psychedelic drugs.

I learn a new phrase: “thinky thoughts.” The co-op manager tells me that it describes “thoughts one has on acid that seem really deep, and are.”

A few hours in, we pull up at the “World’s Biggest Truck Stop.” (Their words, not mine.) I wander through the place with Unknown Deal Dude. We are floored and astonished by this culture clash. I am so floored that I text my best girlfriend.

Me: Sold here: wolf and horse t-shirts; confederate flags, “don’t tread on me” snake flags, “mess with the best die like the rest” US marine flags; John Wayne DVDs; auto tags for “redneck girl”; infinite self help books


Me: Is there any vegan food?

Her: Haha.

Me: Fritos it is!

Me: Dude, on the way out I noticed the door says “support independent truckstops.”

I emerge, slightly shell-shocked. “That place is confusing,” I say to Bike Co-op Manager.

He grins. “Confusion is an important state of mind.”

* * *

Burning Man began in 1986 when the founder Larry Harvey decided, on a whim, to Burn a wooden Man on a San Francisco beach. Five years later, Harvey had acquired some dedicated co-conspirators and the event had morphed into a bigger, artier free-for-all in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Twenty years after that, it’s an internationally-famous camping-out festival that drew over 50,000 attendees in 2012.

I first heard about it as an Internet junkie in the 90s; one of my online friends enthused about the explosions and gun usage, another about the drugs. Apparently, when the Burner population got too large and a basic “no gun” rule was instituted, some folks felt this was an unacceptable infringement of their freedoms that made it not worth going anymore. But plenty continued to attend, and the sheer size of the crowd led to further mild regulations and infrastructure. This included the development of a circular layout with street signs, a medical station, a Department of Mutant Vehicles, a post office, radio stations, an airport, etc. The year 2000 marked the creation of the Temple, which became one of the most important structures: a space to meditate, reflect, and mourn loss. The temporary city of Burning Man — which is only fully-realized for a single week per year — is called Black Rock City.

In 2004, Larry Harvey tried to pin down Burner culture by laying out “ten principles.” These are:

Radical Inclusion: Anyone is invited and welcome.

Gifting and Decommodification: The event is devoted to “unconditional gift-giving.” Thou shalt not engage in commercial transactions, sponsorships, advertising, or barter.

Radical Self-Reliance: “Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.”

Radical Self-Expression: Do as thou wilt, but don’t hurt anyone.

Communal Effort and Civic Responsibility: Collaborate, cooperate, and take care of each other. Oh, and don’t break the law.

Leave No Trace: Don’t hurt the earth, and especially not the federally-protected environment of the Black Rock Desert.

Participation: “We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”

Immediacy: “No idea can substitute for this experience.”

There are critiques to be launched. So many critiques. Perhaps those of you who share my Advanced Degree In Social Justice Snippiness, claws honed by hundreds of Internet catfights, spotted critiques in my first few paragraphs. For example, while Burners may Leave No Trace upon the surface of the desert, an awful lot of fossil fuels are burned to get there. Scarce resources are used when — say — transporting an ice cream cake in a dry ice freezer. And my spidey sense for “Third World exploitation” was tweaked by those cheap, beautiful, mass-produced sequined watermelon pins.

Plus, the Burning Man organization charges for tickets, which arguably puts a cramp in Radical Inclusion. To be fair, the event has enormous costs to cover, like a $750,000 land usage permit. There are also “low-income” tickets available for a mere $160 apiece (most 2012 tickets ranged from $240-$420), but the bigger individual costs are equipping oneself and getting there. You can already see certain demographics represented in the crew I drove out with — and in our reaction to the World’s Biggest Truck Stop. All my campmates had degrees from prestigious universities, and included a doctor and a Google engineer. Also: I can count the number of people of color I met on one hand.

According to 2010 statistics from the Burning Man census, 20 percent of Black Rock City makes over $100,000 per year (compared to 6 percent of the USA’s general population). A bit over 30 percent of the city makes under $30,000 (compared to a bit over 50 percent of the general population). As a writer, I myself wouldn’t have gone if my journey weren’t heavily subsidized and I hadn’t been given a free ticket by generous, well-heeled friends. And let’s face it: I may not be at my friends’ earning level, but I’m still in their social class. Offering me that access isn’t nearly as Radically Inclusive as offering it to Joe the Plumber would be. But here we have the perennial problem of class segregation: none of us know Joe the Plumber.

Burning Man came from San Francisco, and to San Francisco doth most attendees return. 1986-2012 has seen San Francisco shift from hippie beach town and radical sexuality haven to Silicon Valley boom times. If a bomb hit Black Rock City, then the Valley would need a new crop of CEOs. My understanding is that even the art of Burning Man reflects this evolution. The hippie and radical sex elements remain, but attendees who have watched for ten years say it’s shinier now, costlier, with an “engineered” feel to it.

A worthy comparison might be the super-hippie Rainbow Gathering, which stemmed from a late-60s San Francisco group and first came together in 1972. The Gathering moves from forest to forest each year, is free to attend, does not have a single leader at the helm, and is considerably more working-class than Burning Man. There’s less art at the Gathering and more environmental issues; the Burning Man organization purchases a permit that helps the government deal with its impact on federal land, something the Rainbow Gathering has apparently resisted. On the other hand, the Gathering seems to help genuinely down-and-out folks, like marginalized homeless kids.

With all that said: our Advanced Degrees In Social Justice Snippiness are important, but if I lay mine aside for a moment, I can’t help liking Burning Man. A lot of things are just plain cool, like the art. I love the whimsy of bringing an ice cream cake, even though it uses lots of resources. But most importantly, despite my considerable grumpy skepticism, the festival keeps surprising me.