Sex, Lies, and Desert Dust at Burning Man
By Brad Olsen

At the annual Burning Man Arts Festival, it may be hard to get completely clean, but it's easy to be really dirty.

Burning Man festival

The annual Burning Man Arts Festival in the scorching Nevada desert is a giant pop-up party with no listings on hotel booking sites. It has a reputation for nudity, public s%x, and random hookups. In fact, many veteran Burners come every year for that very reason. And why the bleep not? As Doctor Sigmund Freud reminds us, sex is a very powerful motivator.

Upon arrival, all Burning Man first-timers are asked to ring a bell at the entrance and roll around on the ground to "make love with the dust, so you'll become one with the playa." These newcomers will also experience having their butts spanked by the welcoming crew. Get used to it they'll say, grab ass is part of the repertoire. First-time Burners are universally called "virgins," another strong sexual connotation to an event bursting with them. The sexual vibe begins before the citizens of Black Rock City even arrive. Old-timers will tell you the event has always favored a strong release of pheromones.

Before the annual event moved out to a dry lakebed in northeastern Nevada called the Black Rock Desert, it started on a nude beach in San Francisco, California. Founder Larry Harvey inadvertently started a cultural phenomenon when he lit the first match in 1986 on San Francisco's Baker Beach, the second oldest nude beach in America. It can be argued that the gift economy, clothing-optional atmosphere, and the anything goes ethos started out on Baker Beach. A nudist Burner tribe still hangs out there on sunny days. When National Park police shut down the annual solstice bonfire on the forth year, Harvey and his friends moved the event from the beach to the desert.

Trying On a New Character
Out here on the playa we are certainly not our normal selves, or as Jim Morrison put it: "out here we is stoned, immaculate. "Burners" are unique partygoers for a host of reasons, mainly because they love to dress up and personify someone else (like Elvis or Marilyn Monroe), or celebrate their alter-ego (like a pimp or hooker). Participants break out their special Burner clothes that they would never normally wear anywhere else, or they can simply wear nothing at all. Being nude is also considered a costume. When it gets to be over 100 degrees by day it is almost uncomfortable to wear anything at all. Most nights are warm enough to wear a g-string bikini or sexy lingerie.

Burners are known to introduce themselves anonymously by addressing strangers with their "playa name." Going by a playa name is a unique Burning Man phenomenon, reflecting an aspect of their personality. Playa names are usually bestowed by a veteran Burner. After attending 10 or more burns, veterans can allot playa names to newbies. Setting out for an evening with an anonymous name, a skanky neon wig, sexy playa clothes and a heady cocktail of intoxicants, it is no wonder that free love has been reborn again at Black Rock City.

Burning Man float
© Justin Fraser

With over 48,000 short-term residents in the '00s and a cap of 80,000 applied in the late '10s, Black Rock City is the largest temporary city in the world—that week anyway—and it also qualifies for eight days as Nevada's third largest city.

Since clothing is optional, Burning Man has gained a reputation for debauchery. But don't be fooled, like any city of this size law enforcement officials will tell you that excessive drinking, drug use, and public sex acts are all considered crimes. While random hookups are not illegal, the cops are lurking and more than willing to uphold the law. Open defecation and public sex are officially banned in Black Rock City.

One of the first things you'll notice on the open playa is all the funny-looking mutant vehicles. Many have open bars, music blaring, and even multi-level dance floors. Many of the more elaborate art cars have stripper poles built into their dance floors. Naturally, these art cars become an ideal place to meet potential lovers. There is nothing quite like getting driven around Black Rock City with new friends, a drink in hand, and beats blaring.

With a lack of proper showers, it won't be long though before just about everyone has covered themselves with a mixture of sunscreen, aloe vera, glitter, and body paint—all combined with a fine layer of playa dust. When the water truck drives by to mat down the dust on the roads, Burners hurriedly strip off their clothes and run behind the truck for a quick and free water blast.

Yoga, Artists, and the Libido Lounge
Eventually all Burners will make their way to the massive Center Camp. Like many Burning Man truisms that sound cliché, anything can happen here that you could possibly imagine under a big top tent, just without the animals. There are multiple stages for informative speakers, drum circles, nude drawing or body painting stations, rocking jam bands, and free form poets. Some voyeurs take it all in from benches and beanbags on the edge, or the rows of couches around the Main Stage. In the middle of Center Camp is an open circle used for yoga, ecstatic dance or group meditations. Others stretch in yogic positions, couples engage in fluid dance moves, and random lovers catch each other's eyes in a carnivalesque atmosphere.

The theme camps of Burning Man are where things really get wild. All theme camps are private so the cops cannot bust in, and all feature free, open wet bars. Getting liquored up here is an understatement. Stop by the Libido Lounge for their annual "Fig Leaf Party," universally known as a great swinger sex party, as is the "Triple-X Prom Night." And yes, the punch is always spiked. You can check the schedule for the address and time of the "Fetish & Kink Sex Night" or the "Leather Uniform Sex Night." Perhaps the most famous sex club is the "Canadian Beaver Licking Contest." There is usually a long line to get in, and once in the rules are: hetero couples only, no photos, and no penetration. Your Canadian judges will give out points for style and inventive poses.

The nightclubs in Black Rock City are far from average as well. Famous electronic DJs such as Carl Cox, Paul Oakenfold, and Lorin Bassnectar play all night on outdoor stages or indoor dance floors with such sexy names as the "Opulent Temple," the "Pink Mammoth" or "The Deep End." Plenty will dance until the morning and watch the sunrise over distant mountains. In an environment of ecstatic dances and a whole range of intoxicants, lovers hook up, then perhaps hear in the morning light that their partner has a more permanent lover back home. Sorry, such is life on the playa…

At 7 a.m. in the desert light, riding a bike back to your camp, the scenes can get strange. Prepare to see passed out people in surreal neon flower gardens, couples holding hands, skipping and singing across the expansive desert, or making love to each other in a darkened corner. When you get back you might find your camp mates passed out on the desert ground with their special new playa friend.

Burning Man arts festival

Burning Man random hookups are variously known as "tent trysts," "playa sex," "dust love" or "Burner affairs." After all, the term "What happens on the playa, stays on the playa" was long used by Burners before the Las Vegas tourism authority ripped it off for their own marketing campaign. In the adult playground that is Burning Man, everyone enjoys living together for a week with other Black Rock City residents in this ultra-surreal environment.

So you see? Your playful anonymous persona serves you very well. Now if only the "default world" could be this much fun for the remaining 51 weeks of the year! Don't forget to get some digits. Oh wait, hold on, what was your name again?

Brad Olsen is the author of seven books and runs CCC Publishing, which has put out 11 travel titles. He also contributed to the Rough Guides World Party book and is a regular contributor to several magazines and media outlets. See more at and Brad Olsen's 7th book: Sacred Places Europe: 108 Destinations is out now.

All photos by Brad Olsen except where indicated.

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