Skip to main content

Welcome to Wonderland? A Population Study of Intimate Experiences and Safe Sex at a Transformational Mass Gathering (Burning Man)


Transformational festivals are socially immersive artistic mass gatherings that are said to promote a strong feeling of belonging and experiences of personal transformation. The purposes of the present study were (1) to investigate the social and intimate experiences of Burning Man participants and (2) to study the factors predicting safe sex practices in the context of that transformational festival. The study was based on data from two consecutive cycles (2013 and 2014) of the yearly post-event online survey done in collaboration with the Burning Man Project. Participants consisted of people who attended the event (N = 19,512). The results were weighted based on the sociodemographic characteristics of the population. A typology of social and intimate experiences was created using a k-means cluster analysis. Predictors of having had unprotected sex with someone met during the event were identified using a nested logistic regression. Five profiles of social and intimate experiences were identified. Profiles with high levels of emotionally and physically intimate experiences were associated with a strong feeling of belonging and a high proportion of personal transformation. Predictive analyses showed that unprotected sex was mainly predicted by variables associated with one of three factors: (1) a lower lever of preparation and practice in using protection, (2) sex education and/or subcultures, and (3) the perceived costs and benefits associated with protection. The results also indirectly suggest a positive effect of the event on safe sex. Implications in terms of public health intervention are discussed.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. For the sake of transparency, the following co-authors are also known by their playa name in Black Rock City: Hunter (DBP), Countess (SMH), Scribble (DNG), and Variance (KMR).


Download references


We are extremely grateful to the more than 150 volunteers working with the Black Rock City Census Lab every year, to Dana “DV8” Lilienthal DeVaul, manager of the Census Lab, to Sarah “Picky” Williamson and Rachel “Chipper” McKay for their feedback on the manuscript, to Patrick “Wylbur” Ball and Megan “MoE” Price who designed and implemented the random sampling procedure in 2012 and reminded us of the importance of reporting weight statistics, to Erik Knight Wing for his help with the survey, and to the Burning Man Project for providing the infrastructure of the Black Rock City Census Lab and recognizing the importance of population data and research. We also thank the reviewing committee for helping us improve the article. The Burning Man Project was involved in the design and promotion of the survey, but not in the analyses, neither in writing nor in reviewing the present study. No funding was associated with this study.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dominic Beaulieu-Prévost.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no other conflict of interest.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.



Appendix describes the additional survey questions used in the study and presents them in three groups, i.e., sociosexual characteristics, sociodemographic/historical characteristics, and post-event cognitions about the event. It also includes technical information concerning two statistical issues, i.e., weight distribution and design effects.

Sociosexual Characteristics

The following six questions related to pre-event gender, sexuality and relationships were asked: (1) “What is your current gender?: Female; Male; Both/neither/fluid,” (2) “Do you consider yourself to be married?: No; Sometimes; Yes,” (3) “Which of these expressions best describes your sexual orientation?: Heterosexual or straight; Gay, lesbian or homosexual; Bisexual or pansexual; Bicurious or heteroflexible; Asexual; I refuse to use labels to describe my sexual orientation,” (4) “Which best describes your feelings?: I am only attracted to females; I am mostly attracted to females; I am equally attracted to females and males; I am mostly attracted to males; I am only attracted to males; I am not sure; I have no sexual attraction,” (5) “Do you consider yourself to be (check all that apply): Polyamorous; Kinkster,” and (6) “Excluding this year in Black Rock City, how many sex partners did you have in the past two years?”: numerical value, subsequently recoded from 0 (none) to 5 (11 or more) using the same scale as the social and intimate experiences variables.

For the marital status, “No” and “Sometimes” were merged into “No.” The status “In an exclusive relationship” was given to participants who mentioned both being married and not being polyamorous. The inference was not perfect, but it was considered to be an adequate proxy for relational exclusivity.

Sociodemographic/Historical Characteristics

The following 10 questions related to sociodemographic or historical characteristics were asked: (1) “What year were you born?”: numerical value translated into age, (2) “Which category best describes your ethnoracial background?: Asian; Native American; Hispanic; White/Caucasian (non-Hispanic); Black (non-Hispanic); Other,” (3) “Where do you usually reside (when not in Black Rock City): within Nevada; within California; other location within the U.S.; in Canada; other country,” (4) “Which level of education have you completed?: High school diploma or equivalent; some college; Associate’s degree; Bachelor’s degree; Graduate degree (Master’s, Doctorate or equivalent); None of the above,” (5) “What was your personal income in [previous year] before taxes (11 options)?: No income; Less than $7500 to $300,000 or more,” (6) “What was the first language you learned and still use (i.e., native language)?”: recoded into English versus Other, (7) “Do you belong to a religion or religious denomination?”: recoded into Yes versus No, (8) “Apart from weddings and funerals, about how often do you attend religious services or practice group rituals these days (7 options)?: Never or practically never to More than once a week,” and (9) “Check all the years that you attended the Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert (or Baker Beach)”: recoded into number of previous participations from 0 to 4 with the same scale as the social and intimate experiences variables.

Participants were also asked “Overall, during your lifetime, have you worried that you might be treated or judged unfairly for any of the following reasons? (check all that apply): Race/ethnicity; religion/spiritual practices; political affiliation/beliefs; gender; age; sexual orientation; gender non-conformity; drinking/smoking; tattoos/body piercing; participation in Burning Man; other (specify).” The total number of positive answers (excluding “Other”) was added to create an indicator of the number of reasons for which participants were treated unfairly in their life. This indicator was used as a proxy for the lifetime level of discrimination experienced.

Post-Event Cognitions About the Event

Besides the questions used to create the indicator of Feeling of belonging to Burning Man, the following four questions related to post-event cognitions about Burning Man were used in the study: (1) Did you have a transformative experience in Black Rock City this year?: Yes; Somewhat; No, (2) Do you intend to come back to Black Rock City in the future?: from 0 (absolutely not) to 4 (absolutely), (3) Your most wonderful memories of Black Rock City this year are memories of: People; music; art (non-musical); nature; personal events/accomplishments; other; I don’t have any wonderful memories, and (4) Which of the following best represent the reasons why you might go back to Black Rock City in the future? (check up to three): To create or work on a project; to see/experience the art; to meet like-minded people; to grow or connect spiritually; to experience radical inclusion; plus 6 additional reasons not used in the present study. The question on transformative experiences was only asked in 2014, but all the others were asked in both years.

Concerning Weight Distribution and Design Effects

Weights ranged from 0.28 to 5.00, with a mean of 1.00. This ensured that the results were not overly affected by a subset of cases. The design effect (DEFF) was 1.19 for the main dependent variable (i.e., unprotected sex), and it varied between 1.06 and 1.41 for the independent variables in the final logistic regression. Design effect can be used to assess the loss of statistical power due to survey design, when compared to a purely random sampling. Dividing the actual sample size by the DEFF results in the effective sample size, i.e., the sample size that would have the same statistical power in a random sampling design.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Beaulieu-Prévost, D., Cormier, M., Heller, S.M. et al. Welcome to Wonderland? A Population Study of Intimate Experiences and Safe Sex at a Transformational Mass Gathering (Burning Man). Arch Sex Behav 48, 2055–2073 (2019).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Revised:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Burning Man
  • Transformational festival
  • Sexual behavior
  • Mass gathering
  • Safe sex
  • Social norms