Too “Offensive” for Burning Man? (Part 1)

By the last months of 2018, a few incidents caused organizers around the Global Network to have a series of mostly informal discussions about what to do when someone brings truly controversial art to Burning Man events.

I’m not going to point to specific incidents or artists because I neither want to shame people who are trying to work through these issues honorably, nor give publicity to people who are simply trying to make a name for themselves. But the question that was always lurking in the shadows of what we do has recently moved closer to the center of our vision. What do we do when an artist brings something to a Burning Man event that many people find unacceptably offensive?

The perspective I’ve tried to bring to these discussions when I’ve been involved (emphasizing that it is not any official statement of the Burning Man organization) is that the most commonly used ways of framing this issue are also the least helpful. We can do better, and we know what better looks like.


This is the first post in a four-part series on how best to handle art that disrupts communities.  The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Burning Man Project. Once published, the whole series can be found here.


What We Mean By “Offensive” Isn’t “Offensive”

The first response many people have, especially long-time Burners, is that from a Burning Man perspective there is no such thing as “too offensive.” That we value Radical Self-Expression and love parody and satire in their many forms and even revel in offensiveness for its own sake. So – too offensive? What are we talking about?

And all this is true.

But Burning Man long ago left the period in which we were simply a bunch of isolated theme camps in the desert. When we do Burning Man events, we don’t just build cities: we build communities. We have 10 Principles, of which Radical Self-Expression is only one.

Does that mean we no longer welcome the offensive? No – on the contrary. We still celebrate it. To walk around a corner and discover something deeply offensive very much “feels like Burning Man,” while to engage in acts of “art policing” does not. So no, we don’t want to be in the business of doing that, or even in the habit.

Nonetheless, the 10 Principles do imply a fairly clear standard for what would be deemed “too offensive” in a Burning Man context. What is it?

It’s not actions that are “offensive” in a conventional sense – it’s actions that dissolve the bonds of trust that make community possible.

For Example?

Back in the 90s, a camp of people– after desperately trying and failing all week to offend people enough to be kicked out – started sexually propositioning children. When they wouldn’t stop, they were indeed kicked out.

Why? Because, come on – you simply cannot have a genuine community in which children can expect to be sexually propositioned by adults, and their parents have to stand by and take it for some abstract notion of the greater good.  We don’t have to be “child friendly” the way much of the world demands – but parents get to defend their kids from threats specifically directed at their kids. No healthy community can ask otherwise, and no parents can reasonably be expected to belong to a community that does.

It’s acts like these – that you simply cannot expect a healthy community to exist around – that ultimately cross the line. We know that most offensive things can still exist in healthy communities: healthy communities can (and in fact always will) have political differences, they can (and in fact always have) had pornography, they can have disagreements over religious symbols and whether sacred cows are to be worshiped or eaten. All this is possible, and so not our concern to police or enforce. In fact, the attempts to suppress these kinds of subjects and issues are often more harmful to communities than the willingness to explore them.

But there are actions one can take which, if permitted, make authentic communities impossible – and the kind of authentic community we are trying to create in particular. Going out of your way to leave a mess on the playa, trying to sell things in our decommodified spaces, or aggressively doing branding promos.  Trying to take pictures of people who have specifically opted out.  And of course harassment and assault.  Things like these can dissolve the bonds of community that we are trying to create.  The threshold we’re looking for isn’t “I am offended,” which can indicate that something is going right as much as going wrong, but, “Come on, you can’t reasonably expect me to stay here if this is happening, can you?”

Since we’re not really concerned about conventionally “offensive” art – and in fact welcome it – I think we need a better term for the kind of art that we might need to look at more closely. For this essay, I’m going to call it “acidic.”

It is art projects that dissolves the bonds of community, and in particular deliberately target them, that warrant a possible reaction.

But what should that reaction be?

We’ll pick up there in the next post.


Cover Image:  Der Eintritt der Censur in Deutschland by Johann Richard Seel

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

55 Comments on “Too “Offensive” for Burning Man? (Part 1)

  • atg says:

    Excited about this series – I hope that “acidic” include anything that denigrates or excludes marginalized people/communities. Global cultural change like BMorg is striving for should include all people, and right now we’re still majority white, cis, straight, etc.

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    • Crissa Kentavr says:

      Totally. Anything which pushes away more than it gathers of that group would erode the radical inclusion. And it’s not always easy to know what that is.

      When people check us on it, we should assume they’re warning us of a hazard, or some bigotry stuck in our teeth, as Jay Smooth says (he’s a rapper-journalist, really cool guy). Not because they think ill of us. And that’s hard to do. No one wants to be told to get a clean shirt when they think of themselves as a clean person. But dirt happens, and we should want to know when it’s too pungent.

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      • Sonicinema says:

        Oh, you mean people wearing headdresses that First Nations people have repeatedly told them are earned in their culture and are deeply offensive to see worn as costumes? I don’t see these Instagram models being thrown out.

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      • Badger says:

        Sonicinema, throwing someone out for being culturally insensitive is a false equivalency.

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      • Dezaad says:

        This ‘cultural appropriation’ crap is why people don’t want to have a standard for ‘too offensive’. It is so easy to say that anything one doesn’t like ‘makes community impossible’.

        Propositioning children is NOT the same as offending someone’s sense of their culture. So, let’s leave the rules for governing things that truly can egregiously harm. Leave the rest of the offensive things to the hope of success for gentle persuasion. And if gentle persuasion doesn’t fully succeed, that’s just the way life is. Sometimes people are assholes.

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  • Mark McCormack says:

    When I attend Burningman. I fully expect to see something offensive, something of shock value, or something that is just wrong.

    Same thing to be said of a when I go see a controversial comedian I expect racial slurs, shock value, or a joke that is just wrong.

    Would I be shocked if i saw an “art display” of. Dildos, butt plugs, & cock rings on main street USA – most certainly. Would it shock me if i were on main street in Amsterdam – doubtful.

    In the above examples, I will look, laugh, and or comment about it. But at then end of the day, its what I expected would happen & I move on to the next item at hand. Did it affect my life in some way? Sure it did. But isnt that what life is all about?

    There is a time and a place for everything. That time is August 25 thru Sept 2 the place is the black rock desert. Excpect to be shocked literally and sometimes physically. Expect to laugh, expect to cry, wxpect to learn, expect to see life in a different form around each corner.

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  • Soulaye says:

    well thought out as always. can a particular regional bring your words and editing skills into the fray? our community is at a breaking point because of an art piece. a piece that’s been coming since 2011. most of us roll our eyes and ignore it. now all of a sudden it’s a bfd. please save us from ourselves bc the internet trolls are winning and hurting my family.

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  • Mitzi says:

    i remember the camp mentioned. we were camped near them, and they were in fact trying to be as offensive as possible and said that it was their “art” and their “gift,” expecting everyone else to play along and find it funny or something. i personally was glad when they were kicked out. i’m interested to see how this series continues, and wait for some thoughts on the memorable Comfort & Joy “animated sign” incident.

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    • Samifo says:

      If you are seriously trying to implicate Comfort & Joy hon, you are delusional. I can’t even express enough how much C&J has contributed and worked their fucking asses off to create safe space for EVERYONE, with no agenda but to enjoy and celebrate who we are. You sound like a NIMBY, and guess the Fuck what, hon, THE PLAYA IS YOUR BACKYARD

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  • Sarge says:

    Do I have to subscribe to someone else’s definition of “Authentic” Community?

    Take the Lamplighters. Super cool group and service that they do. But am I expected to revere them? A bunch of people wearing the same outfit and doing what other people are doing is actually a bit of a bullshit trigger for me.

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    • Aaron says:

      Subscribe? Nope.
      Support? Nope.
      Accept? Nope.
      Tolerate inclusion of? Yep.

      Interestingly the word “tolerate” implies a resilience and strength. I can tolerate things im not particularly into but i know others are and it enhances their experience. Enthusiastic Tolerance!

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    • Jesus-christ says:

      Religion is a bullshit trigger for me. If someone parades around like an irrational holy man hypocrite or identifies with an archaic irrational religion, I suppose I have to tolerate it. What else can I do, are Nazis tolerated? “Fuck your burn!”

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  • L. Scot Bastian says:

    I don’t have any answers. But I will share this. I have attended Burning Man 11 times. One year, I went to a variety show. One act had wonderful puppets, followed by a great singer. Then this was followed by someone who’s performance consisted of masturbation. That’s it. No real act. Just masturbating in public. The organizers of the stage apologized profusely. A second story: I have seen a lot of acts perform in center camp. Last year, the emcee announced a new rule.: “no penetration.” Just a couple of observations on my part for you to think about.

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  • Tuxedo says:

    I get the distinct feeling that most Burners would be offended by political art that supports Trump even if it wasn’t anti anything else. So the question then becomes does offensiveness lie in the eye of the beholder or the beholden?

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    • Riley says:

      Creating art that celebrates a political leader/party that one detests is not “acidic” though. Creating art that attacks people for things beyond their control, like their sex or race, IS “acidic”. That’s the difference.

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      • Riley says:

        So for example, art that celebrates Trump may ‘offend’ many but it’s not acidic. Art that directly attacks Democrats or any specific group could be not only ‘offensive’ but also possibly ‘acidic’.

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      • Yes, “malicious intent” can be positioned either side of the line.
        There are “instigators” and “accusers” both with malicious intent.

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      • Angel says:

        I don’t want the org (and certainly not the rest of the community) crossing into an area where they get to decide what fits that definition and enforcing that decision up to a level of expulsion from the event. I know this will start with good intentions, but someone will end up demanding it be taken to a level of “This guy read a poem about how he’s sad that women don’t want to date him. That’s sexual entitlement and rape culture. Kick him out of the event!” You KNOW someone will do this.

        If someone’s art is truly despicable, it’s consistent with participation, self-expression, and inclusion for people to respond with a counter art piece that mocks it. In extreme cases, it may even be warranted to “express” your protest by vandalizing someone’s art. But no one gets kicked out unless they are assaulting another person.

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  • Fuckface says:

    The Bayaryans are back at it again policing what offends us now. Drawing lines in the dust where they shouldn’t be. Protecting our community from its self. If you don’t like something at Burning Man there is plenty of other playa for you to go enjoy. Can’t wait to see your snowflake police enforcing what is offensive across the expansive playa. You’re going to the wrong Coachella brah. FUCK YOUR BURN!!!

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  • John David says:

    I have taken my children since they were about ten. I didn’t see “pedophile camp” but if I did I would support their right to make their degenerate art as long as they supported my right to cut their dicks off and burn them at the temple. Now that’s art.

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  • Wizard says:

    I think the word you are looking for is “toxic”, not acidic.

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    • Shadowed says:

      Yeah agreed.

      Acidity is more a property of chemistry whereas toxicity can be defined as ” the degree to which a substance or a particular mixture of substances can damage an organism”, in this case a community.

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    • Laura says:

      Toxic works. I was thinking corrosive.

      Strange they went with “acidic” as the playa is alkaline.

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    • Emiluz Picante says:

      Was thinking the same thing, toxic or caustic might be more to the point than acidic. As a word nerd, though, caustic is a chemical burn, and hey this is burning man, so I vote for toxic as the descriptive term for the nebulous “too offensive” actions/art.
      Is this a democracy, though? Not sure if we are voting, and I do appreciate your thoughtful discussion.

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  • Badger says:

    I’m really glad that the unnamed camp from the 90’s (‘The Capitalist Pigs’ BTW) were used as an example. As soon as I saw the subject bullet in the Jackrabbit Speaks my mind immediately went back to that sad day. The over propositioning of kids in front of their parents was the kill switch for me as far as one’s freedom of expression goes. My take away from that incident – which I was involved in – is this: All art is self expression but not all self expression is art.

    Now consider another infamous incident involving ‘indecent’ art and self-expression which I hope might be addressed in future postings on this subject and that is the incident around the kinetic sign sculpture brought to the playa by Camp Jiffy-Lube and the threat by local law enforcement that threatened to arrest the artist and shut the event down because it was deemed by a single individual to be pornographic. I look forward to reading about this sad episode of Black Rock City’s past.

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    • Hear hear!

      The second example is already out there as the bmorg’s history of what is unacceptably offensive. It’s whatever a board members is upset by so much that they get Sheriffs deputies to take care of it for them.

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  • Den says:

    Gave up on Burningman in Gerlach after 3 burns. When “Fantasy” camps and others clearly institute RADICAL EXCLUSION…it lost the first core value of Burn. Reminded me of what the Indians of America must have thought when the wagons were circled. You can’t come in..and if you try you will be shot. Just kidding about the shot, but their SECURITY will prevent you from entering THEIR compound. Enough commercialism supported by BURNINGMAN CORPORATE for me. I do enjoy the regionals.

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    • Look for the gems. The lotus grows in the mud as they say. Burningman has more layers in it, but its still all there you just have to find it ‘cause its big nowadays and what you want isn’t just served to. Maybe you have parts to bring back and contribute for the new to experience?

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    • Corvus says:

      As a nine time burner I have been aware of the rise of “exclusive” PnP camps but they have not been enough to make me give up on TTITD. So long as they do not get so numerous as to suck the life out of those actually participating and contributing I ignore them, an action made easy by their walled enclave habit.

      Rather than get angry, if they get in my face too much I point and laugh or prank them, an old playa tradition. In actuality I feel sorry for them, donning the trappings of the event but missing the whole point.

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      • Bite Me says:

        Why not stay away next time, and let someone else take your spot? Nobody wants your smug righteousness, and pranks aren’t just not-funny to the victims, they’re rank against a swathe of principles which, after 9 times, it seems you’re never going to learn.

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      • Angel says:

        Where are these camps? I’ve never seen a camp that I haven’t been welcome into, unless people are referring to the “back area” where they have their tents and whatnot. I hope this isn’t the complaint. Where do people expect the line of inclusion to end? Does everyone have to allow everyone in the city to walk right into their tent?

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  • Zumzar says:

    I don’t think it takes much imagination to offend someone. It takes much more intelligence and to intrigue a mind of a spectator/participant thn just simply offend him/her. The spectators should always be given a chance to avoid something they don’t want to see or participate. ‘Artists’ who force people to see or participate in any potentially offensive performance should be reprimanded or kicked out.

    I am sure that the guy who ran into the fire did offend many people, but given the context and the number of people that attended, this was bound to happen. I don’t think the organizers should change security procedures around the fire because of the incident.

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  • Just Sayin says:

    I’m always surprised that Barbie Death Camp is allowed. Seems blatantly anti Semitic. Too offended to walk in and hear their spiel.

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  • Tameem says:

    There is enough negativity in the default world. For me BM has always been a place of creativity and love.

    Lets examine the concept of gifting. Even in the default world, to give someone a gift is an act intended to evoke a positive response from both parties. Self expression should not be associated with gifting. That is a gift to yourself. Actions and art you bring to the playa is gifting.

    Its a simple rule of logic people. Just ask yourself if the (Act/Art) is intended to have a positive or negative impact on the community. If its negative, then how is this a gift to others? it doesn’t take much to be good to those around you. Quit the bullshit!

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  • Tony B says:

    I saw/heard a great quote from someone who tried to mediate a dispute between and ‘artist’ and a participant over an “offensive” bit of art:
    “It is difficult to mediate a pair of participants where one wants to offend and the other is eager to be offended. Because they are both getting what they want from the interaction…”

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  • Anon Coward says:

    My first thoughts of reasons why anyone would produce “offensive” art, it to draw attention to some TOPIC (holocaust, nanjing, dolphin slaughter, sacrilege,…), not necessarily dealing with inner demons or grabbing at fame – so when the author ponys up a pair of horribly one-sided and damned near offensive themselves reasons for why this art exists, it beggars the question of neutrality!

    ” I neither want to shame people who are trying to work through these issues honorably, nor give publicity to people who are simply trying to make a name for themselves. ”

    The icing on the cake for me the the clearly fake “propositioning children” garbage. That’s pretty much the only possible example that everyone’s going to give in to, but also the least plausible. I dare you to find corroborating witnesses to prove that crap story isn’t made up: How are we to know it’s not just some drunken nut who said something within earshot of an overly vengeful parent who didn’t grok principle #1 ?

    I for one am not reading the rest of this series – it’s tainted already, there’s only one answer, censorship is NOT it, so take a deep breath and get over it.

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    • CampMaster says:

      I’m not part of the BORG but was there and saw the camp that propositioned children. They viewed their gift as insult comedy and it consisted of standing out front with a megaphone picking out people and shouting the harshest insults they could think of, and lots of “you, come here and suck my dick!” At first their neighbors tried to get them to calm it down, then the Rangers tried. After several days of making the neighborhood toxic they started targeting children walking by and shouting “come here and suck my dick”. Then they were escorted off Playa.

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  • Duuude says:

    For me, the practice of creating artificial complexity to support pseudo intellectual discussion is no more than cerebral masturbation. The answer is in the principles, which cannot be applied singularly and remain valid. The principles must qualify one another and create a balance. If your radical self expression ignores civic responsibility and prohibits radical inclusion you can’t do IT. That not everything is acceptable is the explanation for doors on porta potties. Keep the simple shit simple.

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    • Schmidtty says:

      Exactly. I want back the minutes of my life wasted reading the first installments of this series in hopes it might lead to something sensible. Here is a situation the author did not name: At East Coast regionals we have an artist mounting a flaming cross and using accompanying Confederate imagery to invite the conclusion it is the standard KKK model. When confronted he refuses to explain himself while his loudest defenders (one, a Holocaust denier, the other, a circulator of memes that depict Obama as a monkey), both claim the cross is innocent because it was not built to precise KKK dimensions and engage in online harassment of anyone who complains. People of color, and people with a sense of decency, are boycotting the burns or simply leaving the burner community in droves rather than deal with this nonsense. Whimsy is not going to resolve this. Encouraging people to approach the artist so he can tell them to piss off–his standard response–is not solving the problem. It is radical expression being used to justify radical racial intimidation, a burning cross in or near towns where people were lynched not so long ago, and making radical inclusion damned near impossible. No amount of sophistry is going to leave people comfortable being around such a thing. The way to deal with this is to seek a reasonable balance between expression on one hand and inclusion (and civic responsibility) on the other, in the same way we don’t let expression trump decommodification by declaring it allows the erection of commercial advertisements. To punt striking a balance and instead suggest that people deal with this situation by confronting an artist who relishes the confrontation is insane. It is going to lead to all-white, all-racist burns and/or constant altercations that create risks of violence and tragedy. If you think the need to indulge “artists” whose “expression” is simplistic racial intimidation trumps people’s need not to be around a burning cross and everything it represents, you need to crack a history book.

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  • capnjonny says:

    Do you think shunning would work? Worth a try ?
    Last year I spent an entire day riding around trying to see as much of the city as possible . What I saw was a whole lot of smiling faces . What I felt was a deep sense of belonging . If I had happened on some rabid dog of a person spewing hate I would probably have just smiled at them and kept walking.

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  • Birdman says:

    We are a community governed by our agreement to bind ourselves to the 10 Principles. We agree that great latitude of behavior, of Art or expression, is inhearent within this “constitution”. So while we do expect our community to be tolerant of that which is acidic to the community, by definition of being one means we have the right and means to change what “art” is not per the 10 Principals! This is not unilateral or singular, it is a group response that promotes healthy growth to our community. Simply use the 10!

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  • Screeechie says:

    Imagine the sorry Ranger that ends up having to mediate between supposed toxic artist and offended participant. That was me, my first year as a Ranger at BRC. I was called into Center Camp along with my partner, also a noob, because an angry participant was upset about an offensive piece of art. The piece in question had lots of mirrors, and a hidden butt cam that sent video to a nearby TV. The offended participant was worried the creepers might get to see children’s underpants. Personally I liked the ass cam, but the participant was super upset. WWLD?

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  • Starra says:

    I’d love to hear thoughts on something I witnessed a few burns ago. It was the middle of the day and I was at the bar of a small camp, chatting with someone from the camp. There were just a few of us there. A male/female couple wandered over and suddenly she was on her knees giving him a blow job a few feet from me. A very noisy very overtly displayed one. No-one said anything or did anything and when they were done they left. I kept thinking that there is a time and place for that sort of expression – for example the orgy dome. I felt disconcerted and I have often thought about it and wondered if it was “too offensive”? I also thought about my parents who I am hoping to bring to burning man one day. Although I was able to tolerate the display next to me I know to my core that it would profoundly upset my mother. For her it would be the opposite of radical inclusion. Thoughts?

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  • imanudistiloveshowingeveryonemydick says:

    What about public nudity eh? thats offensive we don’t want to see shrivelled cocks thank you very much

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