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"If I Could Choose-
What Kind of Sexual World Would This Be?"

John Bancroft

Presented at Indiana University, AIDS Awareness Week, February 11, 2002.

In July of 2001, The Surgeon General of the United States, Dr David Satcher, issued a Call To Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior. A principal goal of that initiative was to stimulate debate in American society, at all levels - nationally, in the media, in local communities, in families. This was an important document and it behooves us to respond. That has led me to question what my personal contribution to this debate should be. What is an effective way to stir up useful, and productive debate?
It is easy to criticize the 'status quo'. There are many aspects of today's sexual world that cause me concern. Yet, unlike some people, I have absolutely no wish to return to how things were, say 50 years ago, even if it was remotely possible.
How would I like it to change? The idea of defining how you would like the world to be is a potentially useful challenge. It is more difficult than simply criticizing the existing one. You lay yourself wide open to criticism. It is of course even more difficult to begin to describe how we might achieve such a happy state. But I decided to take on this task. What I shall present to you this evening, are my first thoughts. I have already decided that to do this task full justice, I will be taking on a long term project, and I am looking forward to just that. So please forgive me for exposing myself prematurely. Hopefully it will serve the immediate purpose of stimulating debate.

My starting point is the role of men and women in society. I hope to convince you that how society constructs gender is fundamental to the sexualities of men and women. And that is why I start there. I'll move on to describe how I would like these sexualities to be - "If I could choose", and explain how by changing the societal structure of male-female roles, my choice of a sexual world would become more likely.

There have been substantial improvements in the position of women in society over the last 100 years. At least in the Industrial world, women have had greatly increased access to education, greater work opportunities, more varied social roles, and greater control over their reproductive lives.
But the underlying patriarchal system remains deeply entrenched. And in many parts of the world today women have little or no control over their sexual and reproductive lives or health.
By patriarchy, I mean a social system modeled on the family where 'father' is in charge. This goes back a long way. Some speak of an earlier period of matriarchy, where women would be in control - I remain unconvinced that this was the case, although I'm prepared to believe that if you go back far enough, the importance and influence of women may have been greater than it subsequently became.
I find plausible the analysis presented by cultural materialists, who describe a highly relevant contrast between early hunter-gatherer societies, and later agricultural or horticultural societies.
The key issue is the development of property and as a consequence inheritance. For the agriculturalist, land became a key property, which paved the way for the development of social class systems, with the landowners, and those who are employed to work on the land. The result was the stratification of power, with men of the upper classes holding the power, and, in varying degrees, the segregation by gender. The woman needed to be under the control of the man to ensure the paternity of any children.
For the hunter-gatherer, who lived by hunting, fishing or gathering food where he or she could find it, property was not an issue, beyond perhaps your fishing vessels and hunting weapons. And by contrast, women in hunter-gatherer societies had more equal status.
I have for a long time been intrigued by a somewhat buried but still to be found contrast between Northern-European or Nordic and Mediterranean societies and their attitudes to sexuality. The Nordic pattern involved Scandinavian countries, North of Scotland, and North of Mainland Europe. The Mediterranean pattern involved areas mainly round the north of the Mediterranean, including Greece, and parts of Italy, France and Spain.
The Nordic pattern, in its earlier versions, focused on fertility as a key factor in the progress towards marriage. The young woman first proved her fertility, then got married. With the Mediterranean pattern, the emphasis was on virginity. The virginity of the young woman had to be protected at all costs. She was the property of her father, whose aim was to transfer her in a virginal state, to her husband, chosen by the father, quite possibly receiving money or gifts in return. This carried an implied guarantee that any children that follow have been fathered by the husband.
The differences between these two systems in both the status of women and the attitudes to sexuality, are profound. And the Nordic system, if you go back far enough, can be seen as 'hunter-gatherer' in type; the Mediterranean system, predominantly 'agricultural'.
This geographic contrast may be disputed. If it existed, it undoubtedly became obscured by the effects of the industrial revolution. What is beyond dispute is that in the large majority of human societies for a very long time, society has been structured so that men are in control, and women are subservient. As a consequence of this, everything else is organized according to the male centered model.
This model is perhaps at its most starkly chilling in the accounts of Classical Greek society, where the wife was a little better than her husband's slaves, some of whom were young women sexually available to the husband. With a number of variations, this model has persisted.
The role of religion in this process is of interest. In early classical times, there were female Gods who had some status, and this was perhaps a time when the status of women was greater. As the human race moved towards monotheistic religions, God became male. And woman became the all-too-earthly sexual temptress.
And celibacy became the solution. Elisabeth Abbott in her interesting History of Celibacy, describes the role of celibacy in early Christianity. Sex was a threat, which if it wasn't required for reproduction would have been abolished for certain. Some early Christian sects attempted just that - at a time when the return of Christ was considered just around the corner, such short term planning made more sense. But Christ didn't return, and sex had to be fitted in somewhere. Celibacy, nevertheless was revered. For the man, celibacy was his demonstration of his control over the evil seductions of women, so clearly established in the belief system by the story of Eve in The Garden of Eden. For the woman, celibacy was a most effective way of avoiding the subjugation of marriage.
Although, through the history of Christianity, there have been periods of greater and lesser emphasis on celibacy, the fundamental view of sex as a threat to our virtue has remained deeply embedded. Christianity, without doubt, has been a powerful vehicle for maintaining both patriarchal and sex-negative systems, and remains so to this day.
The other main world religions have also been mainly patriarchal, although one of the rare examples of an extant matriarchal society, the Moso from the Himalayan regions of Southern China, is a Buddhist society.
In the older religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, celibacy is regarded as important, although with Buddhism, a period of life in which sexual activity occurs is accepted as a stage towards the final state of Nirvana in which there is "extinction of all desires and passions and the attainment of a state of beatitude". Needless to say, not all Buddhists make it to Nirvana.
In early Hinduism, we find evidence of greater value of the woman, and a more sex-positive value system. Judaism and Islam have not celebrated celibacy, but they have certainly maintained patriarchal systems, and in both, in different ways, we see the need for strict control of the woman's sexuality.
When I look at the history of the human race, from whatever perspective, the dominance of the male over the female is there in gruesome form, somewhat modified and muted in recent American and European history, due in large part to the ongoing battles of the feminist movement, but all too evident in other places, such as the recent Taliban regime. I'm 65 years old, and it has taken me this long to become seriously disturbed by this scar on the history of the human race. What have I been doing?

The impact of patriarchy on sexuality
Let us consider more closely why this male-dominating patriarchal system is typically associated with a negative view of sex. Because woman, we are told, is the problem, the temptress, the seducer. If that were not the case, men would not be so vulnerable to their sexual urges. That has to be the longest running "con game" in the history of the universe. But let us look more closely.

To the early Christians, sex and the loss of control that goes with it - our regression to the like of animals while engaged in sex - was anathema. And to this day, sex fits uncomfortably in the Christian system, cloistered within marriage, necessitated, reluctantly, because of the need for reproduction. How has this, and other sex-negative social systems shaped our sexualities as men and women? Let us consider men first.
The biological imperative of reproduction is that the man inserts his erect penis into the woman's vagina and ejaculates there. As it happens, vaginal intercourse is well designed to give the man sexual pleasure. At the same time it epitomizes his dominance over the woman - penetration, occupation. This has resulted in a phallo-centrism, the central role of the penis in the concept of masculinity, that is all pervasive in male society. The erect penis is the symbol of manhood; its thrusting into the woman, the symbol of his possession of her. The loss of the capacity for erection is consequently a catastrophic blow to the individual's manhood. In other words, this phallo-centrism puts the man under considerable 'performance pressure'. For many men, this results in difficulties obtaining erections, more often than not associated with major loss of self esteem. More than half of the men who come to our sexual health clinic are concerned about their erectile performance.
How the phallus or penis, that extraordinary anatomic appendage with its built in specialized hydraulic system, has been dealt with through history, has recently been documented in an interesting way by David Friedman in his book, "A Mind of Its Own; The History of the Penis". In two weeks, I will be giving another talk, linked to our Sex and Humor exhibit in the Fine Arts Gallery, entitled "What's so funny about sex?", and I will be focusing on the essential absurdity of this aspect of the male. No wonder early Christian men were threatened by sex, they hadn't developed a sense of humor about this idiosyncratic aspect of their anatomy- and that's not a joke; I will be developing that theme in my other talk
In any case, given these characteristics of the male sexual response, and the machinations of the male mind through history that have enabled him to evade the essentially absurdity of his sexuality, male sexuality has remained constrained but not suppressed by our sex-negative society;and at the same time, covertly reinforced as the key element of 'real masculinity', constructed in such a way that it doesn't require much reduction in 'morality' or 'virtue' or 'self-control', to be expressed as sexual violation and aggression .
When we turn to the woman, the story is very different. Her body is not designed to get maximum sexual pleasure from vaginal intercourse, even if for some women vaginal intercourse has particular importance. In general, women require other types of stimulation to provide them optimal sexual pleasure - and such stimulation has nothing to do with reproduction. Whether a woman experiences and orgasm or not, for example, has nothing to do with reproduction. Combine that with the long-standing belief by patriarchal societies that women are the cause of sex-related problems, and it is not surprising that, in varying degrees at different stages of history, women's sexual expression has been repressed. If, in addition, we consider the possibility that for biological reasons, women may have more developed inhibitory systems to enable them to avoid sexual arousal in inappropriate circumstances, then it is even less surprising.
We have not long ago emerged from a phase in the history of women, the late 19th and early 20th Century, when the 'good woman' was relatively asexual, though happy to be of sexual service to her husband on the understanding that he set the pace. Exceptions to this general rule were 'bad women', and if their interest in sex was marked enough, 'insane women' fit only for a lunatic asylum.
There are still parts of the world where young women are subjected to horrific procedures of clitoridectomy and genital mutilation with the assumed purpose of containing their otherwise rampant and socially dangerous sexuality.
And it can get worse. Just last Friday, I , along with many others, wrote a letter to the Nigerian Ambassador, pleading that he take action to reverse a court decision in Nigeria. A 30 year old woman, with a 5 month old baby was condemned to death by stoning, for committing adultery. In Shari'ah law adultery by a married person is punishable by death. In this case it was the man who was married, but he got off on the grounds of 'insufficient evidence'. Difficult to imagine a more horrendously convincing example of the woman being seen as the 'evil one'.

We can take some comfort from the fact that, at least within the industrialized world, there have been substantial changes over the past 100 years, with women today possibly more free to express their sexuality than they have been in earlier times. But even today, the legacy of this repressive history remains everywhere. The concept of the woman being there for her husband's pleasure, at least for those women from the European tradition, is sufficiently deeply embedded to be still evident. In the recent Kinsey Institute national survey of the determinants of sexual well being in heterosexual women, these two questions were included:
1. How important is it to your sexual happiness to experience an orgasm during sexual activity with your partner?
[Orgasm is, of course, not the only way in which a woman can enjoy sexual pleasure, but is one of them.]
2. How important is it to your sexual happiness for your partner to be sexually satisfied?
The results areshown in Table 1; 31% rated orgasm as very or extremely important. 78% , partner's satisfaction.
Table 1


Not at all important
Somewhat important
Moderately important
Very important
Extremely important
"...to have an orgasm"
11.2
30.6
27.3
25.5
5.5
"..your partner is sexually satisfied"
2.3
6.6
13.4
52.5
25.2

What about pornography?
There is another aspect of the 'status quo' that I want to consider, because it troubles me. The role of pornography, or the world-wide, rapidly expanding industry in the commercial provision of sexual stimulation, largely for men.
Although pornography, or to use a less loaded term, explicit sexual imagery or text, has a long history, going back to cave paintings, reaching a sophisticated level in the murals of Pompeii, we have seen dramatic changes in the accessibility of such material over the past 100 or so years, particularly visual imagery.
When photography started in the late 19th Century, it was immediately used to depict explicit sexuality. Such images remained, however, relatively inaccessible for the majority of the population. During the 20th Century, we saw an increased availability, with the addition of the pornographic movie, changing to the much more accessible medium of video by the late 70's.
Now we see a dramatic explosion of such material through the Internet. It has been estimated that there are between 30,000 and 60,000 sex-related ('adult') sites and numerous newsgroups and chat rooms. Of the top 40 websites visited by males age 18-24, 33 are 'adult' websites (Neilsen//Netratings, unpublished data). In all, this represents an astounding increase in accessibility to sexual materials and information of all kinds in the last few years.
Such material is used predominantly by men during masturbation. There is a comparatively small amount of pornography aimed at women, and the available evidence suggests that women are predominantly seeking types of stimulation through the Internet other than visual.
What does this tell us about men's sexuality? Is it just a matter of men having higher levels of need for sexual outlet than women, and compensating in this way? What is particularly disturbing is the apparent exponential growth in this form of sexual activity.
Given that they have surplus sexual energy to deal with, are we seeing the consequences of a peculiarly conditionable sexual response system in men, being shaped by an inexhaustible supply of novel sexual stimuli? Are we seeing the formation of myriads of new 'fetishes'.
Or is it that we have entered a phase in the history of sexual relationships between men and women, where there is increasing emphasis on the so called 'pure relationship' - a relationship that is for the benefit of both partners, not your typical manifestation of the patriarchal system I have already described? Have men been so socially constructed to behave in the long-standing phallo-centric fashion, that they are having difficulty incorporating their sexuality into these new relationships?
I don't know the answer to these questions, though it is important that we seek them. My concern is that, whatever the precise explanation, we seem to be witnessing a shift from the previously undesirable pattern of phallo-centric male dominance, to another problematic pattern of male solitary sexuality, free from the complexities of responsible intimate relationships, but also evading the constructive use of sex in intimate relationships.
Gunther Schmidt, in his essay "Sexuality & Late Modernity" describes masturbation as the new escape route. He wrote: " A young man who came to our outpatient department because he did not feel like having sex with his girl friend, but was a frequent masturbator, summed it up as follows: "If I do (masturbate) that, I can start when I like, come when I like and stop when I like: I needn't bother with foreplay, or romantic lighting, or tender nothings murmured in her ear; I don't have to guess what she might like, or discuss afterwards how it was; I can go to sleep when I feel like it".
And maybe what he might have added is "I can fantasize what I like" and in the process maintain his male centered, phallo-centric sexual identity.
A subject in our ongoing study of 'sexual addiction', said this about his fantasies: "….the 'object of my fantasy' woman doesn't exist, I don't think….she would have to be completely submissive and not interested in her own pleasure. It's just not intimate, you know".
Does this reflect something basic about the biological roots of male sexuality, or can this be seen as a biologically amplified consequence of the social construction of male sexuality and the conflicts between this construction and the emerging construction of 'the pure and more equitable relationship'? I don't know the answer to that question, either.
Pornography raises some complex issues. There is a long standing controversy between feminists who see the need to impose censorship of sexually explicit material, because most of it is degrading to women; and feminists who regard such censorship as a violation of First Amendment principals, which may cause more problems for women in the long run. I will return to this issue of control of pornography later in this talk.


So what do I choose?
OK! Enough complaining about the status quo. How would I choose it to be different?
First, and foremost: a radically different society in terms of the relationship between men and women. Away with patriarchy, and although it could be argued that it would be preferable, do not substitute with matriarchy. How to address the inequalities between men and women has been debated by feminists for a long time. One approach, which has been well captured by Sandra Bem, is to reconstruct society so that the inevitable biological differences between men and women are really restricted to reproduction and little else. Otherwise, it is a matter of stressing the similarities rather than the differences: "…we would…view our sex as so completely given by nature, so capable of exerting its influence automatically, and so limited in its sphere of influence to those domains where it really does matter biologically, that it would be safely tucked away in the backs of our minds and left to its own devices. In other words, biological sex would no longer be at the core of individual identity and sexuality"
The pattern I am proposing, I haven't quite come across in feminist writings as yet, and that may simply be a reflection of my late entry into that literature. I want my system to acknowledge that men and women are different.
There are of course many similarities, and overlaps, but there are some important differences which should be embraced, because they complement each other, emphasizing the point that my chosen society makes good use of both types, male and female. Both models are advantageous to a social system, and the optimum solution is not to merge one into the other, but to make good use of each, giving them equal importance.
What would this mean in practical terms? Society would be structured to have its male and female components, at all levels.
The Two-team approach would be the default position. Exceptions to that general rule, would require a special case to be made, supported by law. What this means is that at every level of social organization, there would be a male and a female component, or team if you prefer.
Men would compete for male positions; women for female positions. At each level of seniority, in any such two team hierarchical system, men and women would be paid the same.
In government, the same would apply; there would be a certain number of elected positions for men and the same number for women.
In business and industry, the same would apply, though in industry we might encounter legitimate needs for 'special cases', where certain types of work are done by men and other types of work are done by women. But they will be the exception.
Bear in mind, that in most areas of work where the simply physical differences between men and women have been relevant in the past, they are increasingly less so, as technology and advanced equipment enter the scene. A woman is just as capable as a man of operating a mechanical digger.
In each of these work situations, in addition to such overlap of ability, there will be aspects where 'male type skills' will be useful, and others where 'female type skills' will be useful.
Let me illustrate further with an example closer to home- the university.
Each academic department would have an equal number of male and female faculty positions, with expectation of the needs of both to facilitate spousal hire. The committee structure would be equally divided. The teaching commitments would be equally divided - there would not be a disproportionate amount of the undergraduate teaching carried out by women faculty, as is the case in a University not a hundred miles from here. There would be a separate and equal allocation of student places for males and females.
I would envisage competition between men and women, yes - but in terms of the comparison of output or achievements, not in terms of who gets the jobs or who makes the decisions.
There will of course be some resulting issues requiring special attention. There is the issue of leadership. In the University world, leadership would be relatively simple, with departmental chairs rotating between male and female faculty. In most social structures, however, there will need to be one person at the top, be it President, CEO or chair. Would that be a man or woman? There could be various ways of dealing with that.

Then there is reproduction. Getting pregnant, delivering the baby and breastfeeding for a healthy period is inevitably a woman's task. The system would need to be designed to incorporate that - but if women are competing with other women in the female system, and not competing with men, that will be less problematic than it is now. Special provision for maternity leave and associated requirements, would be fundamental.
However, the care of children is not restricted to pregnancy, childbirth and lactation, and for the remainder of childcare, there will be no expectation that it is the responsibility of the woman - it will be the responsibility of parents, male and female, supported by a social system that gives child care facilities at the work place high priority.
I could spend a long time 'fleshing out' the details of such a system, and you'll have no difficulty challenging it - but this is what I am choosing.
Now here is an important point - this would be a social system built on diversity. It would have as its foundation the assumption that there are at least two types of people, women and men, who are of equal importance in the world. This would foster the recognition and acceptance of other types of diversity, whether based on religion, race or sexual orientation. Just the opposite of what we have now. The built in institutionalized repression of women by men is the template for the dominance or repression of any group by another. And the male-centered society has particular problems dealing with men who have sex with men; homophobia prevails. In my diversity-based world, homophobia would be minimal.
So how is sex going to fit into this Bancroftian paradise? First sex would be recognized as the biological mechanism for reproducing the species, and as such an aspect of our lives, which carries grave responsibilities - is the Surgeon General listening? Contraception would be readily available as a fundamental requirement.
At the same time sex provides us with powerful means to establish and foster intimacy between people - the basis of close personal relationships - between men and women, but also between men and men, and between women and women. But with the major qualification that between men and women, responsibility over reproduction is essential.
The social value associated with sex would be focused on its binding effect in relationships - not a guarantee of a stable relationship, but an important component.
The essence of the sexual experience between two people would be the ability to let go of one's emotional control in each other's presence, to experience the sexual pleasure that results, and to feel emotionally safe and secure in the process. If emotional security is seen as a requirement, then embarking on a sexual interaction would not likely happen until a relationship had been established in other non-sexual ways.
There would be no prescribed sequence of sexual acts. Insertion of the penis into the vagina would be one of several ways of enjoying the shared experience, though having a special significance if reproduction is on the agenda. With the proviso that neither partner imposes on the other anything that would be experienced as unpleasant, threatening or uncomfortable, women would be free to pursue what types of sexual experience they enjoy most. Men would be freed from any specific expectancies of how they should respond.
Masturbation would be regarded as a perfectly normal way for an individual, male or female, first to learn to understand their sexual responses and second, to provide an appropriate method for enjoying sexual feelings when not in a position to enjoy them with a partner.
I see marriage as having a role in making a public as well as a private commitment to a relationship. It could be used for that purpose alone. But being married would not make the relationship any more virtuous. The principles of responsible sexuality would apply whether married or not, and contrary to what many seem to believe today, being married does not automatically convey sexual responsibility.
An added, in my view more important purpose of marriage, would be to establish and reinforce that commitment when two people decide that they want to have a child. In my ideal world, the child would normally grow up with both parents, and at the very least with parents, who if they separate and form other relationships, maintain a shared commitment to the parenting of that child. This would be a major component of the responsibilities associated with reproduction. The socio-biological concept of the male spreading his seeds around would have no place in my world.

I have no illusions about the importance of religion in any successful social system. I will not comment on the other world religions, of which I know too little, but I will comment on Christianity, as I was brought up a Christian. Clearly, I would choose that the various arms of the Christian Church become non-patriarchal, giving equal status to women and men in the Church's structure, and in the process, ensure that religious teaching gives equal value and importance to women and men. I refuse to believe that Jesus Christ would have wanted or expected anything different, and I also believe that the key elements of his teaching, which I embrace, would be realized to a much greater and more meaningful extent in this gender-equal world.
In many respects, the changes I am proposing might most easily be initiated within the world of religion, setting in motion a more wide-spread social change.
There will undoubtedly be a need for social and legal constraints on sexual expression. It is difficult to envisage any social system, however sex-positive, where some degree of social control over sexual expression is not necessary. But the hope is that as my system takes hold, and people grow up in a sexually positive, gender balanced world, the likelihood of developing aberrant forms of sexual expression harmful to others, would not disappear but be much reduced. The non-phallocentric male would be less likely to rape. Those growing up in this both sex-positive, and sexually responsible world would be less likely to sexually abuse children, and so on. It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which a sex-negative social system amplifies the problems associated with sex.
The issue of pornography, raised earlier- in our current world, a major commercial enterprise - needs to be considered. I have reservations about censorship, not so much because of First Amendment principles, but rather because history has taught us that, in general, banning things makes them more attractive, and generates an underworld of illicit trade. I would prefer that, as a result of the emerging sex-positive culture, and the greater ease with which men could invest their sexuality into their relationships once they were freed from the demands of a phallo-centric system, their interest in pornography would change and lessen. They would no longer be attracted to the types of sexual imagery which portrayed women in sexually dominated situations, but would, if anything, prefer depictions of the types of positive sexual relationships that, for one reason or another, were not currently available to them. The problem of pornography, if it remained a problem, would not then be about the denigration of women, but about the vulnerabilities of men.

What about AIDS?
This is AIDS Awareness week. I have not so far considered sexual transmission of disease in this talk. But I have drawn your attention to the Surgeon General's Call To Action. In today's world the emphasis in combating AIDS and other STD's is on 'safe sex'. In my world the emphasis would be on responsible sex, echoing the Surgeon General's message. Included in his definition of responsible sexual behavior is a) respect for oneself and one's partner; b)avoidance of physical or emotional harm to either oneself or one's partner; c)responsibility for avoiding unwanted pregnancy.
Sex education will not be a matter of instructing young people to be celibate, that good old Christian principle, during their years of maximum sexual awareness, and delay any sexual activity until marriage. Instead, children would be taught from an early age, that their emerging sexuality requires responsibility; initially, responsibility to respect other's privacy and personal space; later, responsibility to avoid unplanned pregnancy - probably as awesome a responsibility as they will encounter at any time in their lives. Young people even today, and certainly in my world, prefer to be treated as capable of being responsible for their own behavior, even if they have to work at developing that responsibility. They do not respond well to external constraints imposed on them until they achieve some magic level of maturity. In this sex-positive and responsible sexual world, adolescents will not want to rush into advanced sexual relationships.
In my gender-balanced society, where sex is either for reproduction or the fostering of intimacy in close relationships, and not for 'scoring', improving one's self esteem, improving one's mood, or reinforcing one's gender identity, responsible sexual behavior will be the norm. STD's will not disappear, but will be substantially less common.
I have not attempted to consider how such radical changes could be implemented, but I would make the point that we live in a world, which is changing in many ways at a remarkable rate. We should therefore not assume that because a pattern has a very long history, it could not be changed for a better one. My most basic point is that to bring such changes about we will first need to correct the gender imbalance.
Is this all just a pipe dream, an idyllic fantasy of an aging sexologist losing his marbles? Maybe; but I see no harm in putting it forward, if only to see how people shoot it down. Thank you for allowing me to indulge myself.

 


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