Steubenville, consent, alcohol, and me: my stories of sexual non-quest


This post is going to contain some stories about my personal life – specifically, my sex life. If you’d rather not know that kind of information about me, this is probably where you want to stop reading. Also trigger warning for discussion of rape (but I swear there’s nothing explicit).

I generally don’t blog about rape. My specific opinion on the topic (spoilers: I’m opposed to it) is barely marginally helpful, as I am just as likely to set foot in the wrong place as I am to say something profound, and there are people who are much more directly affected by the discussion than I am. My preference is to read the opinions of others who have more pragmatic experience with the topic, either as someone who has been raped, someone who works with rape victims, or someone for whom fear of rape is part of their daily life and decision making. Listening to those voices has been immeasurably helpful to my own understanding of the topic and the sociology underpinning it.

One of the biggest shifts in my thinking – more crystalization than a real ‘shift’ – is about the topic of consent and how it relates to alcohol. I managed to figure out on my own that you shouldn’t do anything drunk with someone that you wouldn’t do sober, and that you should extend that to a potential partner – if ze wouldn’t fuck you unless ze was wasted, it’s not okay. I don’t know that I considered that ‘rape’ before I began reading feminist writings (I probably would have just thought it was a shitty thing to do to someone), but I have no problem identifying it as such now.

I have avoided talking about the rape of Jane Doe in Steubenville, Ohio because, again, I don’t think I have anything useful to add to the topic. I’m glad the judge didn’t buy the argument that a girl who was so drunk that she had to be physically carried out of a room was still sober enough to consent to sex. I think that anyone who thinks that the blame starts and ends with the two boys who raped her is severely deluded, as are those who wish to completely exonerate them. Hopefully this case will be high-profile enough to spark a discussion about the messages we send boys about masculinity and about sex and about women and about consent.

In that vein, there is something that I can contribute to this discussion: my own stories. My whole adolescence (all the way through undergraduate, really) was a series of ridiculous misadventures in which I have way more stories about getting unlucky than the opposite. A friend of mine calls them “Ian stories”, I call them stories of “non-quest” – tales that would, from another person, probably end with sex, but either circumstance or my own skittishness ruins everything at the last minute with hilarious effect.

The stories I’m going to share below are not “Ian stories”, at least not of those kind. These are stories about me making the conscious choice to not have sex with someone because I thought we were too drunk. These are stories about me applying what I have learned from listening to feminists and others talk about consent. These are stories about how making that choice totally failed to result in me ruining my life or losing respect for myself or having my “man card” taken away or any such arch-masculine pearl-clutching nonsense.

Charlene*

Charlene was fiercely intelligent, funny, and raunchy as all-get-out. As you can imagine, we got along almost immediately. We were in town for a conference, but as is the case with these things we were more interested in the socializing and drinking than we were in the content, much of which we blew off to go hang out. As the evening wound on and the bottle of rum we were sharing got closer and closer to empty, Charlene and I got closer and closer to each other. Eventually, she suggested I accompany her back to her hotel room on some pretext that nobody thought was particularly opaque, certainly not me.

As we stood up to head back to the room, I noticed that Charlene was a little… unsteady on her feet. At one point I had to help her up the stairs. While the voice in my pants was resolute, the voice in the back of my mind recognized that this was a situation in which consent was somewhat precluded by intoxication. So, when we got back to the hotel room, I told Charlene about my concern. She looked at me skeptically, and told me she didn’t think she was too drunk, but I told her I didn’t feel comfortable. Laughing, she told me that while she had often told people that this was how they should act, she’d never had it backfire on her like this before.

We had sex the next morning instead.

Ashley

I’d had a crush on Ashley for more than a year. We worked together at a bar, and as is the feature of young women who work at bars in college towns, Ashley was drop-dead gorgeous in addition to being incredibly charming. She had also been dating a complete dead-end of a guy for a while, actually getting engaged to him for a while before wising up and moving out on her own. It was a couple months after their relationship ended that she accepted an invitation from me for dinner and drinks. As far as I can recall, I had no specific design on “getting lucky” that night, considering her agreeing to be seen with me to be about as much luck as I could reasonably ask for that evening.

At the bar after dinner, I got ‘the vibe’ that Ashley was interested in a bit more than what I had initially planned for the evening. Things progressed pretty quickly from there, to the point where it became abundantly clear that my place was a much better venue for this party. As we walked from the bar to my place, Ashley was pretty visibly drunk – at one point deciding that her heels were simply too great a challenge and walking the streets barefoot. Once again the struggle between my ‘two heads’ raged, with reason prevailing. I told Ashley it was probably a good idea for us to slow things down a bit. This time I could actually see her slump with relief – she was feeling ‘iffy’ about the whole thing too, and was glad I had said something.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t persuade her to stay the night, and she left town shortly thereafter. The only thing I managed to blow in that circumstance was my shot.

I’d had post-bar hookups with women before either of these stories took place. I’ve had more since. Similarly, I’ve been in situations where someone’s drunkenness put me off well before sex was an imminent option. That being said, the above two stories are illustrations of times when, but for my decision to put a stop to things, sex would have been had. By me. With them.

I liked Charlene and Ashley. I still do. And it was because I liked them, and because I didn’t want to put them in a situation where they would think less of me (or worse, feel like I had assaulted them), I chose to do the right thing. It wasn’t, I don’t think, about avoiding jail time or being labeled “a rapist” (although I obviously don’t want either of those things); it was about me recognizing that consent is a two-way street, and that alcohol is a big pothole in that street. It was about me understanding and believing the women who told me that they’d been date raped, and not wanting to cause that kind of pain to someone I cared about (or any human being, for that matter).

I don’t think less of myself for putting the brakes on with Charlene, or for never getting the chance to sleep with Ashley. My self-concept and my masculinity aren’t tied up in “scoring” with every woman I can, circumstance be damned.

I don’t think more of myself for saying no. Nobody deserves accolades for simply doing the right thing, and if what I did is rare, that says more about our culture than it does about me.

What I do think is that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I had pretended that consent is harder to sort out than it is, or that I was entitled to the body of another person because she wasn’t in much of a condition to say ‘no’. And the fact that this kind of thought process isn’t universal is something that we really ought to be concerned about.

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*It probably goes without saying that these are fake names to protect people’s privacy.

P.S. A few months ago I was at a gig. A young woman had clearly had way too much to drink, and was basically throwing herself at anything with a pulse and a dick. A table full of young guys humoured her for a few minutes, and then pooled some of their beer money to put her in a cab home. There is hope.

Comments

  1. dianne says

    I know you don’t need my approval or cookies, but I hope you don’t mind if I say “nicely done”. Nonetheless, it bothers me that you needed to write this post. Shouldn’t it be inherently obvious that the right thing to do is not to have sex if the consent is unclear? Why would someone even want to have sex with another person who wasn’t obviously into it?

  2. mythbri says

    @Crommunist

    You mean to say that passing up on “iffy” opportunities for sexual gratification did not, in fact, preclude you from having sex in the future? I’ve been assured that erring on the side of not-raping-someone when alcohol is involved is an unreasonable standard!

    Sarcasm aside, I appreciate this post. Thank you, as always, for your thoughts.

  3. Brandon says

    Nice post, and I’ve had enough similar experiences that I was nodding all the way through.

    Shouldn’t it be inherently obvious that the right thing to do is not to have sex if the consent is unclear?

    Absolutely. Unfortunately, there’s not a bright red line when it comes to booze, which is why everyone should err on the side of caution and go ahead and pass (or delay) when you’re not completely certain the other person’s in a state to consent.

    This really shouldn’t be all that hard, but there’s always someone that has to interject a “hey, so you’re saying you can’t sleep with someone that’s had anything to drink?”. No. No one (or damned near no one) is saying that.

  4. lamaria says

    Thanks for this post, I´d like to add something only slightly related. Even in my gettingdrunkdays I was pretty careful who I got drunk with so I had no trouble there. Instead guys would try to “guilt” me into having sex with them, implying (or even saying outright) I owed it to them for turning their heads. Even in two cases where I´d explicitly told the guy involved he wasn´t going to get anything more then a conversation before agreeing to have a drink with him. Where´s the point in that? Can anyone have so little pride? The only way I´ve found to get out of that situation is to get angry. And not a just little bit, but loudly. Which I hate because it confirms too many prejudices about irrational women.

  5. invivoMark says

    From the subtitle, I thought this post was going to be about me.

    But then I saw there were words in the post.

  6. badweekend says

    Christ this is hitting close to home. Maybe this is somewhere I can talk about this experience I just had.
    .
    Last Friday, I bartended at a bar at the university I go to. We recently got a new influx of new bartenders, and there was one girl there who was 19 – I’m 26. She was there with her friends, one of whom was apparantly more than a friend, but not quite a boyfriend. Anyway, we hang out in the bar, get drunk together 4-5 of us and just have a good time – this girl is very flirty with me (although not in a douchey-to-the-maybe-bf way), it’s not the first time we’ve met and it’s pretty clear that we are attracted to each other, and click pretty decently. I know that she’s a virgin, which she’s pretty open about.
    .
    Anyway, there’s a party where I live (a dorm with 200 people or so), and we all go there after we close the bar Down, except the bf dude. During the party, I make out with the girl for a bit, and we discuss her maybe-bf – it’s clear that she thinks he’s nice, but I get the vibe that he’s a bit too nice (which she agrees to)
    .
    So I party with some other people from my dorm for a while, while my bartender friends and this girl party somewhere else at my dorm (big party). When I go to meet them, we kiss Again and she disappears for a while, and my friends tell me she’s nervous and discussing whether or not to sleep with me. They tell me not to do it, which honestly I’m fairly ambivalent about – their reasoning isn’t that she’s too drunk or anything, but mostly that she’s a virgin and that she’s seeing someone. But I still take it to Heart, and she clearly is drunk, though no drunker than any of us. But I still take it to heart. There weren’t any obvious signs that she was ‘too’ drunk, like not walking straight in the above example. She was just.. Party-drunk, I guess, in what seemed like a good way, the way most of us were at the time.
    So later, the girl and I go to my room, and I tell her my doubts about the Whole thing – she’s pretty adamant that she wants to have sex, and straight up tells me to ignore the others, and that she knows this is what she wants. She’s pressuring me pretty badly, and I’m more than a Little tempted. I end up telling her I’d rather not (yay drunk me), and give her some clothes to sleep in while I go have a final beer with my friend to talk and stuff – i wasn’t that tired, but she was. And I go and have the beer with my friend, it takes about 30 minutes, maybe more, and I go back up, put my own sleeping clothes on and go to sleep next to her.
    .
    Except she woke up when I got into the bed, and then we had sex. I’m not sure how it escalated, or started, or if I woke her up or she just woke up because I was there – the last thing I can remember is lying Down, and the NeXT thing I can remember is that I’m putting on a condom, and she’s telling me that yes, she’s sure.
    .
    And the NeXT day, she seemed pretty – well, I’m not sure exactly. Angry? Confused? Shameful? She was in a hurry to get out of the door, and even left her top here (she had a jacket)
    There could be a variety of reasons, I guess – shame with regards to her bf, embarrasment because there was blood on the sheets, feeling gross for the same reason, and of course the one that’s really really bothering me – what if she can’t remember having sex? Then the last thing she remembers is going to sleep with me out of the room, thinking she’s not going to have sex, and waking up with blood in the bed, and me naked NeXT to her. Does she feel like she was raped? And if so, does that mean I did rape her? I know many women who have been raped or in some way violated, and there is nothing that makes me feel more angry and nauseous than that I might have caused someone to feel that way.
    .
    I’ve tried to get in touch with her, but she’s not answering any of my messages, which is making me feel like shit. I just want to talk to her, make sure she’s alright as well as put my own fears to rest. I feel terrible about the Whole thing. While I’m pretty sure I made a mistake, I’m not sure whether or not I did something wrong. There are so many factors here – alcohol, her first time, age difference, level of experience, her sort-of boyfriend, the fact that there was blood and finally her reaction the NeXT day, which could be due to any number of reasons, and I just can’t sort it all out. And it makes me feel even worse that I made the right decision and then still did the wrong thing – I was pretty drunk by then myself but obviously that isn’t an excuse. I should have slept on the couch. I shouldn’t have made it possible.
    .
    Anyway, not sure what my point with this post is. I just felt like shit and I wanted to share. And I think it underlines Crommunist’s point about not getting any cookies – I hadn’t been a better person than before if I’d just waited, but right now I definitely feel like a worse person. I feel like this is probably the shittiest thing I’ve ever done, even if (especially if!) that wasn’t my intention. And I’m not looking for anyone here to validate my decisions or make me feel better or give me sympathy or anything like that. I’m not even sure if this post will be deleted, which I would totally understand. Anyway.. Yeah, that’s what happened this Friday, and I feel like shit.

  7. Pteryxx says

    badweekend: obviously I can’t speak to what she’s feeling, and it may take some time for her to process it herself. Also if she doesn’t want to speak to you, that’s her right. (And IMHO a bad sign.) I hope she has someone knowledgeable and trustworthy that can hear her out, for both your sakes. But also, IMHO *you* need someone to hear you out, who’s knowledgeable, not involved, and who will keep your situation confidential. So, if there’s anything helpful I can possibly suggest to you (besides giving her space and patience) it’s this, scary as it may sound: I suggest you call the National Domestic Violence Hotline and tell one of their advocates your concerns. They accept clients of any gender and answer the lines 24/7. When I called them some years back, I asked the question that almost every survivor starts out asking: “I think I might have been violated but I’m not sure. Can you advise me?” They hear this ALL THE TIME. You can call and say something like “I feel really terrible about something that happened Friday night” and go on from there. I don’t know what answers you’ll get, but you will get answers. I hope that’s helpful to you.

    The Hotline’s number and an explanation of services: http://www.thehotline.org/2013/03/what-can-the-hotline-help-you-with/

  8. says

    Thanks for giving that helpful advice, Pteryxx. I saw this earlier but was a bit baffled how to respond without sounding like a douche. It didn’t occur to me to direct him to the Rape Hotline. So, again, thank you.

  9. Pteryxx says

    SallyStrange: thanks. I keep thinking I could have worded it better but darned if I can figure out how. The hotline folks can be way more supportive than any of us (not least because they’re not doing it on somebody’s blog).

    Crommunist, FYI I name-checked this piece over in Thunderdome: here

  10. Usernamehere says

    Tiny, tiny little nitpicking here, but..

    You do sort of frame yourself as the ‘hero’ of the tale. ‘I told Ashley it was probably a good idea for us to slow things down a bit. This time I could actually see her slump with relief…’

    The least charitable interpretation would be that you’re suggesting this poor thing needed you to protect her from her own inability to make decisions regarding her own well-being. You, the guy, active and decisive, she, the woman, passive and grateful.

    I very much doubt you intended it that way, but just some food for thought. If this had been a story by some random stranger, my ‘white knighting nice guy’ bullshit detectors would have been flaring up.

    Anyway, the moral of the story, not putting your desire to get laid before your desire to not be an arse, is a good one, of course. Better safe than sorry.

    *Ugh.. imposter detected, btw? 99,9% lurker here, not sure what happened*

  11. says

    That’s a fair cop, and in all honesty it even felt a bit paternalistic in the moment. I have this to say in my defense: 1) I don’t have a story where someone told me she was too drunk for sex – if I did, I would absolutely have included it here; 2) the point is rather about gauging and reacting to my own level of comfort as opposed to getting a clear ‘no’ and respecting it, which I would say is disputed by pretty much nobody except terrible people; and 3) in neither of those cases did I have meaningful insight into how the other person was feeling, so I can really only tell the story from my perspective. There is also a bit of a power imbalance in terms of social acceptability and pressure, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the person with the relevant privilege to be more assertive about recognizing that.

    I appreciate the critique though. I’ll have to give it some thought.

  12. says

    1) I don’t have a story where someone told me she was too drunk for sex – if I did, I would absolutely have included it here

    That’s the thing, we’re not “allowed” to say that. Women are trained from early on not to be blunt. And then the fact that we tried to make ourselves clear otherwise (which guys totally DO understand but bad guys choose to ignore) gets used against us again.

  13. freemage says

    I’ve got one that follows a fairly similar narrative:

    I’d been madly crushing on Callie (as with your tales, name changed) for about two years. We were good friends and I had done the confidant thing through two of her relationships (Full Disclosure: This was the peak of my Nice Guy [TM] Period, complete with a huge heaping self-delusion about my own motives). Sometime before the second relationship ended, I’d confessed to being attracted to her; she was maybe-a-bit-too-kind in turning me down.

    Now, because of an abundance of facial hair, I was the guy in our group who could walk into any bar or liquor store and not get carded, even in places that were normally meticulous about that sort of thing (and there’s a lot that aren’t, of course). So I had a small stock of booze in my room, discretely hidden from the RA’s eyes, and would occasionally invite her to my room for a drink (she wasn’t the only one, mind you–I generally invited any friends over and shared liberally). She would decline just as regularly.

    So, she and the second boyfriend break up–and it’s one of those typically college break-ups where it drags on, they are perpetually forced into contact with each other, causing brief re-flings and then secondary break-ups, and so on. And then, one night, she shows up at my door, and asks if the offer of a drink is still open. Natch, I said yes, and invited her in, thanking my lucky stars that my roommate was out for the evening.

    So, I started pouring. We were doing shots–I’ve never been overly fond of the taste of beer, and three or four bottles of different liquor were still much easier to hide than a case of beer. We both got tipsy, then drunk, fairly quickly.

    During this time, my confidant aspect came into play again, and she talked very frankly about a lot of things. Among the general flow, these stood out:

    1: “I like sex. I like the way it makes me feel. Is that a bad thing?”
    2: “I didn’t come by before because I was worried you’d try to get me drunk and take advantage of me.” (Important note: No clarification offered as to whether she now trusted me enough to not worry about that, needed the drink so badly she just didn’t give a damn, or had actually decided she wanted to sleep with me and the booze was just a bonus.)

    So, we both start getting a bit woozy, and bed is suggested, and we lay down next to each other, her snuggled into the crook of my arm, and I reach over… and draw the blanket over both of us, and we go to sleep. Not because I’m some sort of paragon of virtue, but because it was the only non-shitty thing to do, and no matter how desperate I was, how madly I wanted her, and how low my inhibitions were, I’m not a rapist.

    She got rather violently ill later that night (she had kept pace with me, and I had a good 80-90 lbs on her, and was more used to the liquor). This created a bit of a scene, and she ended up back in her own room. The next day, we talked, and she started going to the campus counselor about some of the other things that had come up in the course of our discussion (a prior rape, a lot of sexual guilt, etc.). Oh, and we were good friends until we both left school, because that’s often how it works. Last I heard (over two decades ago, now), she was getting married to some guy in the Air Force.

  14. Usernamehere says

    Hehe, well, like I said, I took the least charitable interpretation.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve had a similar experience with a girl I had been seeing for some time. We were slow with getting to the whole sex thing (for my doing) and when we got the ball rolling, she seemed a bit nervous. When I asked what was wrong, she told me she’d been abused by her former boyfriend. We just took it slow from there, and yes, I did take an extra effort to ensure her I was cool with letting her set the pace. Double-checking in case of doubt is not a bad rule of thumb. And sometimes, people can use some extra reassurance.
    I’m also a big fan of doing this in all aspects of every relationship; by your actions/attitude making sure someone can just tell you when something’s bothering them. Make it a habit with the little and relatively unimportant stuff, and it’s easier to do with the big and hugely important stuff.

  15. says

    Ah, Usernamehere is a guy. Makes sense. Because, when I read that phrase

    ‘I told Ashley it was probably a good idea for us to slow things down a bit. This time I could actually see her slump with relief…’

    I could totally relate. I’ve been there, slumping with relief, because the man I’m flirting with has indicated that the only decision I need to make in that moment is whether I want to have sex. I don’t have to decide (unlike many experiences with hookups I’ve had) how much resistance I want to put up in response to pressure from this man, whether or not I have to turn on my threat-detection heuristics, etc. Because, yeah, we ARE trained to never make a direct rejection, and also warned, and some of us have direct experience, that direct rejection can lead to anger, yelling, and even physical violence–all things that reasonable people try to avoid. And even the most well-intentioned, sensitive guys fall into using that pattern of applying indirect pressure and relying on the implicit threat of the occasional verbally abusive, unreasonable man who won’t take no for an answer, to ensure that he himself gets to hear the “yes” he’s looking for.

  16. Usernamehere says

    What made sense to you after you figured I was a guy? I’m not sure my observation couldn’t have been made by a woman.

  17. Portia says

    What made sense to you after you figured I was a guy? I’m not sure my observation couldn’t have been made by a woman.

    Speaking only for myself, the “slump of relief” also really rang a bell with me. The social dynamics that would make a person understand the feeling and be glad that Ian had taken the initiative to raise an uncomfortable subject/point/topic are such that a woman is most likely to really grok that feeling of relief. If that makes sense. The fact that you are a man (as I think you are saying? correct me if I’m wrong) means that you might never have been in the situation where you really really wanted to get out of an uncomfortable situation, especially involved sexual advances, but were too intimidated/indoctrinated to be assertive about it. As a man, you’ve been socialized to be assertive, not punished for it. When a man lets a woman explicitly off the hook, it can be a big relief because he’s clearly communicating that he’s not an asshole who will pressure you or get abusive if you refuse.

    That’s my reading on it, anyway.

  18. says

    The fact that you are a man (as I think you are saying? correct me if I’m wrong) means that you might never have been in the situation where you really really wanted to get out of an uncomfortable situation, especially involved sexual advances, but were too intimidated/indoctrinated to be assertive about it

    There’s a lot of peer pressure that comes from other men (or from patriarchy generally) that ties masculinity to sex as often as possible. It’s a comparatively rarer occurrence that a man is pressured/guilted/otherwise coerced into sex by a female partner (except maybe in a “don’t be a pussy” kind of sense – hence, patriarchy); at least, that’s my sense of it. I don’t know if there’s data on that.

  19. Usernamehere says

    Ah, like that. The whole ‘beings a man’s man’ as Crommunist describes it isn’t something I really recognize, not my from upbringing or my surroundings. However, as Portia and SS pointed out, the view that as a man, I’m not pressured into having sex often is certainly true . Thanks for clarifying. Slow brain day on my part, totally didn’t get that was the point :)

  20. =8)-DX says

    To add to these stories:

    The whole topic seems rather strange to me, because (as a man) I’ve only ever slept with women I’ve been dating or interacting with for some time. I had the whole Catholic block on “sex is only for the married”, the same applied to general flirting or appreciation of sexiness, so sex for me was always and always has been only in terms of a long-term relationship. Reading these things makes me again rethink all the “consensual, within a relationship” situations, where although my intentions were good, the stark contrast of ability to provide consent never seemed to apply.

    So for a story:

    Getting to know my current girlfriend, we used to hang out in the local bar, drink, talk literature, and then head out to the proper late-night bars. After a few months of this, we came to the situation where we were dancing at the local club and my alcohol retention being slightly better, she would start “making moves on me” and we would start touching, kissing, and I would think “Wow, she’s like this because of the alcohol”, I was stupidly patronising over this as I wondered why she didn’t directly say she wanted to have sex or get together. The first night I slept over at her place we got half-undressed and watched the legend of Nosferatu on TV. I had this feeling that all I need to do was turn over and kiss her and start something and we would start having sex. For me that was liberating, because sex had always seemed as something just out of reach, not something I could just decide would happen. It never occured to me how much a woman is putting on the line to be intimate, and how strong the pressure to be defferential to male assertivity can be. The next time we (slightly less drunk) had sex(tm), it was underwear-on, simple intimacy.

    Currently we have an in-joke about how pressured into sex I am, but I still feel the cultural pressures that mean I’m the one who most often initiates, despite having a lower libido.

    So much to learn.

  21. Nate says

    There’s no way to win on this one. If you slow things down, you’re being patronizing and assuming the woman can’t determine her own desires. If you keep going, you are taking advantage of the situation. If you use your non-impaired brain to convince them to continue, it’s rape.

    On the flip side, if the woman passes up sex with a drunk man, there’s no criticism of patronizing. If she takes advantage of the situation, the man has a very tough time mounting an effective case that they were taken advantage of, and certainly doesn’t get any slack with regard to paternity. In the absolute worst case, you could make the arguement that a non-impaired woman flirts and teases a drunk man so far that he becomes sexually aggressive, and is too drunk to understand the sudden switcharoo in signals, it’s still 100% the man’s fault, and he goes to jail for rape.

    Contrast this with a man forgetting to take his girlfriend’s keys away and the woman drives drunk. While the man feels bad, the woman is 100% responsible; unless they are married, there is no responsibility placed on the man to assist with the consequences in any way.

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