Virginity Is Not a Synonym for Sexual integrity

by | Jan 17, 2024 | Preparing for Marriage | 36 comments

virginity and sexual integrity in a Christian sexual ethic

Have we missed the boat on sexual integrity?

I was hoping to do a series on honoring God with a new sexual ethic, but I overpromised. Keith and I have our marriage book due in March, and I’m frantically trying to write it, and I spent so much of Monday and Tuesday of this week on the phone with Joanna going over some super cool new findings–so I’m not getting a lot of blog writing done!

And I’ve realized this series was going to have to be super in-depth and well thought-out to do it justice, given the number of comments over the last week.

So I’ve decided just to summarize a few of my thoughts in this post instead. Hopefully I’ll have some bandwidth back once our book is in! And I’m sorry about that.

Here’s an example, though, that sums up the problem that I see in how we’ve been talking about sex.

You can believe that sex remains in a covenantal relationship (as I do believe) and still see that there are other things that are actually more important.

We explained this in She Deserves Better (which is on sale for $2.99 on Kindle right now!):

Great Sex Rescue

From She Deserves Better

Here’s another example of this type of messaging, this time from a young man writing to teen girls for Brio magazine. Telling the story of being on safari and coming upon a pride of lions, he explains how male sexuality is like a lion’s instinct to hunt. Christian girls may just want to get out of the jeep and hug the lions because they’re so cute (just like they want an affectionate relationship with Christian boys), but when they dress immodestly, it’s like hanging fresh raw steaks around their necks and then approaching the lions. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say that you would’ve ended up on their breakfast menu!”

He concludes the lion analogy with this:

That’s not to say we don’t have a responsibility to live self- controlled, pure lives. But a lion is a lion, and a guy is a guy; I don’t care who he is. So, help us out. I was the most “godly” young man a parent could ask for. I was truly head-over-heels in love with my Lord and Savior. I prayed at least an hour every day, read and studied my Bible, and felt I was being used by God in my school and community. But I was still a lousy example of what God wanted me to be in my dating life. Give me an inch, and I’d see it as an invitation to go a mile.

Let that last line sink in for a minute. He says, “Give me an inch, and I’d see it as an invitation to go a mile.” And whose fault is this? Girls, for putting steaks around their necks and forgetting that boys are lions.

At the end of that article, the author announces proudly that he managed to make it to the altar, at age twenty-eight, as a virgin. But given what he’s admitted about himself, does he have reason to boast? Personally, we would much rather that our daughters one day marry men who had had enthusiastic consensual sex with willing partners than that they marry someone who had taken a mile from a girl who had wanted to give only an inch. We’d rather they marry someone who wasn’t a virgin than someone who technically was—but who also was a predator.

See She Deserves Better here.

If we make the definition of sin merely about what our bodies do, I think we miss the bigger point. Sexual integrity is not primarily about our bodies; it’s about how the things we do with our bodies affect other people.

Reading that Brio article as a mom had a very different effect on me than reading it as a teen likely would have. A teenage girl might look at that and think, “yes, I need to protect the boys!” But a mom of girls reads that and is horrified, because it’s talking about a guy taking a mile from your little girl–when it’s a mile she did not give willingly. And then he praises himself for being “pure.” If that’s our definition of pure–technically didn’t put his penis into a vagina but may have sexually pressured or coerced girls to engage in sexual acts against their will–that’s a massive, massive problem.

When we look at Scripture, Jesus (and Paul!) reserved their angry outbursts for people who hurt others, and tended to show compassion for people who hurt themselves or fell short. I think in our talk about a sexual ethic we’ve missed that, condemning the young couple in love who went further than they wanted to with greater vehemence than we do the young man who pushes a girl further than she wants to go, or the husband who pressures the wife to send him nude pictures.

In talking about sex for fourteen years online now, here are some common pitfalls of the “virginity-first” ethic that I’ve seen:

  • Teenage girls who have sex then feel like they have no right to say “no” to future boyfriends, since they’ve been taught that you abstain from sex so you give your husband the gift of your virginity. When that ship sails, they feel there’s no turning back. Many report feeling coerced or forced into sex because they felt no legitimate reason to say “no” anymore.
  • Rape victims who didn’t realize that what happened to them was assault, because in their mind, what had happened was just that they “lost their virginity.” There was no nuance. Or even if they had heard about consent, the shame at no longer being a virgin was so great that they couldn’t disclose.
  • The couple who has sex right before their wedding day and feels horrifically guilty and doomed because they’ve “ruined their chances at a good marriage” and “handed their marriage bed over to Satan” when, statistically speaking, if they weren’t so freaked out by the fact they had had sex they’d likely be fine.
  • The woman who married as a virgin not knowing that her husband had violent sexual fetishes due to a long-standing pornography addiction who now regrets not having any sexual experience before she said “I do” so that she could have seen the red flags.
  • The red-light-green-light approach to the wedding night that told women, “now sex has to happen,” increasing rates of sexual pain and decreasing women’s arousal by making sex happen in a very unnatural, almost coerced fashion.
  • The couple who gets married where one has a past and one does not, and the one who was a virgin cannot overcome the fear of comparison, the insecurity, and the feeling of having been “cheated” of their partner’s virginity because of the emphasis on “saving yourself,” and the scare tactics about how you’ve “created a soul tie” with the first person you sleep with.
  • The woman who is married whose husband is coercing her into degrading sex acts who is told by her pastor that “all things are permissible,” and she feels trapped like she can’t say “no.” They’re married, after all, isn’t this OK?

You can likely think of many more.

A sexual ethic that defines sexual integrity as virginity has nothing to say in all of these scenarios. It’s why we simply must incorporate kindness, respect, and dignity into any sexual ethic we have, and stop making virginity the end-all and be-all. 

She Deserves Better!

Because we all deserve a big faith.

Your daughter deserves better than what you likely grew up with in church.

What would it look like to prepare the next generation without toxic teachings about modesty, sex, or consent, and instead set her up for a big faith?

I do personally subscribe to the belief that sex is best in marriage.

We talk about it in She Deserves Better, including how to talk to your daughter about saving sex without it being about fear tactics or manipulation. 

But I also personally believe there are so many more important character traits than saving sex for marriage, including treating each other with kindness and respect–and I think this is in line with how Jesus treated people too.

Christian sexuality is not only about virginity. It’s about acting as Christ to each other, and it’s about entering into the experiences of others and having compassion for them. Like when Jesus saved the woman who was going to be stoned for adultery, or when he talked with the woman at the well, or when he touched the lepers, and healed the bleeding woman.

If a Christian sexual ethic creates “untouchables,” then it isn’t a Christian sexual ethic. And any “Christian” sexual ethic cannot encourage people to brag about the letter of the law while completely missing the Spirit of it.

I wish I had more bandwidth right now to flesh this out more, but the good news is that I’m just super busy with this new book and all this new data–there is so much good content coming your way, and I can’t wait to tell you about what we are finding (we’ve got awesome interesting in-depth stuff on the Love & Respect thesis too!).

But for now, that’s what I want to leave you with–if the way we talk about sex forgets about those who are hurting, if it dooms people to afflictions and anxieties, or if it promotes selfishness and entitlement it’s not a Christian sexual ethic at all. Even if it churns out a lot of virgins.

Virginity and sexual integrity

What do you think? Can we combine an ethic of chastity and love for one’s neighbour without becoming legalistic? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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36 Comments

  1. Jo R

    Several months after the Brio podcast, I realized that the guy got the entire lion analogy completely backwards.

    It’s the lionesses—the females—that do the hunting, then the males come in to eat what the females caught (and IIRC, the females don’t eat until after the males have finished).

    What teacher, male or female, who discusses interpersonal relationships between any humans, let alone those between Christians, let alone MARRIAGE, resorts to using predator-prey language in the first place? We’re all—male and female—just supposed to accept and nod our heads and agree that Holy Spirit–indwelled Christians are animals living by their instincts?

    What about the fruit of that same Holy Spirit? The golden rule? All the “one another” verses? Consider other more highly than yourselves? The traits of love in 1 Cor 13? Jesus not coming to be served but to serve, and how we should all be growing more like Him every day?

    Oh, that’s right. Women aren’t actually people, so men can treat women however the men want to. Women are just NPCs in this men’s world, and especially in “the church.” 🤢 🤮 🙄

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It is absolutely horrific, honestly, the whole predator-prey language. And yet this is what Focus on the Family pushed, repeatedly.

      Reply
      • JoB

        Especially considering the only people described as predatory animals in the NT are… false teachers and the devil himself!

        Reply
  2. Jennifer

    Yes! I love where this is going and I’m so excited to keep reading as you get deeper into this. Maybe after 41 years I can finally start to drop the guilt and reclaim my life!!

    Reply
  3. Angharad

    One verse that came to mind while reading this is the one from 1 Samuel which talks about people looking at outward appearance but God looking at the heart.

    It seems to me that there is a parallel between this verse and the way so many Christians focus on the physical body (“how far did you go?”) instead of on the heart.

    Yes, I believe that God intends sex to be kept for marriage. But I also believe that Jesus’ death on the cross has paid in full for ALL our sins, not just the non-sexual ones. One of the things I find so heart-breaking about this site is the number of comments from women who had premarital sex years, sometimes even decades, before, and who are still struggling with feelings of guilt. And that is not the way Jesus wants us to live.

    We don’t respond like this to any other sin. I doubt many people are beating themselves up for the spiteful gossip, or lies, or angry outbursts they produced years ago. They’ve repented, accepted that they’ve been forgiven and moved on.

    Why do we have this difference? I think it’s because church as a whole has got so hung up on certain sins, particularly sexual ones, and classifies them ‘differently’ from any others. So an arrogant, selfish, spiteful, cruel person who can boast that they’ve only had sex with their marriage partner is regarded as ‘a good Christian’ while the person who once had sex with someone before they were married and who is now following Jesus wholeheartedly and has a life full of spiritual fruit is regarded as ‘tainted’… How twisted. Maybe we need to remind ourselves of Jesus’ view of the ‘super-spiritual’ leaders of the day…as whitewashed tombs.

    We’re supposed to living like Jesus. So let’s start looking at people the way He did – at their hearts.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Exactly! I know that as I’ve been thinking more about my faith journey, what I’ve realized is that decades ago, the way I defined a “real” Christian versus a “liberal” Christian was entirely due to how they saw sex. Nothing about how they saw generosity, or how we handle money, or how we treat people, or anything. Just sex.

      And while I do think sex is important, I wonder how my view of faith shifted so that nothing else mattered? And that very much was consistent with the evangelical worlds I was a part of.

      Reply
      • Jen

        This is a discussion that definitely needs to be developed! I’d be curious to hear more of your thoughts on why the Bible spends so much time talking about sexual immorality. God tells us that sin leads to death. We often get stuck in big picture thinking – if you’re not right with God you will suffer eternal death. Obviously, that’s important; however, we often forget to talk about the death that every sin brings whether that’s in ourselves or in someone else. We can’t undo that death, and that’s especially angering for those of us who were sexually sinned against.

        I believe there is absolutely forgiveness for those who entered into consensual sex and now wish they hadn’t. Yes! Accept the forgiveness and move on with Jesus!! But I wrestle with what that means for those who stole from others. The sex addict, the porn user, the Christian teacher who keeps people in abuse, the husband who coerces, the boyfriend who pushes boundaries. I believe there is forgiveness for them if they repent, but repenting means seeing and owning their sin.

        What’s my point? God spends a lot of time talking about sex, so that tells me sex is a big deal. As we develop a righteous, healthy sexual ethic, we have to ask God why it’s so important. My guess is that it revolves around sex being the most intimate possible way to use other people.

        Looking forward to reading your thoughts!

        Reply
        • Lisa Johns

          But in the grand scheme of things, does the Bible *really* talk about sex as much as we do? It seems to me that it spends much more time talking about honoring God and loving one another.

          Reply
    • JoB

      Yes, the Brio article itself made me think of Jesus’ words to the Pharisees: you make a big show of carrying your Bible everywhere and using passionate words in your prayers, but you “devour” those who are vulnerable. A white washed tomb full of unclean dead bones!

      Reply
  4. EOF

    After listening to a podcast interview with Jennifer Bird on the New Evangelicals podcast, all of this makes sense. We’re getting our marriage advice from the Bible, written in times when men literally owned women. Marriage was merely a transfer of property, and adultery/rape was a sin against the husband/father, not the woman!

    So if the teachers and preachers are focusing on women’s need to submit and almost never bringing up the man’s need to love and sacrifice, of course abuse is going to run rampant! Men will continue to oppress women in every way possible, including sexually.

    Reply
  5. Ruth

    Wow, this hits home. I had sexual relationships with two men prior to getting married. One of those was my now husband, and happened while we were engaged. The other was with a different man, before that. Both were, I suppose, sinful (in the traditional way of seeing things). But that first relationship is the one which I’ve needed to heal from for years – even though it didn’t involve “actual” sex,

    The first man I was with seems rather like lion-analogy guy. Like I say, we didn’t have “actual” sex and we were both virgins throughout our relationship. However, our entire dynamic was characterised by shame and coercion. This guy would preach purity and resisting temptation in our church small group, then message me for nudes right after. He never cared about getting to know me; he used my body for his sexual gratification; he led me on and ditched me the moment I stopped being convenient for him. The moment he’d got all he could from me, he left. I felt so used and so broken, like damaged goods.

    With my now-husband, things went further physically. But it couldn’t have been more different. With him, everything we did together was mutual, pleasurable, joyful. It was an act of shared passion, an expresion of the love we shared. He took such good care of me and I wanted him so much. It was a “bigger” sin, according to my purity culture background – but it didn’t feel anything like as awful and shameful.

    Surely there’s a different between true love and lust; between an act of sexual freedom and an act that made me feel powerless? Was the first man really less of a sinner because he remained a technical virgin – even though he coerced me?

    The more I think about it, the surer I am that this focus on virginity is at the root of the issue. We treat it as the be all and end all of sexual morality, but miss so much important nuance. As far as I’m aware, the man who hurt me so much is still a “virgin” – but does that mean his behaviour was pure?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Ruth, I’m so sorry that first man treated you that way! And, yes, your story is a perfect example of how we’ve got our priorities wrong. How we treat each other always matters most, and that’s what Jesus modelled too.

      Reply
      • Ruth

        I appreciate that a lot – I really hadn’t thought about this in such clear terms before reading your post, so huge thanks to you for writing it!

        Reply
        • Lisa Johns

          It sounds to me like that first man was one of those “virgin” predators that think girls have steaks hanging around their necks. I married one of those, and let me tell you, his “virginity” wasn’t worth a dime. Our sex life was filled with coercion and manipulation, not to mention his total commitment to the porn princesses, and never an expression of love and care. Was he virgin when married? Yes, technically. Was he pure in his view of sexuality and marriage? Not by a long shot. Would I far rather have had a guy who wasn’t “virgin” who treated me far better? Absolutely.
          These guys’ behavior was never pure.

          And I don’t really think you and your husband “sinned” all that greatly just because you expressed your love for each other before your actual wedding day.

          Reply
  6. Laura

    Purity culture pushed a lot of legalism. Back in the 1990s, when I was a teenager and recently saved, Christians around me treated premarital sex as the worst sin ever. Teenage girls who got pregnant were chastised, but they guys who got them pregnant did not have their reputations tarnished. At my high school, if a cheerleader got pregnant she could never be a cheerleader again, but the football player who got her pregnant still got to play football. Not fair!

    Even though my mother (who was raised Catholic) taught me the importance of saving sex for marriage, she was not judgmental and did not act like premarital sex was the worst sin ever. She focused on the good about saving sex for marriage while in the church, they talked about the horrors of STD’s and out-of-wedlock pregnancy and that once you have sex with someone, you have lost a part of yourself and if they had sex with others before you, then you had sex with those people too. I used to think that I should wait for a virgin to marry, but my friends would tell me that most people are not virgins by the time they graduate high school. One set of statistics I saw in 1994 showed that 60% of people lose their virginity by the time they graduate high school. I don’t know how accurate that was.

    What many Christians fail to remember is that God looks at our hearts. When Jesus talked about sexual sin, He mentioned the heart issue, not just the sexual act itself. He talked about how adultery begins in the heart.

    Reply
  7. Boone

    The church has always viewed abstaining from premarital sex as the be all, end all. Any collateral damage caused by abstaining was considered to be acceptable casualties. You didn’t commit the top sin so nothing else matters. Your suffering will build character.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, definitely. I partially bought into this in my earlier years too.

      Reply
  8. Laura

    I also think about the people I know who “messed up” sexually with their boyfriend/girlfriend and then felt they *had* to get married, even though they were wildly incompatible and should have broken up instead. The compulsion to “fix” sexual sin with marriage is damaging wherever it’s found.

    Reply
    • Angharad

      And it is literally the only thing I can think of where Christians counsel committing a second wrong to cover up or ‘undo’ the first one. Usually, someone confessing to wrongdoing would be told to repent, make restitution where possible, and move on with their lives. So why on earth it’s become the standard to recommend an unwise permanent marriage as a means of ‘fixing’ a one-off sexual encounter is beyond me!

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I know! It’s really really caused so many heartbreaking problems.

        Reply
  9. Ally Gillotte

    Could someone help me – I have looked through Scriptures, I have asked Christian friends and pastors, and I cannot find a reference in the Bible that condemns premarital sex specifically. Adultery for sure, but is sex between nonmarried persons definitely covered under the “sexual immorality” heading? I would love to see a good in-context look at what that New Testament phrase means – that seems like an important part of a solid Christian sexual ethic. It’s so strange to me that this is held as an absolutely vital doctrine in every orthodox Christian sect I’ve ever heard of, but the Bible doesn’t seem to speak directly to it at all. Mind you, I’m not looking for permission or excuses, I just want to be on solid ground when I’m talking to my teens about it! Is saving sex for marriage a good idea, or a commandment?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It certainly isn’t in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, adultery is having sex with a married woman. If a man had sex with an unmarried woman, he was simply required to marry her or pay the brideprice.

      I think you can make a good case from Hebrews 13:4 that sexual immorality can apply to premarital sex, and it does separate sexual immorality from adultery (which the Old Testament doesn’t really). But it is certainly not clear cut. I think the reasons that we save sex for marriage are more logical (so kids grow up in stable families; so women aren’t at risk with pregnancy, which historically has been really important more so than today), etc. And I do think there’s a sacredness/intimacy element.

      Reply
      • Kristy

        I have often pondered the same question. The Bible talks about sexual immorality without clearly defining what that includes, and I can’t recall ever seeing premarital sex specifically condemned or even mentioned at all. Certainly, I agree with Sheila that there are many sexual behaviours that are much more immoral than merely having sex without being married. I am not trying to find an excuse to rationalize premarital sex. Really I’m not. I’m just seeking intellectual honesty. I also feel that sex is best kept within marriage, but in the absence of a clear statement to this effect in the Bible, I have to acknowledge that this may be my opinion but not necessarily God’s law. And once we acknowledge that, then we need to be careful not to place heavy burdens of guilt on other people’s shoulders (or our own) for behaviours that are not clearly condemned in Scripture. We need a discussion of this that embraces both honesty and humility.

        Reply
        • Tim

          There’s also this:

          To the unmarried and widows I say that it is best for them to remain as I am. But if they do not have self-control, let them get married. For it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire. (1 Cor 7:8-9, NET)

          Frequently mis applied (as discussed here a few posts ago), but does pretty clearly assume that Christians are either married and sexually active, or neither.

          Reply
          • Lisa Johns

            But that “burn *with sexual desire*” part is an addition in the English translations. It’s not part of the Greek. It does seem to fit, but was it really what Paul was talking about?

          • Tim

            Interesting point Lisa, thanks. I hadn’t looked up the Greek, but according to my Bible app, the word is pyroo, meaning:

            “To kindle, i.e. (passively) to be ignited, glow (literally), be refined (by implication), or (figuratively) to be inflamed (with anger, grief, lust):–burn, fiery, be on fire, try.”

            Which in theory could mean just about anything I suppose. But what what would you suggest Paul might be referring to (particularly given that sex within marriage is the subject of all of chapter 7 up to then).

      • Erin

        I know Paul advises Christians to avoid fornication. I was always taught that fornication refers to premarital sex, but perhaps there’s a nuance I’m missing.

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Yes, we assume it applies to that (and I do believe a good case could be made for that) but it is definitely not crystal clear.

          Reply
        • Lisa Johns

          “Fornication” is the translation. The Greek is referring to sexual immorality in general, and the “fornication” part is assumed.

          Reply
    • Angharad

      It’s not as clearly listed as adultery is in the ten commandments (e.g. “Thou shalt not…”). But if you read the Bible as a whole, it’s pretty clear sex is intended only for marriage. I’ve heard it argued that fornication is just another name for adultery, but there are several places in the Bible which mention adultery AND fornication in the same sentence as sins to be avoided, so it’s obviously not referring to adultery, and most translations translate it as sex outside of marriage. Paul’s letters also make it pretty clear that Christians are expected to opt for either marriage or celibacy.

      I spent several years searching the Bible for justification for pre-marital sex. (Due to a physical abnormality, I knew that there was a strong possibility sexual intercourse would be a major problem for me, so you can imagine how keen I was to find Biblical evidence that it was ok for me to ‘try it out’ before getting married!) But every time, everything I read pointed to the fact that God intended sex only for marriage. That doesn’t mean that sex before marriage can’t be forgiven – of course it can, just like any other thing that falls short of God’s standard. But I don’t think there is any way of justifying it as ‘not wrong’ in God’s sight.

      Reply
  10. Amy

    Hmm… do they think widows/widowers can never remarry? After all, they aren’t virgins anymore! And it’s disgusting that they think boys have the self control of a chimp. Self control is part of the fruit of the Spirit, so a Christian male better have self control.

    Reply
  11. Perfect Number

    “Personally, we would much rather that our daughters one day marry men who had had enthusiastic consensual sex with willing partners than that they marry someone who had taken a mile from a girl who had wanted to give only an inch.”

    !!!!!!! Yes! This!

    This is one of the reasons I’m really glad my husband is not a Christian- because he doesn’t have any of these purity-culture/wifely-submission ideas. He didn’t know that men are apparently unable to control themselves/ unable to respect “immodest” women, lol.

    (But also, secular culture has a lot of sexism and unhealthy ideas about sex- so marrying a non-Christian isn’t a guarantee you won’t have those problems.)

    Reply
    • CMT

      I think for me, asking what I as a loving parent would want for my kids is really clarifying. My kids are going to go out into the world and mess up, deal with their own stuff and with problems they didn’t cause, and work out what to do in all kinds of gray areas. Do I want them terrified of slipping up and ruining their life forever (in any area, not just sexual)? Or do I want them to know how to use their instincts and good sense, do the best they can, and trust their mistakes won’t define them? No contest.

      Reply
      • Lisa Johns

        Amen to that!

        Reply
    • JannaG

      My ex husband was not a Christian but got into ideas about BDSM and polyamory. So, yes, marrying an unbeliever is definitely not a guarantee that they’ll avoid toxic ideas. Marrying a believer is also not a guarantee that he will buy toxic ideas. He may not.

      Reply
  12. JB

    Even with an amazing, loving husband, breaking out of the predator/prey mindset is so difficult! My husband is a Christian, but didn’t grow up with purity culture.

    My Christian therapist gave me a really great secular sex book- Healing Sex by Staci Haines. In it, the author says, “celibacy is a perfectly valid sexual choice, but it has to be your choice”.
    That amazed me! I sort of always thought it was your family’s choice, your community’s choice, your (concept of a domineering) God’s choice, and your authority figures’ choice, and my choice was not important in the equation.

    Reply

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