Someone else’s story: vaginismus

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I’m really excited about this guest post. Not only is it something that I’ve never written about before, it’s about something that is so rarely written about you’d be forgiven if you hadn’t heard of it.

Since I started this blog I’ve had lots of people get in touch with me to say lovely things, and the loveliest of all is ‘I feel this way too.’ Whenever this happens I’m overwhelmed with a sense of relief to find that I’m not alone.

This week’s blog is about a completely new topic, written by someone who has a very different experience of sex, and a problem which is rarely written about in the mainstream media. I hope it gives you something interesting to think about, even if it doesn’t directly affect you. And I hope you can share it, so that others who have similar experiences can find it and know they’re not alone.

Over to Artemis…

On Vaginismus

Vaginismus is an ugly name for a physical condition which affects a small and mostly silent minority of women (vaginismus.com puts the figure at 2 in 1,000 women, but acknowledges the difficulty in getting accurate statistics). This is how I experience it.

I am in bed with my boyfriend, and he is going down on me. The sensation is exquisite but I want more: I want to be filled with him, I want him inside me right now, I want more than just his finger and tongue pushing me to climax. I am hot and wet and wide open, my cervix is dilated, my eyes wide, my nipples hard.

He puts on a condom and then he pushes his way inside me. Everything stops. I have to force myself to relax enough for it to stop feeling like I am being stabbed with a blunt instrument. I gasp, in pain not lust. My vagina burns, inside and out. Even so, I feel completed: this is what I wanted, as close as it gets for me; I wanted him inside me and now he is. He begins to move, and there is an unbearable pressure in my abdomen, it feels like I will explode; I pull him closer and the pressure recedes.

The pain wanes but never leaves. I am scraped raw, but still, this is satisfying, and perhaps this time it will stop hurting for long enough that I can find my own pleasure and cum with him inside me. But that does not happen, and when he finishes I am drained and happier, but not released from myself. I go to the toilet. It hurts to pee: the entrance to my vagina is slightly scraped, and stings when touched. It will heal by tomorrow.

Living with vaginismus

This has been my sex life for nearly 13 years. In that time, I have had penetrative sex with four different men. I have probably had sex less than a hundred times in my life. I have lost two relationships because of it. Once, my hormones were so wild and I was so fucked up that I managed to orgasm even though the pain never left; I cannot describe what it is like to cum like that, fighting against my body. An angry orgasm, like Hedwig’s Angry Inch but, obviously, different parts involved.

I’m sure you don’t need me to go into detail about the large number of ways this can affect not just the primary sufferer but her partner as well. It would be easier if we were all lesbians, and I’m sure a lot of bisexual or heteroflexible sufferers do deliberately seek out female partners accordingly – the same has to be true of our silent and totally ignored male counterparts – but that’s not a solution, it’s a response. My response is far less healthy: it combines very well with my desire to harm myself when I hate myself, which it’s very easy to do when you feel like a failure as a woman.

Why is vaginismus invisible?

The media does not talk about people like me. Medical treatment is hard to come by and mostly involves “dilators”, which don’t actually dilate you – there’s nothing wrong with the size of my cunt – but which persuade the body not to fight the sensation. Psychological therapy is more expensive, you see. Far easier to give you some phallic glass and a tube of KY.

Society largely ignores anyone who doesn’t like sex. I have a lot of sympathy and solidarity with asexual people, although I’m not asexual, I’m really not, I want sex so much I could cry just thinking about it. But society doesn’t care that any of us exist: people should be sexual creatures. For men, there are readily available treatments if you can’t get it up; but no-one talks about the small percentage of men who experience pain from penetrating a partner. Women don’t even have reliable Viagra: we are expected to just be able to lie back and think of England regardless of our own pain, discomfort, arousal, or ability to orgasm.

We are silenced before we even open our mouths, mired in self-hatred from the very start, and then ignored by Cosmo and More, Loaded and FHM. Hollywood rarely ever shows a sex scene where the woman doesn’t have a vaginal orgasm – something which is literally not possible for a large number of women due to the way that the clitoris and vagina interact – and outside of rape, women are only shown in pain when they’re losing their virginity. (For the record, I didn’t have a hymen to break, my first time. Lots of women don’t. All it takes to disappear is moderate physical activity, and some women are born without one at all.) They’re occasionally shown as being in discomfort, but that’s usually to demonstrate the clumsiness and inferiority of their partner – which of course makes the partners of women with vaginismus feel just super about their ability in bed.

I want to see more discussion about the reality of sex rather than the fantasy, because I think that might have helped me at the start, and because the tendency to fetishise a homogenous, cookie-cutter idea of sex is deeply unhealthy for all of us. That means listening to those of us who are denied that experience for whatever reason, and not dismissing our experiences just because they’re not yours. This includes not giving facetious “advice” like “I bet I cud make u cum ur boyfriends just shit in bed”. That response is part of the reason why I’ve lost relationships, and will lead to me kneeing you in the balls, and then we’ll see who doesn’t like sex for a while.

24 Comments

  • Finally! says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! Finally, I feel like someone else gets it. For the longest time, I avoided intimate relationships because I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I even went to the doctor, to check if there was something physically abnormal. I was 24 before I finally found someone patient enough and understanding enough to help me work my way through the pain. Once it happened, I felt so very relieved, like I was normal and huge weight was lifted off my mind. It has gotten a lot better now, but every time I go a few days without sex, the next time still poses a challenge.
    For me, there is no letting go and enjoying it, I have to actively relax my vaginal muscles. The worst part? No one to turn to.
    This post has made a world of a difference, just knowing theres someone out there who gets it.

    • Artemis says:

      I thought I was frigid and entirely alone for months, and when I found out I wasn’t it was incredibly reassuring. It’s hard to find others who understand. I’m so glad I could be that person for you, and best wishes for the future. X

  • TommyOD says:

    My first girlfriend had this, or at least a similar, problem. Having never slept with anyone else I thought it was me and my fault, she was the same and blamed me. After we split up it took five years before I started seeing anyone else, I was convinced I was going to hurt them because there was something wrong with me.
    She had gone to see a number of doctors at different clinics but none could ever offer a solution. I think it had a massive impact on her confidence, as well as mine. She ended things after cheating on me and still found that the problem hadn’t gone away. It sounds horrible for you though, I hope that you are able to find some kind of solution.

    • Artemis says:

      Thank you, and I’m so sorry that you were another victim. I’m pretty sure my first boyfriend would recognise some of what you said, although I’m much better at blaming myself than other people so I think I just bruised his ego rather than scarred it.

      It’s my fervent hope that talking more about sex in general, and vaginismus in particular, will help both women and men to avoid hurting each other and themselves if this or anything like it affects them.

  • Roger says:

    Thank you. I shall go to bed wiser… and humbler.

  • Anon says:

    I can only echo previous comments and say ‘thank you’ – it’s so lovely to hear someone talking about this.
    I’ve suffered from a mild case of vaginismus since losing my virginity (which I was desperate to do, with a guy I was in love with) – we were both virgins, and it was so painful that I cried for ages afterwards, and was in agony every time I went to the loo for about a week afterwards. As you can imagine, it didn’t make either of us feel exactly wonderful about sex!
    I’m now married to a fantastic guy who’s gentle and patient in bed, but I know he still worries that he’s doing something wrong when I wince on first penetration. Fortunately, I’m lucky enough to be able to loosen up a fair bit as things progress, so I can achieve vaginal orgasm fairly regularly, but the problem’s definitely still there.
    It’s not an issue with a vibrator, so I’m guessing it’s definitely psychological, but I do wish there was something I could do to make it better…

    • Artemis says:

      I’ve found that I get a lot less pain when I’m more relaxed. Unfortunately, I’m really bad at just inhabiting my body and not being in my head. I think this is the root cause, for me, combined with some other upbringing and physical stuff – I think my pelvis is slightly tipped so some positions are worse. (I do have a good arse though, so it’s not all bad.) I hope that hearing about other people’s experiences and psychological hang ups helps you to navigate your own though. :) good luck! X

  • Lee says:

    “I’m not asexual, I’m really not, I want sex so much I could cry just thinking about it.”

    Pang of sympathy here. I know that feeling only too well.

  • Nelly says:

    “It would be easier if we were all lesbians, and I’m sure a lot of bisexual or heteroflexible sufferers do deliberately seek out female partners accordingly..” – how wrong, uneducated, ignorant, and offensive do you have to be?

    It would be NO easier if you were a lesbian. I assume you are making that statement because you believe that lesbians can ONLY engage in oral sex and finger penetration? Don;t you think that as women, lesbians also want that feeling of being ‘filled up’ by their partner regardless of anatomy? I certainly do. No, my wife doesn’t have a penis, but we have vibrators and dildos, and I LOVE the feeling of her penetrating me with them. The thicker the better. Also, lesbians (due to the ‘lack’ of penis in the bed and man attached) have figured out wonderful ways to be ‘filled up’ by their female partner. First you start with one finger, then two, then three, then four, then all five – yep feeling full yet? Maybe you are so in the moment of passion you want more and more and more.. The whole hand perhaps? Exquisite feeling, ultimate fullness, orgasms and orgasms and orgasms – something a penis will never provide.. Women are Women; we have the same parts, but very diverse wants and desires. Just because there is no PENIS (attached to a man) in the bed, doesn’t mean that lesbians don’t want to be penetrated.

    Bisexual and heteroflexible sufferers would seek out female partners because that is what they want, or feel like at the time – because they can. AGAIN, they may have a female partner who loves to penetrate, as in, this is her main way of getting off, by penetrating another female. What then?

    Lesbian and bi women deserve more from you. They deserve to be acknowledged as women first, and not treated as ‘some poor female’ who has had her sexual experiences reduced to oral and finger penetration because there is no man in the room. I think you will find that lesbian and bi women actually have experiences that vastly exceed many hetero women BECAUSE of the fact there is not man in the room. When sex is so penis-centric as it is in straight relationships (I know, I have had them) they level of female exploration and experiences is diminished because penises go in vaginas.

    I am a women’s health professional and have treated this condition successfully in the times I have come across it. In my experience the physical manifestation was my realm of expertise (although there are psychological beginnings to it, and hormonal factors also influence).

    Seek out a professional who can treat the pelvic floor muscles and fascia, AND the fascia and muscles of your gluteals (especially deep), abdominals, upper thighs (adductors, quads, and hamstrings), and all the fascial connections of your ‘Deep Front Line” (Thomas Myers, Anatomy Trains). I would also suggest a professional acupuncturist, you will be amazed by what they are able to assist you with.(http://www.encognitive.com/files/Vaginismus%20Successfully%20Treated%20with%20Chinese%20Medicine-%20A%20Case%20Study.pdf)

    • Girl on the net says:

      I can see why that would be offensive if that’s the only thing the author of this had to contend with, and in the context of the initial description I can see why you’d think that. However, in the context of what she’s saying about relationships, I strongly suspect it’s more to do with dealing with the expectations, needs and desires of her partners who have penises, and the difficulty that presents. I don’t think anyone’s saying that a sexual relationship without a penis is unsatisfying.

    • Artemis says:

      It was certainly never my intention to be insensitive, but your response leaves me in no doubt that you’re convinced I am a useless bigot. I’ve had lesbian experiences in the past and identify as heteroflexible. I would consider them in the future. I am in no doubt that those relationships are just as challenging as any other relationship.

      I understand that the choice of words I used is identical to the idea of lesbian relationships being “easier” than straight ones because women communicate better with other women than with men, because of the way we are socialised to express ourselves. I treat this idea with the scorn it deserves but I should have been clearer with my phrasing, for which I apologise.

      I find your comment about fisting to be deeply insensitive, however. I have been fingered before. I find it to frequently be painful in the same way as I find penis-in-vagina sex. I can only imagine the horror and agony I would feel if someone put their fist – something I remind you is far larger than a penis – inside me. When I have used vibrators in the past, entirely by myself with no emotional pressure to perform, I have still found it too painful to achieve penetration. Your words served once again to highlight my own abnormality.

      I am glad that you took the time to recommend things to me, but as I’m not an anatomist I don’t know all the things you refer to. My opinions about alternative medicine and my experiences of it are not things I am prepared to discuss.

      Finally, I understand that words are important and that all communication is imperfect. But I stand by what I tried to say in context: if I were more of a lesbian than I am, my life in this regard would be simpler, because I assume that lesbian couples talk about penetration in a way which straight couples don’t. The presumption is that PIV intercourse is the holy grail and ultimate point of being in bed with someone. I was trying to address that presumption, nothing more.

    • M says:

      Please don’t recommend acupuncture to people. The only condition for which there is even a small amount of (albeit poor-quality) evidence showing it might help people is chronic lower back pain.

      There is no reason why acupuncture would ever help a genital/psychological condition like this, none whatsoever. So that brings your assertion of ‘professional’ into disrepute for me.

      Also given this is the internet, while this is an absolutely fantastic post (thank you to the author), it is not a place for diagnosis and anyone who does need medical help needs to see a professional offline – and you as a professional or otherwise should not be giving out medical advice online. Especially not spurious alt-med promotions.

    • Sarah says:

      No I’m sorry, I think you’ve deliberately misunderstood the point.

      The point is that, due to the lack of a penis, penetrative sex is not the be all and end all of lesbian relationships. With men, it is. Anything else is merely a warm up. Straight couples just tend not to stop at foreplay even when that would be awesome.

      Also, a woman is more likely to be understanding of gynae issues, in my experience.

  • Patient boy says:

    I was a partner of a sufferer for a very many years. Other issues conspired to make us former partners, but this is a very real issue for both the sufferer and the partner. My former partner had other unrelated health complications as well, which made her tired. We tried unsuccessfully for years to remedy this, then went along to the local relate counselors, and underwent a considerable period of therapy, including psycho-sexual therapy to overcome this and our other issues. Whilst I can say that it never truly went away entirely, the situation massively improved to the point where as long as a few basic rules were followed, we were able to have a sex life together that wasn’t painful for her, and heart breaking for me seeing her in that pain.

    I would therefore suggest that rather than going to the NHS and getting a glass phallus and a pot of lube, you try relate. One thing they don’t publish is that their prices are actually negotiable, so it doesn’t necessarily have to cost what it says on the website. The counselors we dealt with were excellent, and dealt with root cause psychological issues, not just treating the area in question as something that needs to be widened.

    • Artemis says:

      Thanks for this, it would never have even occurred to me to try Relate. I’ll bear it in mind for the future and hopefully so will others now.

  • Maypaki says:

    Primary Vaginismus. If you have it, then your body is NOT designed for sex. It is God’s way of telling a woman that she is DESTINED to become a nun or celibate. So if you have it, go on and BECOME A NUN. Or be CELIBATE. That’s because it is God’s way of controlling the global population. God created women with such sexual dysfunction to keep them away from sex and thus preventing conception. Unfortunately, most women don’t realize it and would still go through days and weeks of therapy which is just time consuming. Trying to remedy your condition is against God’s will. God does NOT want you to have sex. If you’re a woman, don’t get married & don’t have sex if your VAGINA wont let you. God had CLOSED the gates of your virginity. FACE IT! You have a NUN’S VAGINA. It is time to give up on men and become a NUN. VAGINISMUS may be the answer to overpopulation. God truly works in strange ways.

    I am now an enlightened man.

    • Girl on the net says:

      I don’t normally do this, because I like to welcome comments from as many people as possible on my blog, so if people disagree I try to engage them in a calm and rational manner rather than kicking off. But for you I will make an exception, so here goes:

      Fuck off. Fuck utterly off. Fuck so completely and wholeheartedly off that you never darken this comment section again. Fuck off with your religion-dictated sexual prudishness. Fuck off with your judgements of women’s desires. Fuck off with your notion that having a bible in hand gives you the right to police anyone’s sexuality. Fuck off with the sense of entitlement that led you to post such a demeaning and insensitive comment on a thoughtful blog post written by someone who is trying to spread some empathy and knowledge. Fuck off with your narrow-minded, hateful ‘enlightenment’.

      Fuck.

      Off.

      • CuriousAngel01 says:

        Well said, Hun…I got very pissed off with this idiot’s comment and was going to write something similar, but probably much less eleoquently. But then I read your comment and cheered right back up again and realized I have nothing more to add other than ‘bye bye maypaki’….:D

    • Artemis says:

      I hope this is a parody, but even if it’s not, I hope you come down with an embarrassing and excruciatingly painful sexual illness which removes you from the gene pool.

      Responses like this, in “humour” or in seriousness, are what keep sufferers silent. Your opinions are damaging and dangerous regardless of their motivation. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this makes you in some way cool or hard or relevant. You are a dying breed, and our feminist babies will dance on your graves and know themselves to be BETTER than YOU.

      I know what and who I am, with all my flows and glories. I am no nun. Nor a perpetual virgin. Nor am I frigid, nor a whore. I am neither to blame for my condition nor helpless in the face of it. I am not more crazy than anyone else who is mildly but chronically mentally ill, and, interesting to note, I’m probably more in control of my moods and thoughts than people who aren’t mentally ill, because normals don’t get lots of therapy.

      Also, go fuck yourself. God knows no-one else will with am attitude like that. Have you considered a monastery? It’s God’s answer to men who are such execrable human beings that they can’t be allowed to speak to people unsupervised. I recommend one of the silent ones.

      • Ladypandorah says:

        I don’t have much more to add here aside from my complete support and encouragement in drawing attention to this issue.

        I’ve seen this Maypaki troll another writer who had a site blogging about her experience with vaginismus and every single post this person would roll out almost exactly the same tripe word for word.

        It would appear that they have nothing else in their life apart from scanning the internet to pick on these writers.

        Best wishes,
        LadyP xo

    • Sarah says:

      What the actual fuck are you talking about? Who the fuck do you think you are to make such claims?

      If you had erectile dysfunction, how would you feel if I told you to go and become a priest? You’re an absolute moron. Mention god and sex in the same sentence again and I will tear your nonsense apart.

  • M says:

    I’m a bit apprehensive posting this comment as it’s purely anecdotal and I wouldn’t want anyone to do something without consulting the relevant professional(s) but my partner has suffered from vaginismus for most of our relationship and recently things seemed to have improved.

    She started on the pill when she about 16, and was still going through puberty, for a different medical condition and having recently came off it, once again for medical reasons, things seem to have markedly improved over the last few months. For clarification it wasn’t simply an issue of dryness or the lack of physical arousal, there was the intense pain you mention regardless of her arousal levels.

    She went through the usual channels, dilators, exercises etc. even going so far as to see a specialist over 50 miles away all to no avail.

    It may be the case that the causal connection we believe we have found is simply us confusing a correlation but at the very least it may be something to keep in mind. We have both tried to find medical literature on the topic, her more so given her career skills in the area and access to journals, but as you’re likely aware it is an area of little research. There are other anecdotal or non-peer reviewed reports online (http://www.centerforfemalesexuality.com/blog/2013/10/18/yes-hormonal-contraception-can-cause-painful-intercourse/) but it’s hard to know the value of such anecdotes given the lack of research in to the condition (complicated by the many potential causes, both physical and psychological).

    I’m aware this can sound like the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist but that really isn’t the intention. It’s simply the case that things seem to be improving for us and given the complex nature of the condition, hormones and individuals it might be worth discussing it with a professional. My partner has discussed it with her doctor recently, and although I’ve forgotten the details, her doctor did mention that tissue growth can be affected by hormonal contraceptives and she was previously found to have a particularity painful ‘bump’ of tissue internally. Once again this is all very speculative but it perhaps seems a plausible explanation in some women.

    I just feel compelled to mention this in case it happens to be a missing piece of the puzzle for yourself or your readers despite everything about my nature making me feel like a rambling sod. Also, don’t vaccinate your vagina with fluoride, it’s dangerous. ;)

    Once again sorry for the ramblings and apologies for the lack of peer-review!

  • Sarah says:

    I don’t have vaginismus, thank goodness. It is a cruel and evil condition. My heart goes out to you.

    However, I’ve been suffering from gynae and sexual problems since my periods began. I was sexually abused as a child, and when my periods began, so did agonising pain with bowel and bladder problems. When I lost my virginity at 14, the pain was insane, despite him not being well endowed. It hurt every single time, for years. I thought that was just what it was supposed to be like. Certain positions and angles would make me cry, puke or faint and I could be in agony for three or four days afterwards. I would tell the doctor about this and my periods and I was told this was normal. They started doing smear tests on me at 14 – I would pass out and scream whenever they used a speculum. One nurse told me to “stop being a baby”.

    I was diagnosed with endometriosis at 22. With proper pain management I was able to enjoy sex, but it still hurt. Then, at 26, I was put on a drug that induces temporary menopause. It’s only licensed for 6 months but I stayed on it for two years. Along with the standard menopausal side effects, my libido vanished – not in a “I can’t be bothered” way, but in a “sex repulses me” way. I couldn’t bare to be touched, I didn’t want to kiss – I just wanted to be left alone.

    When I came off it, I waited patiently for it to return. It didn’t. My marriage almost fell apart, I clung on to it for dear life and my husband, who has a crazy high sex drive, became super depressed. Eventually, we got used to it and adjusted to the idea of a life without any physical intimacy.

    Fortunately, last year, I came off the pill and my sex drive came flying back – now I’m constantly randy. My doctor thinks I have PCOS because of all my symptoms. When I start treatment for that, it may well go away again and I’m terrified. Alongside that, my mother has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and we are having genetic testing – I’m so scared about what will happen if my ovaries are removed.

    1 in 10 women have endometriosis and so many of them will go through what I’ve been through. I’m no longer able to work, probably unable to conceive and I’ve been on enough morphine to kill a village, every day, for ten years. I’ve tried everything. I’m screwed.

    And still no-one talks about it. Doctors don’t know about it. People laugh and make jokes. Being a married woman in her 20s and 30s with no sex life and no desire for sex is a lonely place to be. I hope people start to talk.

  • Starburst says:

    I first really wanted to thank you both for this post – I recently was introduced to Girl on the Net and let me say I love it! Artemis, I really wish I could give you a giant hug for having the strength to share this. Reading your post, it reminded me of when vaginismus consumed my sex life. The reason I wanted to post a comment- something I neverrrr do, is because I think telling you my story, might in a tiny tiny way help you and others, because I know it is psychological, which means we can get better. The year and a half or so of my sex life, I was unaware that this is what I was suffering from – I thought being a rather petite woman, my boyfriend was just too well endowed for me, and that’s why I was freaking out the first couple times we tried to have sex, and in immense amounts of pain – like someone was dragging a spiked club through me. Despite have a crazy high sex drive, I was scared of having sex with my partner, and just did other things; and masturbated like there was no tomorrow. The next relationship, I happened to be in therapy (to help manage anxiety/depression associated with a family member’s deteriorating health) and my therapist asked about my sex life with my partner. I told him about the pain, and he actually researched it and came back to me at a different session explaining to me I had vaginismus and that it was in my head and some strategies of managing it. These strategies included using vegetables as a dildo, I kid you not, I thought he was taking the piss, and started seeing a different therapist whom I never mentioned it to again. I did however, mention it to my partner at the time, who was so glad to have an answer to why my vagina shut like a trap door before he ever made any traction and did all the research to show me what it actually was. He was exceptionally supportive, and helped steer our sexual relationship away from vaginal penetrative sex. Anal sex as it turned out- perfectly fine, I was actually able to fully enjoy it, and relax and come! The strength I got from having a vaginal orgasm from anal sex, words can’t describe, I knew I wasn’t broken. Things didn’t work out with him, but I am so thankful he was the one who knew and showed me I could have that orgasm I soo desperately wanted even if felt like my body was betraying me. But I avoided serious relationships after him, just having flings, and when sex hurt too much, I would just come up with some waffle about trust and my ability to have sex and then get rid of them.

    The (almost) final hurdle came for me two years ago, and I started dating someone who I never told that this happens to me, but demonstrated an incredible amount of patience for me and my vagina. He encouraged me to focus on really pleasurable non sexual things- like lying on a beach and the importance of clearing my mind and breathing. Well maybe I am giving him a lot of credit. He just said calm down and breathe, while searching for a new easier entry position that kind of resembled a judo move, waited for me to yell at him for using the phrase calm down and then tried again. The breathing thing while thinking of my special place- helped me so much. Once I got over the whole entry part and was well lubed up, I was having non painful, exceptionally pleasurable sex. Having that positive experience helped me know how I needed to feel mentally, in order to have sex again. Yes, it is often still is veryy uncomfortable/painful being entered for the first time in a sex session no matter how ready I am, and sometimes I want to cry, but I start breathing really nice and deep, thinking away from the pain, stop letting it control my sexual experience because it’s the only thing between me and my stars exploding orgasms. And I will be damned if I let something in my head stop me from having those.

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