Pressure growing for Scotland to join other nations in ban on sex trade

image-20150608-8700-1qedfbaBy Anni Donaldson

A form of violence against women or a legitimate career choice? That’s roughly where the two sides stand on the debate over what we should do about prostitution. Voices from the violence camp have just become louder in Scotland thanks to the launch of the End Prostitution Now campaign, which is backed by various civic organisations.

It is pushing for the buying of sex to be banned north of the border, along with decriminalising prostitution and introducing support services to help people leave the trade behind. The campaign argues that sexual exploitation cannot be addressed without challenging the root causes: gender inequality and men’s demand to buy sexual access to women.

Among its supporters is Rhoda Grant, the Labour MSP for the Scottish Highlands and Islands, who is pushing for an amendment banning the buying of sex to be added to the human trafficking bill currently making its way through the Scottish parliament. Grant recently spoke at an event in Belfast to mark the passing of a similar law in Northern Ireland. She praised Northern Ireland for joining the countries, “sending out a clear message that people should not be bought. Prostitution is a form of violence against women which should not be tolerated”.

Regulation or removal?

There are two distinct approaches to prostitution internationally. There are those who wish to challenge, criminalise and eventually eliminate “demand” and those who support safe and continuing “supply”. In countries persuaded by the latter camp, prostitution is legal or has limited legality, including Germany, New Zealand, Spain and some counties in Nevada in the United States (where otherwise it is illegal).

Advocates for this approach say that prostitution is happening anyway, it is a legitimate career choice for women who enjoy sex and should be classified as “work”, with trade unions to protect the interests of its “workers”. Individual prostitutes and owners and managers of brothels are regulated in the countries that have gone down this route. Health and safety checks are made on the women and the establishments and business often booms.

The new Scottish campaign makes the opposite argument, arguing that for the safety of those involved and women in general, there is no room for libertarianism – and no truth in “realist” arguments that it will keep happening regardless. Since Sweden became the first country in the world in 1999 to criminalise buying sex, it has been followed not only by Northern Ireland but also by Norway (2008), Iceland (2009) and France (2013). We are also seeing a growing volume of debate in the likes of England, Wales and Ireland for a similar direction.

There is evidence of positive results. Sweden has reported there has been a shift in attitudes for the better, a decline in the number of men buying sex and a reduced market for traffickers. There are also positive reports from Norway, though Iceland admittedly appears mixed and you can read a more critical summary of the Swedish experience here.

Harm not work

When people refer to the “oldest profession”, I would more accurately describe it as one of the world’s oldest cultural practices. It exploits women in a marketplace for access to their bodies and maintains their second-class status. Most women involved in prostitution are among the poorest and most vulnerable in any community. Substance misuse is common and many have previously experienced childhood, sexual or domestic abuse. The United Nations and Council of Europe both say that prostitution, as a form of violence against women, is a function of gender inequality.

The single most harmful aspect is to have to repeatedly endure unwanted sex. In a recent Channel 4 programme Strippers, about women working in lap dancing and pole dancing clubs in Scotland, many commented on having to shut off emotionally to get through their evening and some remarked that it had changed their personality altogether. This can create long-term psychological damage and lead to drug and alcohol abuse in order for sex workers to be able to detach emotionally. Substance use often rapidly escalates Calling prostitution “work” doesn’t make it any less harmful.

The attitudes of the “punters” rating the performances of prostitutes on websites often display deeply disturbing attitudes towards them, as last year’s Invisible Men exhibition in Glasgow revealed. Little wonder that sex workers regularly experience extreme physical and sexual violence. And from the back streets of Victorian London to the modern streets of Norwich and Glasgow, many have been murdered.

Working in prostitution also often starts early. A Glasgow study in 2000 showed that 24.5% of the women surveyed had entered prostitution before age 18, with 8.2% starting at age 16 or under. Much of the industrial-scale grooming and sexual exploitation of children exposed in places like Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxford in England has shown that prostitution sometimes involves the trafficking of young people. The long-lasting emotional damage of early and continued involvement in prostitution can only be imagined.

For these reasons, I am much more inclined to the argument that we should seek to eradicate prostitution altogether. Reframing the debate as an issue of human rights and gender equality, while focusing on harms, may allow people to ask the right questions: is it ok to buy or rent women’s bodies for sex in the 21st century? Certainly not in my view.

Anni Donaldson is Honorary Research Fellow Domestic Abuse at Strathclyde University




Comments (32)

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  1. Kevin Williamson says:

    Eradicate prostitution completely? Good luck with that one. For decades we’ve heard the same well meaning but unpractical rhetoric about eradicating drug use.

    A more pragmatic and less ideologically-driven approach might be to stop criminalising the women involved, put their safety first, which means keeping good lines of communication open between them and the police – something the above approach may jeopardise – making sure the women’s health was priorised monitored and given support, and making counselling and exit services available.

    Just like with drugs harm reduction may bring better results than zero tolerance.


  2. Shehanne Moore says:

    I have to say I totally agree with you Kevin. It’s a somewhat ideal world notion. Unfortunately you’re talking the world’s oldest profession here. Do we really think a ban will be effective, or drive everything underground?

  3. Helen Pringle says:

    Thanks Anni for a careful and measured assessment. There is no area so riddled with cliches and meaningless phrases as this eg “oldest profession”, or “driving underground” or “ideal world”. The Swedish/Nordic approach disentangles the buyers from sellers in terms of its approach, so that it does exactly what you say Kevin: it does not criminalise the women who are prostituted (the ‘women involved’ in your words). The S/N approach criminalises purchase (and facilitation) precisely because it recognises that the buyer and seller are in asymmetrical positions in acts of prostitution and in the prostitution system more broadly.
    We need to respect both women’s choices and the conditions under which they formulate and enact those choices. But let’s agree on this: women’s choices do not drive the prostitution system. The choices that men make are what drives prostitution, and if men did not choose to prostitute women, the prostitution system would collapse. The Invisible Men websites tell us a great deal about the choices that men make in prostituting women, and about the contempt and violence that are involved in those choices and in the system more broadly. To say that prostitution is inevitable is fundamentally to say that it is natural for men to sexually subordinate women, and that society and the state should protect that subordination.
    The Swedish/Nordic approach comes from the Left (as I do). It is not based on moralism, it is based on considerations of sexual equality and dignity. The Paris Commune, the suffragette movement, the second Spanish Republic, all looked favourably on the project of abolition of the prostitution system. I want to live in a world in which prostitution like slavery is abolished, in which prostitution like slavery is treated with disdain by free and equal citizens. I would like my son to live in that world too. It won’t be easy but on the other hand, feigning helplessness in the face of a degrading subordination is not worthy of free citizens in an independent nation (in my view).

  4. Richard says:

    I fully agree with Kevin & Shehanne. Banning alcohol in the US in the 1920s was a disaster, the 50-year war on drugs has done nothing to eliminate drug use, and a quick look at any totalitarian or theocratic regime where other activities are banned is proof enough that life will still go on regardless of the rules. The only difference is that the vulnerable people (not just women) who continue to be forced into this lifestyle will be criminalised and have no-one to turn to.

    Telling someone that they can’t do something when they have no alternative is meaningless; it is much better to work on providing that alternative.

  5. Illy says:

    And this is why I mostly stopped reading Bella…

    Just stop making it illegal.

    If something is legal to do for free, why waste state resources on persecuting people who choose to do it in exchange for something (or when that something isn’t called “marriage” anyway)? What’s the point?

    Slavery and Kidnapping are illegal, and cover every “problem” I’ve seen anyone ever bring up about prostitution. If your job is legal, but you’ve been kidnapped, and forced to do it against your will, then you can go to the police without worrying about getting into trouble for what you’ve been doing. If what you’ve been doing is illegal, then your kidnappers have you over a barrel.

    So just make it legal. Prostitute’s Unions will spring up to cover legal issues, and I remember reading some research that showed that prostitutes have better sexual health than non-prostitutes (which makes a lot of sense, since if they had bad sexual health then they’d have to stop working)

    If someone can find me a “problem” with prostitution that isn’t covered by some other law, please, point it out to me.

    1. I’m not sure why you have stopped reading Bella – in connection with publishing on different social policy?

      1. Illy says:

        My problem with Bella is poorly thought-out and badly researched articles that mostly speak about the authors prejudices, rather than the facts on the ground.

        Seriously, find me one problem that prostitution is claimed to cause that isn’t already illegal by some other means.

        Then explain the difference between a golddigger wife and a prostitute, and why one is legal and the other isn’t.

        There are two types of retired prostitutes in the media: Ones who are writing books, and claiming all sorts of nasty details (which tend to be about as accurate as Labour campaign promises), and those who are arguing to just make it legal.

        (For the record, I’m male, have never hired a prostitute, am happily married, and the only objections I would have to any daughter of mine becoming a prostitute is that it is currently (effectively) illegal, and it’s like a sporting career in that it won’t get you all the way to retirement)

  6. Antoine Bisset says:

    Good Idea. It will give gangsters another income stream.

    1. leavergirl says:

      Exactly. Prohibitions of desired “goods” make things worse. I would support making prostitution decriminalized and providing support, *and* penalizing the customers. (Much of what Anni says about damage to women is right on the money.)

      Penalizing the customers would make them hide and cringe, and we know that many smokers quit just because they don’t want to be the target of social opprobrium.

      That does not mean that male prostitution ought to be ignored. It should be addressed in its own right.

      The difference between a golddigger wife and a whore is status, legal recognition, and claim on the estate in case of divorce. Are they selling themselves? Yes. That’s why you can’t ban it. It is a curious fact that the failure of Prohibition everywhere, and its direct result of enriching organized crime, does not seem to dim some people’s enthusiasm for it.

      1. Illy says:

        Penalising the customers *is* penalising the suppliers.

        Do you have a reason to dislike people selling something that you obviously don’t mind them performing for free?

        And your list of differences between a golddigger wife and a whore are purely legal ones (ie. words on paper). So by your own admission, a golddigger wife *is* a prostitute. It’s just that they’re a legal one with some accounting perks.

        So why aren’t you trying to penalise rich husbands with golddigger wives?

        1. leavergirl says:

          Illy: “So why aren’t you trying to penalise rich husbands with golddigger wives?”

          Heh. If I knew how, I might be game. What do you propose?

          “Penalising the customers *is* penalising the suppliers.”
          Yes, but it would be balanced out by significant support to the women to find another, more satisfying occupation. Which would tend to leave only those who like making money that way.

          “Do you have a reason to dislike people selling something that you obviously don’t mind them performing for free?”

          I believe strongly that some things should not be for sale. Human beings, for example. Even if someone is willing to sell themselves, say for debt (as used to be common in ancient times), the buyer ought to be penalized. Or do you see it differently?

          1. Illy says:

            “to find another, more satisfying occupation. Which would tend to leave only those who like making money that way.”

            So your problem is a lack of a sensible level of social security, forcing people into jobs they don’t like? I’ll be right next to you supporting a citizen’s living wage. You’re also assuming that the majority of prostitutes *don’t* enjoy their work, and I haven’t seen any reliable evidence of that.

            “I believe strongly that some things should not be for sale. Human beings, for example.”

            Prostitutes are *not* selling themselves. They’re selling a service (or a performance). Just like a plumber, or an actor. Calling it “selling themselves” is conflating sex with ownership, and I don’t think you want to do that.

    2. leavergirl says:

      Illy: “You’re also assuming that the majority of prostitutes *don’t* enjoy their work, and I haven’t seen any reliable evidence of that.”

      Do you have bona fide evidence that the majority of prostitutes enjoy their work? Do you have similar well based evidence that the majority of prostitutes take up this trade voluntarily, not being pressed into it by dire circumstances they find themselves in?

      “Prostitutes are *not* selling themselves. They’re selling a service (or a performance). Just like a plumber, or an actor. Calling it “selling themselves” is conflating sex with ownership, and I don’t think you want to do that.”

      Illy, please read carefully. I said some things ought not to be for sale. I gave “selling oneself voluntarily into debt slavery” as one example of things that ought to not be for sale. Do you agree that some things ought not to be for sale? If you do, then we can push the discussion further.

      1. Illy says:

        Do you have evidence that they don’t enjoy their work? Or that they aren’t doing it voluntarily (or at least in preference to some other form of work, because I’d guess about 90% of the world would describe themselves as “I’d prefer not to be doing my job, but it keeps me alive, so I do it”) Because otherwise the assumption should be that it’s just like any other job – they’re doing it to make ends meet, and they prefer it to the other options availible to them. I know I’ve been pressed into jobs I hate by the dire circumstances I’ve found myself in: It’s called being unemployed in Tory Britain.

        I’d be looking for you to point me at surveys done where they aren’t under duress or expectations of any sort? (Which, incidentally, are impossible in the UK due to the legalities and stigma involved)

        “selling oneself voluntarily into debt slavery” is either nothing to do with prostitution, or conflating sex with ownership. Your choice.

  7. JPJ2 says:

    Either both parties are guilty of a criminal offence or neither are.

    Lets compare with drugs. Both the supplier of drugs and the user are guilty of a criminal offence.

    By Rhoda Grant’s logic, the supplier is not guilty but the user is.

    I am afraid Ms Grant is simply an anti-male feminist who is not offering a realistic solution.

    Kevin Williamson offers a rational way forward not based on misandry.

    1. Helen Pringle says:

      “Either both parties are guilty of a criminal offence or neither are. Lets compare with drugs. Both the supplier of drugs and the user are guilty of a criminal offence. By Rhoda Grant’s logic, the supplier is not guilty but the user is.”

      Hmm, I don’t think this is the most illuminating analogy. Let’s compare instead with organ dealing. So both the supplier of the kidney and the buyer of it would be guilty of a criminal offence? That would be ludicrous. The organ trade is not an exact analogy with prostitution (few analogies are exact of course). But the analogy does indicate that a wrongful or (putatively) criminal transaction does not per se render both parties to it equally culpable, even if both are ostensibly consenting: even with the ostensible consent, it is a strikingly asymmetrical transaction and it would be ludicrous to treat the “seller” in the same way as the buyer. And one would also add that it is the poverty not the will of the “seller” that consents in this case (as in Romeo & Juliet), so the authenticity and quality of the consent must be placed into question unless we are happy to be good neo-liberal citizens.

      “I am afraid Ms Grant is simply an anti-male feminist who is not offering a realistic solution. Kevin Williamson offers a rational way forward not based on misandry.”

      Hence, the analogy illustrates that what is at issue in the case of prostitution is not misandry at all, but what is at stake is the equal dignity of persons, and the question is how best to respect that.

      1. Illy says:


        Organ trading on the black market is only a problem because it’s on the black market – ie. lack of proper authenticity and quality controls. Organ Donors and transplants are not an issue.

        So your comparison with legal and black-market organ transplants is making the case for prostitution to be legal.

  8. Anton says:

    For an alternative to this post, see, which points out, for example, that the Swedish evidence cited by this post merely demonstrates that, since criminalisation, fewer men admit to going with prostitutes. Well that’s hardly surprising – once you make something illegal of course fewer people are going to admit to it.

    Outside of these arguments, I’m disturbed both by the conflation of different issues in this post. Human trafficking and slavery are already illegal. Why is further legislation against prostitution necessary? Underage sex is also illegal, so I’m not sure why Anni Donaldson references Rotherham, for example. What happened there was illegal. Sure, it’s an emotive topic, but it hardly provides evidence for extending criminalisation.

    Finally I’m grieved by the arrant sexism of this post. There are male prostitutes too, you know. Not that Anni Donaldson seems to care.

  9. Bowanarrow says:

    Woman don’t become prostitutes by choice. Its the underlying causes of prostitution that need to be dealt with. Poverty I would think is the largest motivator. If governments focused on the root rather than the fruit I think a great difference could be made to the benefit of all.

    1. Illy says:

      (People) don’t become (employed) by choice. Its the underlying causes of (employment) that need to be dealt with. Poverty I would think is the largest motivator. If governments focused on the root rather than the fruit I think a great difference could be made to the benefit of all.

  10. Axel Koehler says:

    I go right with Kevin, Shehanne, Richard and Anton – and all other balanced comments here. And Anton made a very good point: yes indeed, there are male prostitutes too – yet do they even exist in the mindset of ultrafeminist campaigners? I’m afraid that it is obviously not the case. So who, beg your pardon, is being sexist here? “Female prostitutes shall be liberated”, and male ones – even those forced into the trade by destitute circumstances, or organised crime – are expected to stand aside and get on with it? No, sorry, Ms Donaldson, the whole thing reeks to me of double standards and bigotry. And what is worse, just like all ideologically, or religiously motivated fanatics, those extreme feminists apparently think that only they themselves had a monopoly to universal truth – jings, ye’re no better than the Tea Party Bible Belters, Victorian moral crusaders or the whole shebang of IS and Taliban east of our borders, further Middle Eastern way…and I just hate bigotry and totalitarianism! 1984 and all that, newspeak included? No bl.. thanks!

    In all those years that I was biding in Aberdeen or Edinburgh, and that ‘s half a decade for each so far, I have never sought the services of a prostitute, yet not because I’m a saint, or a politically correct saint who thinks it were generally an exploitation of women if they choose to follow the trade – which I know does not exist in the ideologically blinded’s mindset, along the lines of “what must not be true, must not allowed to be true” – but rather because I was a hard-working, yet social student striving hard to keep my bawbees together, and I’d sooner spend these bawbees on a ticket to a cèilidh, hoping to find Ms Right there (and for a wee while in Edinburgh, this was the case, soul mate-wise and otherwise. Nuff said), and a few pints and fags than on a professsional lady’s services, and (having found another soul mate and partner of passion for the time being) I intend to keep it that way – but I would never follow the example of the dog-in-a-manger to deny other men, and women, whatever pleasures they may find in red light romance…

    1. leavergirl says:

      Aw, Alex, take your feminist bashing elsewhere, why dontcha? This is about female prostitution. A women’s issue. Male prostitution ought to be men’s issue, and no doubt already is in some quarters. So why not take it up, write an article, and let us know?

      1. Anton says:

        Leavergirl – You say this is all about female prostitution. Well, no, that’s not right is it? The amendment under discussion seeks to ban the buying of sex, regardless of gender. So it’s clearly not just a “women’s issue”, though Anni Donaldson tries hard to make it so.

        There’s a more fundamental issue in the background, though, which is the question of what rights we have in our own bodies. I believe that those rights are total, complete, and inalienable. That’s what underpins the whole idea of human rights.

        That’s why we think (or at least I do) that my labour belongs to me, and that I’m justified in charging for it. Hence trades unions, workers’ rights, and so on.

        That’s why we think (or at least I do) that abortion is not in principle unacceptable, because women have rights over their own bodies.

        You seem to disagree, and think that people’s rights over their own bodies should be limited by law and the opinions of others. Anti-abortionists would certainly agree with you there.

        But in my view, those rights should only be limited if they cause harm to others.

        1. Helen Pringle says:

          Actually no, Anton, it is not the case that your belief ‘that those rights [in our own bodies] are total, complete, and inalienable… underpins the whole idea of human rights’. What underpins the whole idea of human rights is the dignity of the person. What follows from the dignity of the person is the importance of respecting decisions by persons where no harm is done to another. But what also follows, perhaps more importantly, is respecting the capacity for freedom in each person. This is why JS Mill (whose father by the way was Scots – just saying!) not only wrote of the criterion of harm in understanding actions, but also wrote that that certain actions are ruled out even where they do no harm to others, for example selling oneself into slavery (or similar conditions, like debt bondage – such conditions have always been classed together with slavery, eg see the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution which prohibits both slavery and involuntary servitude). The reason? To respect and protect what Mill calls the sovereignty of the person. It is simply lunatic to suggest that a person has a ‘right’ to sell herself into slavery or associated conditions because of having a right in her own body. The abortion example you use here is a complete red herring in THIS context, but anyway one could deduce (I do) a defence of the decriminalisation of abortion from the anti-slavery principle that does in fact lie at the heart of the whole idea of human rights. I have no taste for arguing with people of the extreme libertarian inclination who provide the ballast of a cruel neo-liberalism for whom anything can be bought and sold – I’m with Robbie Burns on this. So, as leavergirl says: ‘Do you agree that some things ought not to be for sale? If you do, then we can push the discussion further’.

          1. Axel Koehler says:

            Aye, so good, so far, so right, so far. All fine, if some folk here were differentiating between prostitutes who are following the trade by their own decision, and those who are forced into it, as the former apparently do not exist in feminists’ mindset at all. No, more often it seems that everything to do with sex with males is regarded as some sort of slavery, whether money is involved or not – which makes them as sexist as those they profess to oppose.

            Hellooo? Wakey-wakey? Sexism isn’t just about discrimination of women, it’s about discrimination of men, too! Seems to have gone forgotten in all the fuzz about the newly-fangled “gender” thing – a term apparently coined by those too prudish and repressed to actually use the word “sex”. As long as liberation of genders is being pursued by ideologists, instead of pragmatists, I dinnae gie a docken aboot its future – and wouldnae gie a hoot aboot its efficiency, either.

            Unfortunately, much of today’s campaigning is being pursued by ideologists, and in the present context as much as regarding other, related, contexts, I would like to conclude that too often, those who strive for “tolerance” (note the absence of the term “acceptance”!) for their aims are not willing to grant the same unto others.

            If one goes with Marx in stating that religion were opium for the people – which it mostly was, and sadly, still is – one ought to accept that ideology is its secular equivalent!

            That’s all, folks.

          2. Illy says:

            Do you understand that sex is not a thing, but an act, and therefore your question is either conflating sex with ownership, or nothing to do with prostitution.

            Geez, you keep making the same mistake here.

            Also, no-one has provided *anything* that they find troublesome about prostitution that isn’t covered more than adequetly by other laws.

            Slavery is illegal.

            Kidnapping is illegal.

            Rape is illegal.

            Assault is illegal.

            (Have I missed any?)

            We don’t need to have extra laws for those crimes just because sex and money is involved.

          3. Anton says:

            @ Helen Pringle: Hmm. I’m surprised that you quote JS Mill in support of human rights, because of course as a utilitarian he didn’t believe that they exist in the first place – cf Bentham’s famous dismissal of human rights as “nonsense on stilts”.

            So I’m not sure of your argument, as you seem to mix a commitment to human rights with Mill’s utilitarian principles. Mill was not opposed to slavery in principle, but in practice. Is this your view? Or do you subscribe (as I do) to the idea of inalienable human rights, which include complete and non-negotiable rights over one’s own body except insofar as those rights are inalienable?

            I also note that you refuse to discuss the issue. Which is perhaps not the best way of promoting your case.

  11. HerewardAwake! says:

    Legalise it. Regulate it. Decriminalise it.

  12. Strato says:

    The problem is a complex issue of overlapping and conflicting positive and negative rights.

    On the one hand we have the ‘positive’ freedom for women to have complete autonomy over their bodies in all contexts including the commercial and legal. Add to this the ‘negative’ freedom to be protected under the law through access to state support. Prostitution on it’s own autonomous terms.

    But there is also the negative right for women to be free of possible coercion, exploitation and abuse associated with enforced prostitution. And the right of ‘wider society’ to be free of such potentialities.

    So the question is, which ought to take precedence? To decide this the ‘principle of harm’ must be invoked. Which of the positions does greater harm to the other? Given that one of the major problems is the difficulty in distinguishing between ‘choice’ who is free in choosing prostitution as opposed to who is being forced or coerced? Trafficking and anti slavery legislation alone doesn’t work as there are too many ways those who seek to exploit can get around it, so that it appears the women is autonomous in her decision and fully compliant. Assuming, criminalisation of purchase does indeed lead to a decline in supply then this ought to take precedence. A short trip to Amsterdam or Thailand and the ostensible extent of sex tourism in these places suggests there is a correlation between ‘supply and demand’.

    Also if prostitution in the first instance is ‘a free choice’ and not due to ‘coercion or poverty’, then there is also the choice ‘not to be a prostitute’ where as in the second instance there is no such choice.

    Given the fact that the EU has a serious problem with human trafficking, both internal and external’ Rotherham or Moldova etc, then the ‘human rights’ has to have greater weight as the state has a greater duty to protect under ‘the principle of harm’ than it does to misplaced liberalism.

    1. Illy says:

      Does the EU have a “human trafficing problem?

      The only place I’ve heard about it is the same place that said that Jim Murphey would save Scottish Labour, so I’m disinclined to trust them.

  13. Fran says:

    I don’t think being a plumber or an actor is the same as being a prostitute. Sex is an area of emotional vulnerability and as many sex workers admit, practicing prostitution can lead to psychological problems because of the way these emotions have to be suppressed. There’s something not right about comparing using prostitutes with using alcohol or drugs. They are human beings.

  14. Sita says:

    Error: False dichotomy at line 1

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