Category Archives: Education

A Valentine for Gene Nichol

So maybe this isn’t your typical Valentine’s Day post. This is in reaction to the letter Gene Nichol addressed to the College of William and Mary community yesterday announcing his resignation as President of the college. It was a love letter, of the sort that comes at the end of a sudden and painful breakup. (Mimi alerted me to it. I found it published by the campus paper, DogStreetJournal.com, but it’s widely Google-able. Here is the transcript and audio of a passionate statement he gave to supporters. Video is available here.)Gene Nichol at a rally after his resignation

Nichol resigned after being informed that his contract would not be renewed. The nonrenewal seems to be largely because of controversy regarding four important decisions he made.

I really can’t speak to the quality of his presidency overall. I wish I could, though, because based on recent coverage of his decisions I have a feeling I’d have really supported him. His own statements indicate a love of free speech, open society, diversity, and opportunity that are at the heart of what we support here on Sex in the Public Square.

I’ve excerpted some passages from his Letter to the Community, but I encourage you to go read the whole thing. Here is a passage regarding one “free speech” decision, which was over the Sex Workers Art Show, a traveling exhibitwe’ve supported here in the Square (we wrote about the controversy here), and one “separation of church and state” decision which had to do with the location of a cross on public university property:

First, as is widely known, I altered the way a Christian cross was displayed in a public facility, on a public university campus, in a chapel used regularly for secular College events — both voluntary and mandatory — in order to help Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and other religious minorities feel more meaningfully included as members of our broad community. The decision was likely required by any effective notion of separation of church and state. And it was certainly motivated by the desire to extend the College’s welcome more generously to all. We are charged, as state actors, to respect and accommodate all religions, and to endorse none. The decision did no more.

Second, I have refused, now on two occasions, to ban from the campus a program funded by our student-fee-based, and student-governed, speaker series. To stop the production because I found it offensive, or unappealing, would have violated both the First Amendment and the traditions of openness and inquiry that sustain great universities. It would have been a knowing, intentional denial of the constitutional rights of our students. It is perhaps worth recalling that my very first act as president of the College was to swear on oath not to do so.

Then, not a sex or speech related decision, but one that is dear to me for different reasons:

Third, in my early months here, recognizing that we likely had fewer poor, or Pell eligible, students than any public university in America, and that our record was getting worse, I introduced an aggressive Gateway scholarship program for Virginians demonstrating the strongest financial need. Under its terms, resident students from families earning $40,000 a year or less have 100% of their need met, without loans. Gateway has increased our Pell eligible students by 20% in the past two years.

I teach at a community college. This was a choice of mine based on a feeling of commitment to low income students and to the notion that higher education should be accessible to everyone who wants it. Nichol’s work to make a prestigious liberal arts college accessible should be applauded. The fact that such a decision comes with institutional challenges is a given. I’m sure the college community was able to rise to those challenges.

Finally, in an ironic twist, Nichol tells us:

I add only that, on Sunday, the Board of Visitors offered both my wife and me substantial economic incentives if we would agree “not to characterize [the non-renewal decision] as based on ideological grounds” or make any other statement about my departure without their approval. Some members may have intended this as a gesture of generosity to ease my transition. But the stipulation of censorship made it seem like something else entirely. We, of course, rejected the offer. It would have required that I make statements I believe to be untrue and that I believe most would find non-credible. I’ve said before that the values of the College are not for sale. Neither are ours.

Free speech. Paid speech. It really does make a difference.

Listen to Nichol’s statements to his supporters and you hear even more of his love.

I understand that love can lead us into dangerous places. People do terrible things, sometimes, in the name of love. Not having been at William and Mary I really can’t know what the day-to-day feel of the Nichol presidency was like. Was he like the abusive partner who sometimes does beautiful things just to keep you off your guard? I suppose that is possible, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, it seems to be the “beautiful things” that were the controversial ones; those things that had to do with free speech, diversity and opportunity, and a balance between church and state, those are what the fight was over.

At a time when intellectual freedom is being attacked all over the place — just check the Free Exchange On Campus blog if you don’t already know this — people like President Nichol are to be admired and supported for their willingness to defend that freedom.

In an age when college education is both increasingly necessary and increasingly unaffordable, his decisions about opportunity are to be admired.

And in a media climate where it can be impossible to tell the sponsor from the source, the fact that he didn’t take their money to spin the story their way makes me all the more impressed.

I <heart> sexual freedom.

I <heart> academic freedom.

I <heart> openness, diversity and opportunity.

And this Valentine’s Day I <heart> Gene Nichol.

This post is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.org — its like this blog but with a whole lot more going on. Join us there!

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But will Medicare pay for lube?

drawing You might have missed the part about the penis pumps. It was in a New York Times article about Medicare overpaying for things like oxygen tanks. Apparently Medicare, despite its potentially enormous bargaining power, spends more for many items than they would cost in your neighborhood pharmacy or surgical supply store. In the midst of the article is this paragraph:

For example, last year Medicare spent more than $21 million on pumps to help older and disabled men attain erections, paying about $450 for the same device that is available online for as little as $108. Even for a simple walking cane, which can be purchased online for about $11, the government pays $20, according to government data.

The article doesn’t comment at all on whether penis pumps are a legitimate Medicare expense, which I think is interesting. Given our government’s very conflicted attitudes about sex, I find the news both heartening and irritating. I am glad that Medicare takes the needs of aging men seriously and considers sex a part of healthy living. We were just discussing that when we were discussing Pepper Schwartz’s book Prime. TracyA linked to a great post by Supercrone about sexual desire in her 80s, Mimi of Sexagenarian in the City writes about her own re-entry into dating and sex, and so I’m glad that the US takes the sexual needs of the elderly — at least elderly men — seriously. I wonder why it denies the sexual needs of so many of the rest of us. Our own internal contradictions around sexuality are pretty amazing. Medicare, an entitlement program for older folks, will pay for penis pumps. Medicaid, the program that provides health care for poor people, does not cover abortion services (thanks in large part to Henry Hyde, who died the other day) though states are apparently free to provide such coverage. (For example, in New York State residents enrolled in Medicaid are entitled to “Free access” family planning — including contraception and abortion — even if their Medicaid Managed Care Provider does not cover those services.) We see inability to have intercourse as an illness for the elderly but don’t want to teach young people about safer sex.We spend our tax dollars foolishly in either case, overpaying for penis pumps or paying at all for abstinence-only education.But back to the penis pumps again: is this an example of sexism in health care again? I mean, older women are less likely to be in need of contraception or other family planning services, but does Medicare pay for lube? Or are women expected to deal with the changes in their sexual function on their own while men’s physical changes get medical attention? (And if Medicare does cover lube, what are they paying for a bottle of Astroglide, do you think?)And is Medicare paying for condoms to keep these older men from getting and transmitting STIs? Or are we again in a situation where we’ll pay to address the disease (inability to maintain erection) but not to prevent disease?If, like me, you were wondering about the efficacy of penis pumps in the first place, here is a link to Corey Silverberg’s piece on them from About.com. He points out that penis pumps are pretty reliable at generating erections but that unless well aroused, or if the man has a problem maintaining erections, that the erection created by the pump might not last. He mentioned that better penis pumps, of the sort sold by medical professionals (which he says run about $200, not the $450 that the US pays) come with “constriction rings” (read: cock rings) that help maintain the erection.I wonder if Medicare would cover the cost of cock rings alone for men who have no trouble getting erections but do have trouble maintaining them.And what about sex ed for older folks so that they know that there is plenty of good sex to be had without erections and penis-vagina penetration? What about some workshops on manual sex? Oral sex? Sex with toys? Training in orgasm without intercourse, anyone?Meanwhile, lets make sure that all government provided health care treats sex as an important component of healthy living. Lets make sure that Medicaid and Medicare cover sexually-related health care costs, whether those be penis pumps or lube, or contraception or abortion. If sex is a party of a healthy life, those things are all important.Lets make sure that private insurance plans do the same!And lets pay for smart sex education for sixty-year-olds and for sixteen-year-olds!Illustration, “Penis Pump,” by Derek on Flickr, and used under a Creative Commons Attribution, Noncommercial, Share alike license.NOTE: This is also published on our community site, SexInThePublicSquare.org. Join us there!

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Prevention bill(s)* still stuck in committee while Democrats increase Abstinence-Only Funds

File this under “with friends like these…”

What has happened to the Prevention First Act (H.R. 819/S. 21)? Why are these bills stuck in committee while the Democrats are INCREASING funding for abstinence-only education? Don’t they at least have an obligation to hold the line on such misappropriate of funds? We’re talking about the spending of 141 million dollars on programs that we know don’t work and that actually put our communities at risk. And we’re talking about the party in control, the one that is supposed to be friendly to smart sexual health policy, granting this increase in spending and as a result teaching kids that abstinence-until-marriage is the only legitimate approach to sexuality and that condoms don’t work well.

James Wagoner at RH Reality Check, expresses his outrage about this far more articulately than I could express mine. He writes:

I am constantly told that it’s not “politic” to call out our friends on an issue like sex education. There are bigger fish to fry. I’m not buying that anymore. Not when ten thousand young people get an STD, two thousand become pregnant and fifty-five contract HIV every single day in this country. Not when poll after poll shows this issue to be a political winner, not a loser, for Democrats. Not after Democrats exploited this issue in opposition and now, with control of Congress, act like it’s an insignificant chit to be bartered away at the whim of a recalcitrant committee Chairman.

It is now time to call this what it truly is. A stunning disgrace.

A stunning disgrace, indeed. And this is not a new story. We wrote about this here back when the Dems in the House of Representatives voted to approve the increase when they passed the Labor/Health and Human Services appropriations bill. But its in the news again because the bill has just come out of the Democrat-controlled conference committee and the increase is intact. And the increase is outrageous. SIECUS reports that the Senates version of the bill would have reduced funding for abstinence-only programs. Why didn’t they hold that position in the conference committee?

We’re nearing election day and it is important to remember that the Democrats are not so clearly our friends. And they ought not be allowed to continue to get away with hurting us just because the Republicans might hurt us worse.

You know, it really starts to feel like an abusive relationship, doesn’t it? You know, the kind where you are being beaten but feel trapped because if you leave you’ll be worse off?

We need shelters for the battered body politic. I think they’re called multiple-party systems. You know, where real choices are possible.

Maybe that would be a truly “pro-choice” system.

I think we need to start building one.

Now.

*The Prevention First Act is only one of a slew of bills that were introduced to try to make sane sex ed and contraception policy. The REAL (Responsible Education About Life) Act is another that is stuck in committee. For a look at the whole list, depressing though it is that none are moving, click here.

Note: This piece is also published on my blog at our community-building site, SexInThePublicSquare.org. Drop by and join in!

Photo of “Condom Police” sign not taken in the US no matter how much it may feel that way. The sign was photographed in Vanuatu by “Phnk“, posted on Flickr and used here under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.

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Verizon to customers: NARAL 2 CNTRVRSL 4 U

The New York Times reports this morning that Verizon has rejected a proposal by Naral Pro-Choice America to use its network for sending text messages to people who sign up for them. Other cell phone networks have accepted the proposal which allows subscribers to sign up to receive text message updates from NARAL.

According to a communication with Verizon that NARAL gave to the times, the company’s policy is to reject proposals from groups that “promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its [Verizon’s] discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users.”

There are at least three very troubling pieces of this rationale.One is that a communications company should be allowed to censor the legal content that is transmitted over its network in the first place. This would seem to erode the “common carrier” rule and tremendously limit free speech. Cell phones now are as important to political activity, community organizing, and ordinary everyday life as landlines and the US mail have been in the past and we would never accept such a limitation from either of them. Can you imagine if Verizon’s landline division made a ruling saying that NARAL could not phone anybody who uses a Verizon phone service? Why should text messages be any different? (Sunburnt Kamal, I think we really need your “on the Internet there are no sidewalks” essay! Can you include cell networks too?)

Beyond that, even if Verizon’s policy is legal, applying it in this way is illogical. The messages sent by NARAL would only be sent to people who requested them by texting a 5 digit code specfically subscribing them to the updates. These are people who, by definition, would not find the messages controversial or “unsavory.”
Last, until I’ve had more coffee and thought a bit more about this, it would seem that just about anything could be “seen as controversial” by some user or anyother and Verizon’s policy is written to reject any program that might be seen as controversial to any of their users. To really be consistent then, they should accept no text message advocacy programs at all. Presidential candidates use these programs and have not, apparently been rejected by Verizon and yet presidential politics is by its nature controversial. Even the Repblican National Committee has such a program.

Jeffrey Nelson is Verizon’s media contact for Public Policy and Regulatory Affairs and he’s is quoted in the Times article indicating that Verizon might be considering a change in its policy:

“As text messaging and multimedia services become more and more mainstream,” he said, “we are continuing to review our content standards.” The review will be made, he said, “with an eye toward making more information available across ideological and political views.”

Want to let him know that you don’t think that a communications company ought to be restricting the kinds of information its customers can access? His phone and email info are on this Verizon Wireless Media Contacts page but in case you don’t want to go look him up yourself, his email is jeffrey.nelson (at) verizonwireless (dot) com and his phone number is 908-559-7519.

Note: This post is also published on our community-building web site, SexInThePublicSquare.org. Drop by and check it out!

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Filed under abortion, activism, censorship, civil rights, Education, feminism, New York Times, News and politics, pro-choice, public discourse, reproductive freedom, sex, technology

Sex in the Public Square Launch Party!

Join us to celebrate the launch of SexInThePublicSquare.org!

August 17, 2007
7-10 PM
Rapture Cafe
200 Avenue A between 12 St. and 13 St.
Manhattan, NY
United States
See map: Google Maps

Sex in the Public Square.org is dedicated to expanding the space for public discussion of sexuality. Blending the techniques of blogging and social networking (think Blogger meets MySpace — but all open source!), Sex in the Public Square.org is a space on the Internet where members can explore which parts of sex are private, which parts are public, and what happens when private and public collide. We believe that sexuality is a fundamental component of human life, and that by excluding it from “polite conversation,” we lose an important element of democratic participation.

With forums, blogs, reviews, resource lists, calls for action, and a nationwide calendar of events dedicated to sexualities of all genders, colors, and persuasions and with thousands of visitors and new contributors joining each week, we’re ready to celebrate our “birth” and we want you to join us!


Help Keep Sex Out Of The Closet!

Readings and performances by:

Audacia Ray

Rachel Kramer Bussel

Lux Nightmare

and more!

Plus screenings of film clips from Cinekink and some old sex ed films too!

Click here to check out Rapture Cafe.

And check back here for updates on the festivities!

The party is free and all are welcome. Invite your friends. And we hope you’ll help us support Rapture by enjoying their coffees, teas, and bar offerings.

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Democrats vote to increase funding for abstinence-only “education”

I don’t know how I missed this item posted on the Advocates for Youth web site last week:

Democrats INCREASE Funding for Discredited Abstinence-Only Policy
Ignore Findings that Programs Don’t Work

WASHINGTON, DC (July 19, 2007) Today, by a vote of 276 to 140, the House of Representative passed the Labor-HHS Appropriations Bill which included an unprecedented $27.8 million increase for failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, bringing the total annual funding for Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) to $141 million.

“In one spectacularly cynical move, the Democrats turned their backs on science-based public health and chose political expediency over the health and well-being of young people,” said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth. “With friends like these, who needs conservative Republicans?”

Democrats who have been ardent critics of abstinence-only voted to increase the very programs they opposed when Republicans controlled the Congress.

“With this vote, reproductive health ‘champions’ like Representative Nancy Pelosi and Nita Lowey have aligned themselves with ultra-conservative abstinence-only proponents,” added Wagoner. “They are now complicit in funding programs that promote ignorance in the era of AIDS.”

Since 1982, Congress has allocated over $1.5 billion for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that censor information about birth control and the health benefits of condoms in the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. A 10-year congressionally mandated evaluation conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. and released in April, 2007, found that “youth in the [abstinence-only] program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age.”

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell our friends from our opposition these days,” concluded Wagoner. “The majority of Democrats say they oppose these ineffective programs because they withhold life-saving information, yet they failed to act on those beliefs. Shame on them!”

Cynical? Cynical doesn’t even come close.

Now I know these provisions are buried in huge appropriations bills. And this one is interesting because in at least some states (New York, California, I haven’t checked them all!) it is the Democrats who tended to support the bill and Republicans who tended to it. So clearly the vote wasn’t “about” abstinence-only “education.” It was more likely about the funding of things like public schools and hospitals, for museums and libraries, public broadcasting, programs for the blind, for Medicare, for the National Labor Relations Board, and other important stuff. (Click here for the text of the bill, its provisions, and the programs it funded.)

But Democrats certainly had an opportunity in moving the spending bill through the House to amend it or alter provisions to which they objected, and they certainly could have cut funding for abstinance-only programs and allocated money instead for comprehensive sex education programs (which, by the way, also promote abstinence as the best policy for teens).

Here is the section of the bill that deals specifically with “abstinence education”

Provided further, That $136,664,000 shall be for making competitive grants to provide abstinence education (as defined by section 510(b)(2) of the Social Security Act) to adolescents, and for Federal costs of administering the grant: Provided further, That grants under the immediately preceding proviso shall be made only to public and private entities which agree that, with respect to an adolescent to whom the entities provide abstinence education under such grant, the entities will not provide to that adolescent any other education regarding sexual conduct, except that, in the case of an entity expressly required by law to provide health information or services the adolescent shall not be precluded from seeking health information or services from the entity in a different setting than the setting in which abstinence education was provided: Provided further, That within amounts provided herein for abstinence education for adolescents, up to $10,000,000 may be available for a national abstinence education campaign: Provided further, That in addition to amounts provided herein for abstinence education for adolescents, $4,500,000 shall be available from amounts available under section 241 of the Public Health Service Act to carry out evaluations (including longitudinal evaluations) of adolescent pregnancy prevention approaches: Provided further, That up to $2,000,000 shall be for improving the Public Assistance Reporting Information System, including grants to States to support data collection for a study of the system’s effectiveness.

We are now spending almost 137 million dollars to teach teenagers that abstinence is the only acceptable method of preventing STDs and pregnancy, and we are prohibiting organizations that accept grants from this allocation from offering “any other education regarding sexual conduct.”

Ironically, or not, this same bill in Title V section 517 b provides that “None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to disseminate scientific information that is deliberately false or misleading.”

Click here to find out how your legislators voted (once there, click on your state to see each of your legislators’ votes) and then call them or email them and let them know you’re outraged that they didn’t address the problem of abstinence-only funding but instead voted to increase funding for the very programs they claim are harmful to kids. You can use the “Speak Out!!” box on the left side bar to find contact info for your representatives.

By the way, this same bill in Title V section 507, continues the ban on spending federal money to provide abortions (so they aren’t covered for poor women, or for women insured under federal health insurance programs).
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This is posted here and also at SexInThePublicSquare.org

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The good news and bad news about the new teen birth rate data

A new study by the Federal Inter-agency Forum on Child and Family Statistics reports that the teen birth rate is at an all time low. The current birth rate for teens between 15-17 in the US according to the study is 21 per 1000.* (That’s down from a high of 39 per 1000 in 1991). The same report gives a teen pregnancy rate of 44 per 1000 in 2002, the most recent year for which they give a rate, and some of the drop is attributable to an increase in condom use. You can see a PDF version of the report here.

Any drop in the teen pregnancy rate, the teen birth rate, and any increase in the rate of condom use is certainly very good news. But the good news is hardly unqualified. There is a fair bit of bad news that surrounds those important bits of good news.

One bit of bad news is that the teen pregnancy rate in the US is still much higher than it is in other western postindustrial societies. In the Netherlands and in Switzerland there were only 5 births per 1000 women between 15 and 19 in 2002 according to UN data. (There were 53 per 1000 young women in the US that same year according to the UN figures). The UN data I found did not report pregnancies, only births. Data from the Guttmacher Institute indicate that the pregnancy rate in the Netherlands was 12 per 1000 in 2001.

Another bit of bad news is that in the US there are significant differences in birth rates for girls of different racial and ethnic groups. The lowest teen birth rate is found among Asians (including Pacific Islanders). That group has 8 births for every 1000 girls between 15 and 19. For non-Hispanic White teens, the rate is 12 per 1000, for Native Americans (classified as American Indian/Alaska Native) the rate is 31 per 1000, for non-Hispanic Blacks it is 35, for Hispanics it 48 per 1000.

These differences must reflect, at least in part, access to health care, contraception, accurate sex education, and abortion services. The differences are not likely to be primarily related to differences in sexual activity between groups. A study published by the National Center for Health Statistics reporting on National Survey of Family Growth data from 2002 finds that Hispanic girls between 15-17 are less likely than their non-Hispanic black or white counterparts to have had sex. The same is true for 18-19 year olds. In the first age group 30% of non-Hispanic white girls, 41% of non-Hispanic black girls, and 25% of Hispanic girls report having had sexual intercourse with a male. In the second age group 68% of non-Hispanic white girls, 77% of non-Hispanic black girls, and 59% of Hispanic girls report having done so (p. 24). And, of those girls who had had sex in the previous four weeks, 19% of non-Hispanic white girls had had sex 4 or more times in that period compared with 13% for both black girls and Hispanic girls.

Why do white girls have lower pregnancy and birth rates if they’re having sex more frequently? This same study found inequality in use of contraception (which may provide some support both for the observation of unequal access and also of the observation of cultural barriers to use). White girls were more likely than either other group to be on the pill at the time of their first intercourse (18% compared to 13% of black girls and 10% of Hispanic girls), and were also more likely to use both pills and condoms together during their first time (15% compared to 9 % for black girls and Hispanic girls). This may speak at least in part to their access to multiple methods of contraception and to their ability to gain access to birth control pills before becoming sexually active.

In fact, when asked whether they had ever used specific methods of contraception, the study found that only 37% of Hispanic girls had ever used birth control pills (compared to 68% of white girls and 55% of black girls). Given an intersection between ethnicity and religion, and the prohibitions against contraception by the Catholic church, some of this difference might be explained by religion and culture. But given that Catholics around the world use birth control pretty regularly, I think that inequality of access to health care and prescriptions is a big part of the story.

There is no teen sex crisis in the United States, but there is a sex education and sexual health care crisis in the United States. If we want to bring our levels of teen pregnancy and teen births down to rates that are in line with those of countries like the Netherlands, we need to start addressing teens sexual health as a serious matter, treating teens with respect, and giving them the tools they need to make smart decisions and creating an environment in which those decisions are respected.

We need to do this while paying attention to race, class and ethnic inequality. Teen parenthood is associated with long term disadvantage for parents and for their children. Girls who become parents in high school are less likely to finish high school, and less likely to go to college. Children who start their lives in poverty are less likely to make it into the middle class. They’ve got all kinds of structural factors working against them.

The answer is definitely not to continue promoting abstinence-only sex education. The answer is complicated, but it certainly requires promoting sound, accurate sex education where the values of abstinence are taught in conjunction with the importance of contraception, relationships skills, and emotional well-being. It involves providing support for teen parents so that they are not so disadvantaged. It involves making sure that access to emergency contraception is secured for everyone, and that abortion remains a legal option for young women. It involves providing equal access to health care. And it involves the acknowledgment that we can’t talk about inequality without talking also about sex.

*The original version of this post incorrectly labeled that rate as the “teen birth rate” which would have been the rate for girls between 15-19. The error was brought to my attention by a very careful reader, Carole Joffe, of UC Davis, who continued:

“…the overall figures from 15-19 (birthrate) was 40/thousand–in fact, nearly identical to the year before. This fact aside, I think your analysis of the Report is right on. I look forward to reading more of your postings. Best wishes from a fellow sociologist, Carole.”


Return to the corrected sentence.

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