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Interface - Comunicação, Saúde, Educação

On-line version ISSN 1807-5762

Interface (Botucatu) vol.20 no.59 Botucatu Oct./Dec. 2016  Epub June 28, 2016 


Violence as perceived by adolescent males in the affective-sexual interaction, in ten Brazilian cities

Fátima Cecchetto(a) 

Queiti Batista Moreira Oliveira(b) 

Kathie Njaine(c) 

Maria Cecília de Souza Minayo(d) 

(a)Laboratório de Educação em Ambiente e Saúde, Instituto Oswaldo Cruz, Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Fiocruz). Avenida Brasil, 4365, Manguinhos. Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brasil. 21040-360.

(b,c,d) Centro de Estudos sobre Violência e Saúde Jorge Carelli, Escola Nacional de Saúde Pública (Ensp), Fiocruz. queitibmoliveira@; kathie@; cecilia@


This paper presents the views of male adolescents on the topic of dating violence. Based on interviews and focus groups conducted in ten Brazilian cities between 2007 and 2009 the text takes as a parameter the analysis of the meanings of young males to physical, psychological and sexual aggression within intimate relationships. The study methodology focuses on the testimonies of 257 male students aged between 15 and 19 years, from both public and private schools. The study results show that the meanings attributed to the phenomenon of dating violence are shaped by rigid representations of gender roles, corresponding to the expectations regarding the performance of men and women in emotional-sexual relationships.

Key words: Courtship (Dating); Violence; Gender; Masculinity


O presente artigo apresenta as visões de adolescentes do sexo masculino sobre o tema da violência no namoro. A partir de entrevistas e grupos focais realizados em dez cidades brasileiras, entre 2007 e 2009, o texto toma como parâmetro a análise dos significados atribuídos pelos jovens às agressões físicas, psicológicas e sexuais no âmbito dos relacionamentos íntimos. A metodologia do estudo se concentra nos depoimentos de 257 estudantes do sexo masculino, de idades entre 15 e 19 anos, de escolas públicas e privadas do país. Os resultados do estudo mostram que os significados atribuídos ao fenômeno da violência no namoro são recortados por representações rígidas de papéis de gênero, correspondendo às expectativas em relação ao desempenho de homens e mulheres nas relações afetivo-sexuais.

Palavras-Chave: Namoro; Violências; Gênero; Masculinidades


Este artículo presenta el punto de vista de adolescentes hombres sobre el tema de la violencia en el noviazgo. Con base en entrevistas y grupos focales realizados en diez ciudades brasileñas entre 2007 y 2009, el texto toma como parámetro el análisis de los significados de los jóvenes acerca de la agresión física, psicológica y sexual dentro de las relaciones íntimas. La metodología del estudio se centra en los relatos de 257 estudiantes, con edades entre 15 y 19 años de escuelas públicas y privadas. Los resultados del estudio muestran que los significados atribuidos al fenómeno de la violencia en el noviazgo son vinculados a representaciones rígidas sobre los papeles de género, que corresponden a expectativas relacionadas al desempeño de los hombres y las mujeres en las relaciones afectivo-sexuales.

Palabras-clave: Noviazgo; Violencia; Género; Masculinidad


The process of monitoring violence in adolescent sexual relationships that are both uncommitted and long-term has been a challenge for social scientists of many different theoretical backgrounds. The in-depth transformations of the last few decades, which introduced nuances and new combinations in gender relations, have not been dismissed in contemporary analyses of the phenomenon of violent practices between sexual partners. The many connotations applicable to violent sexual interactions, including the ambivalences that this phenomenon involves, require ever increased attention in its role as an object for human/social science and political research in a public health context.

The aim of the present study is to analyze the views and experiences of young men in the context of their relationships, by exploring issues of gender and violence between adolescent lovers. The data arise from a quantitative and qualitative study, never before carried out in this country, covering the period of 2007 through 2009, of 3,205 adolescent students aged from 15 to 19, in ten Brazilian capital cities. The study investigated the prevalence and social representations of this group in respect of violence in intimate relationships1. The quantitative study revealed a significant degree of violence in these relationships: approximately nine out of ten adolescents admitted to experiencing some type of violence during relationships.

The counterpoint to the accounts analyzed in this article, is the literature available on gender relationships and the studies of violence during intimate adolescent relationships. Generally speaking, there has been little scrutiny of gender violence from the perspective of male voices that, traditionally, were marginalized in gender studies2. In social sciences, gender is utilized to distinguish the biological dimension from the social dimension3. Greater significance is given to the relational aspect and not just to the male and female aspects as sealed areas, totally separated and with no articulation with one another in their own constitution4.

In this study, masculinity is viewed as a socio-historic construct, based on an ongoing apprenticeship to actions deemed “masculine”5. The constraint to affirm qualities considered to be virile – those connected to the conspicuous practice of physical and sexual violence – competes with the huge vulnerability of men6,7. An incalculable number of health issues are related to the male learning curve, including behavior that places their own and their partners’ lives at risk8. Collective health studies show that high homicide rates and traffic accidents between male adolescents are significantly higher than the level generally deemed epidemic by the World Health Organization9,10.

Due to its relational nature, violence in intimate relationships is regarded as gender-related. Accordingly, it affects interaction between men and women as much as between men and between women11.

To the degree to which it has been established as a form of inter-adolescent communication, violence risks becoming a strategy for managing intimate relationship conflict. Besides being associated with an incalculable variety of physical and mental health damage, several authors regard it as the chief precursor to violence among couples in adult life12, although a significant gap exists in empirical studies evidencing this assertion13.

Recently, this matter, which has been the subject of in-depth US and Canadian literature12, has begun to be examined in other countries, including Brazil14-22. A common thread among these is that different types of aggression are frequently deemed acceptable or, at least, quite natural, among adolescents. This has further promoted violence in intimate relations as a means of resolving conflict, particularly under conditions of jealousy23-25.


This article is based on qualitative data seeking to obtain opinions, beliefs, attitudes, and values on the presence of violence in intimate adolescent relationships. The decision was taken to examine the wider views on this matter in order to identify the group’s social representations over and above individual experiences.

The population under study was concentrated on male students in the second year of elementary school, from state and private schools in the cities of Manaus/AM, Porto Velho/RO, Teresina/PI, Recife/PE, Cuiabá/MT, Brasília/DF, Rio de Janeiro/RJ, Belo Horizonte/MG, Florianópolis/SC, and Porto Alegre/RS. 519 adolescents took part in the qualitative approach. This included 34 individual interviews (22 males and 22 females), and 60 focus groups (one male, one female, and one mixed group in each school – five private schools and five state schools).

The accounts of 257 male students were heard, 21 of them in individual interviews, 155 of the male focus groups, and 81 of the mixed focus groups. A semi-structured script was used whose questions were arranged in five blocks: (a) types of intimate relationships, opinions, and feelings experienced by these young people in such relationships and more temporary relationships as “violence in intimate relationships or short-term relationships”; (b) what the young view as “psychological aggression” in intimate relationships and in temporary relationships; (c) what is considered to be “physical violence”; (d) what is considered to be “sexual violence”; and (e) how they feel after the end of an intimate relationship with a person for whom they had very deep feelings; how the matter of affective-sexual relationships among young people should be approached. At the analysis stage, this script, utilized both for interviews and for focus groups, enabled a satisfactory triangulation of the different opinions on the same basic questions articulated in the quantitative approach.

We highlight some limitations in this study. The first relates to the fact that these adolescents were not interviewed outside school premises. The second was that this was the first national diagnostic made, and one which required a deeper approach to different aspects directly impacting these adolescents’ physical and mental health.

All these encounters were transcribed in such a manner as to disguise the individual identity of the participants. Firstly, there was a wide-ranging reading of the interviews and focus groups in order to select the greater recurrences of the word, and expressions relating to the subject matter of, violence in an intimate relationship. Next, the main occurrences were listed, in order to group them in blocks according the typology of the violence: physical, psychological, and sexual.

A reading of the data sought to identify the episodes narrated, the representations and practices of the young males regarding violence in intimate relationships. Certain aspects of these narratives led to an understanding of what qualifies as violence in this context. It is noteworthy that, although this study was carried out in ten capitals in every region of Brazil, no discrepancy between the investigated cities was identified.


Violence in Intimate Relationships: Silence and Hesitation

At first, many of the adolescents remained silent or hesitated when faced with the existence of violent practices in an intimate relationship. It was only after the analysis that different expressions of violence began to arise in their narratives. Several factors, such as infidelity, jealousy, use of alcohol, and other drugs were related to the occurrence of violence. The aggression committed by females and males against their partners is viewed and qualified as being based on the aggressor’s and the victim’s gender, considering aspects such as motivation for the aggression and the harm caused.

Ambiguous answers were not rare. An adolescent in Porto Alegre stated: “What I have to say is that no violence occurs in an intimate relationship. Naturally, it happens everywhere in Brazil”.

A certain degree of idealization of intimate relationships was identified. This was based on the ideology of romantic love equated to the egalitarian standard in amorous encounters, as shown below:

“This business of violence in intimate relationships, I feel disappointed because there is no need for it. As I just said, if people truly love one another, a clear and straightforward conversation solves everything”. (Manaus)

Despite some initial hesitation or denial, many interviewees finally mentioned cases of aggression, although in relation to couples who were close to them, i.e., relatives, friends, and neighbors.

Violence by the other person

If, in theory, violence comes from the other person, lovers’ fights – especially those caused by jealousy – it was perceived as intrinsic to such relationships, particularly, the longer lasting ones, as borne out in the following statement: “a serious relationship has to involve fighting” (Rio de Janeiro).

Jealousy was indicated as the chief cause of violence between lovers. It is regarded as the chief cause of violence among lovers. It is perceived as the spark that ignites outbursts of rage. In the words of a young man from Manaus: “nobody can predict what might happen in a moment of rage”. Thus, jealousy ends up being the chief reason given to justify violent aggression, as shown in the following statement:

“A man who is very jealous about his lover can’t bear to see her embrace anybody else; he begins to feel jealous, ends the relationship by beating up his girlfriend”. (Manaus)

Although outbursts of rage and the consequent physical aggression are more frequently associated with the behavior of the male, there were also frequent reports of physical aggression by their partners: “Take my cousin. His wife beats him up; she beats him up and likes it. Afterwards she says it’s because she loves him. It’s an obsession” (Cuiabá).

One interviewee stated that he had been physically attacked by his girlfriend due to her jealousy: “I’ve been hit a few times. It was because of her jealousy. So, I stopped and we talked. That way we arrived at something resembling an understanding” (Rio de Janeiro).

Alcohol and violence

Another factor that can unleash physical violence is the excessive use of alcohol. Alcohol is perceived as the ingredient with the most potential for episodes of distrust, jealousy, and aggression between lovers. In this respect, individuals under the influence of alcohol are more inclined to resort to violence to deal with their anger, and attack their own partners or whoever might be causing their feelings of jealousy:

“Usually, physical aggression is more common when alcohol or jealousy are involved. So he goes ahead and wants a fight, wants to start attacking”. (Cuiabá)

In these circumstances, the effect of alcohol is to intensify emotions that are already present. The statements shown below confirm this “potentializing” effect of alcohol.

“Seeing your girlfriend drunk, your boyfriend drunk, d’you see? This is the consequence. Drink causes fighting, causes everything”. (Porto Alegre)

“I can even get a bit mad at my ex-girlfriend, I even caused some trouble. I fought with her. But, only when I was the offended party. I drink, but stay calm and all. But, when he [a friend] drinks he gets angry. His girlfriend was there and all and, when it was time to leave, he didn’t want to go. I can only tell you that he got mad with us, saying I was coming on to his girlfriend. So, his girlfriend tried to calm him down, and what happened? He hit her and her face got bruised”. (Manaus)

When a slap doesn’t hurt

In the context of physical aggression, reports show that the girls are usually the victims of their partners, although, as found in this study, girls do also resort to physical and psychological aggression. In this context, it is interesting to examine the opinion of adolescent males about female aggression. To a certain extent, such occurrences are dismissed as they are deemed “less damaging”. Accordingly, it is possible that this type of aggression is also more socially acceptable and, occasionally, even understandable in certain circumstances.

One narrative, in Rio de Janeiro revealed that female aggression in intimate relationships follows a series of levels, from “women’s little slaps” which have minimal impact and, occasionally, even “pleasurable”, all the way up to a slap in the face, which is deemed a humiliating act by the young males: “Little slaps can even be pleasurable, but, a slap in the face is violence! Not in the face; that is humiliating. When a woman slaps you, you don’t even feel it; it’s not the same as when a man slaps someone” (Rio de Janeiro).

As in cases of violence against women by their lovers, in the minds of adolescent males, male infidelity is the reason for female violence, one that is perceived as an entitlement: “She has every right to hit him” (Cuiabá). This view can be regarded as an expression of macho logic which gains validity, also, for adolescent girls in certain situations. But, it also reveals a more historic and controversial side: turning the victim into the person at fault. This perception is clearly established below:

“If they hit each other [a couple], she gets bruised here, but she likes it. (...) If she’s with him this means she likes it. She likes being beaten”. (Porto Alegre)

“It’s really bad when a man hits a girl; girl who are beaten get badly hurt. A colleague of mine arrived all bruised because her boyfriend beat her up. She stayed with the guy. It keeps happening. A guy who beats a girl once could go on beating her. Because the girl gets used to it”. (Porto Velho)

Verbal or psychological aggression: an explosive mix of threats and verbal abuse

Although, as a general rule, physical violence is the chief representation of violence in intimate relationship, verbal abuse was an important category cited by the adolescent males: “To my mind [violence] is verbally abusing at a person, speaking ill of them, speaking ill behind their backs” (Recife). However, verbal aggression was described as a masculine resource which can be activated to replace physical violence:

“To avoid physical violence, men resort to physical abuse. This is because he hasn’t got the nerve to hit his girlfriend and, so insults her until she gets tired of it, shuts up, and stops being a nuisance: ‘Whore, bitch! Shameless! Prostitute! Tart! Slut! You cow!’ I think verbal aggression is more acceptable than physical violence. I’ve been insulted and have insulted others myself”. (Cuiabá)

One interviewee associated aggression with an emotionally and psychologically dependent relationship between the partners:

“The boy used to hit her and the girl was too frightened to let anyone know that that this was happening. Sometimes what happened was that the girl arrived home with a bruise and it wasn’t what she wanted. Sometimes she let him, because he forced her, or she was afraid that the relationship might end. There’s a lot of dependency too”. (Rio de Janeiro)

Threats are regarded as a type of psychological aggression since they are used as a means of pressuring or embarrassing the female partner. They are also, often, the precursors of physical aggression and are expressed through words or gestures:

“It could be that the guy says [to the girl] that she will lose him. I use this threat. The boyfriend wants her to do something, so he threatens her: ‘I’m going to end this, I don’t want you to do this anymore, otherwise I’ll do it too, or I’ll cheat on you. Look, there’s this girl coming on to me and, if you do this, I’ll go out with her’”. (Rio de Janeiro)

Infidelity and loss of emotional control

As seen above, male physical aggression is condemned; but, female infidelity is regarded as a violent act, particularly, when caused by rage or revenge. Thus, it becomes part of verbal aggression as one of the most common adolescent female aggression strategies:

“[Physical aggression] is caused by boys to girls but, when girls are furious, they go off with another guy. But they do not resort to physical violence. This is because it is physical, but, verbally, it’s the same thing”. (Recife)

However, if female infidelity is an act of aggression, the narrative transcribed below clearly expresses the macho context in which infidelity is perceived. It reveals a picture of different standards for male and female sexuality: “Infidelity isn’t violence. Only when the woman is unfaithful. Ever since prehistoric times, men could and women couldn’t” (Brasília).

Verbal aggression and threats also have a space of their own in the virtual world, where they gain a connotation of “moral violence”. Several reports include cases of slander, verbal abuse, public humiliations, and posting of intimate photographs on social networks as a means of abusing partners or former partners:

“Moral violence also exists. Slandering someone with whom you are in a relationship, taking a picture of that person and showing it on the internet. A girl will go somewhere, lift up her blouse, and show off her breasts. The guy will keep this picture and post it on the internet for everybody to see. I know three girls who experienced this. One was a case of blackmail – “if you won’t sleep with me, I’ll post this picture’”. (Florianópolis)

Forcing a relationship: forced sex as an act of aggression

Further to sexual aggression, we can see that, in a number of cities, this is most often described by adolescents as forced sex:

“Forcing sex. The girl doesn’t want to and he keeps forcing her. This ends up being a plot”. (Porto Alegre)

“It’s a matter of hormones. It’s what happens most. There are guys who think this is the right thing to do with a girl; he’ll go and force her to submit. He thinks he’s entitled to do this, to force her until the act takes place. This can become sexual violence, stick it in and there we are”. (Recife)

In these circumstances, women are frequently accused of failing to recognize that they are being sexually abused: “There are lots of girls out there who have no idea they are being raped” (Rio de Janeiro). Here, the male approach is seen as a failure to respect female desire:

“This happens when the boy is out of his head about a girl and desperately wants sex with her. Guys think girls are an object desire and nothing more. Touching girls. A lot of guys who touch a girl’s ass don’t see anything wrong in this. Some girls let you do it”. (Rio de Janeiro)

In this view, as in several others, the act of pressuring a girl for sex or other intimate sexual acts was refuted by the interviewees, although they did admit that this approach is not uncommon in adolescent intimate relationships:

“The girl doesn’t want to. She didn’t want to be touched but I’ve seen the situation forced. Hanging around and trying to touch her up and she doesn’t want this. If you don’t take the risk, you won’t get anywhere. I’ve seen this happen to others and, I admit, it’s happened to me”. (Cuiabá)

This pressure for sex can succeed more subtly and, in such cases, male seduction whose aim is to convince a woman to have sex, is also viewed as sexual aggression, especially, when accompanied by the demand for sex as “proof of love”23.


Although violence in intimate relationships is condemned, particularly, physical and sexual aggression against women – censured sometimes as cowardice – this disapproval does not necessarily exclude the stereotyped attitude that the woman is responsible for such aggression. Here, greater credence is given to the belief that, when a woman is beaten, it’s because she gave her attacker a reason for this aggression or, even, that she likes being treated violently. Here, it is worth mentioning that this also applies to boys who are attacked for allegedly good reason, as in cases of infidelity, where physical aggression is considered justifiable.

Verbal aggression is regarded as psychological violence, bearing out the findings of Oliveira et al.23, and suggests that verbal aggression is more frequently employed by adolescents of both sexes in the ten cities covered, in the case of both state and private school students. The majority of narratives arise from topics of jealousy, infidelity, gossip, and insults, as factors leading to verbal and physical aggression.

Physical aggression by girlfriends is tolerated by adolescent males, since it is regarded as involving minimal offensive potential. This is in line with the results of prior studies showing that adolescents of both sexes accept the use of physical violence by girls more readily than violence by boys26.

However, as borne out by studies, it is more often women who seek hospitals, in need of emergency care for injuries and traumas. Here lies the true disadvantage at which women find themselves in relation to men, as victims of violence by their sexual partners. This is because there is a far greater likelihood of women being wounded, five times more chances of their needing medical assistance as the result of physical harm caused by a partner, and five times a greater fear of death27.

The material analyzed shows the many meanings of violence in the context of the dynamics of gender relationships. To be insulted or humiliated is regarded as one of the worst forms of violence by adolescent males. When a girl does the insulting or humiliating, it is as though her verbal performance represents a rupture in the barriers separating the masculine from the feminine, soiling the notion of male honor, and destroying the notion of valuing female reticence.

Female betrayal or infidelity can lead to the physical violence perpetrated against girlfriends, and the so-called “obsessive jealousy” is classified as a form of psychological violence exercised by women.

Boys regard female infidelity as one the leading causes of male violence. Discussions of female adultery reveal when violence is regarded as more defensible and, from the male point of view, this is the most feared possibility, since it involves the young male in question being labeled a cuckold. There is no doubt that being cuckolded plays a vital role in the code of honor held by males, and is part of the definition of hegemonic masculinity. It is as though a man’s masculinity has been neutralized when his honor is stained, and it must be washed clean, frequently, with blood28.

In this respect, the notion of honor or respect (the more preferred category among adolescents) can function as a currency whereby they negotiate their place, especially regarding the inequalities between the genders29. This is where hierarchical terminology appears, where the binomial “whore”/”red hot lover” refers to the prohibitions for the different means of expressing desire and sexuality between the sexes. Accordingly, most of the reports underscore a traditional ideology in the relations between the sexes. Women must be more reticent or reserved, while men must publicize their sexual conquests and, thus, receive social approbation.

Another analysis position concentrates on male perception of violence against women. A significant number of male adolescents have witnessed violence against girls inflicted by their partners, husbands, or lovers. If, on the one hand, they reject all forms of violence in relationships, on the other, they claim that women “like” violence.

The perpetuation of the macho repertoire is clearly visible in several reports on physical violence. These narratives reflect a very common view on cases of violence against women, where the latter are held responsible for the resulting acts of aggression. A possible explanation for this attitude could be the fact that these young men and women were unaware of the psychological effects of the impact of violence in the subjective education of individuals requiring specialized attention30.

As a rule, studies of victims of domestic violence, including sexual abuse, involve the presence of feelings of guilt, depression, self-destructive behavior, anxiety, low self-esteem, a tendency to re-victimization, among a number of other symptoms31. However, little is ever said about the role of the aggressor in this category of violent interaction, nor about male domination, including social and economic inequalities32. The expression “women like being beaten up” is a way of minimizing the complexity of the problem, and allocating responsibility to only one of the parties for manifestations of interpersonal violence.

The topic of “forced sex” was the most debated as a type of sexual aggression. On the matter of sexual violence, men as victims vanish. In this context, men are regarded as aggressors and not as objects of sexual violence1.

Final Considerations

The aim of this article is to analyze the significance of violence in intimate relationships as perceived by male Brazilian adolescents. We sought to discuss these meanings in the context of gender, specifically in relation to the social construct of masculinity. Particular attention was directed to the differences in perception of violence in a gender context, thereby applying a specific configuration to certain phenomena, as in the case of the dismissal of acts of physical aggression by women. On the other hand, significant emphasis was given to female infidelity as an act that provokes male violence. However, we noted a certain denial of any emotional impact of violence in the subjectivity of individuals who had experienced violence in intimate relationships.

As a rule, gender based violence is a process that begins in the early stages of relationships. Behavioral standards that impel some men to use violence against women begin in early childhood and adolescence. Violence against women includes physical aggression or threat thereof, psychological mistreatment, sexual abuse or harassment, and also relates to suffering and aggression specifically directed towards women because they are women, i.e., because of their gender33.

However, strictly speaking, gender violence should not be confused with violence against women. This would be a concept that fails to take into account relational and performance dimensions that represent the matrices forming what we call “gender” 34. In this respect, the female figure is generally identified as a victim lacking in agencies, at the mercy of a “patriarchal and dominating masculinity”, a definition attributed to men in general. In addition to naturalizing sexual attributes in strictly heteronormative gender roles, this perspective also does not create difficulties with power hierarchies but, rather, regards them as given and universal. For this reason, violence against men is not viewed as gender violence, which could contribute to the process of accepting aggression between couples as normal.

Nowadays, gender violence has become increasingly viewed as a crucial public health problem, and has acquired a level of distinction in this field, since it includes injuries, physical and emotional injuries, traumas, and deaths. Thus, violent episodes in their numerous manifestations reflect susceptibilities differentiated by gender.

When we think within the context of health promotion, we must take into consideration the fact that the connection between men and violence impacts the understanding of professionals in this sector. According to Sarti34, there is a type of biomedical discussion on the violence that mostly affects domestic and family life, which occurs in private and chiefly involves women and children. Victims of firearms, mostly men, are not represented thus.

Accordingly and in summary, the connotations of the phenomenon of violence in intimate relationships are divided by gender: they correspond to expectations relating to the roles that men and women play out in their social relationships. Women endure violence in a private and domestic setting; they are more often the victims of the sexual violence of their partners. In general, men are invisible in this context, since their natural role is one of aggressor and not of victim of gender violence.

The original nature of the topic of violence in intimate adolescent relationships in Brazil and the huge scale that engendered this study should be borne in mind. Hitherto, studies of violence between sexual partners concentrated on adult relationships. Another major contribution was the introduction of reports from adolescent males, a relatively unexplored field in the context of violence among sexual partners.

Lastly, we stress the importance of rethinking the association between violence and masculinity which defines aggressiveness as a natural male trait35. We believe that a reflection on violence in a relational context could demolish prior definitions based on representations on which of the sexes is more or less violent.


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Received: May 13, 2015; Accepted: December 30, 2015


The authors worked together in all the stages of the production of the manuscript.

Translated by James Allen

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