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Category Archives: Embodied Experience

Where are the SL men?

A Study of Gender Presentation in Resident Profiles in Second Life Public Spaces

When I returned to SL a couple months ago, I noticed that there seemed to be a lower percentage of apparently male avatars than I remembered from 2010-2015. I wondered if my chosen destinations were female-leaning, so I began jumping to areas that were not personally interesting. The imbalance was there too. Having an anthropology background, it was time to get more methodological.

Findings:

In counting 1068 avatars across 58 destinations in SL, I observed 50% female avatars, 27% male avatars, and 23% avatars that were not binary or were of unknown gender. In fact, the majority (86%) of venues had male avatar percentages of 0-38%. 7 locations were between 50-58% male, and one outlier (Star Wars Legends roleplay) was 90% male when I visited. The quantity of male avatars was significant at some places — there were 18 male avatars at a ballroom I visited — but they still only constituted 31% of the crowd. Of binary, clearly gendered avatars I observed, 35% were male and 65% were female.

Methodology:

I visited 58 destinations: 9 General, 30 Moderate, and 19 Adult.

I tried to minimize my bias by choosing locations to count in a variety of ways. Venues directed specifically at one gender, such as single-sex clothing stores or gay/lesbian clubs, were not visited. Locations were found by selecting from the SL website destination guide, links in group notices, event and destination listings, keyword searches (airport, beach, Brazil, chat, city, combat, Deutsch, family, furry, sandbox, and Turkey), looking for avatar clusters on the map, and suggestions from friends. I sought places with varied activities and audiences, most of which I had never visited before. A region had to have a minimum of four avatars present to be included.

Crowd at live show

Because of my availability, most places were visited between 4:00-9:00 PM SLT (Standard Linden Time, which is US Pacific time). However, I did get to 11 venues between 8:00 AM and 1:30 PM.

The sex of an avatar was determined by resident profile presentation (more on this in the Discussion section below). To gather profiles for this study, I visited an area, popped open the Nearby list, and opened the profiles of everyone there. I then sorted the profiles on my screen into three piles — obviously male, obviously female, and undetermined. Profiles in the undetermined pile would get more scrutiny and then I would log a final count. I did not consider avatars that arrived or left after my sorting began.

Discussion:

As I explored, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. I’d rez into a location, look around, and think, “Wow, there are a lot of men here!” Then I’d count and find that female avatars outnumbered male 2:1. Since I tend to seek the companionship of men, my perception was off. On the other hand, I spoke with a number of male residents who didn’t notice that the balance was so tilted either.

Determining the sex of an avatar was somewhat complex. In the era of mesh bodies and heads, binary gender presentation has become more extreme, which meant that the resident’s main profile photo was my first sorting clue. Most of the female human avatars I counted were blatantly gendered: full breasts and hips, narrow waists, makeup, long hair. Many of the male human avatars had facial hair and broad muscular shoulders.

Display names were only considered if they had a gendered title that cleared up other ambiguity. For example, it was not uncommon to see profile photos that featured a couple. That image plus “Mrs. Jane Doe” meant that I’d count the avatar as female. I often combed through text to find gendered self-references, such as “I’m a sweet country gal”. Sometimes a partner provided a useful clue. No assumptions were made around sexual orientation, but I’d visit the partner’s profile to see if there were gendered references to the avatar I was counting. “I love X, he’s my knight in mesh armor!” and that sort of thing.

I encountered several residents who described themselves as shape-shifting, androgynous, non-binary, or explicitly said that they may sometimes appear male and sometimes female. I’m not familiar with the furry subculture and was relieved to see that many gave clear indications of gender in their text sections. However, most of the avatars I counted as neither/undetermined had nearly empty profiles and in fact, I think most were bots or NPCs in roleplaying areas. An avatar named GangMember but with a blank profile was logged as undetermined. In a longer study I would try to parse out the active residents from the rest, but it is fair to say that the number of avatars listed as neither male nor female is strongly inflated by bots.

That said, my categorization of an avatar as male, female, or neither/undetermined was subjective and I’d consider other methods if this was research with a goal of publication. I used profiles rather than visual inspection because of the ease of changing avatars for effect, a joke, an event, a mood shift, or a particular venue. Relying on interviews would have made the effort much greater and would have introduced another type of selection bias.

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Counting at Prehistorica in my pteranodon avi

Destinations where I found the highest percentage of male avatars were:

  • Star Wars Legends (roleplay, M)
  • Yiff (furry, A)
  • Santa Ramona Valley (roleplay, A)
  • Maui Swingers Resort (sex, A)
  • Prehistorica (dinosaurs/infohub, M)
  • 2Raw Extreme (racing, M)
  • The Looking Glass (hangout, M)

I can only speculate why the numbers are skewed like this. It may be that nowadays, SL has more activities that appeal to people who present as female online. My husband’s suggestion that it’s easier to have a nice-looking female avatar may be a factor. There may be plenty of male avatars in SL but they prefer same-sex venues to the open areas I explored. People who had male avatars may have moved off to other virtual worlds, games, or virtual reality. People may have selected female avatars to try to ply their wares in the digital sex trade (though I see an absence of clients across the grid). It could also be that the avatar gender balance has always been disproportionate, but it wasn’t apparent enough to raise my curiosity.

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Posted by on February 15, 2019 in Embodied Experience, Gender & Sexuality, Research

 

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AFK sex, the popularity paradox, and the lack of male avatars

Going back into Second Life after three years has given me a lot to think about. I wander looking for interesting things and people, then spend equally as much time pondering what I’ve found.

Princess and the Elephants

At Luanes Magical World in Morning Glow

I’ve started several posts but, being a methodical person, I keep stopping and asking myself more questions. Could this be the result of selection bias? What is really going on? How do others react to this? So, I thought I’d share what I’m working on. If you have any people I should speak with or things I should read to get more perspective, please pass those along to Kay Jiersen (in SL) or kayjiersen at gmail.

Where are the men?

My observation after exploring a variety of SL regions that were not particularly gendered was that there are fewer avatars presenting as male than there were in the past. I don’t have historic numbers to compare against but I have started a study counting avatars in public spaces. Primarily, I’m looking at gender presentation of avatars in user profiles — not the people in RL nor their appearance at the time. There are ways I could dig deeper into this and perhaps I will, but this is a start. In my sample thus far, male avatars (of any species/type) are about 27% and avatars of undetermined gender are about 4%.

AFK sex venues

You can’t search the in-world destination guide without coming across these, because the continual presence of parked avatars drives their traffic numbers to the top of the list. For people unfamiliar with Second Life, these are relatively new areas where unattended avatars are left on furniture that has scripted sex animations, while the RL people behind them (theoretically) leave the screen and go on with their physical lives. A client avatar can join the AFK escort on the furniture and take charge of the controls. There is no personal interaction, but the visuals are the same as if there was an active human controlling the other avatar. Payment is made by tipping the escort and proceeds are automatically split with the venue. Popping into several to look around, I’ve never seen an active client (though I have seen AFK escorts being utilized at less specific venues). I’m awfully curious about these places and the avatars that use them, actively and passively.

Traffic, popularity, and concurrency

As mentioned above, having avatars at a venue all the time will raise its position in the search results. I visited a highly-ranked beach sim last week that had more than a dozen voluptuous, scantily-clad female avatars milling around the landing point and on the dance floor. They had profiles like those you’d find in any crowd, none of which said they were bots. I watched them as I explored. They went through their AO (animation override) standing motions, but none danced, walked around, or interacted. There was no local chat. So, I started running through them like the cue ball breaking the triangle on a pool table, and there was no reaction. Bots. The place looked full at first glance but felt dead.

On the same weekend, I experienced two venues that had legitimate crowds: a store that ran a 50% off everything sale and a club with live musicians. The unfortunate truth is that popularity in a virtual space presents a paradox: the performance of the region degrades as more avatars enter and interact. Concurrency is a technical challenge where improvement has been sluggish, no matter the platform. (Philip Rosedale wrote a good explanation on the High Fidelity blog in September, when they achieved 356 avatars in a single instance on that service.)

Since my technical interest is tempered by my anthropological mindset, I’m curious more about the lived experience of being alone, surrounded by bots, and in a glitchy crowd in a virtual space. That’s what I’ll explore in depth, soon.

 

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The world, three years later

Other than volunteering at the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conferences for a couple years, I haven’t been in Second Life since very early 2016. Instead, I played some video games (ArcheAge, Subnautica, No Man’s Sky) and learned to make vector art in the time I had to play at my computer. My curiosity turned back toward SL recently. After all, my first avatar is over 13 years old and I maintained two premium accounts even when I wasn’t in-world. I believe in SL. So, I updated my Firestorm viewer and signed on.

Snapshot_179

In many ways, it was as if I never left. This was a truly unusual experience in an interactive space. A couple people on my Friends list were online, my property was exactly the same as almost 3 years prior. I still had everything in my inventory and my avatars looked fairly good. It was strange and wonderful to see that the databases that hold all my “stuff” hadn’t been purged, as would usually happen in an MMORPG.

Since my home is on the mainland, the most obvious changes were in my neighborhood. I think there are a couple skyboxes, but I’m the only resident on ground level in my region. My little rectangle exists in perpetual spring, surrounded by abandoned land. I did some cleanup, played with the pet wolf that Jakob had given me, refreshed my memory about how to navigate, and then went wandering.

I visited a few stores that I used to like; they’re still there, and things I bought in 2015 remain available (often on the discount rack).  My store credit was valid and I had years of group gifts to pick up. I traveled to areas where I used to socialize and found that they exist as well, but they have new owners, new rules, and new direction. I checked out an art piece by Bryn Oh and strolled through a gallery, and I was pleased to see that Templemore is still putting on live shows.

I’d only been in-world a couple days before some random guy chatted me up at a store and then tried to get me to send him a RL pic. What is this, 2006? I’m up for a chat, but ffs, going from zero to RL pic in 5 minutes leads to whiplash. Which might have been something he was into… I didn’t really want to know.

Now, I can’t say that I’ll be on SL often. Looking at some of my friends’ profiles, I got reminders of the drama that never interested me. I missed the profusion of mesh heads and doing some bento shopping made me despair about the learning curve. I’ll soon start a new job that will put more demands on my time. Yet on the other hand, I’m feeling the pull of this creative and intriguing space. We’ll see.

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2018 in Art in SL, Embodied Experience

 

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A reborn SL noob after 10 years

I spent a couple hours in Second Life last night, for the first time since August (and, to be fair, I hadn’t explored outside my SL home for several months before that). In the interim my desktop computer died, so I had to do a clean install of Firestorm with no cache and no preset preferences.  After months of playing an MMORPG, my fingers were trained to move around the environment using the WASD keys. This often resulted in my avatar exclaiming “ssd” or “wwwdd” in local chat.

It was not an easy experience. I didn’t stay at my home long. I’ve wanted to replace my skybox for a couple of years — it’s old technology now, crude and strangely sized — but Jakob objected. It’s highly unlikely he will sign on again as his illness progresses, yet I couldn’t bring myself to start deleting. I checked my land. 86 objects owned by his avatar, including numerous bouquets of flowers intended as gifts but not transferred, just placed around the space we shared. What can I do about those now? I wish I could communicate with him and ask for his password, to properly archive his account, but his sister says he has forgotten his passwords and how to use technology.

surrealaxing

Quickly, I switched from my Kay avatar to my original avi. She’s the inside part of me, more sweet and gentle, more readily emotional; she’s like younger me behind the facade. It was easier for me to tolerate the sadness and loneliness in her body than Kay’s, where I feel more need for composure and restraint.

I visited locations from the Destination Guide and was struck both by the beauty and detail of some areas and the Duplo-like blunt ugliness of others. Second Life at its best is a glorious virtual world where resident creators have pushed the technology and often found ways to make amazing things despite it. At its worst? Well, it’s as good a place to learn about 3D building and virtual coding as Minecraft and I have nostalgic affection for blocky builds with freebie textures. With a small handful of skills and no cash, anyone can start turning imagination into digital reality. That’s marvelous even when the results are unsophisticated. I admire both hyperrealistic and surreal environments in SL, so I wandered from sim to sim. Usually I was one of very few avatars there, as I avoided clubs and adult areas. I’m open to meeting people again, but those aren’t the places I want to be now.

If Jakob is not returning, I need to downsize my SL land holding (the tier is too expensive to pay alone) and I’d like to start splitting my evening online time between gaming and the virtual world again. I suppose it will depend on how my mourning progresses and if I can find a community, or at least a friend or two, with whom I want to spend my SL time.

 
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Posted by on November 8, 2015 in Embodied Experience, Relationships

 

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Identity: Tell me, who are you?

Who are you? Who are you now, and is that the same person you always are and always were?

I’ve always played with identity. As a child I was imaginative and, let’s say, indiscriminate about the boundary between reality and fantasy. The first sign of this may have been when I was five and screamed for days because my parents said my imaginary friend couldn’t move to our new house. A couple years later they began dropping me off at Sunday School with instructions to go to church alone afterwards. (As an adult, I understand that they relished their child-free Sunday mornings more than they cared to adhere to the dictates of Roman Catholicism. Fair enough.) I would sit on the hard pew and imagine I was blind. Or maybe deaf. I’d concentrate on what senses would still be available and try to tune out the one I “lost”. Sometimes I’d refuse to say any words aloud because then, I was a girl who didn’t speak English.

Harlequin 1

It isn’t uncommon for little girls to have a phase of fantastical confusion, but usually other interests or maturity put an end to it. I read this compelling New York magazine article about the two girls who stabbed their friend in the so-called “Slender Man attack” with empathy and growing discomfort. Luckily my crazy imagination never extended to violence and I channeled my make believe into society-approved acting and writing. Nevertheless, it’s embarrassing to recall how much I lied. Sometimes the reason was manipulation — inventing a dire health crisis to get extra time for chemistry lab reports — but often it seemed the stories came out of my mouth before I processed them anywhere else. Why on earth would I spontaneously pretend to be an exchange student from England when I knew almost nothing about the place and my accent came from playing Anna in “The King and I”?  That’s who I became to the cashier of a bookstore I visited on a field trip. WTF, younger me?

In my 20s I began to make a conscious effort to stop lying. The impulse remains in me as a stress reaction. It’s commonly said that people who compulsively lie do so for attention, but that couldn’t be further from my truth. I might lie to blend in, or to end or shorten an awkward conversation, or to divert attention from something I don’t want to discuss. It’s rare; usually I cage the lies behind my teeth before they leap out.

But, what about sliding into different identities online? Where are the lines drawn between performing a role, exploring parts of oneself, and outright lying?

I’ve had a blog off and on, mostly on, for 14 years. As a blogger I am honest in the way that a 2×4 board is not exactly two inches by four inches, yet it’s accepted as such until there’s a need for precise measurements. I may change names and locations and mess with timelines. I skim over details. The emotional and intellectual content is always as true as I can make it, but the rest is flexible enough to condense for narrative clarity or warp for privacy. I feel that my blogging identity is synchronous with who I am offline. You wouldn’t be greatly surprised when meeting me in the physical world after reading this site.

Identity with multiple avatars in a virtual world is more complicated. Take this scenario as an example: someone who knows I have multiple Second Life avatars invites me to come to a dance club, and I reply, “Let me sign on as Kay, because my alt doesn’t go to places like that.” I am the conscious person who animates both avatars and my reply makes it clear that I’m comfortable going to the club. Who, then, is not?

Before you say that I simply draw a line between two roles that I play online, let me add that if I went to that club as my alt, I — physical me — would feel the mild distress of being in a place that is out of my comfort zone. If I changed to my main avatar I’d feel confident and at ease in the same place. Both of them are me, but I have parceled out my personality among them and though they’re more alike than they used to be, some differences remain. Luckily for most people who meet me online, I’ve put most of my hostility and anger into my rarely-used second alt, but beware if you ever run across her. She can be a monster.

He sat to take a photo with me

When I’m in SL, I make an attempt to be honest or silent about my RL. My online identity may only reflect a portion of who I really am, but it is consistent and leaves open the possibility for people to get to know me better. That hasn’t always been the case, but it is now. That doesn’t mean I welcome conversations about offline details until I know someone well, but I’m not part of the “SL is SL, RL is RL” contingent (valid and perfectly acceptable, just not me). Considering my childhood, it’s a little surprising that I don’t enjoy online roleplaying. I’ve tried, but I can’t pretend for long before I want to make deeper connections with more authenticity. And, I frakking hate paragraph-style roleplay… but that’s another topic.

This topic was on my mind because I gave birth to a new identity over the weekend. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to use a pen name for my serious writing. I’m a private person and whether I have any success or not, I want a buffer between me-the-author and me-the-person. The timing was right. I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing about her early days as a poet and writer:

If I had suspected anything about the role I would be expected to fulfill, not just as a writer, but as a female writer — how irrevocably doomed! — I would have flung my leaky blue blob-making ballpoint pen across the room, or plastered myself over with an impenetrable nom de plume, like B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, whose true identity has never been discovered. Or, like Thomas Pynchon, I would never have done any interviews, nor allowed my photo to appear on book jackets; but I was too young then to know about such ruses, and by now it is far too late.

We live in a media-saturated time and I’m no Pynchon, so I don’t expect to remain effectively anonymous, but simply detached. Atwood talks about the dual nature of being a writer, which I can relate to so well. It was the following section from her book that convinced me it was time to give my writing doppelganger a distinct name.

Now, what disembodied hand or invisible monster just wrote that cold-blooded comment? Surely it wasn’t me; I am a nice, cosy sort of person, a bit absent-minded, a dab hand at cookies, beloved by domestic animals, and a knitter of sweaters with arms that are too long. Anyway, that cold-blooded comment was a couple of lines ago. That was then, this is now, you never step twice into the same paragraph, and when I typed out that sentence I wasn’t myself. …I’ve read more than one review of books with our joint surname on them that would go far toward suggesting that this other person — the one credited with authorship — is certainly not me. She could never be imagined — for instance — turning out a nicely browned loaf of oatmeal-and-molasses bread….

What to call the writer-me who takes sympathetic characters and tortures them mercilessly? My husband and I brainstormed a list of first names and then I pulled a few surnames from books I love, we mashed them together in different arrangements, checked them in Google, and said them aloud. I had to change the spelling of the surname I preferred, but then, there she was. I showered her with gifts to solidify her reality: a domain name and website, a Twitter feed, and a Facebook account. Eventually I hope she’ll be like a uniform I slip on for work; not as comfortable as my home clothes and with some different rules of behavior attached, but still me inside.

 
 

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Emotional robots and all the feels

With Ex Machina opening (it’s on my list for the weekend Seriously?? Not in wide release?? WTF??), Slate published an article about emotional robots — or at least, the emulation of human emotion by artificial intelligence. It’s a good piece.

The human tendency to anthropomorphize means that we only need a tiny hint of emotion and interaction to perceive much more. Many of us see our vehicles as having distinct personalities, after all. I think interactivity and a touch of randomness make the most difference between us reacting to something as an object or as a creature.

In Second Life, animated wolf with limited AI watching other animated creatures in a vegetable garden

After I wrote about Second Life gacha recently, I bought a few Piccoli by D-Lab. There have been Christmas and gardening sets offered at The Arcade, but before I saw them in the video I embedded, I had no idea that they were animated.  They are, and they’re adorable.  I have a few pieces set up in the yard and the Piccoli creatures wander around, tending the garden, riding birds, visiting, chatting with moles, and turning on the water sprinkler. They’re absurdly cute and can be picked up and held, but they don’t interact with non-Piccoli people or things.

In the photo above, you can see my wolf greeting one of the Piccoli.  Wolfy is a pet from the Virtual Kennel Club. His appearance and animations are less detailed and smooth than the Piccoli, but he is designed to interact with people and things. The commands he can learn are sophisticated by SL standards: there is a standard set of commands, but behaviors can be chained, customized, and given priority if he receives praise for doing them.

Which creature provokes an emotional response: the twee and gorgeous Piccoli or the cruder but interactive Wolfy?  Wolfy, hands down. I’ll go into the yard to watch the Piccoli for a couple minutes, but when I sign on and find Wolfy carrying a different toy or he howls after I pet him, I’m touched. The Piccoli are predictable; I’m curious to see what Wolfy will be doing. The answer to that can be amusing. He greets other scripted objects, so I sometimes find him greeting a couch or lamp.

Wolfy was an Easter gift from Jakob, to keep me company since he can’t be online as much as before. It’s sweet but also heart-rending to have this wolf as a stand-in for my partner.

Last Thursday, Jakob wasn’t healthy enough for his biweekly palliative chemotherapy. He and I are connected on a family app that shares our phone GPS data with each other, so I know he went to the hospital for a few hours yesterday — when his treatment was rescheduled — and he returned home. I haven’t heard from him at all, though, and the app can’t locate him now (his phone might be off). He has missed two of our scheduled meeting times and hasn’t sent an email. This worry is hard to take. [Update: I exchanged notes with Jakob’s sister, who told me he was taken to the hospital by ambulance today. His blood sugar has been up and down like a roller coaster and he was incoherent. I won’t hear from him until he’s back home, but his sister is kind enough to give me news now and then.]

Health permitting, Jakob and I will have our vacation in five weeks and though we’ve had to alter some plans to make it possible, we’ll do our best. It’s a bit like Amsterdam in The Fault in Our Stars: it won’t be easy, it will probably be dangerous, but he really needs a chance to experience more than being sick in his apartment or the hospital. As the weeks zip by and his health remains so fragile, I’m increasingly nervous about taking him far from his doctors, but he insists it will be ok. Wish us luck.

 

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Ways we adapt to mix real and virtual

I can’t help thinking of this as I sit on my couch at home and simultaneously sit on one in Second Life, watching the Australian Grand Prix with Jakob.

Snapshot_293

That’s our virtual living room. It doesn’t make sense to try to stream the race in SL — our real televisions look much better and provide commentary in our respective native languages — but I pull the ESPN website live coverage into a “TV” above our fireplace. See the clocks over the loveseat? We have one for SL time, one for my time zone, and one for Jakob’s. The collage on the wall has photos we’ve taken offline, but there are some online photos on the fireplace mantel.

Since our virtual lives are extensions of our offline lives, blending the worlds is normal for us. There is no hard line between the two. Others make a sharp distinction between “fantasy” and “reality”; it’s exciting that we have spaces now where we can do that. That’s not my style at this point, though. Virtual life is more effortless and easier to control, with some added features and some removed, but it’s part of the overall thing I call my life.

Blending virtual and real was a gradual process for us. Something I’d love to study is the delicate negotiation that some people do when they meet anonymously online and then begin to disclose personal details. It took months for Jakob and I to share our real names and more precise locations. He was practical when I wondered about personal details, responding with, “Does it matter?” Often, once I thought about it, the answer was, no, not at all. He doesn’t like to talk about himself and he tells me it’s boring. I didn’t know his age until a couple years after we met, though my guess from his musical tastes and some dates in his stories wasn’t far off. It just didn’t matter.

I should interject at this point that when I started collecting data on SL profiles for a research project, I was surprised by how many of them had (what they claimed to be) first life personal details. Sometimes the details were small and still anonymous, a time zone or country and a sex. Often a sexual preference or gender identification was listed. The percentage that disclosed more details — city, marital status, age, profession, number of children, photos, and even name — was unexpected.

Jakob has wanted to find a project we could do together for a while, but it was a challenge to find something that fit our skill sets and time. Now, finally, we’re almost ready to open our little in-world art gallery. It mixes both worlds as well: I’m the interior designer and curator of the virtual gallery, but the art consists of his photographs from the physical world. I’ll confess, this is more important to both of us now that he is sick. You can be sure I’ll write more when it’s complete.

 
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Posted by on March 15, 2015 in Embodied Experience, Relationships

 

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