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Since I’ll be talking about sex work as a labour issue at the Anarchist Bookfair, I thought I would re-run an early academic publication of mine, A Migrant World of Services. In my quest to understand why so many people disqualify selling sex as a potential job, I looked critically at traditional economic concepts such as the distinctions between productive and unproductive labour and between formal and informal employment sectors. I discovered these concepts are entirely arbitrary and out-dated and produce oppression for no good reason. For example, the majority of women’s work inside homes is labelled unproductive, and probably the majority of women’s jobs outside the home are also disqualified as real and productive by relegating them to the informal sector of the economy. I couldn’t see, and still cannot, how an economic sector  named Services, which takes in a raft of jobs, could exclude so many women’s jobs, so I also investigated ideas about emotional and caring work. Not only migrants are ripped off by these disqualifications – all are, and when men do these jobs they are as well.

A Migrant World of Services (pdf)

Social Politics, 10, 3, 377-96 (2003)

Laura Maria Agustín

Abstract: There is a strong demand for women’s domestic, caring and sexual labour in Europe which promotes migrations from many parts of the world. This paper examines the history of concepts that marginalise these as unproductive services (and not really ‘work’) and questions why the west accepts the semi-feudal conditions and lack of regulations pertaining to this sector. The moral panic on ‘trafficking’ and the limited feminist debate on ‘prostitution’ contribute to a climate that ignores the social problems of the majority of women migrants.

In a variety of scenarios in different parts of Europe, non-Europeans are arriving with the intention to work; these are largely migrant women and transgender people from the ‘third world’ or from Central and Eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union. The jobs available to these women in the labour market are overwhelmingly limited to three basic types: domestic work (cleaning, cooking and general housekeeping), ‘caring’ for people in their homes (children, the elderly, the sick and disabled) and providing sexual experiences in a wide range of venues known as the sex industry. All these jobs are generally said to be services.

In the majority of press accounts, migrant women are presented as selling sex in the street, while in public forums and academic writing, they are constructed as ‘victims of trafficking.’ The obsession with ‘trafficking’ obliterates not only all the human agency necessary to undertake migrations but the experiences of migrants who do not engage in sex work. Many thousands of women who more or less chose to sell sex as well as all women working in domestic or caring service are ‘disappeared’ when moralistic and often sensationalistic topics are the only ones discussed. One of the many erased subjects concerns the labour market—the demand—for the services of all these women. The context to which migrants arrive is not less important than the context from which they leave, often carelessly described as ‘poverty’ or ‘violence.’ This article addresses the European context for women migrants’ employment in these occupations. Though domestic and caring work are usually treated as two separate jobs, very often workers do both, and these jobs also often require sexual labour, though this is seldom recognised. All this confusion and ambiguity occurs within a frame that so far has escaped definition.

For the rest, get the pdf.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Psychobabble as a means of social control. At the BBC World thing in Luxor I got publicly annoyed when other panellists wanted to talk about brainwashing of victims. Now Stockholm Syndrome is given as reason those rescued from trafficking situations may not react as rescuers want them to – as, for instance, in a case in India and another in Congo. It really does not get more sinister than this. This theory, utterly free from any cultural context and presented as a method for identifying victims of trafficking, is taken from The Model of Assistance for Women Victims of Human Trafficking in Lithuania, published by Klaipeda Social and Psychological Services Center, Women’s Issues Information Center and Ministry of Social Security and Labour of Lithuania. No ideas of individual agency or resistance are allowed here. No possibility that migrants or sex workers have any understandable or meaningful loyalty to people that assisted them to travel or get work. There is no allowance here for survivors’ having colluded in situations that ended up going bad.

They define Stockholm Syndrome as a ‘psychological mechanism of self-protection when a victim attempts to protect herself from more traumatic psychological experiences’ (Carver, 2001-2007). Excerpts:

. . . The characteristics of Stockholm syndrome confirm the common indicators of female sexual exploitation and female victims of trafficking. Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response, in which the victim shows signs of loyalty, sympathy to the exploiter, regardless of the danger (or at least risk) in which the victim has been placed (Carver, 2001-2007).

• Emotional bonding with the captor/abuser
• Seeking approval from the captor/abuser
• Depending on the captor/abuser for security and purpose of existence
• Befriending and caring for the captor/abuser
• Resenting police and authorities for their rescue attempts
• Losing one’s own identity in order to identify with the captor/abuser
• Seeing things from the perspective of the captor/abuser
• Valuing every small gesture of kindness, such as letting them live
• Refusing freedom even when given the opportunity

They give sub-categories that allow them to disbelieve a victim-survivor’s refusal of help:

Learnt hopelessness attributes (Seligman, 1995)

• Disability to organise one’s own private life.
Victim can avoid being helped, refuse offers of a supporting organization, and de-evaluate provided support.

Traumatic factors (Finkelhor, 1986)

• Traumatic sexuality (disorder of sexual identity development)
• Betrayal (distrust in all people around, playing with feeling of trust)
• Stigmatization (feelings of guilt and shame, behaviour according common scheme of stigma)
• Hopelessness (incapability and avoidance of support)

This makes my blood boil.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Reginald Marsh’s Voluptuous Shopper , from The “New Woman” Revised by Ellen Wiley Todd

Marsh’s voluptuous shopper so dominated his 1930s imagery that she came to be called the Marsh girl. How are we to read this figure of hyper-glamorized working-class femininity? . . . she embodied a conservative ideal of post-franchise new womanhood; this New Woman had abandoned collective activism to express her independence, sexuality, and self-conscious femininity by applying mass-produced beauty products. . . Where she towers above helpless admirers, she can be read as a figure of sexual danger, a threat to masculinity already compromised by unemployment.

Women and their Maids, Lugar Común, from Sociological Images

Photos of pairs of identically dressed women – one the employer, one the employee – that confuse which is which. The original photographic project from 3 Latin American countries can be downloaded.

¿A qué llama ‘familia’ la Iglesia?, from Página 12

A partir de la cuestión del matrimonio entre personas del mismo sexo, el autor advierte sobre la intervención de la Iglesia Católica: “Que una forma histórica sea presentada como natural exige uniformar, homogeneizar, y ésta es una razón por la cual las jerarquías eclesiásticas se adaptaron mejor al orden de las dictaduras que al desorden democrático”.


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Polari, a vibrant language born out of prejudice by Paul Baker

. . . particularly well known in London and associated with chorus boys who danced and sang in West End productions, and male prostitutes who drank endless cups of tea in seedy cafes hanging out around Piccadilly (“the dilly”) looking for “steamers” (clients).

Employment Rights for Nannies: NYS Senate Passes Domestic Workers Bill of Rights from Gender & Sexuality Law Blog

Frequently ignored in the debates about human trafficking is the vulnerability of the women (typically women of color and often immigrants with less than secure legal status) we pass every day on the street who are caring for other people’s children.  . . working conditions in many cases indistinguishable from those who the law would consider trafficked.  Because the labor of domestic workers is not primarily sexual in nature, their exploitation has been largely ignored . . . 2006 report: Home is where the work is: Inside New York’s Domestic Work Industry

Event in Chicago on sex-offender laws by Yasmin Nair

. . . Over the last many decades, laws punishing and registering sex offenders have so increased in severity that several legal critics now consider them draconian. . . a historical concurrence: the relatively high level of acceptance and even protection of LGBTs in the past 15 years has coincided with a rise in the punishment and monitoring of RSOs [registered sex offenders]. As he put it, “the sex offender takes up the space now vacated by the homosexual.”


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The weather turned wintry again in northern Europe, alas, but Wednesday’s event in Copenhagen was very rewarding – thanks to those who came and asked interesting questions. Here are stories I read this week that somehow have something to do with my thinking on migration and commercial sex!

A Nannies’ Bill of Rights from Salon.com

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt unveiled his plan for a federal minimum wage in May 1937, Southern planters grumbled that they’d be required to “pay your Negro girl 11 dollars a week.” Roosevelt knew his Fair Labor Standards Act would squeeze through Congress only with the approval of Southern Democrats, so he reassured the grumblers: “No law ever suggested intended a minimum wages and hours bill to apply to domestic help.”

What is ‘splaining and why should I care? by s.e. smith

This happens to women who sell sex all the time: ’Splainin’ is an ‘explanation’ put forward in the most patronizing way possible by someone who thinks his, her or their opinions are more important than actual lived experiences. ’Splainers are unfortunately especially common in safe spaces in which the voices of people living in marginalized bodies are centered. . . 

Senegal’s Taxi Sisters break new ground from GlobalPost

Dakar’s official, supported-by-the-president “Taxi Sisters” shatter taboos and open up transport field for women.

Sex workers of SANGRAM demand rights and health care

The International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), an international advocacy organization for women’s health and rights, has partnered with SANGRAM and produced a documentary about their work called “SANGRAM: Sex Workers Organizing in India.” 

Fronteras asesinas de Europa

Informe sobre las violaciones de los derechos humanos en las fronteras publicado por la red Migreurop, a la que pertenece la APDHA. Este informe desea favorecer, cada vez que sea posible, la palabra de los migrantes entrevistados . . .



Las empleadas domésticas van a marchar limpiando con plumeros los cristales de las tiendas que recorren. Mientras existe un sinfin de denuncias sobre la situación de las migrantes que venden sexo, pocos piensan en las condiciones feudales del trabajo doméstico y del cuidado. Muchas viven como internas – es decir, en un pequeño cuarto dentro del piso o de la casa de sus empleadores, sin intimidad propia y vulnerables a que se les exigen días laborales muy muy largos, mientras los salarios están bajísimos. El darme cuenta de esta contradicción fue un momento clave en mi análisis de la indignación que se demuestra sobre la prostitución. Ojo: En España hay 700.000 mujeres dedicadas a la limpieza de hogares

Manifestación por los derechos de las empleadas domésticas
28 de marzo 2010 – 1300
Plaza Jacinto Benavente, Sol, Madrid

Las mujeres de SEDOAC (Servicio Doméstico Activo), el grupo Cita de Mujeres de Lavapiés y la Agencia de Asuntos Precarios, quienes juntas damos vida al Taller Territorio Doméstico, les convidamos …
a todas las empleadas domésticas
a todas las empleadoras y empleadores
a todas las feministas
a todas las inmigrantes, trabajadoras, precarias, estudiantes y paradas
a todas las cuidadoras
a las personas con diversidad funcional que luchan por ser atendidas de otro modo
a todas las trabajadoras invisibles que sostienen la vida
a todas las personas, colectivos, grupos y asociaciones que apoyan la lucha de las empleadas domésticas
… a salir a la calle: ¡Se acabó la esclavitud!

El grito de las invisibles

Susana Hidalgo, 15 marzo 2010, Publico.es

Madrid – Domingo por la tarde, en uno de los pocos momentos de respiro que tienen un grupo de empleadas del hogar. ¿Un rato para descansar, estar en casa, con la familia o en el cine? No. Las mujeres, la mayoría inmigrantes, se reúnen en un local del centro de Madrid para preparar una manifestación que el próximo 28 de marzo a la una de la tarde las llevará a ellas y otras muchas mujeres que trabajan en la más absoluta precariedad a defender sus derechos.

En la sala hay café y té, pancartas por rellenar y mucho debate. Las presentes están agrupadas en una asociación: Territorio Doméstico. En 15 días todo tiene que estar listo con el objetivo de reunir en la manifestación a todas las empleadas del hogar, cuidadoras y demás mujeres que se mueven en la invisibilidad laboral. Para ello, ya están repartiendo folletos en los lugares de paso de estas trabajadoras, como las principales estaciones de transporte.

Ellas trabajan; sus maridos, no

No creía que fuésemos tan invisibles“, se queja Micaela, empleada del hogar que esta tarde ha venido a unirse al grupo desde Valladolid. Con la crisis, reflexionan, la precariedad del trabajo femenino ha ido a peor: “Hay mujeres con marido en paro que están buscando trabajo como locas“, dice una de las presentes. Y los datos le dan la razón: la estadística oficial señala que, en los dos últimos años, por cada mujer que se ha quedado en paro, lo han hecho 14 hombres.

“La cobertura de los cuidados no tiene que dar lugar a la explotación”, apunta otra. Silvia López y Marina Orfila, también de Territorio Doméstico, ultiman el lema de la concentración: Última hora, se acabó la esclavitud. Por la inclusión de las empleadas del hogar en el régimen general y por los derechos de las trabajadoras sin papeles. Las mujeres han redactado también un manifiesto en el que recalcan: “Tenemos unas condiciones laborales que nos hacen muy vulnerables: las jornadas laborales pueden llegar a ser de 16 horas, no tenemos paro ni baja laboral hasta el día 29″.

Bajo un régimen especial

En España hay unas 700.000 trabajadoras dedicadas a la limpieza de hogares. Desde 1985, estas mujeres se rigen por un régimen especial en el que no se aplica el Estatuto de los Trabajadores ni el del Trabajo Autónomo. Hay tres tipos de trabajo dentro de las empleadas del hogar: las que están internas, las externas y las que cobran por horas. Ninguna gana más de 1.000 euros al mes. En general y teniendo en cuenta cualquier empleo, las trabajadoras ganan un sueldo medio al año de unos 17.000 euros; el de los hombres ronda los 23.000.

Beatriz Vahos es colombiana y trabaja como interna en una casa de la urbanización de lujo La Moraleja (Madrid), haciendo de lunes a viernes jornadas maratonianas. Considera que, dentro de su profesión, está “bien tratada“, pero quiere ayudar a otras mujeres con menos conocimientos para que no las exploten. “Tienen que saber que ningún jefe las puede denigrar porque no tengan papeles, que tienen derecho a reclamar”, insiste. “No es mi caso, pero hay empleadas que, cuando han ido a pedir algo, se han encontrado de contestación: tú cállate que no tienes papeles, a ver si voy a llamar a inmigración“, añade.

Rafaela, de origen dominicano y con 20 años a sus espaldas limpiando casas, asiente con la cabeza al escuchar a su compañera. Esta trabajadora denuncia que las condiciones laborales del gremio están condicionadas a la “bondad” de la persona dueña del hogar donde trabaja. “Y en eso las que peor lo tienen son las internas, muchas están en régimen de esclavitud”, critica. Read the rest of this entry »


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If we want having sex with all sorts of people to be accepted, whether money is exchanged or not, can we accept those who prefer having sex with virtual characters? Last year I wrote about cosplay, in which dressing up has a big role in erotic scenes. Now here’s an article that explores erotic and sexual practices associated with otaku, a Japanese word referring to people devoted to or obsessed by anime, (animation) manga (comics) and video games – geeks of a particular type. Fantastic worlds peopled with fabulous characters, but here entrepreneurs have evolved dating-entertainment business opportunities to appeal to this group often sidelined in stories about sex – the social prejudice being that people without conventional attractive looks and personalities can’t expect to find partners. Jobs entertaining these customers involve informed conversation about their subcultures. The traditional sex-industry image of the erotic maid is used, too – the service they provide being, in the first place, ‘soul care’, performed interest in customers’ concerns.  Temporary girlfriends, virtual girlfriends, maid escorts – this is a real hybrid phenomenon. Note: 1000 yen = 8 euros

The Otaku Sex Industry: sometimes, the real thing is better?

Benjamin Boas, 11 March 2010, Japan Subculture Research Center

. . . Otaku have been booming in the popular consciousness since 2005, when Fuji TV aired its prime time drama Densha Otoko, a beauty and the beast romance starring an otaku. Women’s magazines raved about how the show championed otaku as new potential partners for middle-aged career women, but otaku remained incredulous. That same year, Toru Honda wrote Dempa Otoko, a manifesto calling for otaku to abandon “love” for human females and embrace moe for two-dimensional characters. His book sold 33,000 copies in three months, and fans planted signs in Akihabara reading, “Real Otaku Don’t Desire Real Women.”

But Honda is the voice of an extreme minority. “We may have sworn off dating, but that does not mean we don’t have sex,” says Hiroyuki Egami, 23, a prominent voice among himote, a catchall for otaku types unpopular with the ladies. By Egami’s estimation, paying for sex is easier and more honest than wining and dining women to prove oneself a worthy mate.

Those who share Egami’s assessment may head to one of dozens of cosplay cabaret or image clubs found in Shinjuku, Shibuya and Ikebukuro. While many just use the terms of otaku culture such as moe to make a splash, some take pains to attract a demographic deeply involved with media images of the opposite sex.

“Pure-cos” in Shibuya caters to all of the fantasy wishes of its customers by offering close to one hundred costumes based on famous anime heroines. Employees are expected to talk the talk as well; on its hiring page, Pure-cos warns potential employees that customers will expect them to talk and converse about their favorite anime and manga. Staff are rewarded with all the manga they can read during breaks and coupons for the local Mandarake store.

The shift to more physical pleasures is also apparent in Akihabara. The omnipresent maids used to just pour tea, but the boom surrounding Densha Otoko has put cafes in fierce competition and encouraged a diversification of services. Royal Milk, for example, offers its customers “soul care,” 60 minutes of one-on-one talk time with a maid for 9,000 yen. With a market of lonely men that ripe it was only a matter of time before talk shifted to sex.

The area in front of The Radio Kaikan used to be called Maid Row for all the costumed girls passing out fliers there. However, adverts for maid escorts—costumed girls who play the part of a temporary girlfriend–began to outnumber those for cafes, and authorities chased the maids off the street in June 2007. Today, many men shopping in Akihabara have one or even two maids escorts by their side. They pay 1,000 yen per 10 minutes for the company and compliments on computer-buying skills. Maid escorts ostensibly work between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m., the operating hours of most stores in the area, but local authorities warn of “maid enjo” prostitution after dark.

It remains to be seen how purely “otaku” any of this is. Even as clubs using the otaku vernacular are on the rise, the major buzz in the community surrounds games such as Love Plus and Dream C Club. In the former, players can use their Nintendo DS to interact in real-time with a virtual girlfriend. The latter is a virtual hostess club, which simulates an ultra-real experience down to the overpriced drinks. Real money is exchanged for virtual currency to enjoy an array of services. While otaku imagery in the mizu shoubai world may be on the rise, it seems that otaku still prefer to pay for the not so real thing.

– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Pious commentary on prostitution often revolves around the concept of Exit Strategies: getting out of the sex industry. Everyone agrees that anyone who doesn’t want to sell sex shouldn’t feel forced to and should be helped to get out. Quite right. And what about people who’d like exit strategies to get out of other unpleasing jobs? Many assume that prostitution is particularly difficult to get out of, especially ensnaring and fraught with obstacles, even when there are no exploiters stopping people from changing occupations (pimps or traffickers). Obviously when people are too poor, not only in terms of money but also in terms of social capital – contacts, information, resources, ideas – it is misleading to talk about ‘choice’, as though a lot of easy alternatives were lying about. I usually talk about preference, instead: the fact that those with limited options nevertheless can prefer one to another.

In this story from Ethiopia, maids in a rotten situation sometimes prefer sex work, possibly another rotten situation but in a different way they might tolerate better. Those so worried about prostitutes being locked in to brothels often don’t notice that the job of live-in maid usually involves being available to employer-families around the clock, having tiny unprivate spaces for themselves with no use of telephone or internet, being loaned out to employers’ friends and getting a single day off a week, or maybe one day and another afternoon. There are better situations and worse ones, so it is possible that switching to sex work, even if people don’t like it, can bring advantages like more flexible time in which to figure out what to do next. As the person from DKT-Ethiopia says, the beginning, when people know least, is when they are most vulnerable.

ETHIOPIA: Maids, condoms and kerosene

africanpress, 3 October 2009

Addis Ababa – The life of a domestic worker in Ethiopia is rarely an easy one. Often escaping a deeply impoverished existence in the rural areas, these women find themselves in employment hundreds of miles away from their hometowns as maids – or serategnas in the national language, Amharic.

A lack of education, minimal opportunity for normal interaction with society and anecdotal evidence of sexual activity and abuse have led health workers to classify domestic workers as a high-risk group for the contraction of HIV.

  • “Many are coming from rural areas and they do not have awareness; many are sexually active with guards and are also frequently raped by their masters or their master’s children”
  • “They go to night school and they might have affairs with their classmates,”
  • ”The anecdotal evidence is that many domestic workers become sex workers”

Another potential pitfall for domestic workers is commercial sex work, which they frequently enter into if they run into problems with their employers. While sometimes preferable, the terms of employment are nevertheless incredibly harsh, with a working day of 18 hours, a paltry monthly salary of between US$9 and $15, and one day off per month.

“The anecdotal evidence is that many domestic workers become sex workers… this is one of the exit paths for them,” said Ken Divelbess, project coordinator of DKT-Ethiopia. “There is very limited evidence about domestic workers in general; it could be 5 percent who become sex workers, it could be 90 percent.

“It is critical [to reach them] as we believe that the first month as a sex worker is the most dangerous, as that is when people can take advantage.”


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In Embracing the Infidel Behzad Yaghmaian narrates his journey to record the stories of migrants trying to find a place to settle in Europe. There are women in the book, but the majority of detailed stories are told by men and boys. Many of the plots are about physical hardships encountered whilst being smuggled across borders: Afghanistan to Iran, Iran to Turkey, Turkey to Greece and Bulgaria, France to England. Long scenes are set in Istanbul, Sofia, Athens, Paris, Calais. Contradictory, arbitrary, frustrating, paper-oriented refugee policy is arguably the book’s main villain, though the sadism of border guards and swindles by smugglers are more dramatic. I especially appreciate Yaghmaian’s ability to tell terrible stories without falling into a victimising, maudlin tone (the subject of Forget Victimisation).

The sex industry is seldom mentioned, but here are a couple of excerpts that show how some migrants find temporary relief through supplying sexual services. The first excerpt tells about men who find male sexual protectors; in the second the protectors are women. In the latter description, you may detect some ambiguity: is this ‘pure business’ or is love and affection involved, too?

The boys with a baba were sheltered. They were paid good pocket money, wined and dined, and dressed in nice outfits. They were young Iranians and Kurds from northern Iraq, men in their early or late twenties. The Kurds came from the villages, the rugged mountains of northern Iraq. The Iranians arrived from small towns, ghettos of big cities, and poor neighborhoods of the capital. They came with a dream. Many failed. They remained in Athens and became the ‘bar kids’ of Victoria Square. Dressing up in their best, they would frequent the gay bars around the square looking for a baba or a customer in search of sexual pleasure. [p 203]

[In Calais] a few fared better than the rest. In their teens or early twenties, some found love in the arms of older French women, some in their sixties. The women had kind and motherly looks, gave the men love and attention, tucked them in their beds, and slept with them. The young men had the comfort of a home and all that came with it. Sex was the central part of the agreement. There was no shower or clean bed for those failing to deliver. This was a strict business deal, with its own rules and codes of conduct. [p 307]

Embracing the Infidel, Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West, New York: Bantam Dell, 2005.

There is a large literature on inter-generational relationships involving exchanges of sex and protection that are considered traditional and conventional in many parts of the world. One example is Enjo Kosai: Compensated Dating.


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The terms massage parlour and sauna cover many sorts of businesses, some of which are brothels where the massage is probably not skilled or healthful, others of which employ people skilled in massage who also offer services variously known as full-body massage, body rubs and happy endings and some of which offer nothing sexual at all. Non-sexual massage businesses are granted licences in many cities. Inspections to make sure all these places are always sex-free would be an overwhelmingly expensive task for city councils, with the result that even some licenced places become known for providing sex for money. Many such businessplaces are located in ordinary commercial strips but appear rather blank, since no goods are displayed in the windows. There is a lot of variation if you look closely, however, so here are some more photos of the sex industry as part of everyday life. A growing collection can be viewed here, without being a member of facebook.

Daye Town (Huangshi CIty, Hubei, China

Vancouver, Canada 

Hamburg, Germany (Photo Claus Petersen)

Shrine inside Hamburg parlour (Photo Claus Petersen)

Could be anywhere

New Zealand

Ireland, a residential-looking building

Incidentally, how they came to enjoy the name parlour is a mystery to me.


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