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Everything I know about the world I learned from musicals. Chalk it up to being the daughter of a show-tune-loving gay dad, but my vision of the French Revolution includes radical students breaking into song, and Che Guevara sounds an awful lot like Mandy Patinkin in my head. So when I think of Berlin, naturally I think of Liza Minnelli. That would be Liza circa 1972 and Berlin in the 1930s, as mediated through Cabaret—a city where characters attempt to forget their troubles and forge connections as the world changes around them.
No matter how hot the erotic, decadent atmosphere of the Kit Kat Klub, or how fabulous the Bob Fosse dance moves, I know it's a limited view. When well-known German choreographer Felix Ruckert invited me to Berlin, I was ready to pack my fishnets based solely on the city's allure; when he asked me to teach at a new event he had conceived, I was on the plane. Xplore 04: Extreme Sensuality, Sensual Extremes (xplore04.de) was a weekend of classes on creative sexuality, spirituality, and BDSM. It's a combination rarely seen in the United States, where being into tantra and bondage tends to leave one with split loyalties: Community events are increasingly less inclusive and more niche-oriented. I wanted to see how they mixed things up in a city known for being artist-friendly, queer, and very progressive.
Felix arrived at the airport to greet me, my boy, and the obscene amount of luggage we brought, which included a record 48 sex toys. He escorted us to the East Berlin apartment where we'd be staying, a cute one-bedroom in a very bohemian, East Village-y neighborhood called Prenzlauer Berg. We headed to the performance space where the event was scheduled to take place, to check it out and mingle with our fellow presenters. We chatted with co-producer Caprice Dilba, who told us she met her partner and fellow presenter Delta RA'i at one of Felix's performances, Secret Service, which he described as challenging the boundaries between dancer and viewer. Audience members were blindfolded and brought into a room in small groups. During the first section, the performers touched and moved them, grabbed and lifted them. Caprice met Delta during the second portion of the evening (which participants could opt out of), where the intimate interactions took on a more sadomasochistic flavor. He flogged her while she was blindfolded, and they've been together ever since. If that's not a story to tell the grandkids, I don't know what is.
During the formal meeting, I announced that I needed demo bottoms for three of my classes and would appreciate volunteers. Afterward, an adorable girl named Paula (who was presenting on play piercing and s/m and feminism) approached me; she wore her cute blond hair in a bob and had the kind of pale complexion that blushes easily. She told me she was an exhibitionist, although not very anally experienced, but she was game for the demonstration. Her cheeks got pink, and I immediately had a crush on her.
The other Berliner I knew before arriving was a woman named Birgit, who organizes SchMact!, the annual women's s/m event there, and she generously invited us out to what she called "the best s/m club in the world." We arrived at the Darkside ready to be impressed, and we were not disappointed. It's a spectacular place, with several different rooms full of cool equipment, a full bar, and bizarre erotic art throughout. One room looks like a stable, with ancient leather bridles adorning the walls and old-fashioned stalls—perfect for stabling human ponies, confining bad boys, or putting that riding crop to good use. The Darkside manages to create the intimacy of a pro-domme house along with the expansiveness of a sex club; not only is the place itself perfectly legal, but unlike American play spaces nothing is off-limits there. Nudity, penetration, sex—anything goes. It's a pansexual club. Birgit had organized a dyke night out, and it was crawling with cute queer women, mostly of the butch and androgynous variety, with shaved heads, tattoos, leather uniforms, and good manners. I was in heaven.
There's certainly no shortage of sex in Berlin. Before the conference, we managed to squeeze in a brief trip to the Schwuz Museum for an exhibit honoring French philosopher Michel Foucault, who died 20 years ago; in one small room, black-and-white erotic gay-male sexual photos were projected on a large screen, while video images—from pre-Stonewall gay New York to golden-age fag porn—played on two smaller screens. The stimulation continued as we shopped at the coolest store in town, Lustwandel, an erotic book and art store; I spied the German version of one of my books (which, according to people who've read both versions, is a lot less kinky than the original), scooped up photo books that aren't available in the U.S., and got myself a limited edition Dildoll: a black-leather and bright-fuchsia plush cock named Damian, wearing a gold lamé corset, designed by two guys in Switzerland.
Speaking of Swiss cock, Xplore 04 drew participants not just from Berlin, but from all over Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy. I was one of only two American presenters (the other was Janet Hardy, author of The Ethical Slut), and I was excited to see how my classes would go over in a decidedly different environment.
Paula showed up early to check in before my class. I realized that I was even more intrigued by her because she was a femme, and femmes seemed pretty scarce among the dykes I'd met thus far. She arrived for "Anales Vergnügen für Anfänger" ("Anal Pleasure '0' ") wearing a light-cream-colored crepe dress showing lots of gorgeous cleavage and (what else goes with anal exhibitionism?) pearls. My first thought was, who wears white to a butt sex demo? Her innocent look made me want to defile her even more. The whole thing just felt naughtier than usual. She informed me that she wasn't wearing underwear, and asked if I would mind just hiking up her dress over her hips rather than having her take it off. I complied, and found her pale stockings attached to a lacy garter belt that framed her shaved pussy. During the workshop, I managed to get a nice-sized plug in her butt and didn't even spill any lube on her dress.
That was just the first 48 hours of my trip. Stay tuned! In my next column, my German adventures continue . . .
Does sex have a universal language? Does it everywhere embody the same strange combination of sacredness and shame as it does in America? Does it wield the same power throughout the world? Does the way it's taught and learned transcend nationality, culture, and place?
I pondered these questions as I traveled to Berlin to teach at an event called Xplore 04 (xplore04.de). One of the things that immediately intrigued me about the three-day conference was the producers' plan to offer classes on BDSM, sex, ritual, and spirituality. Very few events in the U.S. dare combine sex and spirit. Fewer invite folks from different sexual communities to come together. So this cross-pollination of people and ideas piqued my interest right away. This will be my second year co-producing an event with a similar mission called Dark Odyssey (darkodyssey.com). I find it incredibly challenging to get leatherpeople, transfolk, swingers, pagans, and tantra lovers not only to come to the same event, but to step out of their comfort zones, learn from one another, and play together. I was curious to see how they did it across the pond.
Although I had a busy teaching schedule, I was eager to attend classes as well. After perusing a few of the topics ("Tickling and Bastinade," "S/M + Zen: Pain") and presenters' bios (the editor of the German s/m mag Schlagzeilen, instructors from the Diamond Lotus Institut), I got a sense of the offerings, but still had no idea what to expect. Though most classes were taught in German, there were enough English speakers at the conference for me to get a translation every now and then. Plus, since many of the presentations were participatory, I hoped that if I could see it and do it, I'd be able to understand it.
I've attended lectures and demonstrations on foot fetishes and foot worship, but I've never experienced anything like "fussfolter" (which translates to "foot torture"). Presenter Delta RA'i had students pair off and lie down facing one another; then he instructed us to each grab the foot of our partner. Everyone got right down to it; no one turned their nose up at the idea that they'd be experimenting with foot torture from both the giving and receiving ends. (In American leather culture, people are so invested in being tops or bottoms that they're often unable to check their egos at the door to have an experience like this one.) We went through a series of sensations, from stroking and scratching to tickling and spanking. He showed us secret spots on the toes and feet that are extremely sensitive to pressure or pinching, and of course explained where it's safe to hit the feet and where it's not. I'm already a pedi-fetishist who loves having my feet played with, but this definitely took one of my kinks to the next level; I only wish I could have attended Delta's foot-washing ritual (feetwash.de)!
In a class called "Urban Ritual," participants were encouraged to surrender to an entirely new, and fairly intimate, experience. Set up like a kind of musical chairs in which no one is eliminated, we exchanged partners every few minutes according to the music. We didn't choose the people with whom we interacted; the layout of the seating chose for us. One person was active, the other remained passive, and we switched roles throughout. We touched and kissed complete strangers, and got touched and kissed by them, without negotiation or safe words. Our choice came in how we touched and how we kissed—whether it was friendly, distant, comforting, or seductive. At once terrifying and titillating, it was an exercise in conscious touch and connection. Once I let my guard down, I had an awesome time.
Guards were definitely down and clothes shed in the final class of the day, called "Orgasmatron." Zurich-based white-haired sex priestess Maggie Tapert (maggietapert.com)—who reminded me of a Euro version of Betty Dodson—handed out blindfolds to the 60 participants. We covered our eyes and waited. Then she led us through a group masturbation ritual in which everybody jerked off simultaneously, the sounds of people's pleasure and orgasms filling the room.
At both the classes I taught and those I attended, I was struck by how open, present, and engaged the audience was. People were there to learn, try new things, and push their personal boundaries, and their investment in their own identities (whether based on gender, sexual orientation, or BDSM roles) did not prevent them from experimenting or connecting with others. This contrasts with my recent experiences at conferences where people seemed more interested in asserting their superiority over others, flaunting the power they wield within the community, and quite frankly, showing off. I know that may sound harsh. To be fair, I'm coming off a year of presenting at events that have not been ideal, a difficult period that has at times been overwhelming and has left me drained. At Xplore 04, I felt appreciated, and at the same time I was in awe of the amount of energy the conference-goers and presenters gave one another. The people there fueled and inspired me. The entire experience was truly transformative: It helped me look at teaching in a new light and re-evaluate what it means to truly participate in something, whether a hands-on sex class or a political movement. It allowed me to glimpse the infinite possibilities of sex-positive events like this one.
After I fisted a fabulous French girl in my advanced anal class, a man approached me and uttered a four-word phrase I hear on a regular basis: "I'm not gay, but . . . " I thought for sure I knew what was coming next. In America, the confession would continue like this: "I really do like to get fucked in the ass, even with a strap-on. But it has to be by a woman, definitely a woman." I hear it so often and respond with validation in order to counter the stereotype that haunts so many hetero dudes; yes, straight men can love getting ass-fucked and it doesn't mean they're gay. Instead, this guy announced, "But when it comes to being anally fisted, I just prefer it with another guy. The energy is so different, I just like it better." It was both obvious (it made perfect sense to me) and shocking, since I'd never heard anyone say anything like it. It was indicative of my journey to an event remarkably similar to ones I go to all the time, and still radically different.
Tristan Taormino at Berlin