A pamphlet handed to me on a tram at 8am one sub-zero morning in Berlin suggested the best way to gain entry into the city’s notorious 24-hour techno club Berghain, located near the border between Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, is to remove my trousers and look bored.
While thousands descend upon Berlin every year to experience its dizzying nightlife, I opt instead to explore its hedonistic reputation by walking around with a group of puritanical Americans wearing jackets zipped to their chins, on a three-hour tour of Berlin’s sexual history with a sociologist called Jeff, whose studies on gender, queer theory, decolonisation and sexualities makes him qualified to give such a tour.
It's one of the myriad personalised tourism experiences offered by Airbnb, an answer to the modern traveller's desire for authentic experiences. Led by a local, the experiences are wide and varied; from traditional beer tastings and history walks to more unique offerings, such as a "hummus walk" exploring Berlin's thriving Arabic food scene, or the chance to produce your own techno album. For Jeff's sex lesson, it's an opportunity to share his passions with curious tourists.
Supported by the Federal Foundation Magnus Hirschfeld, an organisation supporting education and research to counter discrimination of homosexuals in German society, the tour dips between serious storytelling of prejudice to blush-inducing revelations about the various kinks and fetishes practised by Berliners.
Peppered with discussion around pioneering sexologist Dr Magnus Hirschfeld’s groundbreaking work on sexual rights activism at the turn of the century, the tour highlights his advocacy as the founder of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the first LGBT rights organisation in history.
Once declared by former mayor Klaus Wowereit as a “poor but sexy” city, Berlin’s peak sexual era occurred in the years preceding Hitler’s Third Reich, known as the Weimar Republic between 1919 and 1933. With Berlin at its epicentre, this was a time when political struggles, poverty and social tensions existed alongside a cultural renaissance of expressionist cinema, Dadaism, Bauhaus design and a nightlife fuelled by alcohol and ubiquitous cocaine use.
Portrayed in films such as Cabaret and in the Netflix series Babylon Berlin, the era was a hotbed of experimentation where gender-bending orgies were commonplace and the decriminalisation of prostitution in 1927 saw a rise in specialised sex work. Wealthy, high-society ladies began adopting the fashion of lower-class Tauentzien Girls, known for their brash approach to dressing in boudoir slips, furs, pearls, and cloche hats.
“Cabarets became the centre of night life,” says Jeff. “The Eldorado Club, in particular, was one of the largest gay, lesbian and transvestite clubs in Europe, and welcomed regular performances from Marlene Dietrich and jazz band Weintraub Syncopators. Regular punters included Hitler’s own commander-in-chief Ernst Rohm.”
Today, like most places where debauchery once thrived, Eldorado has been replaced by an organic supermarket. By the mid-1920s, there were more than 50 clubs dedicated to lesbians. Author Mel Gordon explains in his book Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin, "Never in European history had women seeking the companionship of other women been so open and adventurous." Halfway through the tour, a poignant moment offered reflection viewing the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism at the border of Berlin's Tiergarten. The monument was a glaring reminder of the swift downfall of self-expression, and how people's lives abruptly switched from joy to pure terror.
From devastating World Wars, a Cold War, separation and reunification, Berlin has lived with Germany’s changing political tides, yet remained a force for sexual freedom throughout. Laws allowing same-sex couples to marry and adopt have been passed, and the country is the first European nation to legalise a third gender.
The tour prompts these conversations, giving Berlin wider context, as you step out on to the same streets where once brave women and men dared to challenge the status quo, leaving behind a legacy of progress that’s shaped the culture of Berlin since.