7am. Monday morning. Panorama Bar. The final hours of Klubnacht, the wild climax of the weekend programming. I’m lying back in one of the cushioned booths adjacent to the tiled wall behind the DJ. Odd tiles are missing, as though a rogue trader had only completed half a job. Red and yellow lights flicker, illuminating the dancefloor as it exposes barely-dressed bodies, dying their skin a fiery sunset red.
A stranger sits next to me, also taking a rest from the sensory overload. After about five minutes he rests his head on my shoulder. Then we kiss. No words are exchanged, just glances that translate to “let’s fuck”. Later, downstairs in the darkroom, we’re joined by a third. Amorous shapes writhe in dim lights around us. Rolling baselines and pounding kick drums are punctuated by a symphony of moans and open-palms meeting skin. The heady scent of fresh sweat, sex and smoke lingers like clouds around a mountain peak.
There are certain clubbing environments – invariably the ones behind doors guarded by people who ask, “do you know what sort of party this is?” – where the whole environment makes me want to fuck. I had hooked up with guys before I ever started going to events like this, but afterwards it took on a whole new level of self-discovery and I settled into my (bi)sexuality. Johan Andersson, a Berlin-based academic who did his PhD at King’s College London, recently published a paper titled Berghain: Space, Affect, and Sexual Disorientation. He looked at how clubbing environments can shape our sexual behaviour and sexuality.
“I think of Berlin’s techno club Berghain as a form of relational aesthetics,” he says in the research. “Where encounters mediated by tactile sounds, labyrinthine architecture, and libido-enhancing drugs create an unusually porous sexual subjectivity.” Using Berghain as an example, Andersson looked at a number of factors that contribute to this sexual subjectivity, self-discovery and experimentation. What is it about this space and similar ones that create an environment so ripe for sexually-fluid experiences?
“I think some of it is about the mythology of the club,” he told THE FACE. “So probably people who go there are already quite willing to be experimental because that’s ‘supposed’ to be part of the experience of the club. I think it’s also partly about the sound.”
Research referred to in the study (by Luis-Manuel Garcia, in 2015) looked into the use of tactile sounds (audio that is felt through touch), arguing that “the sonic granularity of minimal house and techno speaks to the fluid and blurred social relations that arise on its dancefloors – or, at least, to how that fluidity feels to those who participate in it.”
Of course libido-enhancing drugs play their part, too. “Particular substances – like mephedrone, G [GHB/GBL], and perhaps ecstasy as well – make people more tactile and erotically-minded,” Andersson says. Drugs like Viagra and antiretroviral HIV medications (including pre-exposure ones like PrEP) also help to facilitate the sex.
Drugs aside, the space also lends itself to sexual encounters, and not just from a practical perspective, given that it’s a maze of dark hidden corners. “If you go out with a group,” he says, “it’s quite possible to disappear from your friendship group for a while without worrying about being observed, so perhaps that encourages experimentation.” He added: “Of course, none of this is unique to Berghain.”
The strict photo ban is also important, particularly now that non-consensual filming in public has depressingly become a societal norm. People are obviously more comfortable without the threat of being filmed. Then there’s the perceived dress code. Berghain is a mixed club, but it can at times be hard to tell who’s queer when straight people use queer signals to help them get past the omnipotent doorpickers. “The assumption that it’s easier to get in if you dress up a little bit like a queer person makes it much more difficult to read the intention of the people on the dancefloor,” says Andersson. “It disrupts basic presumptions about who is potentially sexually available for whom.”
The cruising that takes place in Berghain is also technology-free meaning that, unlike on hook-up apps, participants don’t have to explicitly define and write down their sexual identity before they partake. This can leave more space to manoeuvre. Mixed sex-positive clubs can be “ideal spaces for encounters not predetermined by previous erotic trajectories and identifications”, Andersson notes. “The proximity to other bodies in confined spaces overflowing with surplus libido, tactile sounds, and empathy-enhancing drugs can create an environment in which sexual categorisation is temporarily transcended.”
Berghain is just used as an example in this research, but this social phenomenon can be observed every weekend in cities like Berlin, London, New York and more. In the study, he points to an interview Warbear, a founder of Gegen (one of the best queer sex-positive club nights in Berlin, held at KitKatClub and Revier Südost) did with Electronic Beats in 2015. “He suggests an almost literal correlation between space and desire,” Andersson writes. “The ‘enormous’ size of the club in which people ‘get lost’ and experience ‘identity crisis’ produces its own ‘microclimate’ where ‘queer is about being dialogical, not dialectical’ and the participants ‘take their identity off, like their clothes’.”
All this together can be seen as the antithesis of abusive techniques used in gay conversion therapy. “Instead of nausea-inducing drugs,” Andersson writes, “in combination with same-sex erotica – a popular technique in so-called ‘aversion therapy’ – this is a ‘gay conversion therapy’ in reverse whereby erotic horizons expand and multiply through the combination of chemicals and a multi-sensory overload of pleasurable stimuli.
“Rather than thinking of sexual orientation as located inside the body, I suggest we might think of it as located inside the building.”