Lessons from Berghain, Berlin’s most exclusive club

Content note: descriptions and discussions of sex and drug use.

I recently spent some time in Berlin, and that city connected with me on a very real level. This city is home to some amazing clubs, perhaps none of which is more amazing than Berghain.

This club is considered one of the best EDM clubs in the world, a title I have no doubt it deserves. The music scene is far from the only thing that makes this club great though. No, Berghain does something that I would have sworn was impossible had I not seen it for my own eyes. A place that is a) open to the public and b) a safe space for the sexually liberated (and often vulnerable).

Berghain is a place where you can have sex with a few partners, while a guy in leather chaps leading a gimp by the collar and about a dozen other people watch, and no one bothers you afterwards (even if you’re a woman). Sex and sexuality are ever present here, as are drugs and altered states.

I don’t think it’s a coincident that people are respectful of everyone’s boundaries. Creating a place for people to play means creating a place where people feel safe to play, and Berghain achieves this.

We can’t even create a place at JavaScript conferences where people feel safe to simply attend. A place where what we’re talking about is about as far from sex as you can get. And yet, this club, a club that focuses on sex and drugs almost as much as the music and dancing, manages to make a safer environment than we do at conferences!

Let that thought sink in for a moment.

How do they do this? There are two primary ingredients, as far as I can tell from my uninformed American view. (In other words, this article is just a hypothesis)

I think the first ingredient is the culture of Berlin itself, and perhaps Germany as a whole. There is the stereotype that Germans are cold, humorless, unfriendly, but I don’t think that’s true.

I was struck by how introspective and thoughtful the local Berliners I met were. They are really quite friendly once they get to know you a little. Americans are so brash and inconsiderate by comparison. We are friendlier with strangers, yes, but in a very shallow way.

I think this difference is key. We are willing, even expected, to engage with strangers as Americans. We are supposed to act friendly, but it doesn’t matter if we actually care about the other person. This shallowness lends itself to us thinking going up and talking to strangers, for whatever pretense, is a good thing. Thus, catcalling and unwelcome sexual advances are much more common.

The opposite, of course, is not engaging with strangers unless there is a real desire to form a connection. With it comes an understanding that this is not the norm, and doing so risks pissing the other person off. Thus, respect for their feelings (and time) is actually taken into consideration. They are much less likely to go up and speak to strangers in general, which leads to a “live and let live” approach. This attitude certainly played out at Berghain.

I think the second ingredient in Berghain’s cultural recipe is exclusivity. I don’t mean exclusive in the “hard to get into” sense, although it is that. No, I mean exclusive in the “low tolerance for people who don’t ‘get it’” sense. Discerning perhaps. The screening process at the door is rather fascinating. Much has been written about how difficult it is to get in, along with tips. I think most of these tips are wrong.

There is a “look” to Berghain, sure, but I think it’s really about something else: intent. Why are you there, what to you want to get out of it, how will you behave? These are the questions the bouncers seem to be trying to suss out of everyone. This intention was illuminated in an interview with Sven, the lead bouncer.

The look is part of it though, in a way. The short version: you are not getting in if you are overdressed. Their bar for proper dress is very high (low?): t-shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes, all without any color on them, are all but required. This place is anti-posh, as a friend put it. I think they have this requirement for two reasons. The first is that they want this place to be about experiencing, not being experienced. This is not a place to show off. Ego must be left at the door. There is no table service, no VIP section. Everyone is on level footing in this club, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. The second is that it serves as a sort of barometer. How much do you know about the club, and by extension, do you know what awaits inside? How much do you embrace it, versus how much do you fight it?

The look isn’t the only thing the bouncers pay attention to. The entrance to the club has a queue line that sits on a gentle slope running downhill to the door. This makes it easy for bouncers to eye the crowd. They also keep the line artificially long, making people wait for some time after the person before them went in. It’s not possible to get in quickly, by design. I think part of the reason they do this is that it gives them a chance to watch the crowd. To gauge people before they even get to the door, and before they realize they’re being watched.

A friend of mine who lives in Berlin told me an interesting story. He was waiting in the long line to get in, and was standing next to a tourist from Paris who had come explicitly to go to this club. This guy would not shut up about how awesome the club was going to be, how fucked up he was going to get, and so on. He dressed the part, but didn’t act it. He got to bouncers and before he even had a chance to blink, the bouncers told him to get lost. My friend got in no problem.

Once you’re through the door, you head into the security check area. They pat you down, mostly looking for the usual stuff (weapons and alcohol, but not drugs). They also ask to see your phone, and they cover all the cameras with stickers. They tell you that if you take these stickers off, you’re kicked out, and banned for life. They’re very serious about privacy.

I heard a rumor from a few people that is quite interesting, if true. Drug enforcement in Berlin is minimal, if it exists at all. At Berghain, they embrace this. The rumor goes that they test what the dealers are selling. If they find you selling cheap quality drugs or, more importantly, selling something that isn’t what you claim it to be, then they kick you out and ban you for life. I don’t know if this is true, but it seems believable to me. It makes sense, given how committed Berghain is to ensuring that everyone has a great experience.

I’m not just talking about how wonderful this club is just to talk about it. I think there’s a very important lesson to be learned here. A lesson that men should take to heart.

Being respectful towards women, creating safe spaces, Codes of Conduct, and so on DO NOT equate to men having less fun, or barring men from expressing their own sexuality. It is the exact opposite. Creating safe spaces is what enables people to have fun, to explore their sexuality.

This country’s culture views sex as sport. It’s something for men to acquire, an act of conquest. It completely ignores the simple and, one would think obvious, fact that sex involves more than just yourself. Sex is about two (or more) people coming together and sharing a part of themselves with each other.

It’s no wonder that so many men act so shitty to women. They think that if they fail to “get the girl,” they just need to try harder, to do more. They never stop to think that maybe, just maybe, constantly hitting on someone to the point of harassment is a turn off. That if they backed off, and simply let people be and let things develop, then their chances would improve dramatically.

So to everyone that thinks Codes of Conduct, feminism, social justice, and so on will lead to you having less sex, think again. As Berghain shows us, getting rid of assholes and creepers, and holding people to a high standard of conduct means more sex. Better sex. More interesting sex. Horizon expanding sex.

The next time you see someone railing against “man hating feminists” who think those “feminazis” just want them forget about sex, remember Berghain. Respect for boundaries and sex go together very, very well.

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