Sexual Assault without Borders

How being the only girl in a Berlin club meant I was prey

Berlin, like New York, has its own unique allure. The gay scene is a big part of that, especially for men. I lived in Berlin for four months and the hippest place to be on a weeknight was one of the countless gay bars or clubs throughout the city. I frequented these dimly lit dives and repurposed warehouses and found them to be exhilarating. There was something about being in a sea of sweat surrounded by scruffy muscle men and flamboyant dancers locking lips under rainbow lights that made me feel alive.

Off the Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz stop of the U Bahn sits a club that doesn’t have much appeal most nights. But on Thursdays, drag queens and pole dancers transform the space into a house of shame (literally, it’s called Chantal’s House of Shame), and Berliners and tourists alike line up, waiting to be granted access. As was our tradition over the past few months, my gay guy friend and I tried on outfits until we each found one that was equal parts grungy and chic, and we headed to Chantal’s around 2 a.m. I liked it there because, as one of the few women, I could dance and drink without worrying about men testing their confidence on me.

On this particular night, I was again one of few women and made my way from the bar to the dance floor while my friend got friendly with a stranger in the corner. It started out like every other Thursday started out. I felt dizzy from one or four too many vodka shots—the intoxication level I needed to achieve in order to dance without giving a fuck. I made friends with couples who would later abandon me to have fun in the back room. I shimmied on stage with some drag queens, although I never had the fortune of grinding with Chantal herself. I made sure to keep a beer bottle in one hand at all times and replace it with a cigarette once my cash for the bar ran out. When I needed to rest, I retired to a couch between the dance floor and a stripper pole. A seemingly sweet man who looked to be about 35 took one of my breaks as an invitation to introduce himself.

He gave his name and asked a few questions in broken German, politely at first and then hurriedly, angrily. He wasn’t wearing the customary Berlin attire—all black and a scowl on his face. I could tell he wasn’t a native and he definitely wasn’t gay. I tried to answer the questions I could vaguely understand in German, then in English, but nothing penetrated the language barrier. Even so, he didn’t have to tell me why he approached me; I was the only girl in the room, his only opportunity to find love for a night. If he had done his research earlier that day, he would have known to avoid Chantal’s if he was seeking heterosexual sex. But he already made the mistake, and it was too late in the night to try his luck elsewhere. I immediately became his prey.

The line between being happily drunk and stupidly drunk is a fine one that I used to cross more often than I should have, at least in Berlin. Getting in trouble has always been a talent of mine. That night, though, I knew something wasn’t right and I knew I shouldn’t give the guy my attention. Something in the way he spoke to and touched me, with relentless aggression and strong, grabby hands, was a warning to leave. The first time I tried to get up, he reached for my arm and spun me back around, still shouting in an unrecognizable language. I let out a nervous giggle, shook my head no, and made my second attempt to leave. This time he grabbed both my wrists and stood up to prove his superiority. I struggled for a few minutes, kicking at his shins and hurling epithets, trying to regain autonomy. His grasp still wouldn’t release me, but everyone was too busy dancing or fucking to notice. Armed with nothing but my lit cigarette, I pushed it into his forearm from underneath, and he gave me another hard shove before letting go. I should’ve known that that would only make him more persistent, not just for sex but for revenge.

I dropped my cigarette and ran into the adjoining room to find my friend. By the time I reached him, his drunkenness had already gotten the better of him. I was crying and pleading with him to leave with me, telling him about what happened and begging him to stay by my side. He wouldn’t listen and didn’t care about much of anything except the most recent guy he had his eye on. I turned around and saw the man from the other room walking toward me, but I was frozen in place. He reached for my wrists again, and this time I let him hold them captive. He didn’t try to speak; he knew I was too afraid to object as he led me to the bathroom. We waited in line for a long time, and he didn’t let go of me once. Then a stall freed up.

His mouth latched onto mine. At first I kissed back, desperately hoping to appease him and avoid his wrath, but he didn’t taste nice. A few minutes later, I stopped caring. He could tell, and he didn’t like it. He pulled my head back by my hair until it knocked against the stall door, and with his free hand, he slapped my face until it was raw and unzipped his pants. He pushed my head down toward his crotch. I remember feeling pathetic, stupid, even partially at fault for how deep into this situation I was. My kneecaps were soon sore from resting on the hard bathroom tile, even if it was only for five minutes. I don’t remember how I managed to wrestle free. Before I knew it, I unlatched the door and ran out of the stall, out of the bathroom, out of the club. I ran down the street, one block, two blocks, three blocks, four blocks. I eventually got home, black mascara coating my cheeks, my clothes torn, a crazed look in my eyes. Three thorough showers and four hours later, I fell asleep in my own bed.

That Thursday wasn’t the first and probably won’t be the last time someone forces himself on me. Anyone can be turned into prey like I was. But an even scarier thought is that anyone is capable of being a predator, too. Television shows, movies, and news outlets try to prepare us for dangerous situations similar to the one I was in that night. We know how to spot the warning signs—someone who doesn’t quite fit in or an abandoned area under the cover of night time darkness. Yet predators often lurk in familiar places and wear masks of feigned sincerity; they strike up conversations when you’re too comfortable to suspect malicious intent.

Even after the recent tragedy at UC Santa Barbara, people still want to sweep the rape issue under the rug. It’s uncomfortable. It makes them squirm. It’s easier to pretend rape isn’t as prevalent as it is, to ignore how rape and living afterward slowly chip away at the semblance of life survivors have left. This isn’t an essay meant to persuade you to start taking rape seriously; there are already a lot of those on the Internet. This is an essay to remind you that there are people—a lot of them—who would prefer to be blissfully ignorant or who simply don’t care about sexual assault.

I used to forgive the people in Chantal’s that night for not stepping in. As a comfort, I convinced myself that the clubgoers around me just didn’t see or were, like my friend, too inebriated to pay attention. But I realized most of them probably didn’t want to get involved because that would mean something bad could be happening, and acknowledging that would spoil their night and shatter their perception of safety. This is an essay to urge you to look out for yourself because, although there are decent people who would help, they may not be there when you need them most.