Trees that will slowly come to leaf

Jemima Foxtrot on sexuality and (shedding) shame in Berlin…

It’s fascinating to discover the physical geography of a new city and the psychological geography of your own sexuality at the same time; feeling out the corners, the rough and smooth edges, of your desire as you discover and rediscover certain streets, cafes, routes on your bicycle.

The first time I went to Schöneberg was the first time I was bastinadoed and walked home in the snow, texting my friend about it, the soles of my feet tingling. The ramshackle flat near Kotti was where I first wore a strap on and penetrated a male friend. I’d been in that area often before but now, when I cycle past that flat, I feel a special kind of resonance. The ghost of the act floats back to me as well as the memory of how, the next day when I left, I felt like I was walking on clouds.

I had barely been to Bergmannkiez until I had an intense and ultimately disastrous relationship that allowed me to explore the inner workings of my desires and kinks around care. Since arriving here last year, I’ve been inserting myself into the envelope of the city, my edges brushing up against it, fitting myself snugly in. I see myself everywhere. The buildings reverberate with the experiences I had inside them and their neighbours, behind the city’s many different doors.

In many ways, I’m not best placed to write about the kink scene in Berlin. I moved here mid-August 2020, the tail-end of that sweet, brief summer between the two lockdowns. I asked my friend Esther, a queer woman of colour, about the scene here and about the differences between the Berlin and New York scenes. “As a Bi woman, I feel that there’s much more visibility in the kink scene. I’m in a straight-passing relationship and I find that the queer spaces and sex clubs in Berlin are more inclusive and accepting of me.”

Esther also said that the scene was more inclusive and accepting than in New York in general: “In New York, kinky parties often have a door policy where if you’re not hot enough, you won’t get in.” The thing Esther said is the best about the kink scene in this city is that it’s simply a more normal part of life. It’s accepted as a thing that lots of people do, and you’re not made to feel deviant or shameful because of it.

As a person who experienced sexual abuse as a child and sexual violence as an adult, my own desire and sexuality has always been shrouded in a deep sense of shame. During my teenage years in England in the early 2000s, my hypersexual response to my abuse was met with intense slut-shaming which, in turn, only exacerbated my own disgust with myself, my body, my behaviour.

It’s amazing to be accepted into a city and scene where this kind of play is not shameful, where sex and actively seeking it out isn’t. And, although this embracing of sex and sexuality can be incredibly healing, I’m learning that it needs to be approached with caution. There are scary people out there; there are abusers, there are fake doms who use the scene as a receptacle for their misogyny. And shame about sex is not something that shrivels up and disappears immediately.

I went to Kitkat for the first time last weekend. I went with a (sex) friend who is an old friend of the club and a fashion designer. Thanks to him, we were able to skip the queue which, on a cold night, felt particularly good. He dressed me in a beautiful short satin dress he made himself and I felt amazing. Let’s call this guy my guide. I cycle past Kitkat fairly regularly and, true to form, after last weekend, I feel the vibrations coming from the building as I pass by, my saddle snug between my legs.

When we first got inside and took our outdoor clothes off, he took me by the hand and showed me around. The first thing that struck me was how amazing everyone looked. I felt incredibly sexy for the first time in a while. Rather than feeling intimidated by the glamorous and beautiful women surrounding me, their sexiness rubbed off on me like glitter.

I stopped wearing revealing clothes when I was in my mid-twenties because they acted as an invitation for men to touch me without my consent. It was easier to go out and dance and have a good time if I looked ‘more normal’, less attractive. Perhaps part of the difference at a place like Kitkat, is that the attention isn’t unwanted anymore. In a sex postive club, perhaps you don’t mind the attention so much, because everyone is looking at everyone and nobody touches without asking.

There’s a big question about your ability to consent to situations if you’re drunk or high. Most people in these clubs are on something or other and my worry is that depending on your level of inebriation, you might end up doing something you regret. But regret around casual sexual experiences is something that, for me, has always been intrinsically linked to the ingrained societal shame of casual sex.

Of course if you’re too fucked up to know what you’re doing then you would hope beyond hope that people would recognise and respect that. A friend had warned me that whenever you start doing anything sexual in Kitkat, you should expect a circle of wanking guys to form around you. And sure enough, when I was fucking in a corner, there seemed to be a group of watchers that ended up forming a sort of queue to join in.

I’m glad the other woman involved with me was boundaried enough to say no to the men standing round like vultures, because I’m not sure I would have been. Setting and communicating clear boundaries is something that I, and many other survivors, struggle with. People respect your boundaries in Kitkat, but you need to be able to set them and communicate them in the first place. Being drunk or high is perhaps not the best way to ensure your ability to do that. But when I was alone in the club for a while, having lost my friend and being propositioned by man after man, I learned how to say no to the ones I didn’t want and yes to the ones I did. And that felt, for me, like progress.

In this post-Kitkat week, I’ve been walking around the city as if I’ve got a flashing beacon on my head. It’s almost certainly exacerbated by the comedown but I feel as if, when I’m walking down the street, the people that I pass saw me there on Saturday night. As if they’re pointing and whispering to each other: ‘There’s that woman who was having sex in Kitkat on Saturday.’

It’s as if my mind has somehow transferred the looking that goes on in Kitkat onto everyday life, and stripped it of its positivity. As the new pathways in my sexuality and desire are created, so the old avenues of shame need to be blocked up or demolished. I need patience, cities aren’t rebuilt overnight.

At the beginning of this article, I said that I see myself everywhere in this city and I do. But perhaps a better way of putting it is that Berlin is providing a richer and more fertile soil in which my sexuality and understanding of my desires is able to slowly unfurl.

I work with other adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse and two quotes from survivors stick with me. One is from a survivor who described the effect her abuse had on her as ‘the bud of my sexuality never got to flower’ and is one from a Mary Oliver poem about the sexual abuse suffered at the hands of her father. The poem is called Rage and includes the line ‘she is a tree that will never come to leaf.’ Both phrases describe stuntedness.

Having sex foisted upon you before you’re ready for it can be paralysing. As an adult, existing in a city where your desires and your eagerness to fulfill them aren’t frowned upon feels revolutionary and generous, although your journey should be handled with care. There are millions of people across the world with a similar history to me and many of us feel not only isolated but disconnected from our sexual bodies, stuck in winter. Perhaps the soil of Berlin will let some of us slowly come to leaf.

I’m grateful for my personal geography of this new city forming and intertwining with the psychological geography of my sexuality. May my map keep sprouting detail.






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