I’m curled in a comfortable armchair in a bar at four in the morning, fighting sleep. I have to wait for my husband to finish Deejaying before we can leave. I look up and, from across the room, a handsome dark haired man makes eye contact with me. In sign language he asks me if I am going to go to sleep. I smile. He answers for me, No way! and waves his hands emphatically. He signs again, this time asking, Do you want something to drink? I turn my head no. Then he touches his lips and mimics kissing. Wanna make out? His sign languages asks. I begin to laugh. I’d consider it.
Sleep, drink, or sex? His down-to-business attitude turns me on. Perhaps that’s because after living in Berlin for two years a little flirting—both charming and direct—surprises me. I am no longer used to being approached like that.
It’s hard to say what it is about Berlin that’s so different from the United States when it comes to sex. I can’t quite put my finger on it, and I want to avoid cultural generalizations. Still, there’s difference that I can feel.
As it turns out, the dark haired man is Mexican, I’m American, and we’re sitting in a bar in the city that was once, for a short period after WWI and before WWII an internationally renowned “City of Sin.” And it may very well be making a comeback.
Between the wars, during the Weimar Republic, Berlin experienced a period of sexual decadence—free love, cabaret, dancing girls, hundreds of gay bars and a highly visible gay and lesbian scene.
Although the sexual vibrancy of Berlin was brutally silenced when Hitler rose to power, Germany’s lustful ways, openness towards sex and comfort with the body somehow survived the many dark years that followed. In fact, Germany’s Freikörperkultur (FKK) movement that defended and celebrated social nudity was especially strong in former East Germany.
Julia Ostertag, a German filmmaker whose film “Gender X” recently screened in the Berlinale, and self-professed sex-junkie, explains that, “The FKK created these spaces where everyone could be naked,” explains Julia. “Children at a early age saw naked bodies and learned that in certain time and places seeing the body was normal … I think its better to be a bit confronted at least so that you’re not a complete fetishist. A boy shouldn’t get an erection just because he sees a tit. The less you get opportunities to get real experience and see different bodies, the more you can accept the body and maybe the person, too, as just a part of life.”
Today, an openness towards sex is visible in unified Germany, and Berlin especially: prostitution is legal, Berlin has an openly gay mayor, Germany recognizes gay partnership, and darkroom sex clubs for men and women are just as easy to walk into as the neighborhood pub.
But as an American, I know Berlin’s sexual openness survived because of less obvious differences. For instance, I can walk into any hole-in-the-wall magazine/smoke shop and find Bravo, a teenybopper magazine devoted to German mainstream teenagers. And there inside every weekly issue on adjacent pages are the pictures of two fully naked teenagers, one girl and one boy, just getting out of the shower.
It’s a little bit difficult to explain to an American readership that this really isn’t kiddy porn. This is the German way of talking about sex to teenagers—real deal. It’s a natural, non-erotic photograph of a real teen body. Alongside the picture of that week’s featured teen is his or her name, age, hobbies, aspirations, likes and dislikes, and a short interview that asks the questions like, “Was the first time you had sex a good or bad experience?” and “Who’s the person you trust the most when you talk about sex and love?”
This is something I just wouldn’t find in the States.
Advocates for Youth is an American-based nonprofit organization that sends a delegation to Europe every year devoted to learning about the precise differences between sexual health education for teenagers in the United States versus Europe.
According to a report by Advocates for Youth, “Adults in the Netherlands, France and Germany view young people as assets, not as problems. Adults value and respect adolescents and expect teens to act responsibly … sexual development in adolescents is seen as a normal and healthy biological, social, emotional, and cultural process … Public campaigns coordinate with school sexuality education, condom and contraceptive access, and nonjudgmental attitudes from adults to protect sexual health.”
Bravo’s advice column “Dear Dr. Sommer” publishes questions like “Is it okay to have sex with my girlfriend while she’s on her period?” (Marian, 15) and “Do I have to shave my pubic hair before I have sex for the first time?” (Martina, 15). Bravo’s positive answers are, respectively, that yes, it’s entirely okay to have sex during menstruation if you want to, and, Hey, girl, some women like to shave and some don’t. You can decide for yourself!
In contrast, America’s mainstream Seventeen Magazine spends more time on beauty, body issues, self-esteem, and maintains a decidedly less positive angle on sex. The advice column, “Ask Jen” published no questions about sex during the month of June, although one feature is “Scary sex stories that could happen to you!” While there are several quizzes designed to teach kids the sexual health basics, the first question about birth control asks, “Q: What’s the most effective birth control method—and how good is it? … A: Not having sex is the only 100 percent foolproof way to protect yourself from becoming pregnant.”
Berlin is currently covered with giant billboard safe-sex ads displaying various condom-wearing asparagus, cucumbers, and other phallic vegetables. It’s not uncommon to find condom dispensers in German schools. In the United States, it’s rare to see a condom ad on network television.
According to a report by Planned Parenthood, “The national networks’ current policies vary. NBC, for example, accepts advertising for birth control pills during primetime and daytime but restricts condom commercials to after 11:30 p.m. The other networks — ABC, CBS, FOX, UPN, and WB — have variations on this policy. Some decline condom advertising. Some prefer that condom ads have a disease-prevention, rather than a pregnancy-prevention, message. CBS says it wants birth control ads to be ‘tasteful,’ whatever that means. All reserve the right to reject ads for contraceptives if there is anything about them that the networks believe would conflict with their concept of ‘community standards.’”
The result of these differences in sex education, according to the findings of Advocates for Youth, is that German teenagers are less likely to have an unplanned pregnancy, have lower rates of STD’s, and even start having sex an average of one year later than do American teens.
So what does this have to do with getting laid, errr—flirting—in Berlin?
It may be everything.
Triston Brewer, an African American singer and performance artist living in Berlin, believes that, “[Germans] discover and accept their bodies quicker … When you’re more comfortable with your body you’re more comfortable with someone else touching it.”
Germany’s free-love history and relaxed and positive teenage sexual education might make a frustrated American think that all you have to do in Berlin to get laid is open your eyes. But that might not be the case. At least, not if you’re looking for a little romance to go along with it.
Dahlia Schweitzer, an American artist and former sex worker living in Berlin believes that when it comes to the art of flirtation, Germans are boring, passive and cautious.
“Americans are much more aggressive,” Dahlia says. “Germans are more passive and want to be told what to do. Americans pay more attention to ‘courtship’ and romance. Germans are more comfortable taking off their clothes – and not necessarily in an erotic way.”
Germans may be so used to their bodies that the mythos of nudity—the “erotic”—is somewhat destroyed.
Julia Ostertag, who spent time in the United States screening Gender X, filming No American Dream, and chasing sex, agrees that, while she doesn’t like to generalize, American guys are more into that Hey … can I take a ride with you? kind of flirtation. But that doesn’t impress her. What she does like about American flirt culture is the simple fact that people introduce themselves. It serves as an opening and therefore an invitation that one can either take or leave.
“American men are more generous, in a way,” Julia says. “That’s something they lack here. They are a bit classier in the United States. It is just habit to invite a girl over and say certain things, even if it’s not exactly honest … a certain way of just being charming … ‘to treat you like a lady.’ I think that’s more ‘American.’”
In Germany, says Triston, women are the ones that are more direct. And in a June article in Der Spiegel Magazine, Flirting with Fräuleins, Hunting for Herren, Andreas Tzortzis writes that, “in a German on German flirt, the power rests solidly with the Fraulein.”
Julia doesn’t like to wait to be approached. She is often the one willing to take a risk. “I don’t care if a guy pays for my drink,” says Julia. “If I don’t like him, I take the drink and leave him alone. If I like someone and I am attracted then I would make some moves too. I think some German men think: ‘I couldn’t do that (approach a woman) because then I come across as a macho.’”
The fact that German men may be waiting for women to make the first move implies that Germany may be undoing sexist, outdated gender roles.
But Julia’s not so sure. “I think a German boy would censor himself more; not have this “L.A.” cockiness … but I don’t think it’s a sense of gender equality,” says Julia. “I think its just laziness. Sexism is a general global issue and [the amount of sexism] totally depends on the community where you live in. Look at the ads—it’s everywhere. I would say that it’s pretty much the same in Germany as in the United States by the simple fact that it exists.”
However, it’s hard to deny that German women tend to come off as strong, self-assured and seem not to care whether or not they have a steady boyfriend, even when they have children. Triston perceives that single mothers in Berlin are subject to less social stigma than single mothers in the United States.
“In our country you are warned against having children young if you want to have a career first. Social services are better in Germany, so you can stay at home. This changes the dating concept. Women can say ‘I don’t need a man to help raise my child … I already do it.’”
In Berlin, it seems, sex is something that is straight-forward and available and it doesn’t have to be connected with love.
“It really is like Sodom and Gomorrah here.” Triston says. “You can find anything in New York. In Berlin you can find it a whole lot easier.”
So why flirt?
“It’s so free no one is having relationships here … this is the city that love forgot and lust never did,” says Triston, who doesn’t see himself ever having a serious relationship in Berlin. He feels that the gay scene, especially, is so open and free that “having a relationship” just means “we like each other enough to share the rent and occasionally fuck.”
But then again, any German will tell you that there are plenty of gay men who are looking for romantic relationships, and Berlin men who are aggressive. It all depends on where you look. Any American will tell you that not all American men (or women) are direct, chivalrous, aggressive, or even know how to flirt. It depends on where you are, which region of the United States, which scene, and the specific situation. There’s always a certain mix of directness and charm that’s hot and some that’s definitely not. And it always has to do with the individual. Yet it would also be difficult to claim that American Puritanism hasn’t made its mark on everyday interaction.
On a general social level, says Nora Niedzielski-Eichner, a teaching affiliate in feminist studies at Stanford University, American flirt culture is based on consciously denying our own interest in sex: “This kind of over-sexed environment with a simultaneous Puritanism create a double-standard and strange self-denial about sex … I just wish it were more socially appropriate to say, ‘hey do you want to have sex?’ But sometimes the game is fun, too.
Despite what may appear different to an American living in Germany or a German traveling to the United States, it’s impossible to really make generalizations about men and women in Germany versus men and women in the Unites States.
Julia believes that the secret to finding the right concoction of directness, eroticism and good sex lies simply in accepting yourself for who are and finding your niche. She says it took her 36 years to learn and accept what she was looking for. She finds the Berlin punk-rock scene to be most comfortable, because “they accept girls that don’t behave so girl-like.”
“It took me so long to not feel guilty for not being able to behave like the “normal” girl,” says Julia. “to wait … to play the whole game, to be conquered and all that shit … Actually, I feel shy, but I know that I come across as offensive, self-assured, and direct. And that’s all three are attributes that are not necessarily classified as “classic female.’”
So whatever type of love—or lay—you’re looking for, its likely to be found if you let your real self just shine through and let the rest follow. Do a little research, explore a different scene, and sometimes you’ll be surprised where you find yourself and who’s flirting with you. If you still don’t have any luck, I suggest traveling. I’ve got an extra bed in Berlin.