Berlin is the heartland of unfettered hedonism. It's synonymous with sexual liberation. But last month when its clubs and bars, including Europe’s techno mecca Berghain, had to shut their doors because of coronavirus, it brought the city’s notorious clubbing scene to an abrupt halt.
How do a group of people whose lives revolve around the physically intimate and mentally liberating world of almost non-stop clubbing deal with being told to stay indoors in tiny apartments? VICE spoke to some of Berlin’s professional clubbers about how they are coping with lockdown life.
“Yesterday I dreamed we were at Berghain,” Martin* a 28-year-old sales professional who usually goes to the club every week, told me. He recently had his work hours reduced to 60 percent because of the virus. “Should I be taking acid? Doing mushrooms? We should have something to do with our time, otherwise we’ll go crazy.”
Despite Germany’s social distancing measures, which ban group meet-ups, some ravers have not been deterred from hooking up, partying and taking drugs to scratch hedonistic itches.
For example, Berlin’s chemsex party scene – sex-focused gatherings of gay men normally arranged via Grindr, hosted at apartments and fueled by G, mephedrone and crystal meth – is alive and well despite the restrictions.
At the first post-lockdown chemsex party Martin and his partner attended, the host insisted guests cleaned their hands at the door. A set from one of Berlin’s underground techno stalwarts, SPFDJ, was playing on speakers as ravers channeled the intimacy lost from shut nightclubs. “Everyone was dancing and having fun. I’ve had sex with over 25 people over the past three weekends,” Martin said, admitting that he's been feeling sick since the last party. “I don’t know if I have an STI or coronavirus.”
These risk-laden parties are a reaction to stress and uncertainty in a time when people feel overwhelmed by the news. “For the most part, chemsex is recreational and can easily be stopped. But telling people to stop having sex might be as effective as telling people to wear condoms,” said therapist and social worker David Stuart, a global expert on chemsex. “Given the homophobia and AIDS panic we have endured, ignored and fought against, for gay and queer men, it’s hard to have governments tell you to stop having sex.”
Stuart said that post-lockdown hookups are partly motivated by anxiety resulting from social isolation. But he said people have told him they later feel regretful about risking their health and the health of others. He added that heavy drug users may be experiencing pandemic-focused paranoia and panic during crystal meth highs and comedowns.
There are signs, though, that the initial lockdown devil-may-care mood is beginning to change. Some party-goers, chemsexers and clubbers are moralizing online. Many profiles on Grindr have ‘Stay At Home’ written in their bio descriptions.
“I wrote a guy on Grindr: ‘I want to be used’,” Mangel, a gay man who is quarantining with his boyfriend, recounted. “The guy was one of those judgmental types and said, ‘You guys are being kind of irresponsible. You should stay at home in these times, right?’ And so I replied, ‘Oh yes, you are right. You should come over here and punish me!’ He didn’t reply.”
People on Grindr are now exchanging illicit videos and photos instead of live hookups. Other dating apps, like Feeld, aimed at the polyamorous community, have created locations titled ‘Sext Bunker’ or ‘Quarantine’ where app users can exchange sexual content or talk, without the expectation of actually meeting up IRL.
Lockdown has also affected the drugs people are taking in Berlin. The use of mephedrone, a drug already experiencing something of a comeback in the city, has increased since lockdown, according to dealers and users VICE spoke to. Meanwhile, the use of cocaine is apparently falling. Analysis of activity on two Berlin Telegram channels, a medium many locals use to procure drugs, over the first three months of 2020, revealed the number of requests to buy mephedrone (known in the U.S. as "bath salts") has doubled since lockdown, while requests about cocaine have almost halved.
Even though the price of a gram of mephedrone has gone up from 30 to 35 euros ($33-38), the popularity of the drug could be related to the fact that it’s far cheaper than cocaine, at a time when most people have less money.
And counterintuitively, people may be taking more mephedrone because they are stuck indoors. Compulsive re-dosing, a characteristic of mephedrone, may be tempered in a club because people have to line up to use the bathroom, and spend time dancing. “When you’re at a flat, the drugs are on the table, you just keep taking them, it’s like an open buffet,” said Martin. “We were taking stuff, finishing stuff, ordering more stuff. You dose or take lines whenever you want, you don’t have to hide yourself in a stall.”
Despite the party scene continuing behind closed doors, mephedrone and other drugs have been less easy to come by since the lockdown. This could be because of tightening border restrictions or stockpiling. Ingo*, a party drug dealer in Berlin, told me a mephedrone shortage alert blasted out on Berlin Telegram channels in late March. “At the beginning [of the lockdown] some people bought big amounts of drugs, like toilet paper. But not anymore, since the majority of people either got bored or don’t have any money left,” Ingo said.
Some Berliners are swapping their usual diet of stimulant club drugs such as cocaine, MDMA and ketamine with psychedelics.
Milan*, an avid dancer and Berghain regular, usually takes chemsex and club drugs, but he’s switched to a palette of 2C-B and shrooms during the lockdown to explore “spiritual dimensions”. “I always go clubbing because I love to dance, but now I have the time [and] the safe setting of being at home to explore psychedelics.”
A high-dose solo 2C-B trip at the beginning of the lockdown period helped Fabian*, a raver living alone, mentally digest the situation. Fabian told me he’s limited contact to three sexual partners since lockdown. Though it’s still not in line with government guidelines, it demonstrates that even the most hedonistic of Berliners are beginning to adjust. “I wouldn’t care if you thought I was spreading gonorrhea,” he told me. “But coronavirus? No.”
On Telegram requests for 2C-B type drugs, LSD, and magic mushrooms have been on the rise since lockdown. “I think it’s pointless to take ecstasy and coke in nature or at home, so psychedelics are the only option for me [during this] time,” one Berlin clubber and mushroom grower told me over Telegram. Demand for mushrooms shot up sharply in March and April, she said. After harvesting in mid-March, she ran out of product in two weeks.
Still, Germany’s isolation requirements are not easy to deal with for Berlin’s ravers, some of whom deeply miss the intense social interaction and fellowship of the rave as a way of maintaining their own mental health. Valdis and his boyfriend normally party from Friday until Sunday, but the couple has now been quarantined together for over a month. “I’m having a mental breakdown once a week, probably partly from a comedown, but it’s also because I want to go out and I can’t,” he told me. “I was crying all of Tuesday evening.”
Of course, not all of Berlin is self-medicating its way through quarantine. But temptation continues to lurk even for those taking a break.
Unemployed Lena* normally spends upwards of 12 hours on the front left of the Berghain dance floor every Sunday. The day after her last session at the club, she began a government sponsored course to improve her work prospects. “I adapted [to the lockdown] because of the course...but maybe I will go to a house party this weekend,” Lena told me through a voice note on Whatsapp. “I’m a techno lover so I listen to live streams during the week, but I have a crisis: I miss ketamine [and] I just miss Berghain.”
*Some names have been changed to protect identities
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