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Postcards from Hamburg – The changing world of kink

A traditional Italian saying goes: ‘Spend Christmas with your family, and Easter with whoever you want’. This year, in my case it wasn’t really a matter of who but of where – I enjoyed a great vacation in Hamburg, which is one of my favorite places in the world. Thing is, due to countless setbacks I hadn’t been there in over twenty years… and the intervening changes gave me food for thought.

Limiting ourselves to the kinky parts, you should know that Hamburg had a history of being the BDSM capital of the world. In fact, it was for pretty much everything sex-related – but how else would you call a place where, in pre-Internet days, you could call a phone service listing all the current domination and submission events in town? I don’t recall anything similar anywhere else… and boy, it was a seriously long recording you heard!

The heart of it all was the Reeperbahn, also known as ‘the sinful mile’. Imagine a wide street, just shy of one kilometer long, almost entirely composed of adult venues and sex shops. I remember walking it in amazement for the sheer number of BDSM stores, some of them hyper-specialized in just one or two types of instrument or fetish gear. Not to mention the side streets: one featured the kinky club Justine and, right on the opposite sidewalk, the inevitable club Juliette, homaging the famous De Sade twin books!
I never entered the clubs, but in my mid-Nineties visits I was consistently impressed by the friendliness and competence of the shopkeepers. The overall feeling was of an infinitely kink-friendlier place than any other I have visited all over the world – maybe a better word would be ‘enthusiastic’. Even the prices, however overinflated like everywhere else, were a tad lower for much higher quality.

Fast-forward to 2019 now, and of course one of my first stops in town was the Reeperbahn. I rationally knew that «you can’t go home again» and I expected to find it changed – yet when I emerged from the nearby underground station I was a bit shocked. The street has been colonized by more traditional tourist traps, “respectable” bars and the occasional homeless person. Some sex shops remain, but the few interesting ones are now giant, two-floors conglomerates clearly incorporating several former smaller outlets. The true sore sight is however their offering. I could count the truly unique items I spotted on the fingers of one hand, while the rest was… well, exactly what you could easily find in pretty much every shop, online or otherwise – but with a three to fivefold price tag. Seeing all that I sighed, which was unfortunate because that made me smell the distinctive “old, uncared for and disintegrating” smell of most latex items on display.

The rest of my vacation was definitely less unsettling, although also much less kink-related. The one exception was a detail I captured in the opening photo. That is a bridge railing in the HafenCity, the beautiful harbor district: like many others all over the world it is smothered with love locks. The unstaged peculiarity however was finding those naughty handcuffs also hanging. My traveling companions and I smiled when we saw it, then we moved on toward our next destination. I realized its significance only several hours later.

How deep the world of unusual sex has changed in the last few decades for all of this to happen? The very symbol of playful but kinky sexuality can shine in the sun, rightfully proud among romantic promises, while what was once known as the epicenter of vice can now be better recommended for its excellent currywurst stalls. Clearly, the reason is easily ascribable to the usual suspects: the Internet, globalization, pervasive pornography, online shopping, maybe even a tad of better education to sexuality. As erotic information became more and more available, everyone’s relationship with their sex fantasies grew easier, no matter how unusual they were. A much larger percentage of people came to understand them or at the least not to feel scared or alienated by them; general acceptance was sanctioned by worldwide phenomena like the admittedly awful 50 Shades of Grey fad. In truly Millennial fashion, digital literacy allowed to cut off now-superfluous middlemen like the denizens of the Reeperbahn.

It would be crazy to claim that we were better off in some mythical “good old days”. That Hamburg BDSM party hotline or so many shady adults clubs are no more simply because today you can just whip up (ahem) your mobile and connect with dozens of potential play partners in the blink of an eye, skipping all the boring, expensive and possibly outright dangerous rituals of the past. The same goes for kinky goods: who would suffer the pains of going all the way to a store to get fleeced like my generation had to, when you can simply buy the very same items online at a fraction of the price and have them delivered at your doorstep?

Still, maybe this is just a hint of early-onset senility on my part… but something feels off anyway. Eroticism is not about the mere action, but about the surrounding atmosphere, the allure, the satisfaction of finally conquering whatever arousing mistery you choose to pursue. Tell that to the instantaneous yet bland serotonin rush of having Google spit out in a tenth of a second whatever floats your boat, again and again and again. As handy and evolved as it is, it kinda trades magic for a cheap trinket like with those fuzzy handcuffs, doesn’t it?   

There also is another collateral loss in our current, sex-positive society. When was it the last time you felt any political meaning in your kink? Our Justine-Juliette De Sade fellow was not just a smut peddler, but a true revolutionary whose works had the power of making the powers that be tremble – and so were most erotica giants throughout time. As late as the 1990s, being into “odd stuff” was a political act of defiance as much as it was a turn on.
Talking about Hamburg, this early April the Femen collective dismantled the barriers to the Herbertstrasse red light district, close to the Sinful Mile, in an allegedly “feminist” performance that clumsily attempted to distort the reality of the place to push a self-serving narrative lacking actual social content. You will pardon me if, knowing past feats like the Stonewall riots or the fight to repel Operation Spanner, I am unimpressed.

I hope you didn’t expect any big revelation after all these musings, for I have none. Just like everyone, I can only notice the times are changing exactly as they always have, and take an easy shot at how this too shall pass. In fact, I am pretty curious to learn what forms unusual sexuality will assume: I guess this will take lots of further travels and reports…

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