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Berlin Bound: Study Abroad With Dr. Justin Lehmiller

Magnus Apotheke

Recently, I had the pleasure of traveling across the globe to learn and study with Dr. Lehmiller on his study abroad course with the Sexual Health Alliance. When I first heard about the opportunity to travel to Berlin, learn about sexuality around the world, and explore the unique sexual history of the famously ‘poor but sexy‘ city, I knew it was an opportunity I simply could not miss!

As a sexual health researcher in Canada, I feel like prior to this experience, the vast majority of information that I have obtained about sex and relationships has been through a North American lens, as much of the research that has been available to me has focused on this population and much of my education has similarly focused on North American culture and experiences. I had wondered about how European cities might compare, so when I heard that the course focused on experiential learning within the cities themselves, I knew I had to be involved! In this blog, I will be highlighting some of the highlights from my study abroad experience. Read on to hear about the unique sexual history and culture of Berlin and get a taste of what’s in store for future study abroad courses.

Sexual History of Berlin

One of my favorite course excursions was with our tour with our guide, Jeff Mannes. You might be surprised (or not) to learn that Germany has been labeled ‘Europe’s kinkiest nation.’ In Berlin, one of the first things I noticed was how sexually liberated and queer-friendly the city appeared to be. For example, there were various popular areas within the city where nudism was not only accepted but welcomed. Public nudity isn’t prohibited by law in Germany (unless you’re using nudity to harass others), so it wasn’t uncommon for us to walk past nude sunbathers or people enjoying lunch or a good book in the buff as we walked through parks. We also saw sex and kink shops and LGBTQIA+ spaces in prominent places all over the city.

While it would be impossible to share all the information our guide provided in a short blog post, I wanted to relay some insights Jeff shared about Magnus Hirschfeld, often referred to as ‘the father of modern sexual science.’ Dr. Hirschfeld was a German-Jewish doctor and sexologist who founded the Institute for Sexual Science—the first in the world—all the way back in 1919. Dora Richter, a trans woman, had the first gender affirmation surgery at the institute in the 1920s. Hirschfeld was committed to advocating for the LGBTQIA+ community and also contributed directly to sex education. In fact, some laws were actually shaped around the information that Dr. Hirschfeld taught at the institute. Unfortunately, the institute was destroyed by the Nazis in the 1930s, but we were incredibly fortunate to learn about Dr. Hirschfeld’s historical significance and to see some remnants of his legacy.

Schwules Museum

During the course, we also had the opportunity to explore the Schwules Museum, which is the first museum in the world dedicated to LGBTQIA+ history. Their exhibits rotate regularly, but the main one we saw during our visit focused on the history of sex work in Berlin, titled ‘With Legs Wide Open—A Whore Ride Through History.’ The exhibit emphasized that while there are many opinions about sex workers, these opinions are often uninformed, and many policies and decisions are made without considering the voices of the workers themselves. This space was unique in that it focused on sex workers’ perspectives, highlighted their lived experiences, and presented their stories throughout time in a creative and playful way. The museum featured immersive exhibits that made you feel as though you could really start to understand some of the workers’ daily lives, motivations, and barriers they continue to face.

Schwules Museum

Berlin’s Club Scene

Perhaps you have heard of Berlin’s world-famous club scene, where even famous celebrities have been declined entry to some establishments. Berlin has actually been a hub for sex clubs since the 1920s! We had the unique opportunity to take a behind-the-scenes tour of one of these clubs, where we learned about the historical and contemporary significance of these establishments, the process of gaining entry, and what they offer. One of the things that stood out to me was how clubs functioned as political spaces. For example, our guide explained that the clubs would not exist without the LGBTQIA+ community and that they became spaces to fight against homophobia during the AIDS crisis. Even during our tour, there were many photos of LGBTQIA+ advocates displayed in the club to recognize and remember their political contributions.

Participating in this study abroad course has been one of the most enriching academic experiences of my career. If you want to attend a future course with Dr. Lehmiller and Sexual Health Alliance, I highly recommend joining! You can reserve a spot for next year here. This journey has profoundly expanded my understanding of sexual history and culture, areas often overlooked in North American education. Experiencing and learning about the world’s sexual diversity firsthand was truly extraordinary and eye-opening. Of course, I couldn’t share all of our wonderful experiences in the span of just one article, so you’ll have to join us next time and see for yourself!

If you would like to hear more about Berlin’s kinky history from our tour guide himself, check out our podcast episode with Jeff Mannes!

Want to learn more about Sex and Psychology? Click here for more from the blog or here to listen to the podcast. Follow Sex and Psychology on Facebook, Twitter (@JustinLehmiller), or Reddit to receive updates. You can also follow Dr. Lehmiller on YouTube and Instagram.

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