Used to be you needed a slinky outfit and a safe word. Now you need a mask and Twitch.
Poto: Berliner Zeitung/Benjamin Pritzkuleit

BerlinSaturday night, 10.30pm. Dominique Insomnia – her official artist’s name – opens the door. The boss' blonde hair is tied back. She’s dressed in all black: bodice, a long skirt, a mask with a skull on it.

“So, who are you?” she asks. “Come in!”

The carpet and the walls in the entrance are bright red. A chandelier dangles from the ceiling. A vitrine next to the reception desk displays sex toys for sale, including pink dildos embossed with the club's logo. In the background, thudding bass. Insomnia, a dance, swinger and sex club is open for business once more – kind of.

“Anything goes,” was once the credo of the Tempelhof-Schöneberg club. It's supposed to be a place of absolute sexual freedom. An old schedule hanging on the door reveals how things used to be: swinger nights, “Dance & Play” parties, “Saturday Night Fuck” and “Sunday Orgy”. But also cuddle parties and tango evenings.

Nine tables per night

Dancing, sweating, and getting naked and even intimate in expansive beds or in the whirlpool. Having sex with friends and strangers. Getting buttocks lashed. Playing dog or master for a night, or just something completely different.

Insomnia was “a liberation, a space full of possibility, a hedonistic village,” says Domnique. “But that’s now threatened by reality.”

Thanks to the corona pandemic, everything Insomnia was about is verboten. In mid-March the club was forced to shut down completely. They had to cancel a party with 400 guests. That night the crew drank themselves silly. Then the shock set in.

Until one of the inhouse technicians set up his phone camera and started a live stream. “It was as if he shone a light through the window,” says Domnique.

Dominique Insomnia, 51 going on immortal.
Photo: Berliner Zeitung/Benjamin Pritzkuleit

Ever since, the 51-year-old has been fighting to defend her village, doing whatever it takes to keep Insomnia up and running. She persuaded dancers – her friends and employees – to perform on the club’s stage at weekends, for free or taxi fare.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” says Domnique. Tonight, there are three dancers, clad in latex and fishnet stockings. No pole-dancing, no stripping. They move freely, sensually, as they would in a club, to trance and techno, mostly keeping distance from one another.

They’re on camera, of course. The streams run on Twitch and are shown on a big screen in the club itself.

Who knew Robyn's Dancing On My Own was prophetic?
Photo: Berliner Zeitung/Benjamin Pritzkuleit

For the last two weeks, Insomnia has been open for guests again, with just nine tables a night. The staff spent a lot of time working out the details of a safety plan. The new reality is bureaucratic.

In the end, they combined the recommendations of hospitality business association Dehoga, the professional association for erotic services and the video production association. And it’s a far cry from “anything goes”. The rules are strict – and Domnique enforces them stringently.

At the reception, she takes us through the 15-minute welcome process every guest must now go through. “Mask on!” she says. Then: “Out with your paws,” and sprays both sides of our hands with sanitiser. Next, she takes down our contact details. Because bars have been having problems with fake phone numbers, Dominque tells guests to send a text to a phone behind the bar.

Next, she explains the house rules: no dancing for guests. Distance must be maintained; masks must be on – except at tables and “play areas”. A big but: sex is only permitted between people who anyhow sleep together outside Insomnia - couples or those in polyamorous relationships, for example.

Sadomasochism is allowed, but only at a certain distance or with a mask.

“Otherwise, I hope my guests can feel free here. I, of all people, have to play the morality police now,” says Domnique. She has to ask people to stay in their own group, not to fool around at the next table, to forgo oral activities. “That’s hard. It goes against all my convictions. But we don't have a choice.”

Wine, beer or hand sanitzer?
Photo: Berliner Zeitung/Benjamin Pritzkuleit

Domnique was 7 years old when she moved with her mother from Dresden to East Berlin. Her mum worked as a dominatrix. At 18, Dominique opened her own studio. In 1994, she visited the legendary fetish club KitKat for the first time.

“From then on, I wanted to throw parties for hundreds of people.” She launched her own party series in KitKat in 1997 and opened her own venue in 2006. “We’ve never closed in 14 years,” she says.

Sexuality beyond the norm

Insomnia became a haven for many who wanted to express their sexuality in ways that fell outside the societal norm. For Hilly Leader and “Mr A”, Insomnia means “home”, although their interests couldn’t be more different. Leader, who dances in a tight bra, mini-skirt and tie on-stage, ran her own “Kinktastisch” BDSM party series through March. It was a night of freedom for lovers of S&M and every type of fetish, of every gender and every sexual orientation. 

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Photo: Berliner Zeitung/Benjamin Pritzkuleit

By contrast, “Mr A” lives in polyamory, in committed relationships with several people at the same time. He held podium discussions in Insomnia to discuss daily concerns and issues, such as jealously, that arise in polyamorous relationships. Mr A doesn’t wish to reveal his real name because employers even now have problems if someone doesn’t practice monogamy.

Both Mr A and Hilly Leader describe the corona crisis as a shock that robbed their communities of an important space to gather.

It’s far from certain whether Insomnia will survive. It’s one of the 38 clubs that received emergency aid from Berlin’s city government. The €25,000 are a drop in the bucket. But Dominque is a fighter.

“There’s no other way,” she says. “If I don’t keep moving, then I’m dead for sure.”

Find out more about the club and its fundraising campaign at https://www.insomnia-berlin.de/index.html?lang=en