• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

What I discovered at the world's biggest sex fair

German star Micaela Schäfer at Venus Berlin. Photo/Getty Images

Cathrin Schaer meets fetish dwarves and sex dolls, experiments with a silicon vagina and attends a bondage workshop at the world’s biggest trade fair for the adult industry – in Berlin, of course.

“Actually, I think this is the most erotic area,” says the man who has been described as Germany’s last great porn star, gesturing grandly at the surroundings. He’s waving at a beer tent and sausage stand out the back of the world’s largest sex industry trade fair.

Out here, fully dressed men and women are snacking at wooden picnic tables, surrounded by parked cars. Inside, there are whips, chains, near-naked models and every kind of sex toy. But Conny Dachs, in his fifties and known for appearances in such nudie masterpieces as Leather Exxxtasy and European C#*tinent 2 as well as for playing a “sex double” in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac films, likes it better here among the edible sausages.

RelatedArticlesModule - Berlin sex fair Venus

“All that posing,” he complains. “All that fake hair, all the leather and the outfits. It’s just not sexy,” he tells the small group of journalists he is supposed to be showing around the trade fair. “Everyone always says, ‘Wow, Conny, you were at the porno exhibition, how great that must be.’ I always tell them it’s really not that sexy at all. They never believe me.”

After spending a day and a half here, I believe him. The annual Venus Berlin has been held in the German capital for the past 22 years, at sprawling central-city halls that also host such events as vintage-car shows and the national orthopaedics conference. With no sense of irony at all, it is usually followed by the Wedding World and Baby World fairs. Unlike similar trade fairs, it is open to the public, which allows organisers to boast that it is the biggest event of its kind in the world. During the four-day fair, more than 30,000 people come to investigate the latest developments in the adult industry as shown – and sold – by, on average, 250 exhibitors from more than 40 countries. On Saturday, the queue to get in snakes over the equivalent of two rugby fields.

Illustration/Anthony Ellison/Listener

Female empowerment

The fair has three halls. One is mostly for the public, the second for business-to-business purposes, filled with new products and services looking for European distribution. In the third, which is consumer oriented, the biggest attractions are women known as “cam girls” – basically,  “models” who perform sex acts or striptease live online, using a webcam. Customers pay for the privilege of being able to peek into the girls’ bedrooms (or cubicles), and this weekend, the cam girls are here in person to sign autographs, meet fans and attract new clients (thereby increasing their earning potential), as well as get a little publicity for their personal brand.

In recent years, cam girls have been among those who have benefited most from the internet’s effect on the porn business. “The internet has made life harder for the producers and better for the performers, because the production is in their hands,” says Andreas Weiss, an editor with TMC Content Group, which runs several of the biggest pay-per-view adult channels in Germany. “The girls come to Venus to get famous and market themselves.”

Instead of doing a pornographic “scene” for two or three hundred euros, a performer can now work from the comfort of her own home, says Dachs. And Weiss believes that more women are getting into the industry because of the potential to be their own boss. Apparently, it’s all about female empowerment.

There is still an interesting dichotomy: the cam girls are in charge of what they do and how far they’ll go sexually, but they also usually end up paying middlemen up to three-quarters of any money they earn.

A stripper at Venus Berlin. Photo/Getty Images

My Dirty Hobby is one of Germany’s most popular cam-girl platforms, and this weekend it has built a large, round counter in the middle of the Venus fair. At all times, there are at least half a dozen scantily clad women behind the counter, cam girls plying their trade, trying to get famous.

Most of them are young – at a guess, in their twenties – and some are unexpectedly beautiful. It’s surprising mainly because when you get closer to the professional porn stars here, they mostly look older than you’d expect, or as though they’ve had too many cosmetic surgery procedures and sunbed sessions.

On the punters’ side of the My Dirty Hobby counter, dozens of (mostly) men mill about. Some ask the cam girls to take selfies, or to pose with them or sign autographs. They make jokes and get their pals to take a picture of them, arm around one of the girls. No naughty touching, though. There are special lap-dance booths for that sort of thing. Other men just stare. Some of the girls leaning on the counter are clearly bored.

Every now and then, there’s a thrill to be had: a cam girl mounts the counter. Dressed in something like a sexy-schoolgirl outfit and improbably high stripper heels, she’ll crouch there with open legs, smiling cheekily, or get down on all fours and wiggle her butt. There’s a breathless flurry as the male onlookers hurriedly hoist their mobile phones or cameras to get a private memento. The other cam girls look on knowingly, aware of their power.

“When I’m old, I want to remember that I came here,” says a handsome 20-something blond from Bavaria, after taking footage with his phone. “It’s like …”

“A souvenir,” his equally smart-casual friend suggests gleefully, before they turn back to the posing cam girl.

Men with cameras at the sex fair. Photo/Venus Messe Berlin/Supplied

Fetish whips

Which brings us to what I’ll call “the men with cameras”. There are three broad categories of punters here. There are the younger guys in groups (such as the Bavarians), who have come for a bit of a laugh, daring each other to get on the giant pink dildo that is a mechanical bucking bronco, or guffawing while slapping each other with fetish whips. Then there are the adventurous couples of all ages, who have come to assuage their curiosity. Once again, for all the talk of female empowerment I hear from the businesses here, it is usually only the women who are dressed up, in heels, lace or short skirts.

In the third category are the men with cameras. When I first arrived, I was surprised by how many photojournalists I saw roaming the halls – so many expensive cameras, lenses and even professional, portable flash units. Clearly a popular event with the local press, I thought. After a few hours, I realised most of the guys with expensive cameras did not have a press pass. They may as well have been wearing grey raincoats and lurking in the bushes.

Mostly, they were there on a one-man photographic safari, hunting for that elusive vagina shot. Some of them were obviously more used to seeing women on a screen, their cameras both a protective shield and a justification for being here.

German reality TV star Sophia Wollersheim. Photo/Alamy

At one stage, a woman wearing only chains and carrying a toy medieval shield and sword starts posing on the stairs in the main hall. She is quickly surrounded by the men with cameras. For about 45 minutes, she contorts herself in the middle of this circle of observers. She stands, wide-legged, pointing her sword at them. She sits, holding up her shield. She lies down, letting her long, mousy brown hair graze the floor.

The men with cameras dutifully document her every move, from every angle. The model never smiles, or meets any eye. And the whole scene is played out in almost complete silence. In the background, visitors are chatting, drinking, laughing and leafing through catalogues. But on the stairs, this stilted, silent dance plays out, a muted transactional pantomime for the voyeurs who shuffle around the woman with the dead eyes and small, wooden sword.

More-formal shows, strip and otherwise, are also on the schedule. Some of the better-known cam girls and porn pros get their own slot on the main stage and writhe around almost naked. Despite two large screens on either side of the arena, it’s hard to see much for the forest of mobile phones, selfie sticks and fancy cameras all pointed at the stage. The clichéd moves visible on the screens are not particularly enticing.

There is even a men’s strip show. But in what is a clear recognition of the fact that there are far fewer female visitors, it is staged in a tiny mezzanine area and admission is limited to about 30 people.

Stormy Daniels. Photo/Getty Images

Smart and smutty feminist

Another event is an autograph signing by the trade fair’s special guest, American porn star Stormy Daniels (real name Stephanie Clifford). These days, she is probably best known for describing US President Donald Trump’s penis as looking like the mushroom character in video game Mario Kart.

This alone warrants lining up with about 20 other fans to collect her signature. I’m a big fan of Daniels’ Twitter feed – she’s a smart, irreverent and smutty feminist who always tells the haters to step off. In real life, flanked by two large bouncers who kept telling the men with cameras to stop zooming in on her impressive cleavage, the pneumatic mother seems unimpressed. She can barely raise a smile as she signs her name.

Disappointed, I return to browsing sex toys. The trend is for colourful design objects and high-tech thrills. This includes a €149 ($250) computerised male masturbation device, which measures “speed, angle and prowess” (“Is there a leader board?” one potential customer asks); a €129 ($215) female vibrator that uses sonic waves (“It’s like your clitoris is standing in front of the biggest bass speaker at a concert,” the saleswoman tells me); and a ride-on-top, buzzing, twirling dildo called the MotorBunny, which can be controlled using your smart phone, synched to music and operated remotely (“great for long-distance relationships”, the salesman says). It costs more than €1000 ($1650).

I also get to feel up a sex doll for the first time. These giant Barbies are high-quality, hand-made from silicon and, at €5500 ($9100), cost more than my car, but they still feel a bit clammy. Creepy side note for stalkers: the manufacturer tells me they can replicate a face from any photo if you want a custom order. And I also insert my finger into another vagina – a silicon one, that is. These €99 ($165) “suction masturbators” have been made to resemble the genitalia of real-life porn stars, the maker adds, as he plops lubricant on to what look like labia-topped drink bottles.

Illustration/Anthony Ellison/Listener

Japanese rope bondage

Happily, the best is yet to come. It turns out the third hall, called Kink, is by far the most fun. The other halls are so noisy that you can’t hear anything but a horrible mash of dad rock and hip-hop and so brightly lit that you can see the pimples on the cam-girls’ bottoms as they pretend to grope one another. In contrast, the Kink hall has better lighting, more interesting outfits and relaxing background music.

Out front, a small, bare-chested man with dreadlocks, tattoos and baggy yoga pants is whipping a thin, pretty blonde in a mask who’s handcuffed to a large X. In the hall, next to an array of bondage-related equipment, a seated dominatrix stabs an improbably high heel into a kneeling man’s groin.

“I can’t breathe,” he gasps; he has a plastic bag on his head.

“How sad,” she hisses, gently slapping his cheek.

A chubby dwarf with a mohawk and studded leather skirt, who looks like an extra from Mad Max, just watches them, clutching his cat o’ nine tails.

Model Micaela Schäfer. Photo/Alamy

You see denizens of the fetish world all around Venus Berlin. Exhibit A: two chubby, middle-aged women wearing dresses made only of what appears to be steel chain that leave nothing to the imagination. They’ve come holding hands with their fully dressed partners and will spend several hours in the bar. Later on, they’ll start drunkenly kissing and flashing their bits for those with camera phones.

Exhibit B: a pot-bellied man in jeans, white T-shirt and sandals and socks wearing a shiny black gimp mask. He is being led around the fair by his much-younger mistress, but at one stage takes the leash from her and goes to get a beer.

One of the strangest recurring sightings was a short, naked, olive-skinned man with a little goatee who did laps around the halls for 3-4 hours. When I saw him stride past for the third time that day, totally hairless, bollocks jiggling merrily, the only thing he had was the free pink paper shopping bag everyone got when they arrived.

“He started off fully clothed,” the woman at the coffee stand in the foyer tells me. “Then he took off his clothes, bit by bit. Last time we saw him, he was still wearing his shoes. Then the next time we saw him, he’d taken them off, too!”

Back in the Kink area, I watch a display of Japanese rope bondage, or shibari, a singing dominatrix, a fashion show featuring skin-tight vinyl outfits and something called fem-dom wrestling, which involves a cute dominatrix in a black leather coat fake-wrestling a man in a gimp mask.

Erotikmodel Vivian Schmitt and German porn star Conny Dachs. Photo/Alamy

More participatory

After being a little creeped out by the cam girls and the men with cameras, and disappointed by Stormy, it is displays like this that restore my faith in human sexuality. They make me think the adult industry isn’t all bad. It’s not that it turns me on, it’s just that somehow the action inside the Kink hall feels more participatory. More “sex positive”, as they say, than just consumer and consumed. Berlin’s kinky folk seem to want everyone – male, female or other – to have a good, weird time.

“Germany is a sex-positive country,” says Damian, a British software engineer turned proprietor of a website selling high-end sex. “Here, the attitude is that sex is something to enjoy, not something to be puritan about.”

My new friend at the coffee stand likes that. She works this booth at every trade fair, but she particularly likes this one because it’s interesting and because people are so non-judgmental about the many flavours of sexual activity on display here. Sure, we all noticed the naked guy who disrobed gradually and did repeated laps of the trade fair, but I guess nobody really judged him.

By now it is 10.30pm and it’s been a long day in these sunless halls occupied by the adult industry. Dominique, the owner of one of Berlin’s legendary swinger clubs, Insomnia, is disinfecting a table on the stage and the overly aroused model from the fisting workshop is passionately embracing some guy, stage right. A woman from the vinyl fashion show walks by, now shoeless, in a vinyl bikini and those strange little sneaker socks you couldn’t see when she was wearing her ridiculously high stripper heels. In the bar, the chubby chain-dress women are still going for it.

All in all, the days here have felt mostly like some kind of intriguing social-studies experiment. The way in which we humans ascribe so many different layers of meaning and pleasure to this one universal act – and then sell them all, too – is fascinating. Not sexy at all really, though – Dachs was right. As I leave, I catch a final glimpse of another cam girl climbing onto her counter in the main hall. The men around her shiver a little, like leaves in a light breeze, then lift their cameras in anticipation.

This article was first published in the February 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.