One thing I have wanted to write about for a while in this column is the view of sex and dating in Turkey. I have watched (mostly) foreign and (some) Turkish friends grapple with dating and all its highs and—more often—lows, and have become endlessly fascinated with the subject. Although it is not something I have to partake in, it is a subject that fascinates me. I’m trying to convince a single friend who has lived in Turkey for two years to let me document her hilarious (and sometimes scary) Tinder adventures, which include one man calling her a “prostitute” after she told him she is posing nude for an artist. Right.
In terms of sexual politics, Turks veer much closer to the ‘conservative’ dial than the ‘liberal’ one. A Turkish male friend once told me that one night stands are not really a thing, and especially not for women (no big surprise there). Another Turkish male friend told me that although men and women can be friends, growing up in large mixed-sex friendships groups is a lot less common than in other parts of the world. He also told me that if a girl and a boy are friends, pretty soon one of them will develop a romantic interest in the other.
Religion is of course the major player of why this is the case. Almost 98% of the population is Muslim and has to follow stringent Islamic halal sex rules. Sex is seen as something that should happen between a husband and wife, and practiced according to the teachings of Islam. Some of the rules include showering after intercourse, no sex during menstruation, and that a man must have sex with his wife at least once every four months (this is considered to be a wife’s conjugal right). With a religion that severely subjugates its women comes an unfair balance between the roles that men and women play in courtship, marriage, and sex: the woman is submissive to her husband, who can have multiple wives (although polygamy is illegal, it is still practiced in some parts of the country), and use her for sex whenever the mood strikes him. Marital rape and domestic violence are both common practices, especially in rural areas.
Although the secular parts of society have a much more liberal view of sex, it is the conservative government’s—and politicians’—beliefs that are particularly disturbing. Under President Erdoğan’s leadership (whose party AKP has held government for 12 years), the conservatives have become more powerful and visible than ever before, and use sexual politics as one of the most important tools to control society.
On September 15, Ismail Akkiraz, the vice chairman of the über-conservative Saadet Party, told a crowd during a speech that, “due to the AKP’s inadequate policies, our youth do not know how to practice ablution, and 60% go around cunup [not showering after sex].” A few weeks later, on October 1, Selman Ada, the new manager of the Turkish State Opera and Ballet, said that employees (besides the ballet dancers) can no longer wear “athletic wear, tight cotton shorts, tights, stretch jeans, sandals, slippers, spiked high heels, formal evening gowns” to work. Turkish Airlines has previously gotten into hot water for banning red cosmetics to be worn by stewardesses as this “impairs the visual integrity of the intended look” (read: is too sexy).
A few months ago, as reported in SheRa Mag, the Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç was up in arms about what he termed “moral corruption.” Besides making such ridiculous statements as “women shouldn’t talk about unnecessary things on the phone,” he also claimed that TV shows have turned youth into “sex addicts,” and encouraged men to not be “womanizers” and be more “chaste.” Late last year, Erdoğan went on record about an opposition leader’s affair, which was caught on tape. He justified watching and sharing the video by saying this: “This is not private but public, because he was not with his wife. Then it is not private. We cannot view adulterers as victims.”
The question begets why the Turkish government is so obsessed with sex. Vociferous journalist Oray Egin told Al-Monitor that, “whenever I see a Turkish cleric of Islam talking about sex in the public domain, I immediately assume that it is a personal issue for them. It could be out of either envy or obsession caused by self-suppression. Because they can’t openly express their own sexual problems or desires, they meddle in other people’s lives and probably live vicariously through them. To put it more simply, they constantly obsess over what they don’t have. Some sort of a covetous behavior perhaps.” I completely agree with him.
The consequences of this conservative view of sex are dire—for both men and women. Growing up, men believe that women are sacred prizes to firstly win, marry, bed, and then—as sexual freedom is not encouraged and many men and women from more conservative families will sleep with no one before they get married—cheat on.
When my partner and I first arrived in Turkey, we stayed with a pair of uni students. These two young guys would have big groups of their male buddies over most nights but I never saw a single woman. They would carry on, yelling, laughing, but when I would enter the room, they would go quiet as I’m a lady and I demand a certain kind of behavior. We then lived with another two guys, this time in their early 30s, one of whom was gay but had a ‘beard’ as being openly gay is still taboo in this country (but that is a topic for another time) and one who had no social skills around women whatsoever. When I would be cooking, he would come and stand next to me and just stare. It was very uncomfortable but also enlightening. Needless to say, we moved out soon after.
The problem is that women and men are not encouraged—on a large scale—to live together as friends in a share house or even as partners before marriage. Universities too have mostly same-sex housing for students, and women can only sit next to another man on intercity buses or trains if he is her partner. This means that women and men don’t interact in all aspects of the word growing up and then, naturally, have skewed outlooks on dating and sex. Men see women as possessions and as many women grow up being treated like princesses, they develop unrealistic expectations of men. And as women are told that ‘sleeping around’ is sinful, they either don’t do it, do it in secret, or shame women who are more sexually liberal than them. All this results in outrageous public displays of affection in places such as Starbucks, which are seen as “Western” and “liberal,” and therefore justify a girl lying on top of her boyfriend and pretty much dry humping him.
I should also mention that these views have largely contributed to Turkish men’s taste for foreign women—and also their often inappropriate treatment of them. As journalist Belgin Tan says in his satirical blog in Hürriyet Daily News, the “independent attitudes [of foreign women] add to the challenge factor, it makes a man want to compete. Because they have freedom to select, to be selected by one of them makes the guy more of a hero, a winner, a champion.” Let’s go back to my single friend: Turkish men just assumed she would be up for anything because she is half-English and would get furious with her if she would turn them down. Or even more frighteningly, a guy once completely stripped off and got into a bed with a foreign girl who was sleeping (and definitely did not invite him to do so). She woke up when he started touching her, freaked out, and told him to get out, and his reaction was one of complete shock and disbelief, followed by downright refusal. Although scenarios like this can happen in any country, they are much more prevalent in a country like Turkey, where conservative views of sex—fuelled by religion, social values, and politics—don’t do anything to help matters.
Title image source: www.womenshealthmag.com