Sexually aware and on air: Beyond Turkey’s comfort zone

Turkish podcasts that host frank conversations about sexuality are smashing taboos and filling information vacuums. 

If her medium were television or radio, Hazal Sipahi would not be permitted to host her weekly program about sexuality in Turkey.

Thanks to podcasts, which have not yet fallen under the control of the country’s notoriously strict broadcasting rules and regulations authority, Sipahi’s audience gets to listen to “Mental Klitoris” every week.

“I wouldn’t be able to call a ‘penis’ a ‘penis’ on a traditional radio frequency,” said the 29-year-old doctoral candidate from Bursa Province, in northwestern Turkey.

Each week on her show, she discusses issues like sexual consent and positions, sex toys, health, abuse, gender, preferences, and pleasure. Her approach, Sipahi said, is “minimum shaming and maximum normalization of sexuality.”

“Sexuality has always been a favorite subject I could easily talk about,” she said. It is not, however, a subject she could discuss freely outside her social circle. In Turkey, the pervasive attitude toward open discussions about sexual intimacy and sexuality is still very conservative. Turkish schools do not provide any sex education besides the biological facts.

Hazal Sipahi, host of the podcast “Mental Klitoris.”

When she was a child growing up in provincial Turkey, Sipahi said, sexuality was only discussed in whispers; but as soon as she could speak English, she found an ocean of sexuality content available on the internet.

“I searched for information online and found it, only because I was curious,” she said. “I also learned many false things on the internet, and they were very hard to correct later on.”

For example, Sipahi explained, “For so long, we thought that the hymen was a literal veil like a membrane.” In Turkey there is a widespread belief that once the hymen is “deformed,” a woman’s femininity is damaged, and she somehow becomes less valuable as a future spouse.

“Mental Klitoris” is both Sipahi’s public service and her means of self-expression. She uses her podcast to correct misunderstandings and disinformation, to go beyond censorship and to translate new terminology into Turkish.

“I really wish I had been able to access this kind of information when I was around 14 or 15,” she said.

More than 45,000 people listen to Mental Klitoris, which provides them with access to crucial information in their native tongue. They learn terms like “stealthing,” “pegging,” “abortion,” “consent,” “vulva,” “menstruation,” and “slut-shaming.” Sipahi covers all these topics on her podcast; she says she’s adding important new vocabulary to the Turkish vernacular.

She’s also adding a liberal voice to the ongoing discussion about feminism, “Which became even stronger in Turkey after #MeToo.” She believes her program will lead to a wave of similar content in Turkey.

“This will go beyond podcasts,” she said. “We will have a sexual opening overall on the internet.”

Inspired by contemporary creatives like Lena Dunham (“Girls”), Michaela Coel (“I Might Detroy You”),  Tuluğ Özlü, an Istanbul native, says her audience’s hunger to hear a conversation about sexuality is unmissable.

In 2020, Özlü launched a weekly talk series called “Umarım Annem Dinlemez,” (“I Hope My Mom Isn’t Listening”). With over a million listeners, it is now the third-most popular podcast on Spotify Turkey. It’s mostly about sex.

Tuluğ Özlü

Asked to describe how she feels when she crosses the barriers created by widely shared social taboos about human sexuality, Özlü, who lives in Istanbul’s hip Kadikoy neighborhood, answered with a single word: “Free.”

“It makes me feel I’m not obligated to keep it in, and it makes me feel free,” she says. “As I feel this, I scream.”

In one episode of her podcast, she discussed group sex with Elif Domanic, a famous Turkish designer of erotic fetish lingerie. In another, the topic was one-night stands.

Özlü brings prominent actresses on air, as well as her friends. Once she invited her mother on the program. The two engaged in a frank discussion about sexuality—in what was surely an unprecedented event in Turkish broadcasting.

Rayka Kumru is a sexologist, sexual health communication and knowledge translation professional who was born and raised in Istanbul and now lives in Canada. She had the rare good fortune to be raised in a home where questions about sex were, to some extent, answered openly. She says she has made it her mission to provide information about the subject in a straightforward, compassionate and shame-free manner.

The lack of access to information about sex and sexuality in her native country, Kumru said, was “unacceptable.”

Rayka Kumru

Kumru said one of the current barriers to freedom in Turkey was the lack of access to comprehensive sexuality education, information and skills such as sex-positivity, critical thinking around values and diversity, and communication about consent. She circumvents that barrier by informing her viewers and listeners about them directly.

“Once connections and a collaborations are established between policy, education, and [particularly sexual] health, and when access to education and to shame-free, culturally specific, scientific, and empowering skills training are allowed, we see that these barriers are removed,” Kumru explains. Otherwise, she says, the same myths and taboos continue to play out, making misinformation, disinformation, taboos, and shame ever-more toxic.

Sukran Moral has first-hand knowledge of Turkey’s toxic discourse on sexuality since she first achieved public recognition in the late 1980s, first as a journalist and writer and later as an artist, sparking heated debates.

One of her most infamous pieces of work is an eight-minute video installation called “Bordello,” in which she stands on Zurafa Street, the historic location of Istanbul’s brothels, wearing a transparent negligee and a blonde wig, while men leer at her.

She said that one of Turkey’s largest newspapers at the time, Hürriyet, labeled her a “sex worker” after that performance. Moral moved to Rome to escape death threats; she stayed there for years.

Şükran Moral

When it comes to female sexuality, Moral said, Turkey’s art scene is still conservative. “There’s self-censorship among not only creators, but also viewers and buyers, so it’s a vicious cycle.”

Part being an artist, particularly one who challenges the position of women, she said, is seeing a reaction to her work. “When art isn’t displayed,” she asked, “how do you get people to talk about taboos?”

Turkish academia also suffers from a censorship of sex studies.

Dr. Asli Carkoglu, a professor of psychology at Kadir Has University, said it was not easy finding a precise translation for the English word “intimacy” in Turkish.

“There’s the word ‘mahrem,’” she said, but that term has religious connotations.

The difficulty in interpretation, she explains, illustrates the problem: In Turkey, intimacy has not been normalized.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) have many times expressed  support for gender-based segregation and a conservative lifestyle that protects their interpretation of Muslim values.

Erdogan, who has has been in power since 2003, has his own ways of promoting those values.

“At least three children,” has long been the slogan of Erdogan’s population campaign, as the president implores married couples to expand their families and increase Turkey’s population of 82 million.

“For the government, sex means children, population,” Dr. Carkoglu explained.

Dr. Carkoglu believes that sex education should be left to the family, but “when the government acts as though sexuality is nonexistent, the family doesn’t discuss it. It’s the chicken-and-egg dilemma,” she said.

So, how do you overcome a taboo as deep-rooted as sexuality in Turkey? Carkoglu believes that that the topic will have to be normalized through conversations between friends.

“That’s where the taboo starts to break,” she said. “Speaking with friends [about sexuality] becomes normal, speaking in public becomes normal, and then the system adapts.”

But for many Turks, speaking about sexuality is very difficult.

Berkant, 40, has made a living selling sex toys at his shop in the city of Adana, in southern Turkey, for the past two decades. But he said that he’s still too embarrassed to go up to a cashier in another store and say he wants to buy a condom.

“It doesn’t feel right,” he said, adding he doesn’t want to make the cashier uncomfortable.

He is seated comfortably at his desk as we speak; behind him, a wide selection of vibrators are arrayed on shelves.

Berkant and his older brother own one of three erotica shops in Adana. Most of their customers are lower middle class; one-third are female. “Many of them are government workers who come after hearing about us from a friend,” he said.

The shopkeeper said female customers phone in advance to check whether the shop is “available,” meaning empty.

He said he often refers women who describe certain complaints to a gynecologist.

“I see countless women who are barely aware of their own bodies,” he said.

Dr. Doğan Şahin, a psychiatrist and sexual therapist, said that the information women in Turkey hear when they are growing up has a lot to do with their avoidance of discussions about sex, even when the subject concerns their health.

Advertisement for men’s underwear in Izmir, Turkey.

Men don’t really care whether the woman is aroused, willing or having an orgasm, he said. Unless the problem is due to pain, or vaginismus, couples rarely head to a therapist, he adds.

“[Women who grew up hearing false myths] tend to take sexuality as something bad happening to their bodies, and so, they unintentionally shut their vaginas, leading to vaginismus. This is actually a defense method,” he told The Conversationalist.

“They fear dying, they fear becoming a lower quality woman, or that sex is their duty.”

While most Turkish women find out about their sexual needs after getting married, the doctor says that, based on research he completed about 10 years ago, men tend to fall for myths about sexuality by watching pornography, which plants unrealistic fantasies about sex in their minds.

“Sexuality is also presented as criminal or banned in [Turkish] television shows. The shows take sexuality to be part of cheating, damaging passions or crimes instead of part of a normal, healthy, and happy life.”

He recommends that couples talk about sexuality and normalize it. Talking is crucial, and so is the language used in those conversations.

Bahar Aldanmaz, a Turkish sociologist studying for her PhD at Boston University, told The Conversationalist why talking about menstruation matters.

“A woman’s period is unfortunately seen as something to be ashamed of, something to be hidden,” she said. (According to Turkey’s language authority, the word “dirty” also means “a woman having her period.”)

“There are many children who can’t share their menstruation experience, or can’t even understand they are having their periods, or who experience this with fear and trauma.”

And this is what builds a wall of taboo around this essential issue, the professor says. It is one of the issues her non-profit organization “We Need To Talk” aims to accomplish, among other problems related to menstruation, such as period poverty and period stigma.

Female hygiene products are taxed as much as 18 percent—the same ratio as diamonds, said Ms. Aldanmaz. She adds that this is what mainly causes inequality—privileged access to basic health goods, the consequence of the roles imposed by Turkish social mores.

“Despite declining income due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a serious increase in the pricing of hygiene pads and tampons. This worsens period poverty,” Aldanmaz says. She offers Scotland as an example of what would like to see in Turkey: free sanitary products for all.

During Turkey’s government-imposed lockdown in May 2021, several photos showing tampons and pads in the non-essential sales part of markets stirred heated debates around the subject, but neither the Ministry of Family and Social Services nor the Health Ministry weighed in.

“We are fighting this shaming culture in Turkey,” Aldanmaz says, “by understanding and talking about it.”