Foreign girls moving to Turkey all share a very common problem. They sign up in one or more of the dozens of facebook groups for international students and as soon as they’re accepted as new members of „Erasmus Istanbul“, „Foreign Students in Istanbul“ or „Drinking and Fucking for World Peace“ (Erasmus’ inofficial name, sadly doesn’t exist as a real group, though), they’re being spammed with friend requests and messages from strange Turkish men. These messages are generally suggestions to hang out together, to show the receiver around, or say little more than „Hi“. It doesn’t need a Charles Xavier to figure that the majority – if not all – of the composers of such messages want to get laid. The Erasmus program has a certain reputation, Western girls are known to be more liberal than Turkish girls etc. But to the random young student longing to enjoy her stay in a foreign country, the bulk and omnipresence of attention received by Turkish men soon turns from nuisance to threat.
Marriage proposals in cafés are among the more obscure incidents. Shady followers in dark streets, being hit on by strangers almost every night out and being masturbated to in public are, however, to many a traveller what remains of their memory of Istanbul. This is a shame. Turkey has a so much more to offer than sexual harassment. It’s a country full of incredibly hospitable people, friendly folks who really just want to help you in dire situations or have an honest interest in your native country’s culture and language. However, one chav grabbing your butt can make a hundred reasonable guys standing at the counter go unnoticed.
More than once I had to venture out at night to pick up female friends from the illuminated cones below street lights, surrounded by daunting darkness. Eventually, I’ve earned the title „knight in the golden taxi“ in such a rescue mission.
I remember going through the nightly streets of Dili, Timor Leste, without fearing to be attacked. I walked home alone numerous times after parties in Russia and in Europe, often drunk and lost. Never was I afraid of strangers. My protection, the invisible halo surrounding me and making me impervious to perverts, is my penis. More precisely, the assumption by other men that I have a penis.
In Turkey, this protection is apparently more valuable than in other parts of the world. As a female friend of mine once put it, Turkey was the first country she’s been in she’d have prefered visiting as a guy, solemnly so she could retain the freedoms she has at home. Freedoms such as going anywhere by herself, not being dependant on the help of men, wearing what she wants, choosing her profile picture on social media etc., without being reduced to a potential sex object.
There are two very important gender related phenomena I have noticed ever since my teenage years and which help to understand why Turkey is different in this aspect to, say, Stockholm. They don’t sound revolutionary at first, neither are they complete, but they’re out there.
First of all, men are expected to go for girls.
People say it’s biology, but genes can’t be held responsible for the differences in gender expectations among societies.
Some examples; we men have to explain ourselves why we don’t hit on a given fine chick on a party. Not being sexually active is regarded as a problem, if not as a personal deficit. I, for instance, have numerous highly attractive female friends, but my unwillingness in trying to have sex with them is continuously interpreted as shyness, stupidity, cowardice, indecisiveness, or as being „friendzoned“. On the other hand, each time someone pats me on the back and congratulates me on a succesful hunt, I feel that it’s a very tiny cogwheel in a gigantic machination. It’s a machination of a social pressure existing in different extents all around the globe. Even talking about expectancies in terms of them being a problem is, however, unusual for a straight male. Presumably, many of my readers will ponder whether I have issues with my sexuality, too. Because, you know, only black people can speak out for black rights.
Secondly, if people challenge the patterns we’ve been taught, they often face unreasonable amounts of hostility. In fact, you might feel offended right now after reading the paragraph above.
Violence against LGBT people is the obvious example, but not the only one. Just mention in a group of people that you consider yourself asexual. Never did it, but unless you’re with a bunch of hippies, you’ll certainly face ridicule or even aggression. No, I correct myself on that. Hippies have a tendency to regard boundless sexual activity as the ultimate symbol of freedom and individualism. Ironically, being completely asexual out of disinterest might be interpreted as suppressing your inner self. I could name more examples, from women who have no interest to ever have kids nor long for traditional relationships, men who don’t want to attend strip shows with their mates, boys playing with dolls etc., all facing disbelief, mockery, eventually anger and even hatred.
Long have I been wondering; why is that so? Why do people feel personally attacked by other people’s private matters? Here’s my answer, and I’m sure it’s only one of many aspects.
The first concept we learn to differentiate between humans is the concept of gender. Ever since the first moments of our lives, we learn that we have a mother and a father, brothers and sisters, that we’re either boy or girl. At the same time, we learn the necessary tools to distinguish between the two. These are not the kinds of chromosomes we have, nor the different genitalia, not even the ability to give birth. We learn about these biological features long after we fully internalised that there’s a difference between man and woman.
Our methods to distinguish male from female are much more symbolic as a child. Names, colours, clothing, toys picked for us by adults and specifically designed for one or the other gender. We don’t choose if we get the car or the doll toy as two years olds, yet we learn to identify through these objects.
Identification is the key word. Not coincidentally do we base a significant portion of our identity on our gender for the rest of our lives. Nationality, race, religion…those concepts come much, much later in life. At first, we’re either boy or girl. For most of our lives, we will feel offended by being called the other.
Soon, physical toys and clothes are replaced by more abstract means of gender identification. One has to be brave and decisive, the other empathic and caring, and so on.
How little surprising is the hatred those face who dare challenge the rolls assigned to us from early childhood on. Whatever is different is a threat to the glassy construct of the two-opposing-genders-concept. A young girl being the first to have her hair „boyishly“ short in a conservative society is in no way a physical danger, nor is she a danger to what most people assume to be their traditional values, yet she will have to deal with scorn and isolation. Liberal societies, being more open to new ideas, have a lower bar, yet I was often laughed at for wearing my hair long when I was younger, too.
While as kids, we do little more than laugh at the boy who likes dolls, as adults, the presence of homosexuals makes many of us, even those who deem themselves tolerant, nervous or angry. Even worse when it comes to transgender issues. The thought of a man who wants to be a woman makes people confused or outraged. Essentially, though it’s a private matter, breaking the glass walls is actually a personal threat. If even the first assumption we have ever made about humans is relativised, doesn’t that also question everything we ever learned about others and about ourselves?
Turkey is a highly patriarchical society. Being a man’s man is important to many, more so than in most other places I’ve seen. The pressure to fulfil the unspoken expectations is subtle, but omnipresent. It’s exerted via peer groups, thoughtless jokes and banter, stereotypes in the media, last but not least by politicians’ remarks about the natural order of women and men. Apparently, what was good for a hunter-and-gatherer-society is inevitably good for modern societies, too.
Sexuality is nothing bad. Few things match the joys of sex. But imposing artificial rules for sexuality on us is, how I learned, ultimately a problem for everybody. In the end, there is always suppression.