A brave group of digital activists in Turkey is using social media and podcasts to battle conservative taboos about sexuality. At a time when TV shows are fined for even hinting at sex between characters and women are often harassed in the streets for wearing shorts, these trailblazers use Instagram and Spotify to discuss everything from the orgasm gap to masturbation.
This digital activism shows that when conservative governments try to shut down the conversation on sexuality, citizens will find new ways to gather and speak openly about their lives and desires.
In Turkey, the situation for women often feels grim. According to UN data, 38% of women in Turkey experience physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes. In 2020 alone, at least 409 women were killed by men. Despite this epidemic of femicide and widespread gender inequality, the Turkish government on July 1 officially withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, known formally as the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.
In this context of rising conservatism and increasing threats to women’s safety, many are finding refuge in social media and podcasts.
Gizem Onay creates digital safe spaces to discuss women’s everyday problems and sex lives. She runs a New Age cafe in Ankara and works as a sex coach, leading workshops and classes. She moonlights by running a highly popular Instagram account. With women coming to discuss everything from their issues with sexual desire to vaginal lubrication, the account functions as a 100,000-person group therapy session.
“Sexuality is a topic that we can only embarrassedly share behind closed doors. Some of us don’t get the opportunity to talk about it at all, but we have an incredible need for safe and nonjudgmental places to speak,” Onay told Al-Monitor.
On Instagram, Onay’s goal is to create a place where her followers can also talk openly about sexuality. She seeks to break taboos, encouraging women to be vocal about their sexuality and prioritize their own pleasure. It is a radical message in a country where the president himself declares that “women are not equal to men” and encourages them to have “at least three children.”
Asuman is a 35-year-old office manager at a firm in Istanbul and an avid follower of Onay’s Instagram page. “It was in one of Gizem Onay’s live YouTube videos on women’s orgasms that I first realized how much these topics are repressed by society and how little knowledge we have of our bodies,” Asuman told Al-Monitor, preferring not to disclose her full name out of fear of negative professional consequences.
Asuman argues that there is a need for places where sexuality can be discussed. In public school, the extent of her sex education was a single session on menstruation.
“We can’t talk in school. We can’t talk with our families or in public. And so it requires talking with each other to become aware. After learning from Gizem Onay and other projects, I made peace with my sexuality. I began loving my body more and learned to put my own desires first,” she said.
Another project that Asuman follows is "Mental Klitoris." The podcast focuses on sex, sexual violence, gender and pleasure. With a total of 35 episodes since April 2020, it has developed a strong base of followers among Turkey’s feminist and LGBTQI+ communities, as well as others interested in frank and rigorous discussions of sex.
“People really want to be able to talk about sexuality,” the show’s producer and creator, Hazal Sipahi, told Al-Monitor.
"Mental Klitoris" has episodes on issues such as consent, sexually transmitted infections, sex toys as well as concepts like “slut-shaming,” “ghosting,” “rimming” and “dick pics.” Though trained as a journalist, Sipahi has spent years reading the international literature on sexuality. Her goal is to translate concepts discussed globally into Turkish. Taking a feminist and queer approach to sexuality, she seeks to provide an informative resource for people in Turkey.
“I think about myself at 16 years old when I didn’t know English. Sex education at school was surface-level. I think about what kind of content I wish I had access to at that age, and that’s what I create,” Sipahi said.
The title "Mental Klitoris" directly challenges censorship. A journalist, Sipahi initially wanted the project to be a radio show, but she realized that she would not be able to use anatomical terms like “penis” or “vulva” on the air. The streaming music and podcast platform Spotify represented an alternative for discussing sexuality without having to self-censor.
Yet even these relatively free spaces are under attack. In May 2021, Turkey’s media watchdog RTUK called on Spotify to “regulate its content” in accordance with local guidelines. In October 2020, Spotify followed Netflix and Twitter in applying for a license to continue operating in the country. Under Turkey’s social media regulations, licensed foreign companies can be asked to remove content that RTUK deems inappropriate.
Thus far, Spotify content remains uncensored and Sipahi can produce "Mental Klitoris" how she wants. Even if censorship increases, she believes there will always be other options. “If one app goes down, I’ll just move to the next one. There are always escape routes.”
According to Sipahi, the conversation on sexuality is finally changing in Turkey thanks to social media. She lists a podcast project on sex-positive parenting by sexual wellness expert Rayka Kumru, the "Umarim Annem Dinlemez" podcast offering frank discussions of women’s lives, and the queer/sex-positive Instagram page "Biricikseksuel."
Under growing conservatism and repression, women and LGBTQI+ people in Turkey face intense challenges. Yet Sipahi still sees a reason for hope.
“Despite the political pressure we face, this is one of the most progressive periods in terms of the topics that are finally being talked about openly,” she said.