As Turks debate the pros and cons of more traditional versus more liberal social values, one subject remains off the table -- sexuality and sex education.
“You can't really talk about sex education in Turkey,” commented Belgin Akaltan, an editor at the English-language Hürriyet Daily News who writes the newspaper’s blog on human sexuality. “Let alone sex education in schools, parents don't educate their children, either,” Akaltan added. “It is, generally speaking, a taboo.”
A fierce critic of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Akaltan argues that the Islamist-rooted party’s conservative stance and practices do not encourage Turks to learn about sex in a way that promotes healthy attitudes and practices.
Despite the risks posed by a lack of understanding, knowledge itself is often seen as an even greater danger to society. One doctor who works at a clinic in a conservative Istanbul neighborhood believes that the Turkish government “may think [that] if you talk about sexuality and sex a lot, maybe these kids will be more curious about it.”
In a country where female virginity before marriage is, in many cases, tied to the concept of family honor, teenage girls learning about sex is frowned upon. “They think that she will not have sex until marriage, so it is not relevant to school,” added the doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Turkish Ministry of Health did not respond to queries from EurasiaNet.org for comment.
The sex education that is currently offered in secondary schools focuses on puberty and adolescence, rather than sexual heath. It is generally taught as part of a science curriculum for grades 9-12; sometimes for just one or two hours per year. "It is not a real sexual education. I did not hear anything about … how you can use a condom and how you can make healthy love," said Özgür Ozan Yusufoğlu, a 26-year-old engineer from the eastern city of Malatya.
Little mention is made of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Turkish young people interviewed for this article generally had little knowledge of STDs --other than Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).
Parents pose another barrier. Ninety-five percent of parents would “never” want their children learning about sex in school, the Istanbul doctor estimated. Most parents and children in Turkey do not have the kind of relationship where sex-related questions can be discussed, she added.
Opposition may be widespread at present, but there are signs that attitudes may be slowly shifting. Nalan Linda Fraim, an assistant professor of psychology at Istanbul’s conservative Fatih University, will teach the university’s first sex education class this fall. She admitted to being “surprised” when university administrators agreed that they needed the course. “It just went through; no questions asked,” she said.
Turkey’s growing number of university-educated youth can, of course, search for sex education information online. But those from impoverished areas of the country, where Internet access is less widespread, and reticence about sexual practices persists, are often critically endangered by what they do not know.
Many of the more traditional women who come to the Istanbul doctor’s clinic describe itching and rashes, for instance, but do not allow themselves to be examined; instead, they demand a prescription for antibiotics. “It is not because of Islamic rules,” the doctor said, adding that religion was also not the main impediment for effective birth control. “It’s because of a lack of education.”
Withdrawal, not more effective forms of birth control, remains the main method for avoiding pregnancy, she added. Out of a general lack of knowledge about the risks, married local men who frequent prostitutes don’t use protection with them, nor with their wives afterwards, she added.
The lack of discourse and education about sex ultimately makes for “two sexes that are strangers to each other, not understanding each other,” said sex blogger Akaltan.
“Even if they are not sexually active today, they will be someday,” said Fatih University psychologist Fraim, referring to the students in her sex education class. “There is a need to share real information. They definitely need to know what is what with human sexuality.”
This story was amended on October 4, 2012 to clarify the views of Hürriyet Daily News' Belgin Akaltan about the AKP's impact on attitudes in Turkey toward sex education.
Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.