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In Turkey, Porn Isn’t Illegal, but That Hasn’t Stopped the Government From Trying to Block It

A short, stout, hairy older man with an ample black mustache leans over a nude woman in what appears to be an exam room of sorts. The doctor’s coat he’s wearing would seem to further indicate that he’s a physician — so too would the brightly lit, sterile office conditions. He probes the woman’s genitals with a variety of implements that range from the conventional (e.g., a speculum) to the unorthodox (e.g., a glowstick). He maintains an easy conversation with her as he proceeds, eventually calling in a nurse for assistance.

Not long afterward, the three of them start fucking on the exam table.

The scene, “Yaniyorum Doktor Şahin” (loosely translated to “I’m Burning, Doctor Şahin”), is part of a long-running porn series called Istanbul Life. Many of the scenes star Şahin K, who in this particular installment plays the titular Doctor Şahin. He is, by all accounts, the Ron Jeremy of Turkey. That resemblance alone easily makes him the most famous male porn star there.

Şahin’s presence notwithstanding, all of the dialogue in “Yaniyorum Doktor Şahin” is in German. And the scene itself, along with most of Istanbul Life, was probably filmed in Frankfurt, where the production company that funded it (Trimax) is located. Şahin, who has retired from porn, doesn’t even live in Turkey anymore; he’s relocated to Russia. Today, he visits the country that made him a star infrequently — most famously to star in a commercial by Hotspot Shield, a VPN service that allows users to securely access blocked websites.

It’s a perfect pairing, since Turks currently can’t access any of Şahin’s work without a VPN—all porn sites are blocked inside the country.

They’re not, however, illegal. In fact, Turkey remains just one of three Middle Eastern countries (or Middle Eastern adjacent countries) where porn isn’t banned outright. Lebanon and Israel are the others. Overall, Turkey is relatively progressive, given the social leanings of its neighbors. For instance: It legalized homosexual activity in 1858; it gave women full political rights, including the right to be elected for office, in the 1930s; and it’s allowed trans people to legally change their gender since 1988.

In keeping with those liberal tendencies, modern Turkey embraced the “Porno Chic” era of American filmmaking in the 1970s, and American imports of films like Deep Throat and The Opening of Misty Beethoven were popular enough to inspire Turkish filmmakers to try their hands at explicit movies. “From the 1970s to the 1980s, porn was produced in Turkey,” says Bugda Savasir, a psychotherapist in Istanbul and one of the few people within the country willing to talk to me. (People in Turkey aren’t open about this sort of thing — particularly now that the political climate has grown more and more stifling.) “There were sex films — feature-length films and shorter films,” she continues. “Even some well-known actors were acting in them.” The first such film — Öyle bir Kadin Ki (translated as either She’s Such a Woman or A Woman Like That) — was Şahin’s breakout role in 1979.

While a military coup in 1980 strictly outlawed sex on camera, by 1984, low-budget, underground productions had been revived. “We [also] used to have lots of printed magazines,” recalls Savasir. “At some point in the 1990s, you could go to a store and see all these magazines with tits and bottoms and everything in the stores. [Later], you could watch it online as well. But [at some point], it became diminished from our lives.”

For one thing, production was never particularly robust in Turkey. Even at the height of its popularity — when Turks were watching porn in public theaters — it was never entirely acceptable to be involved in making such films. It wasn’t necessary, either. “In the presence of professionally done pornographic abundance, mostly American, semi-professional Turkish productions [had] no chance to compete economically,” says Veronika Tzankova, a researcher who has written about porn consumption among Turkish women. And, she continues, “The aesthetics of Turkish porn productions don’t seem to match the preferences of most consumers,” limiting its export options.

Barbaros Şansal, a Turkish fashion designer and LGBTQ activist, agrees. “The pornography in the United States and in Europe are professional productions with lighting, nice bodies and attractive women and men,” he says. “In Turkey, you cannot get those. So when you see the Turkish pornography, it’s this ugly, terrible, fat man with an ugly, terrible, hairy woman, speaking Turkish!” (He is, of course, referring to Şahin.)

Much of this has to do with the Islamic value systems that dominate the country — progressive as they might be compared to others in the region or other countries with a strong Islamic moral compass. “Islam isn’t just a religion, but a cultural system that structures the social realm and daily lives of anybody in the territory of Turkey,” explains Tzankova. “As such, the moral norms of Islam have always had influence over believers and secular Muslims. Sexuality is a domain highly regulated by religion, and consequently, by society in general. Because sexuality is so stigmatized, dealing with the practicalities of porn production is a challenge. Finding producers [and] actors willing to participate — especially women, because in a case of recognition they may even face physical violence by their families” — is difficult, to say the least.

All of this has only intensified since 2002, when the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish abbreviation, AKP) took control of the country by way of a democratic election and ushered in a new era of religiously oriented authoritarianism that’s been condemned by human rights organizations. And while the AKP hasn’t concerned itself that much with pornography, smut is one of many freedoms that have deteriorated under the AKP’s watch. For instance, in 2006, four erotic television channels from the Turkish satellite TV provider, Digiturk, were blocked. The next year, the Internet Act of 2007, under the guise of protecting family values and minors, allowed the AKP to censor broad swaths of the Web.

A decade later, tens of thousands of websites are now banned across the country. “The ban [on porn] began gradually, with the permanent or on-and-off blocking of many sites, not all of which [were] pornographic,” says Tzankova. “When widely used online platforms — such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, or sites advocating Darwin’s theory of evolution — get blocked on a regular basis and at a mass scale, people become desensitized to the incremental limiting of their freedoms.”

Still, porn production and consumption are technically legal in Turkey. It’s just that making it or owning porn is difficult. Case in point: Distribution of “obscene materials” — an ill-defined term — can result in a prison sentence of anywhere from six months to three years. And in 2015, Turkey’s Constitutional Court deemed the production, dissemination and ownership of sexual entertainment that included “unnatural acts” a criminal offense, punishable with a fine of 100,000 liras (about $35,000) and one to four years in prison.

The “unnatural acts” in question? Oral, anal and homosexual sex — or the backbones of most professional and amateur porn available in the world today.

In other words, producers, performers, distributors and consumers of most pornography could end up in prison in a country where inmates are reportedly tortured, and where Barbaros Şansal says he was kept for 56 days in isolation without so much as access to daylight for criticizing the government in a video he put online.

And so, any production company that had clung to existence in Turkey in the new millennium has fled for less restrictive climes, particularly Germany, where millions of Turks and their descendants have lived since the 1960s. It’s also the home base of the most popular female porn star in Turkey — Sibel Kekilli, who performed in two dozen or so German porn films in 2002 before going on to star in several seasons of Game of Thrones as Tyrion Lannister’s love interest. Kekilli is a German citizen, but her Turkish roots — her parents immigrated to Germany in the late 1970s — made her an “exotic” subject of interest in that country, and her subsequent fame has brought renewed interest in her porn career, despite the fact that it all seems to have been shot in Germany.

Like everywhere else in the Middle East, people in Turkey watch her scenes via VPNs — a suitable workaround to the government’s attempts to block explicit tube sites like xVideos, Pornhub and xHamster. As an expat from Pakistan who now lives in Istanbul and prefers to be referred to as “Ali” tells me, “Every porn site is banned, but nothing is inaccessible.” A good proof point: In 2015, Google found that Turkey had the eighth most porn searches in the world — trailing only its Muslim brethren Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Morocco and Saudi Arabia (in first, second, fourth, fifth, and seventh, respectively).

People in the Middle East, religion and legality aside, are also making more of their own amateur porn than ever before. Within xVideos’ “Arab” category alone, there are more than 10,000 videos (7,000 of them are tagged as “Turkish”), which are overwhelmingly homemade — with the notable exception of Mia Khalifa’s American-made work. Those scenes very much lean into her Lebanese heritage, as evidenced by the hijab she wears in several of them—despite the fact that she was raised Catholic.

Tzankova says that the rampant consumption and production of amateur pornography in countries that repress sexual expression make sense. “Introducing sexuality into the realm of public discourse becomes a form of alternative political expression, resistance and collective agency, which are otherwise hard to exercise in the political climate of Turkey,” she explains.

Or as she told a French culture magazine this summer: “The more sexuality is regulated at the government level, the more attractive the transgression of the rules becomes.”