Though I lived in Turkey all my life, I grew up watching American romance dramas. “Gossip Girl,” “Pretty Little Liars,” “Sex and the City” — you name it, I watched it all.
My initial goal was to improve my English, but these shows did more than help my language learning. The independent fictional women on screen contributed to an image in my mind, of a Western feminist: A modern woman who felt confident in her sexuality and enjoyed casual hookups for her sexual and personal fulfillment.
These shows, along with the Western representation of feminism I was exposed to on social media, led me to believe that sexual liberation in the form of casual hookups was an essential part of being a feminist.
Though I idealized this Western “feminist” lifestyle, I was also very much aware that I could not live this way in Turkey. Despite the increased use of online dating apps and the modern dating culture, Turkey remains a relatively conservative country when it comes to relationships. Compared to Western cultures, sex, especially outside of marriage, is much more stigmatized in Turkey. Although casual sex and zero-commitment relationships certainly exist, they are rare and often kept secret by women afraid of being publicly shamed or even rejected from their families for “staining the family’s honor.”
I never realized how much Turkish culture had influenced me until I attended UC Berkeley and was thrown into the world of attachment-free one-night stands in American college life. Although the life of “Western feminists” always appealed to me in theory, when I finally had the chance to live it, more complications arose.
At American parties, I felt insecure and awkward. Though I had idealized female sexual liberation all my life, standing in a room full of intoxicated college boys I didn’t know, the thought of having sex with one at the end of the night felt far from what I wanted. While I always admired hookup culture for offering women a choice to shamelessly express their sexualities, I never considered what I would do given the choice.
I felt conflicted. As a feminist, I believed in women’s free sexual expression, and that included their participation in the same hookup culture that I had a problem with accepting for myself. I worried that growing up in Turkey had made me internally biased against something so empowering for women.
Convinced that I was still mentally restricted by Turkish cultural norms that were preventing my sexual liberation as a woman, I worried. Was I a hypocrite for calling myself a feminist but not wanting to participate in the commitment-free hookup lifestyle that I grew up admiring? Surely any feminist who truly champions women’s sexual expression would be confident enough to express their own sexualities openly and enjoy casual sex for their own pleasure, right?
This was a misconception, of course, that resulted from the image I had in my mind of an ideal Western feminist. It made me believe that I was obligated to participate in what I supported, or otherwise risk becoming a hypocrite.
I’m likely not alone in holding onto this misconception. Feminist media is dominated by a single, and usually American, view of what a modern feminist should look like. When discussing female sexual liberation, casual sex is glamorized. Sex-positivity is deemed feminist, and oftentimes the only examples of sex-positivity are women enjoying casual hookups, all while normalizing female sexuality and challenging the harmful slut-shaming culture.
But the problem with this representation of a modern feminist is that it’s extremely one-sided and excludes feminists who don’t fit with this image.
What is intimacy supposed to look like for women who don’t want to participate in hookup culture but don’t want to abstain from sex either? It’s easy to decide that casual sex is feminist, and anything else is anti-feminist. But feminism is (and should be) about giving women a choice, a right to explore their sexualities in a way that is best for them.
We have a long way to go in terms of media representation, but I believe we will get there, as more women embrace their differences and work together to create a culturally inclusive picture of feminism.
I’m not anti-feminist for not participating in American hookup culture. I’m not anti-feminist for holding onto the culture I grew up with. If growing up in a relatively conservative country has influenced me to prefer building emotional bonds based on trust before having sex, that’s not necessarily something I need to change for the sake of my feminism. As long as I feel empowered by the choices I make and respect the way women express their sexuality — which I do — expressing my own sexuality differently does not make me any less of a feminist.
Merve Ozdemir writes the Wednesday column on exploring her cross-cultural identity as a 21st-century feminist.