It was a Sunday afternoon, and while other Istanbullus were strolling through markets and lingering over brunches along the Bosphorus, I was in hot pursuit of a sex shop.
But not just any sex shop. I had gone to sex shops owned by men before in Istanbul, and if I learned anything from that experience, it was to not do it anymore. This shop I was searching for was something quite different: woman-owned, woman-run. It was, according to its website, the oldest and only of its kind.
I did my best to ignore the leering and kissy sounds
But first, let’s back up to the first shop I had ever visited, one run by men. It was 8 p.m., and I was on my way home from my office, which is generally quite conservative (as in, try not to be seen heading to a sex shop after work). Instead of crossing at the kofte meatball stand to my apartment, I continued down Tarlabasi Boulevard. I did my best to ignore the leering and kissy sounds—“normal” fare for a woman walking alone at night in this part of town—along the way.
Three blocks later, I found it: a neon sign blinking, “Erotik Shop! Erotik Shop! Erotik Shop!,” from the top story of a darkened, boarded-up building. A headscarved teyze (term for an older woman, like “auntie”) passing by clucked at me in disapproval as I stepped closer.
Five flights of stairs later, I was inside, surrounded by four dirty white walls amplified by fluorescent lighting. There was one other person in the one-room shop—a mustachioed, overweight, balding man behind the counter who looked me up and down two times when I entered.
“I’m just looking,” I said with a polite, tight smile.
“Let me help,” he insisted, his eyes following mine as I scanned the unimpressive selection of vibrators.
“No, that’s OK,” I said more firmly.
All I could come up with was “Sik istemiyorum,” which literally translates to “I don’t want penis.”
“I bet I know what you want,” he said, pointing to the back wall of nothing but dildos in every size and color. When I hemmed and hawed—what’s the Turkish word for dildo?—he held up a pudgy finger, disappeared behind a filing cabinet and returned with something black that was the size of my forearm as well as what appeared to be a bright red boomerang.
All I could come up with was “Sik istemiyorum,” which literally translates to “I don’t want penis.” That seemed to throw him off long enough for me to get out.
My second time, at a shop in Sishane, the atmosphere was less garish, even if it did have a Vegas-style sign. Inside, it still felt like being in someone’s dingy apartment, but I did appreciate that there were two fewer flights of stairs and the lack of fluorescent lighting. Actually, there was less lighting altogether.
Somehow I ended up haggling over the price of a vibrator. It indeed was a sleek, silicone beauty, but I was not about to fork over TL 350 (roughly $180), even if it did have seven speeds. My friend, a Turkish gay rights activist, was helping me haggle. But it was still an unnerving experience.
The shop owner spoke up. “But this one is very special. Isn’t it worth it?” Was he smirking, or was I imagining it?
I left empty-handed. And then I downed a pitcher of Turkified sangria.
“Stop your whining,” my friend told me. There was another sex shop, “owned and operated by a woman,” he said. It would be different.
That’s how I came to be chasing down an address scribbled on the back of a receipt and weaving in and out of the side streets of Taksim on a perfectly good spring day.
Tucked away on a leafy side street among beige and taupe buildings in the quiet, upscale residential neighborhood of Gumussuyu, Eromega is not the kind of place one just stumbles upon.
Unlike those at its competitors on the opposite side of Taksim Square, there are no neon lights or flashing arrows announcing the sex shop’s presence. The 8” x 11” “Eromega” sign is easy to miss next to the bars of the first-floor window of what looks to be a newly painted apartment complex.
I rang the doorbell, but no one answered. The entire building was dark. Eromega apparently was closed. It was closed the second time I trekked out there, too, a far cry from the erotic shops on Tarlabasi Boulevard, which never shut down, their neon lights blinking long after the nightclubs close.
When I dialed the number on the website, the female voice on the other end sounded calm, bland. “We have normal working hours and are closed on Sundays. But just call the next time you want to visit, and I will make sure I am there,” she said. “You will see Eromega does not operate like other sex shops.”
So, I made my third trip the next day.
There to greet me on the second floor was a middle-aged woman wearing a fluffy lavender sweater, a colorful butterfly pin and pearls. I’m not sure what I expected the female owner of a Turkish sex shop to look like but I had not been expecting what I got: someone who resembled my mother.
She told me her first name is Reyhan, but wouldn’t say her last name.
She has good reason, it turns out, for her shyness. According to Turkish law, erotic shops cannot be located on the ground level, as they are across Europe. Last November, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered all “erotic shops” in the Turkish capital of Ankara be renamed “love shops” because he’s “disturbed” by them.
Dr. Gulum Bacanak of the Turkish Sexual Health Institute is not surprised that it’s so taboo. “In Turkey, you cannot ask about sex shops directly because they are considered shameful,” she said, adding that many of her patients are curious, but dare not go look for themselves. “Whenever Turkish society begins to see sex as a normal part of life, they will accept and talk openly about sex shops.”
Even the people who work at sex shops in Turkey have a hard time talking about it.
Women “should be able to shop at a sex shop like they would for clothing,” she said.
Volkan, an Istanbul sex shop owner who was interviewed in Aylin Ohri’s 2010 documentary “Sex Shops in Istanbul”, has been doing this for a decade. Not a single member of his family knows. “I don’t need to say that they find these things wrong,” he tells the camera.
Women in Turkey are especially shut out of the conversation. According to the sex shop owners Ohri interviewed, the proportion of their customers who are women is, as Ohri told me, “seriously low.”
Eromega’s unique selling point: women do not get sexually harassed when they shop there.
It can be challenging enough to be a woman in Turkey, where 39 percent of women have suffered physical violence at some time in their lives according to a 2011 United Nations report (higher than the U.S. or Europe) and Prime Minister Erdogan has suggested that each woman should have at least four children. So Reyhan tailors her shop to their needs.
“That women feel comfortable walking in is important. They should be able to shop at a sex shop like they would for clothing,” she said. “But this is a conservative country.”
One of Eromega’s unique selling points is very basic: women do not get sexually harassed when they shop there.
“When a woman walks into a typical sex shop in Turkey, they [the shop owners] think that gives them the license to harass her. ‘She must be promiscuous if she shops here,’ they think.”
If Reyhan knows a group of women is coming, she shuts down Eromega so they have the place to themselves.
Not even the Gezi protests have hurt business, she said.
But when she opened up shop in 1992, Reyhan didn’t give all of that much thought. “I simply saw a demand,” she shrugged.
Despite its discreet location and largely word-of-mouth operation, Eromega has had no problem drawing customers since. “My customers come all the way from Antalya [in southern Turkey] and around the country.”
Not even the massive anti-government Occupy Gezi protests, which erupted last month only a 10-minute walk away from her shop, have hurt business, she said.
Eromega is contained in two rooms, one of which is Reyhan’s private office, on the second floor. The lighting is soft. “If there’s something you don’t see, just let me know. We have a depot in Kadikoy and, if they don’t have it, we are happy to find it for you,” she told my friend, who was holding a hot pink vibrator.
Reyhan is happy with her operation but she dreams of more.
“I’ve heard about sex shops in Europe and the United States. They’re on the ground floor and have teams of employees. Women very comfortably peruse them,” she said as she ran her palms against her modest bookshelves of sex toys. “They sound beautiful and professional.”
Eromega may not be Turkey’s first sex shop, and Reyhan may not be the only female owner of one. But that a woman owns and operates a well-established sex shop in a country where both are taboo is indeed something.
‘We’re not like other sex shops, right?” she said with a half-smile on my way out.
I had another appointment to get to then, but I left hoping we could talk a bit more about what it’s like to run Eromega. After that day, however, she stopped returning my calls or answering my emails. Which, in its own way, told me everything I needed to know.