Queering Sexualities in Turkey: Gay Men, Male Prostitutes and the City

cover image

By: Cenk Özbay

Publisher: I.B. Tauris

London: I. B. Tauris. 194pp. $99.00, ISBN: 9781784533175

Volume: 5 Issue: 12

December 2017

Review by:

Saffo Papantonopoulou

University of Arizona

Tucson, Arizona

Based on over a decade of fieldwork and interviews with male sex workers and their clients in Istanbul, Cenk Özbey’s extensively researched study provides a much-needed insight into the issues of masculinity, (homo)eroticism, sexuality, gender and class in the world of transactional gay sex in neoliberal Turkey. His work will prove invaluable reading for those researchers across various disciplines interested in queer studies, sexuality and gender studies, masculinity, and sex work. The primary focus of Özbey’s research, the “rent boy,” is typically a lower-class, straight-identified man from the Istanbul’s outer suburbs who travels to the city center in order to engage in sex work with upper-class gay men. Many of these men insist that they are heterosexual (or “normal”), that they are “top-only” (only playing the role of penetrator, never penetrated), and that they do not experience any sexual pleasure or desire in their encounters with gay men. As Özbey recounts, one of the most common questions he experienced the most often was as follows: “Why do they not just quit sex work and stop being rent boys if, as they say, they do not like having sex with men or gay culture?” (153) He recounts that many believe that rent boys are “really” gay men.

Özbey’s research, however, intentionally eschews the problematic question of a “real” sexual orientation and rather looks at other benefits for rent boys, such as material benefits. Furthermore, he explores some of the contradictory discourses, practices, and anxieties around desire and pleasure experienced by rent boys. For example, rent boys, in his description, develop intricate practices in order to navigate these sexualized spaces. In some of his interviews, some rent boys speak about experiencing pleasure when having sex with younger, attractive men. One of the biggest anxieties which Özbey describes is the anxiety of getting penetrated— for this reason, they must avoid getting too drunk at the bar, they must closely monitor the kinds of contact and interaction they have with other rent boys, etc. (The fear of attraction between two rent boys, for instance, is one which he discusses extensively, as is the fear for a rent boy that another rent boy may touch his ass while dancing at the bar.) There are many risks for rent boys, which threaten to destabilize their extensively cultivated masculinity. One of the biggest fears is the fear of “becoming gay,” that by spending too much time with gay men, getting too close to them, they risk becoming one. In fact, there are examples of rent boys who eventually came out as gay. At the same time, there are also rent boys who eventually quit and went back to their heterosexual, “normal” lives.

Rather than essentializing rent boys as “really gay,” (as many of his gay informants do), Özbey shows how rent boys destabilize the apparently self-evident categories of “heterosexual” and “homosexual.” He cites Halberstam’s concept of queer spatiality and temporality to argue that “rent boys in Istanbul subvert the imagined balance between erotic practices, sexual identities and regulations… while they embody an inconsistent, in-between and oscillating position, through which they produce sexual subjectivities.” (108) He argues that “rent boys are queer subjects because they simultaneously expose how homosexuals become homosexual and heterosexuals become heterosexual… in addition to their distanced and unscrupulous attitude towards these two sexually regulating categories, discourses and erotic regimes.” (109) Rent boys trouble the categories of “heterosexual” and “homosexual” through their transgressions— which, in turn, makes them a particular kind of queer subject. While Özbey’s book helps problematize these categories, it also exposes the ways in which “gay” as a category references class as much as sexuality. Lower class boys from the suburbs are not allowed to be “gay” even if they experience sexual desire for male bodies, precisely because “gay” is a class position from which they are excluded.

Central to the book is the concept of “exaggerated masculinity.” Rent boys, Özbey argues, perform exaggerated masculinity as a way of keeping their heterosexual identity intact despite having sex with men. They do this for multiple reasons, but one of the primary reasons is that middle-class gay men fetishize the “authentic” masculinity of lower-class rent boys. The sexualization of lower-class masculinity puts rent boys into a delicate situation: on the one hand, they must maintain this performance of masculinity, and not “become gay”; on the other hand, it is precisely through engaging in sex with men that the very masculinity they must sell becomes threatened. In fact, as Özbey demonstrates, both middle-class gay men and lower-class rent boys are performing certain scripted gender roles. At the beginning of Chapter 5, Özbey shares a quote from Judith Butler: “The thought of sexual difference within homosexuality has yet to be theorised in its complexity.” (125) This book accomplishes exactly that.

“Exaggerated masculinity” is tied to another key component of Özbey’s argument: the idea that this kind of performance is also tied to the production of a neoliberal, cultivated, marketable self. It is at this step in the argument, however, that I find a problem in an otherwise well-written and researched book. Although he does draw in the historical trajectory of Turkish neoliberalism, these connections remain somewhat unconvincing. The book could have stood to delve a little more into theories of neoliberalism, and what neoliberalism looks like in a Turkish context, in order to connect it with the production of neoliberal selves on the part of rent boys. Furthermore, is it not the case that sex work has always involved a kind of self-fashioning and self-marketization? Is this aspect of male sex work in Istanbul really a manifestation of neoliberalism or is it simply a product of capitalism? In order to address these questions, however, Özbey would have had to expand the scope of his research to include oral history or other historical research, and there is only so much one can do in one book.

Another weakness which makes the book somewhat difficult to follow at times are the inconsistencies between discourse and practice which are often described but sometimes left hanging, in need of more conceptual connections. At times, the book describes certain socio-cultural archetypes and practices in great detail (how rent boys dance in clubs, what kinds of cologne they wear, what their relationships are with other rent boys, to name a few examples) while, a few pages later, interviews and examples show us the exceptions to these rules (rent boys experiencing pleasure in their sexual encounters with gay men, rent boys having sex or forming romantic relationships with other rent boys, for example.) If the book seems to contradict itself, however, that is because Özbey is dealing with a very contradictory subject. There is a larger methodological question, here, then, of how to present the reader with socio-cultural or discursive archetypes which have certain truth-value, while also exploring the contradictions and inconsistencies of these discourses. Overall, the book does a good job dealing with these questions, but there are moments when the reader may get confused. But perhaps this is also a testament to the book’s strengths, as many careful readers will come away from the book with even more questions for further research and exploration.

Finally, at the risk of over-criticizing an otherwise well-written and researched book, there is one more critique which bears mentioning. Özbey situates rent boys as troubling the discourses of homosexuality and heterosexuality in Turkey. However, there is a wide range of literature on the history of sexuality in the Balkans and Middle East which demonstrates that historically, masculinity in the region was defined in terms of penetration, and not the gender or body of the penetrated— that is, the “queer” was only the one being penetrated, that the “man” maintained his “normal” masculinity so long as he was the one penetrating, regardless of whether it was a man or woman he penetrated. From this perspective, doesn’t the rent boy’s sexuality represent more of a continuation with a historical norm than a transgression? If sexuality in Turkey really is otherwise conceptualized along the lines of a (western) heterosexual/homosexual binary— a background against which the rent boy intervenes— doesn’t that transformation require accounting for? From my own ethnographic research in both Turkey and Greece, I can say that the western heterosexual/homosexual binary is not as fully hegemonic as in the west.

Despite the aforementioned limitations, Queering Sexualities in Turkey will prove vital reading for anyone interested in issues of gender, sexuality, and sex work in Turkey, the Middle East and Balkans, as well as students of gender and sexuality more generally. His demonstration of the ways in which “gay” serves as a signifier of class along with sexuality will provide a compelling case for the field of queer studies, and his last chapter, documenting how the marketplace of male sex work in Turkey shifted drastically during the last years of his research, will provide interesting material for anybody interested in the rapidly shifting terrain of contemporary Turkish politics. His exploration of the middle-class fetishization of lower-class masculinity will prove interesting for anyone interested in the intersections of class and sexuality. This is a book which will provide a wealth of insight for researchers with a wide variety of interests.


Reviews By Year

Reviews By Category