It's bad luck on Turkey that this weekend's Copenhagen summit, where its new government pressed its case for admission to the EU, coincided with sensational headlines about a Turkish "love cheat". Rachel Lloyd, a 14-year-old schoolgirl from Wrexham, north Wales, apparently travelled to Turkey on a forged passport to "marry" Mehmet Ocack, a 24-year-old waiter she met on holiday. Ocack is said to have had a string of previous British lovers, several of whom came forward to denounce him as a "serial sex pest" – as well as proudly producing holiday snaps of themselves with the Mediterranean Lothario.
Reports in British newspapers were quick to compare Lloyd with Sarah Cook from Braintree in Essex, who went through a wedding ceremony with a Turkish waiter in 1996 at the age of 13, and gave birth to his son. For anyone familiar with Orientalist discourse, the subtext is wearily familiar: Western girls corrupted by the exotic East, an alien Islamic culture that does not share our modern secular values. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as the Turkish authorities demonstrated on Friday, when they charged Ocack with rape.
Turkey has been ferociously secular since the early 20th century. If we are not anxious about millions of conservative Polish Catholics joining the EU, I can't see why we should worry about Turkey on religious grounds. There are problems with its application, which has just been put on hold for a further two years – a considerable advance on the EU's previous offer of 2008, despite Turkey's ritual display of irritation last week – but they are a consequence of the country's dreadful human-rights record.
The outgoing government, which lost the general election in the autumn, made historic changes to the Turkish constitution, which should have dramatic effects if and when they are fully implemented. But the 12-and-a-half-year jail sentence handed down in October to a young magazine editor who was raped, tortured and held in custody without a full trial for more than five years, shows how difficult it is to challenge the culture of impunity that still flourishes in Turkish police stations and prisons.
Asiye Zeybek, whom I have been closely involved with as chair of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee, was able to reach Stockholm before the trial with our help and has now applied for political asylum in Sweden. But an atmosphere of uncertainty and intimidation continues to envelop Turkish journalists, authors and academics. The authorities no longer imprison large numbers of writers and publishers, but I know of hundreds who are threatened with censorship and lengthy court proceedings.
Against this background, the tabloid fury generated by a lone Turkish barman misses the point by a mile. Lloyd's infatuation with an older man happened in a coastal town where sex tourism has become an unappealing feature of summer life. Most tourists are over the age of consent but occasionally – and this does not excuse the men – the relationships involve sexually precocious teenage girls.
On the day coaches leave Bodrum and Marmaris for the airport, it is not uncommon to see British women clinging to Turkish waiters, saying emotional farewells to men they have wined, dined and bedded for the previous couple of weeks. It is safe to say that these women are interested in chicken-and-chips and sex, not Turkey's great heritage; everyone understands the deal, which reflects the desperate state of the Turkish economy and the superior economic status of working-class British women, compared with local men.
But it is a recent import, sanctioning behaviour that would cause consternation in rural areas, where sex outside marriage is nothing like as acceptable as it is in British towns and cities. Ironically, Cook returned to Essex after marrying her waiter, unable to adapt to her in-laws' expectation that she would stay at home and wear a headscarf. Not long after, at the age of 15 she gave birth to a second child, fathered by a British man.
The UK has the worst record of under-age pregnancy in Western Europe, a fact that cannot be disguised by lurid stories about our girls being corrupted by Turkish love rats. These episodes do not reflect well on either culture, and they certainly should not be used to imply that the Turks are a bunch of white slavers who cannot possibly be admitted to the European club.