Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 38
14 June 1999

Kazi Stastna W E A K   T H I S   W E E K:
Of Sexologists and Strangers
in the Steamy Summer Night

Kazi Stastna

After returning from spending two weeks outside of the Czech Republic, it was refreshing to see that Czech media had not come out of the cave in my absence. Nothing had happened to dramatically swing public debate into the late twentieth century. "Vse pri starem" as the Czech saying goes same as it ever was. Moreover, as evidenced by the first Czech newspaper I picked up, gender relations had remained firmly locked somewhere around 1950.

"The Number of Rape Cases Rises in the Hot Days of Summer" read the headline in the 9 June edition of the daily Lidove noviny (LN), followed by another underneath: "The Decision to Defend Oneself Requires Good Judgement" Underneath, a photograph showed a young blonde woman in a white miniskirt on a park bench, eyes seductively turned downward toward her bust, hands delicately arranging her cropped halter top, which was unzipped just about a third of the way down, while a shady character in dark sunglasses looked lecherously on from an adjoining bench. "Experts warn that in some situations, women should restrict provocative behaviour for their own safety," read the caption.

A joke? A spoof?

Afraid not.

What followed were two short articles which rattled off every outdated myth and stereotype about rape in the book. The top article purported to deal with the incidence of rape in the Czech Republic while the bottom one posed the question of whether women should or should not actively defend themselves when being raped. Amazingly enough, the first article had little to do with the issue of rape and instead expounded on the thesis introduced in the lead paragraph: "In the hot summer days, women attract men's attention with short skirts, exposed shoulders, and scooping necklines. However, the pleasant interest of passers-by can turn into a dangerous situation which can lead to rape."

Serious evidence was then presented in the form of statements given by "experts" such as sexologist Antonin Brzek:. "No matter how much man has distanced himself from nature, a part of his biological foundations remains. Thus it is still true that with the onset of spring, his sex drive rises. The fact that women expose themselves more and wear short skirts [at this time of year] also plays a role." Explains the sexologist Antonin Brousek.

Read: She was asking for it.

OK, so that's one myth that I thought went into the bra-fuelled bonfire of Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and co. covered. What next?

"Police claim that typical assaults and rapes of women occur in the open air - in abandoned places, parks or dark passages."

No mention of cosy kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms or any other number of familiar, "safe," well-lighted places which can be the site of date or acquaintance rape. In fact, at no point do the articles - or the accompanying graphics for that matter - stray from the image of the shady, evil stranger lurking in the dark corner and the provocatively dressed temptress needlessly provoking his biological needs which by the way, did you know, are proportional to seasonal temperatures: the warm weather is apparently "more comfortable for rapists than frost or snow," according to sexologist Antonin Brzek.

But don't worry girls when the heat is on, Lidove noviny can help with some handy tips on "How women should prevent assault." Always a fan of the boxed-off pro-con five easy steps view of the universe - see some charts that have appeared recently, such as the "Western type" of person versus the "Eastern type" and the positive versus negative points of refugee camps, which featured such foreboding negatives as: "refugees have different customs," "refugees are unable to assimilate thoroughly," and such bright positives as: "[refugee camps provide] outlets for various goods such as foodstuffs" and "new employment opportunities." - LN again produced a stellar line up of dos and don'ts:

"Do not needlessly attract men's attention to yourself. Do not provoke."

"Do not hitchhike, even in pairs."

"Associate only with friends. Do not invite strangers or brief acquaintances into your home."

The utterly primitive and misleading nature in which the issue of rape is restricted to the confines of "strangers" and drunk "deviants" lurking in dark corners soon takes on an almost surreal quality. That is until one realises that this is the manner in which this serious issue is being addressed by one of the country's major dailies. Sociological causes, attitudes of the general public, media, police officers and government officials towards violence against women, legislative shortcoming - such as the fact that rape is not registered as a separate offence under the Czech criminal code - and other key considerations are utterly absent.

Domestic violence? Date and acquaintance rape? These seem to be foreign terms in the current Czech vocabulary. When I tried to find out in how many of the article's quoted 675 cases of rape reported in the country last year the victim knew her attacker, I came up empty handed. After phoning the Prague Center for Gender Studies, the women's rights organisation Rosa, which purportedly deals specifically with domestic violence, the press office of the Prague police department and the section of that department responsible for what is still referred to as "moral misconduct," I was told that no such statistics were kept and the closest thing I could find out would be how many of the suspects had been apprehended.

Domestic violence and acquaintance rape may be phenomena that are absent from the public debate and the record books, but they most certainly are not absent from Czech society. According to statistics compiled in the early 1990s by NOW (National Organisation for Women) in the United States, more than half of the rape victims which report their assault know their attackers. Women's groups insist that this figure does not vary widely across race, class or nationality and that there is little reason to believe that the numbers in the Czech Republic are dramatically different.

Nevertheless, it is hard to address the issue when no numbers exist at all. Or is it? The problem of data and statistics is one which women's rights groups in the Czech Republic hit upon constantly. At an International Women's Day panel discussion in March at Prague's Roxy Club, which brought together government representatives such as Government Commissioner for Human Rights Petr Uhl, the EU ambassador to the Czech Republic Ramiro Cibrian and women' s rights groups such as Nadace Rosa and the Prague Gender Studies Center, as well as Czech sociologists Jirina Siklova and Hana Havelkova, the panellists kept teetering back and forth between the assertion that there were and that there were not enough statistics compiled on instances of violence against women in the Czech Republic. On one hand, activists complained that not enough data about the problems of violence against women was being kept, and on the other hand when some government officials suggested that more data needs to be compiled, they defensively insisted enough data already exists to address the problem. What neither side mentioned, however, is that this problem will resolve itself once these issues enter the sphere of public debate: once violence against women starts being seriously addressed in the press - instead of simply being illustrated with sultry bust shots - journalists will start requesting statistics and finding that none exist, and one would hope that eventually government and statistics offices will have to start providing them. Once police start specifically investigating cases of violence against women, instead of lumping them under vague designations of violent crime, they will need statistics to help them confront the problem on a wider scale and to organise prevention and public education programs. Until that time, however, these serious societal problems will remain backroom issues discussed between marginalized activists and well-intentioned government officials, and Czech media will continue to focus on stereotypical sexist myths, authenticating them with vibrant commentary from professional "sexologists."

The phenomenon of "sexologists" is itself a fascinating one and seems to be rather unique to the Czech Republic. My question is who are these people? And why do I care what they have to say? Never in my life have I seen and heard so many sexologists quoted in the media as I have in this country. Sure, I am no stranger to Dr Ruth - but I hardly remember seeing her expert advice on the passing of a new bill on the rights of same-sex couples appear in the national dailies. I did, however, see the pit bull-like mug of renowned sexologist, ODS MP and Chairman of the Government Committee on EU Integration Jaroslav Zverina in the 3 March 1999 edition of Pravo, next to a 70s-era sketch of two women engaging in some light petting - a bathrobe slipping seductively off one of their airbrushed shoulders - and an article on a proposed government bill on gay rights. Unfortunately I can't tell you what Dr Zverina had to say on the issue because I stopped reading after the interviewer's first question: "How does a person become a homosexual?"

Any time an issue even remotely related to gender or sexual orientation appears in the Czech media, the sexologists come out of the woodwork to give their "expert" opinion. There is hardly ever any talk of the actual societal issues at stake, such as human rights, gay rights or women's rights. Instead, the entire discussion is bathed in a rhetoric of "sexual urges" and "natural biology."

Such was the case when the aforementioned Dr Zverina gave his professional assessment of the issue of violence against women at the International Women's day panel discussion. He felt the need to remind the crowd of approximately 50 women of the insurmountable "biological differences" between men and women and pointed out that it is a general well-known characteristic that men are "stronger and more aggressive and tend to ward more socially dominant attitudes." (Again, I am hearing echoes of Wild Kingdom and bad 1950s health class film reels, here.). Perhaps not the best remark to make during a discussion focused on domestic violence, wage, employment and social inequalities and the sex trade.

More disturbing than hearing these pseudo-biological, utterly irrelevant arguments coming from Dr Zverina is hearing them coming from the mouths of some of the country's supposed activists and feminists, such as Olga Sommerova - the director of the documentary film Cesky feminsimus (Czech feminism) - who echoed similar tenets at the Jihlava Film Festival last fall [see related article in CER].

During my recent two-week stay in Canada, I spent several hours arguing with my emigre parents over the state of Czech feminism. My mother - who grew up in the Czech Republic, studied mathematics at Charles University and later taught at the same faculty - paraded out the usual array of arguments of "why Czech women don't need feminism," which are often used by some of the most high-profile Czech women's rights activists, such as Jirina Siklova: all women worked under Communism; the idea of gender equality in the West is hypocritical and artificial and plagued by hysterical political correctness; in reality, Czech women are much more emancipated than their Western counterparts. I in turn countered with examples from the daily realities of every one of her "emancipated" female Czech friends, who despite working in traditionally "male" fields such as mathematics, physics and engineering carry a double burden because it is never questioned that they should also bear the full brunt of domestic work and family life, and are subject to discriminatory stereotypes both in the home and society at large.

It was reassuring to have my arguments confirmed so soon upon my return. The articles on rape in Lidove noviny demonstrated not only why Czechs need feminism but also why Czechs need to get off their newly purchased Ikea furniture and scream for public debate on a range of issues which are bubbling under the surface and will likely explode one day in the near future.

Kazi Stastna, 14 June 1999

Addendum: In the same issue of Lidove noviny, three pages earlier than the above-discussed articles, a fill-in survey appeared for the "Nejsympatictejsi ceska zena '99," what amounts approximately to Miss Czech Congeniality '99 or the most "pleasant" and "likeable" Czech woman of the year. I am assuming the pool of contenders will be taken from the most recent issues of Xantypa and the Czech version of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, because the number of women in Czech public life is so abysmally minimal that aside from models, actresses and TV moderators, I am not sure who the public should be choosing from here. Judging by LN's own pages, unless readers revolt and vote only for their mothers and other close relatives, it will be no contest, since Social Democrat MP and Deputy Premier Petra Buzkova is really the only female to ever get top billing on any issues (although occasionally the less photogenic Speaker of the Senate Libuse Bensova does get a column inch or two) and over the past several years has been consistently voted the most popular politician in the country.


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