Written by Terje B. Englund
Re-published with permission
One of the first things that meet you when you cross the borders into the Czech Republic is an enormous number of “erotic clubs”, which is the local euphemism for an institution most other countries know as brothels. Actually, they are not limited only to the border region. Every Czech city with some self-respect boasts at least one erotic club, a massage parlour, or hotel with “extended services”, where men (there are erotic clubs for women too, but rather few) are helped to rid their flesh of lust.
This may lead you to conclude that the Czechs are completely obsessed with sex. Unfortunately, that´s not entirely correct. Instead, the incredible congregation of brothels primarily reflects the fact that the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution has become one of Europe´s major destinations for sex-tourism. And the reason for this is not only the geographical proximity to Western Europe and a pleasant price tag, but also the country´s traditionally liberal attitude towards moral issues, which has led to an equally relaxed relationship towards sex – including the kind available for money.
Where sexual habits are concerned, the Czechs seem to be perfectly in the middle of the road. Recent surveys show that the average Czech has sexual intercourse 144 times a year, which is less frequently than the average American (who is exaggerating, as always), but more often than the Japanese (who´s probably ashamed to tell the truth). The Czechs have their first sexual experience somewhat later than the average Scandinavian (at 18 for both men and women), but earlier than what is common in Italy and Spain, while the percentage of homosexuals, logically, corresponds to the average in Western Europe.
The condom producer Durex places the Czech Republic in a European context with these words: “The Czechs have sex as often as the French, they start their sexual life as early as the Dutch, and they fear venereal disease as little as the Italians.”
Still, the Czechs can book one sexual world record: few other countries can boast a more liberal attitude towards marital infidelity. A survey conducted by the company TNS Factum in 2003 showed that Czechs, on one hand, consider “life in a happy family” to be of the utmost importance. On the other hand, they tolerate – and conduct – marital infidelity to an extent that is matched globally only by the Bulgarians and Russians. What´s the reason for this anomaly?
It´s certainly not too wild to guess that it has its root in the era of communism. Many ugly things can be said about the Czechoslovak Bolsheviks, but they shall be credited for one thing: they lavishly financed the establishment of families; i.e. of marriages. As the sociologist Jiří Černý explained in an article in Lidové Noviny daily, the goal of this policy was to turn the family into a social instrument that produced new labourers, took care of the elderly, and stuffed each citizen into collectives that discouraged him or her from “dangerous individualism”. The state even encouraged young people to marry by offering them “marital loans”, which secured young Czechs an economic head start that Westerners of similar age could only dream of.
In this area, the communists were extremely successful. While young people in Western countries happily enjoyed the fruits of the sexual revolution, young Czechs often married the first sexual partner in their life. As late as 1988, the average bride was 21 years old, and her husband-to-be three years older. Since men regarded the use of condoms as a nuisance and women – quite justifiably – feared the locally produced hormonal contraception, they also had children at a significantly earlier age than in the West.
Marriage was, in other words, the only officially tolerated means in which two young Czechs could live together. What´s more, it also became an economic necessity. With next to no flats rented to singles and a wage level that granted the individual only the most modest existence, marriage represented financial security. Besides that, it gave children a good start in life (surveys show that the otherwise liberal Czechs still are pretty intolerant of children born out of wedlock). During the ultra-pragmatic normalization in the 1970s and 1980s, the economic aspect of marriage became so important that it wholly overshadowed its other ingredients. This attitude still lingers on.
In addition to the utilitarian attitude towards marriage, the grey and dull life in communist Czechoslovakia did little to enhance marital fidelity. It was hard to travel abroad, it took extreme efforts to get hold of consumer goods that were common to every Westerner, and it made no sense to pursue a career (it often required great humiliations, and your pay didn´t rise much anyway). So what did you do? Enjoy all the fleshy temptations that life could give. The writer Milan Kundera does not have many fans in the Czech Republic, but he´s at least credited for one thing: in his novels, he gave a vivid picture of how the Czechs used sex and promiscuity as a remedy against their Weltschmerz!
The fall of communism has brought about some interesting changes. Marriage rate has plummeted from 90.000 weddings in 1990 to some 49.000 in 2003 (which means that marital infidelity, and not necessarily promiscuity, is becoming less widespread), and the average Czech is getting married at a later age than ten years ago. Simultaneously, Czech women now have unlimited access to Western hormonal contraception, as well as the possibility of pursuing a career that secures them economic independence. As a result, the number of women preferring to remain single and have casual sexual relations instead of getting married has skyrocketed. Currently, every third child is born to an unmarried mother.
The most palpable change, however, is that the communist regime´s silly prudery has been replaced by a strongly liberal attitude towards anything that smacks of sex. What a decade and a half ago was shrouded in deepest privacy is now demonstrated openly on every street and corner.
In that respect, it was hardly a coincidence that in 1995 the Czech broadcaster TV Nova became the first in Europe to feature naked weather forecasters. The reactions that this revolutionary innovation evoked are equally telling. Hordes of female viewers bombarded the TV station with letters to express their anger. Not about the nude forecasters, but about the fact that they were all women! Some weeks later, Nova admitted its guilt, and introduced nude males as well…