Spring is imperceptibly deepening into summer, thickening the foliage in Slovak parks and recreation areas, and marking the return of one of the nation's most obnoxious pests - the exhibitionist.
Men who exhibit their genitals to strange women and children are on the rise in Bratislava, and are growing increasingly bold. Only a few years ago, women were accustomed to being flashed only in more remote settings and only when the light was poor. But exhibitionists - known in Slovak as úchyláci - now practice their sordid trade in broad daylight and at main thoroughfares in the capital.
While the police say that only two complaints against exhibitionists have been filed in Bratislava since the beginning of 1998, and that therefore exhibitionists are dying out, the many women who have been the targets of these attacks say that flashing is on the rise in the country. Psychologists and sociologists agree with the latter view, linking the rise in perverts to the influx of hard-core pornography from the west and the social tensions caused by Slovakia's transformation to a free market economy.
So why do the police seem to be either oblivious or indifferent to the problem? Part of the reason may be that women and children are reluctant to report such incidents, reasoning that nothing would happen if they did. Fair enough - in order to get one of these perverts put in jail, a victim would have to first identify the flasher and then prove that he had dropped his pants, a difficult task without a camera or witnesses. Even then, the flasher would not serve any time unless he was a repeat offender.
The other source of complacency surely is the fact that the police are following rather than leading on this issue. Slovak society as a whole has yet to decide what levels of public lewdness it is willing to accept, from flashers as well as from pornography distributors and the media in general.
Very soon after the fall of communism in 1989, hard-core pornography became available across the counter at Slovak magazine kiosks. It was not uncommon to see a black-shawled granny buying her daily newspaper from a kiosk window framed with pornographic magazines depicting all manner of obscene acts.
Porno is still with us, and it has been joined by a private TV station - TV Markíza - which has slowly become a vehicle for soft porn and an advertising medium for phone-sex lines. The station has paid a number of fines to the Radio and Television Broadcasting Council for breaking the rules on what sex acts it can show, but seems only to have increased its sex programming over the last year and a half.
And it doesn't end with sexual pornography. TV Markíza has always pushed the limits of what kind of news pictures a television station should be allowed to broadcast, and now regularly pokes its cameras into the bloody interiors of wrecked cars or around the corners of grisly murder scenes. This, too, is a kind of pornography - that of human misery - and erodes standards of public behaviour in much the same way that sexual pornography promotes ambivalence about flashers.
This is precisely why it is so important that the police take action against flashers, frotteurs, obscene callers and perverts of all kinds. People are deeply unsure of how to handle the rapid changes in public morality and sexuality since communism - so unsure, in fact, that they have stopped reporting flashers. The police, therefore, need to tell people what the law says, and to reassure women that male sex offenders will be pursued and punished. This calls for an information campaign, not a complacent denial that perverts are proliferating.
In more established countries, the justice system is meant to be an extension of the popular will. But in Slovak society, which is still plastering over the cracks caused by seismic activity since 1989, the will of the public is still far to nebulous a quantity to arm the police or the courts with real authority. Instead, the legal system itself must lead the public - in fighting sex offenders, as well as the mafia and political corruption - until the public finds the confidence to fight for itself.
26. Apr 1999 at 0:00