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  • Securing Sex: Morality and Repression in the Making of Cold War Brazil by Benjamin A. Cowan
  • Bryan McCann
Securing Sex: Morality and Repression in the Making of Cold War Brazil. By Benjamin A. Cowan (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2016) 324pp. $85.00 cloth $32.95 paper $24.99 e-book

Securing Sex is a major contribution to our understanding of the Brazilian military dictatorship of 1964 to 1985, using balanced, rigorous interdisciplinary methodology to offer new perspectives on a dark period in Brazilian history. The book explores the evolution and adaptation of a highly flexible and sometimes inchoate political right wing to cultural change, and the subsequent articulation of understandings of sexuality, decency, and citizenship in response to those adaptations. Cowan analyzes in detail the connection between Brazil’s right wing and a broader fear of modernization to show how right-wing thinkers and policy-makers conflated changing social mores with communist subversion. In some cases, right-wing leaders did so disingenuously, to attract support for their own repressive goals. But Cowan reveals a more prevalent sense on the right that the increasing prominence of premarital sex, homosexuality, birth control, marijuana use, and a host of other cultural transformations in Brazilian society were manifestations of communist conspiracy.

Cowan is primarily a cultural historian, analyzing shifting sensibilities through careful readings of a diverse array of evidence ranging from right-wing pamphlets and political cartoons to theatrical productions and films. But he is also a serious intellectual historian, giving right-wing thinkers their due, carefully considering their participation in the contentious debate that characterized the period. The panicked reactions of conservative moralists to an apparent loosening of social restrictions offer many opportunities for amusement, which, to his credit, Cowan does not miss, reproducing outlandish cartoons and bizarre quotations that show how easily moral outrage turned into paranoid delusion with a rightward turn of the screw. But he by no means dismisses the complexity and sophistication of subtler right-wing thinkers, such as the prominent Catholic conservative Gustavo Corção. One of the strengths [End Page 112] of Cowan’s interdisciplinary work is to show how Corção’s ideas became intensified and distorted in the echo chamber of new think tanks and military circles. Cowan grounds this analysis firmly in a social-historical inquiry that is well attuned to the changing material circumstances and characteristics of Brazil’s largely conservative middle class.

Cowan conducted research in a dozen archives, including several restricted-access military archives, uncovering rich and previously unexplored textual evidence, such as internal military communiqués. He balances this evidence with a judicious use of the popular press from cities as widespread as Porto Alegre in the far south to Recife in the northeast, moving beyond the focus on Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo that characterizes many studies. He also draws effectively from oral histories, few in number but rich in detail and reflection. This varied approach gives the book a satisfying evidentiary breadth and depth.

In the final chapters, Cowan demonstrates the contradictions that emerged during the later stages of the dictatorship. As the regime sought to stoke consumption in the middle-class leisure sector, to protect a domestic film industry that specialized in slapstick sex comedies, and to appease a restive student population, it began to sponsor some of the cultural manifestations that early hardliners vociferously had condemned. Unable to resolve these contradictions, the regime became increasingly incoherent. In the meantime, the same cultural forces of change that had initially frightened the right wing coalesced into identity-based movements, pushing for re-democratization. Cowan thus emerges with a new understanding of both the logic behind the dictatorship and the forces impelling it toward a gradual relaxation of standards from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s.

Bryan McCann
Georgetown University


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pp. 112-113
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