- Securing Sex: Morality and Repression in the Making of Cold War Brazil by Benjamin A. Cowan
The collection of sociopolitical changes brought on by the military dictatorships throughout the Southern Cone in the twentieth century is a well-studied and complex moment in the history of Latin America. The Brazilian context offers a rich quarry to mine but has also presented a number of challenges in source material. Benjamin Cowan’s Securing Sex skillfully examines the right-wing narrative that sought to fuse anticommunism with warnings about the perceived threat of declining morality. Cowan’s book “recovers the lost stories of the repressive Right” (4) by building on past accounts to more fully flesh out the complexities of this period.
Structuring his analysis around Getulio Vargas’s rise to power in 1930 through the military dictatorships that ended in the 1980s, Cowan investigates the confluence of political change and social anxiety through the lens of right-wing political initiatives. Right-wing commentators focused concern on the changing roles of both men and women and the relationship between the threat of communism and Catholic morality. Without turning a blind eye to the role of conservative officials and organizations, Cowan concentrates on the position of the government and on resistance from the Left, offering the reader a nuanced and comprehensive picture of the narrative of sexuality and morality during the Cold War. Through an analysis of the newly emergent narrative of the “moral technocracy” he successfully illustrates how morality was both a “focal and formal national security concern” (112).
Cowan cleverly takes advantage of a diverse range of sources and offers a unique analytical approach. He draws on military journals, term papers from the Higher War College (Escola Superior de Guerra, ESG), and political [End Page 480] treaties that concerned themselves with the spread of communism. Much to his credit, the author also includes an analysis of popular recreational organizations, personal accounts, and fashion trends in order to tease out the impact of anxieties about the threat of communism and what right-wing commentators viewed as a related social decline in moral judgment. An example of this can be seen in the work of José Hermógenes de Andrade. In an examination of Andrade’s 1975 illustration, True Youth, Cowan illustrates how the Right “inscribed sexual behavior and pathology into a continuum in which health, civilization, and morality diametrically opposed degeneracy, regression, and dissipation” (202).
Throughout this well-written account, the author adeptly tackles the complex relationships between gender and space, political conflict, and sexuality and political landscape. As pressure to eradicate threats to what was defined as “national security” intensified, Brazilian officials were forced to navigate a delicate balance between state intrusion and personal sovereignty. An important factor of this emerging debate was the sometimes complex relationship between politicians, military personnel, and society. Intertwining analyses of the political and cultural spheres with narratives emanating from within the Catholic Church, Cowan’s broad investigation of sexuality and morality illustrates the complexities of constructing a political narrative from the top down as well as from the perspective of the middle classes.
For audiences and readers interested in a comprehensive history of the sociocultural consequences of the political move to the right in Brazil, Securing Sex is an essential resource to more fully understand the Cold War era. Linking local and regional developments, the book invites comparisons to other investigations of the relationship between discourses on morality and the obsession to maintain national security. For instance, Cowan’s work is a welcome addition to the insights provided by Christopher Dunn’s work on tropicália in Brazil and Eric Zolov’s scholarship on culture influences in Mexico.1
In sum, Cowan has deftly reoriented our view of the larger political and cultural processes of this period by forcing us to view them through a rightist lens. His scholarship contributes to the broader context of the debate in which sexuality and gender identity become part of the political and...