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  • Sexual Unruliness in Colonial Latin America
  • Ramón A. Gutiérrez (bio)
Sexuality and the Unnatural in Colonial Latin America
Zeb Tortorici, ed.
Oakland: University of California Press, 2016. xiv + 239 pp.

Here is a fascinating new anthology on the history of sexuality in Latin America that studies how nature was imagined and understood in the late colonial Iberian world. The book explores theological and juridical definitions of how human bodies reproductively reflected God's divine natural order, but also how free will created disorderly deviates who through behaviors against nature (contra natura) subverted that design. According to the Catholic Church, procreation was the only natural goal for which the reproductive body should be used. When the body's postures and dispositions did not maximize impregnation, when its genitals and fluids were used in ways that could not bear human fruit, when its desires and actions were deemed inappropriately focused simply on satisfaction and declared unnatural, the full force of the church's and state's disciplinary regimes were used to investigate, interrogate, and punish acts with purely erotic ends.

The book's two halves are based on the legal documents the authors mined. Essays in the first half, "Unnatural Heresies," reference Inquisition records and their orthodox definitions of sodomy, heresy, and bestiality. Here we learn of the 1779 suicide of Estaban Sobrino, a friar imprisoned by Cartagena's Holy Office. He was found guilty of seducing African slaves and free persons of color, usually in the confessional. Sobrino's defense: yes, he was a sinner and a joker, with a "cheerful and lively temperament." Though he admitted to arousing six boys to orgasm, his actions were not, he claimed, contra natura, because they stemmed from "sincere and honest love." Nicole von Germeten herein offers a subtle and complex reading of politics of the Inquisition, describing how after Sobrino's suicide, his inquisitor constructed a narrative that hid the clerical brother's sins. Nora Jaffary studies the Mexican Inquisition's 1797 investigation of Getrudis Arévalo for heresy because she doubted Christ's embodiment in the consecrated host. Eager for proof of God's existence, Arévalo confessed her escalating eroticized acts of profanation, placing rosaries, sacred images, even the Eucharist in her shameful parts. Jaffary urges contemporaries not to impose our understanding of sex on those who lived in the [End Page 572] eighteenth century. The Holy Office was mainly concerned that a host had been profaned, not how it had occurred.

Was carnal consort with the Devil unnatural? This is the question Jaqueline Holler explores in her study of eighteen Mexican Inquisition dossiers of women with demonic pacts. What is particularly fascinating here is how the Inquisition defined the Devil as natural and unnatural, operating in individual lives in complex ways, particularly in natural form as a lover. The Inquisition believed such sins were female, rooted in humors (too much black bile), which produced melancholy and its madness. Ronaldo Vainfas and Zeb Tortorici turn our focus to twenty-nine women accused of sodomy in colonial Brazil between 1591 and 1595, a sin the Holy Office prosecuted fully, expecting that on interrogation its officials would also discover profanations of a heretical sort. Female sodomy required evidence of anal intercourse with a penis, dildo, fingers, or some penetrative object in the anus or vagina. Here we read explicit testimony on girls being seduced by older women, of lower-class women satisfying each other, sometime for lack of male partners but equally by preference.

The anthology's second half uses a broader swath of civil and ecclesiastical records, which yield more complicated, less formal, local juridical landscapes for the late colonial period. Chad Thomas Black studies two female sodomy cases from Quito in the 1780s. The women were found guilty because their behavior—public drinking, rowdiness, behaving as if a couple, sleeping in the same bed, preferring the company of females—was appropriate only for male-female couples. Though no evidence of anal or vaginal penetration existed, the women were punished for public disorder and depravity based on the complaints and suspicions of neighbors, families, and friends.

The tome's best essay is by Fernanda Molina, who challenges the reductionism explicit...


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