- Securing Sex: Morality and Repression in the Making of Cold War Brazil by Benjamin A. Cowan
In the twilight years of the Brazilian dictatorship (1964–85) and during the first decade after the return to democracy, there was a boom in printed accounts about torture, repression, and the role of the armed struggle in the resistance to the regime. These works responded to the silences imposed on the country during military rule and the government censorship that had carefully filtered information to the public. While essential in the effort to recuperate the history of the radical opposition to the generals in power and in the denunciation of human rights violations by agents of the state, these versions of Brazil’s recent past created an overall impression that the military’s imposition of the National Security Doctrine against internal and external subversion and its repressive measures had the single-minded objective of purging the nation of communist influences.
In recent years Brazilian historians, along with a lesser number of colleagues in the United States and Europe, have produced a considerable variety of new studies that have broadened the approaches to analyzing this period. Scholars have debated the nature of the regime (Was it a military or civilian-military dictatorship?), its legacies in shaping Brazilian democracy, and whether radical oppositionists were resistance fighters in the defense of democracy or revolutionaries pushing for socialism. Works have [End Page 533] examined the role of exiles and international solidarity in challenging the government; the involvement of the United States, Great Britain, and France in the coup d’état and in supporting the repressive apparatus; and the participation of entrepreneurs and other social groups in sustaining the armed forces in power for two decades.
In part as a result of the Brazilian National Truth Commission (2012–14), as well as similar state and local investigatory bodies, a new generation of scholars is now mining the archives to consider other aspects of life under authoritarian rule in an effort to create a more holistic understanding of the varied ways in which the dictatorship affected the country. Standing out among these works is Securing Sex, which radically broadens our understanding of the conservative forces that shaped the discourses and the practices of the generals in power.
Few would contest the anti-Communist preoccupations of those that took control of the state in 1964 at the height of the Cold War, but most scholars have paid little attention to the notions of family, tradition, and morality that were dominant themes in the mobilizations against the leftist government of João Goulart (1961–64) and remained embedded in the justifications for repressing the opposition and remaining in power. The popular unrest of the early 1960s coincided with gradual shifts in sexual and social practices among sectors of the middle classes that positioned themselves against the new political order. Cowan convincingly shows us in a meticulous analysis of documents produced by the military regime and its defenders that the generals went far beyond pursuing communists and corruption, as they tried to purge the nation of its allegedly polluted past. According to his analysis, the new wielders of political power considered that gender disorder and sexual promiscuity among Brazil’s youth, especially the supposed increase in homosexuality, were eroding traditional Christian values, the family, and the state. This moral panic among the regime’s supporters permeated their understanding of modern Brazilian society’s woes and was a driving motivation in their efforts to re-moralize the nation, as manifested in the obligatory “moral and civics” courses required in all schools, to offer one obvious example.
Of course the irony of right-wing ideologues’ insistence that radical opponents of the regime were depraved homosexuals, promiscuous libertines, and in-discriminate drug-users was the fact that the Marxist organizations that took up arms to challenge the regime in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, as well as other sectors of the left, themselves maintained strict moral codes that...