A book by Richard G Parker
I’ve been living in São Paulo, Brazil for about 18 months now and decided it was as good a time as any to read something with an anthropological bent and what could be more interesting and exciting than reading about something that plays a big part in shaping Brazilian identity: sex. That is not exactly what I was combing the Internet for, but when I saw a mention of this book it was immediately on my list. I have finally finished reading it, so here’s what I think…
It’s a great mix between academic paper and historical narrative; it doesn’t really feel like a linear narrative, even though it follows the evolution of Brazilian culture (especially with regards to sexual life and sexuality) in a chronological way. However, it’s not as dense (read “impenetrable”) as an academic paper. It’s like I’m talking to the author about his research results, which to me is incredibly interesting. Richard Parker weaves a coherent and consolidated picture with both qualitative research and anecdotal inserts. The anecdotes don’t necessarily give a scientific basis, but they give colorful illustrations and explanations for what he found in his studies.
Of course Parker starts from the era where the first written records can be found – the explorers who initially arrived in Brazil. They wrote reports and diary entries about meeting the local people, about their shameless promiscuity in dress and behaviour. What they don’t mention in their reports, but what the author makes clear, is how that influenced the explorers’ behaviour and how the sexual expression of the native Brazilians not only impressed the explorers themselves but also the repressed European society they came from and shared information with.
Then he jumps to the colonization period, with land owners and their slaves (involuntary concubines?) and of course this had a profound and lasting impact on modern sexual attitudes. There is an interesting mix between European and Brazilian sexual attitudes, however the European model being the “correct” one at that time, dominated sex and society for a very long time. I would argue it is still very much present in contemporary Brazil.
Besides the historical side of sexuality, the book explores eroticism and present day socialization / initiation into sexual life, along with specific Portuguese terms and expressions full of sexual ambivalence. Though he mentions specific cases of erotic socialization to illustrate a segment of Brazilian culture, I’m not sure how representative that is of all Brazilians from all walks of life. The religious, medical and hedonistic perspectives which all helped shape sexuality and how people talk about sexuality are very interesting beyond the Brazilian model. I think many of those conclusions are valid for my own culture as well.
Last but not least, Parker scrutinizes the spirit and debauchery of carnaval and where that fits into the sexual identity of the modern Brazilian. This is an interesting chapter, because to me it seems like carnaval is a big contradiction… People say they are very conservative Catholic (even though they rarely put that into practice); however, during carnaval there are near-naked bodies not only plastered on every television, advertisement or poster, but it’s celebrated by young and old alike. As he says: “[Carnival] has become a metaphor for Brazil itself – or at the very least, for those qualities that are taken as most essentially Brazilian, as the truest expression of Brazilianness”
A book worth reading!