Lessons from Brazil 1: sex positivity as the new puritanism

In Brazil, Carnaval has just wrapped up for another year. I was in the country for the month of Carnaval, mostly because it’s my partner’s homeland. But even with Carnaval in full swing, it was easy enough to disregard the pomp and fanfare and jiggling butts that flanked every TV screen. For a large part, there was too much else going on in the country.

For instance, Sao Paolo’s 20 million residents have had their water cut off five days each week due to shortages. Further south, Porto Alegre had flooded all across the river-lined city. The southern half of the Brazil started running out of petrol due to truck strikes that left people stranded for days. There were murmurs of a new femicide legislation, which has now been passed into law. Then there was the time I nearly stepped on a deadly coral snake in the forest. And I was wearing thongs at the time too. Which for the sake of clarity, translates to “flip flops,” though stick with thongs if it makes for a better story. I digress.

Back to Brazilian Carnaval, which in all its glorious diversity is somewhat of a Mecca for sex positive festivities. It ticks all the boxes when it comes to sex positive celebrations, showcasing women’s (and sometimes men’s) naked bodies in all their various shapes, sizes, ages and colours. It embraces people from all walks of life, it comes with millions of free condoms, and inevitably leads to a whole lot of sexy times.

Carnaval seems like the perfect antidote to the puritan, prudish, boring, and anti-sex conservatism that reigns.

“Anti-sex puritanism” is a criticism that comes up time and time again. Self-proclaimed “sex positive” feminists and progressives alike criticize “prudish” conservatives. But it doesn’t take conservative politics to be labeled a prude today. Don’t like porn? Prude. Don’t support commercialized sex trade? Prude. Don’t think children being sexually exploited constitutes “sex work?” Prude. Like porn but not the really “kinky” stuff? Prude. Right-wing political views? Prude. Don’t like street harassment? Prude. Part of the anti-trafficking movement? Prude. Don’t believe strip clubs are sites of female liberation? Prude. Don’t have sex everyday? Prude. Do have much sex but don’t practice BDSM? Vanilla. Which on the continuum of prudery is definitely on the very prudish end.

Luckily, the “sex-positive movement” is hitting back against all this prudery. From Herself.com to Free the Nipple to Slutwalk to FEMEN, there is no shortage of women getting their kits off in the name of reclaiming women’s rights. In what could be dubbed the decade of the anti-prude, it would seem that sexualized images are no longer sexist but are, instead, the very foundations of feminist revolution.

On face value, overt sexuality seems a transgression from conservative notions of femininity. Women can reclaim their sexuality without being shamed, or so the story goes. But in order to understand how a sexualized femininity is actually neither dissident nor transgressive, one must look beyond the rhetoric.

Domingão do Faustão: the longest running and most popular family TV show in Brazil.

Consider Brazil, the home of the sex-positive fiesta. It’s the country where Sunday afternoon family TV classics include wet t-shirt competitions, women stripping and the ever popular “prova da banheira” bikini bath wrestling. Where children’s TV shows taught tiny tots the “garrafa” (bottle) dance – to “get low” and twerk over a bottle. The bottle represents a penis, in case that wasn’t clear. Though, it’s not all that shocking when just about all entertainment shows include a background of young female dancers in underwear, with camera’s panning and zooming in on women’s body parts.

Prova da banheira

Prova da Banheira – Family TV show

It’s also a country where Viagra is just as widely available as the New Testament. Brazilian hotels, frequently used for sexy times, still come with bibles. In fact around 85 per cent of Brazilian’s count themselves as Christian or Protestant. Perhaps these facts seem somewhat contradictory to the outsider. To better understand all this, Carnaval is a good place to start.

Garrafa dance

Carnaval marks the beginning of lent — a Christian tradition with roots in both religious organizing as well as Portuguese “entrado” parties and more recently samba schools. It is increasingly also a celebration of everything pornographic. Female dancers and the famous “Globeleza” are commonly adorned in no more than paint, feathers and silicone enhancements. Songs rejoice in God and, more recently, God’s hand in plastic surgery too, “Giving men value with his chisel… The image and likeness of the Lord… The light of heaven conducts his scalpel.” Carnaval promotes Christianity alongside group sex parties and pornographic films.

Globolezas (Photo/Globo.com)

Children are welcome at Carnaval too; if they miss the parade there is always the “Globeleza” who dances naked on TV every half hour for the entire month of Carnaval. The Globeleza is always a woman of colour, whether this is symbolism, an attempt at diversity, or merely the ongoing commodification of Afro-Brazilian women is unclear. There is rarely any outcry about children being fed these supposed “sex positive” ideals early on. In fact, the most significant uproar about Carnaval’s imagery occurred when a mascot had likeness to the Devil.tijuca Images of the Devil were deemed too offensive and the public was relieved when later the Devil caught on fire — God’s work.

By progressive standards, the overt sexuality of events like Carnaval presents a call for celebration. What could be more liberating than turning a previously repressed “prudish” sexuality into a public festivity? What better way to neutralize the anti-sex puritans than a good “sex positive” shindig?

In Brazil, these “sex positive” shenanigans manifest in a variety of ways: employment discrimination with many service level jobs mandating “good physique” for women, some of the highest rates of body shame in the world, the highest uptake of diet pills and plastic surgery in the world, a spike in violence against women during Carnaval along with an increase in child sex exploitation, especially at the hands of tourists who flock to the sex positivity. The Brazilian Health Ministry reports that between 2009 and 2012 the rate of rape has skyrocketed by 157 percent, explained largely by the culture of machismo.

An anti-violence flyer in Brazil.

Unfortunately, public health campaigns that hand out condoms, anti-violence and anti-trafficking pamphlets are not enough to mitigate the 24/7 frenzy of cameras panning across women’s breasts and buttocks as if they were gleaming pieces of meat up for purchase. The picture is perfectly clear: this is not female sexuality being expressed, its commodification.

Could it be that all this revolutionary “sex positivity” is not liberating women but actually reinforcing the same conservative male supremacist dynamic? Yes. It could.

Not to be misconstrued as criticism of Brazilians or Carnaval participants, this is a societal level issue rather than a critique of individual women. The Brazilian context offers a case in point that sexualization does not counteract conservative norms. The case of Brazil uncovers what “sex positivity” means for women. “People might think this is liberty for women to have sex, but really the liberty is for men to have women’s bodies” as one of my Brazilian friends put it. Of course none of these issues are exclusive to Brazil, with the same effects of sexual objectification occurring across the globe.

In most countries women are free to be pornified as they wish, ironically, women are often not free to be anything other than pornographic. This is illustrated by Facebook’s ban on breastfeeding images whilst pornographic advertising runs rampant. Or the fact that “leaking” women’s naked images has become a go-to solution for disgruntled and rejected men. Women remain represented as objects for possession, whether it’s in the puritan yesteryear or today’s porn culture, neither offer true freedom.

In the West, other examples exist. Rupert Murdoch was ordained with papal knighthood by Pope John II. Murdoch is a major publisher for religious texts, but he also champions soft-porn tabloids and has held vast shares in online pornography distribution. Murdoch is an exemplar of the conservative world where sex is not a problem to be repressed but a product to be sold. Conservatives are not so much answering to an almighty God but to the almighty dollar.

For liberal feminism, the issue of sexual objectification is reduced to individualistic notions of “personal choice” and “agency.” Rather than targeting systemic injustices that underlie objectification like economic disadvantage, liberal feminists insist that the main issue is that women are “shamed” for their sexuality by “prudes.” Yet conservatives like Murdoch happily pocket the spoils of sexualization. All the while, human rights abuses and sexual exploitation is filtered out in the background of “slut pride” selfies. Vulnerable women continue to pay the ultimate price for gender inequality. The point is entirely missed.

If feminism can accept that “prudes” are not the problem, maybe these campaigns could move beyond individualistic jibes and instead pick up the fight for full human rights for all girls and women.

For this, we need more progress, not more pornography.

Another version of this post is available on Feminist Current here

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