“I was shocked by the barbaric sexuality of the people, who walked around naked and sold their body for trinkets. They had no shame.”, this is roughly the translation of the writings by Portuguese scribe Pero Vaz de Caminha in the year 1500, and the very first impressions that Europeans had of native Brazilians.
More than 500 years later, BBC documentarist Michael Palin wrote about Brazilians: “They have everything. Spicy seafood stews, fruits of the forest and luscious caipirinhas. Swaying music, sensual dancers and perfect bodies, wrapped in balmy warmth and enveloped in rapturous sex. As they say, what’s not to like”. Some Brits still look at Brazil through thick colonial glasses and see a libidinous paradise.
British/European fascination with the sexuality of people from the tropics has existed for centuries. The difference is that the patronising and imperialistic tone has now been dropped in favour of a supposedly celebratory one, and descriptions have shifted from “barbaric” to “likeable”.
Richard Francis Burton, one of most famous ethnologists of the 19th century, noted a tendency in the British Empire to portray Africans as sexual beasts. British colonial governments went extra lengths to police their sex life, and even created racially-specific sex laws. Burton believed that British colonisers were both attracted and repulsed by the virility of black males and the perceived sexual freedom and sensuality of females. This reflected a wider European representation of the colonised as degenerate, over-sexed, lazy, dirty and intellectually inferior*.
Brazilians in the UK also reek of sex, as a number of events in the past decade seem to suggest. There was the judge who had an affair with an illegally-employed Brazilian cleaner and nicknamed her “chilli hot stuff”. Then came the immigration officials who exchanged visas for sexual favours from Brazilian women. There was also the Miss Brasil who became a stripper in Soho, or the scandal involving Volkswagen representatives sleeping with prostitutes in Brazil, which was largely publicised by The Independent. In 2007, a brothel named Brasilia opened in Preston.
I have also encountered this myself. Years ago, I was chatting to a British guy on an Internet dating site. He was very keen to meet me, but I had commitments with friends. He promptly delivered an expletive-laden rant, arguing that I didn’t want to see him because he hadn’t offered me any money. After all, he knew “what Brazilians are like”. He also threatened to call the police, as he was sure that I was an illegal alien. His insecurities and fear of rejection opened a can of worms, and his slimy and ugly prejudiced views went crawling everywhere.
It seems that little has changed in the way some Brits/Europeans perceive their former colonies, “the wild and the exoctic”. I believe that there is an underlying imperialistic sense of superiority in this man’s attitude. I was being treated like the oversexed and intellectually inferior Blacks that Burton described, I felt.
The reality is that Brazilians are not sexually liberated. Brazil is the largest Catholic nation in the world, and puritan values are widespread even amongst the non-religious. Worse still, Evangelical churches are spreading like wildfire on Brazilian soil, and they are much more conservative than the Vatican. Last year, they successfully labelled a federal sexual education initiative in Brazilian schools the “gay-kit” because it promoted sexual tolerance and featured a gay kiss. As a consequence, Dilma vetoed it.
In Brazil, it is acceptable to be sensual, but not to be sexual. Female promiscuity is invariably frowned upon, but the same does not apply to males. It is acceptable to wear a bikini the size of two olives, but take it off and that will likely land you in jail – sunbathing topless is considered a “gross act of indecency” and is punishable by law. Babe channels on Freeview? Think again, not on open Brazilian television. Gay kiss on Globo, the main TV network? No way! By comparison, the BBC featured its first gay kiss in 1987. TV shows that deal with all aspects of sex in detail and taboo-free such as the BBC’s The Joys of Teen Sex and Unsafe Sex in the City would deeply shock Brazilians with their candid approach.
While working at Jungledrums years ago, I also experienced that many Brazilians shudder at the mere thought of negotiating their sexuality.
In May 2007 I wrote a short opinion piece entitled “Shake ya money box” suggesting that some Brazilians in the UK were happily turning to the sex and stripping industries. Never in the 11-year history of this magazine did our readers become so infuriated. I had inadvertently touched a raw nerve. Our offices in Holborn received inflammatory phone calls and emails, including threats of legal action and verbal abuse. Even the alleged niece of president Dilma Rousseff (then Chief of Staff) contacted us to say that we were doing a “disservice” to our country. The finding that some Brazilians were happy to dance naked or prostitute themselves was highly degrading to our motherland, these readers argued. Peelers and hoes, stay away – you’re not one of us!
These contradictions are daunting. How do you reconcile the oversexed views of Michael Palin with the morals of Brazilians? After all, am I a sex beast or tortured eunuch? I may never know the answer. Perhaps that’s the price that an immigrant pays for his split identity.
* to find out more, we recommend reading “Sex, Politics and the Empire” by Richard Phillips