Rio De Janeiro, Brazil — The mere idea that U.S. soldiers on leave from Iraq see Rio's carnival as a free-floating sex party has Brazilians outraged.
A report in Britain's The Guardian newspaper that American soldiers are looking to Rio for rest and recreation - especially sex tourism - prompted many Brazilians to say that the gringos have it all wrong.
Despite all the jiggling, sweating flesh on display Saturday, Brazilians say the annual spectacle - which is expected to draw 700,000 revelers through Tuesday - isn't all about sex. It is, they say, a celebration of the body, closer in the spirit to the Olympics than a strip bar.
If there were any U.S. soldiers in the crowds that mobbed downtown Rio on Saturday, dancing with the traditional Black Ball band, they were impossible to spot.
But for those looking for companionship at carnival, opportunities seemed to abound. "If they came here from Iraq they wouldn't go back!" said Brian Simon, 43, an ex-Marine from New Jersey who was surrounded by barely dressed women as he drank at an outdoor bar on Copacabana beach.
Brazilians say the nakedness at carnival is about sensuality, not just sex. Yes, sexual imagery abounds in the samba schools, and thousands of revelers dance skin-to-skin on the sidelines.
But nudity carries a different connotation in Brazil than in many other countries.
"Here, nakedness doesn't only lead to sexuality, it leads you to aesthetic appreciation," said Roberto Da Matta, a retired University of Notre Dame sociology professor and author of the book "Carnivals, Rogues and Heroes: An Interpretation of the Brazilian Dilemma."
"A woman is dancing but it's not pornographic," he said. "It's a collective experience of reconsidering bodies, like at the Olympic Games."
Da Matta says his granddaughters watch the nearly nude samba dancers in TV ads during the run-up to carnival, grading them like judges at a gymnastic competition, or in the same way Rio's Samba parade is judged.
The annual Samba parade, which takes place tonight and Monday night, is the high point of the festival. Vegas-ready floats and glitter-covered dancers are broadcast live across the nation, and fans root for their favorite samba groups with a passion normally reserved for soccer teams.
This year, the parade features 13 samba groups, each producing 80-minute-long spectacles costing upward of $1 million.
Total nudity is prohibited and a less-than-perfect score from the exacting panel of judges can doom a group's chances.
There are other limits, too, in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.
Toplessness is still considered taboo on the city's beaches, although many people came out to greet Pope John Paul II in bikinis and thongs some years back. And in 2005, the Rio state government banned postcards showing bikini-clad women in photo montages or outside natural beach settings.
"Showing women in skimpy outfits, usually from the rear, is a disservice to our country," the law's sponsor, state Sen. Alice Tamborindeguy, said at the time.
Still, most Brazilians don't duck the issue of sex.
The government distributes millions of free condoms at carnival time and talks frankly about sexually transmitted diseases. Experts credit the Brazilians' openness about their bodies and sex for helping to contain the AIDS epidemic in South America's largest country.
"I'm entirely comfortable dressed like this," said this year's Carnival Queen Jacqueline Faria, 23, wearing little more than a rhinestone encrusted push-up bra and a sequin spotted see-through skirt revealing a tiny G-string.
"This is Rio de Janeiro, it's all about the beach and sun. We don't wear many clothes here at anytime during the year," Faria explains. "But Rio de Janeiro isn't just about bum bum. It has lots of other culture."