Sexual revolution on New York streets

By 
  • October 25, 2013
NEW YORK - Fifth Avenue is the world’s main street, a gentle stroll taking you from the Empire State Building at 34th Street to the New York public library at 42nd Street, or from FAO Schwartz, the toy store for all ages, at 59th Street, to the magnificent Frick Gallery at 71st Street. Then there is the Queen of Fifth Avenue, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which Cardinal Timothy Dolan likes to call “America’s parish church.”

Like America itself, what one finds on Fifth Avenue is not only fit for a queen, but also a harlot. Indeed, I remember well preparing for the entrance procession into St. Patrick’s for Archbishop Dolan’s installation Mass in 2009. As we walked toward the great doors of the cathedral on Fifth Avenue, we had to wait just below an enormous Gucci billboard which depicted a naked couple in flagrante. The archbishop was nonplussed, so I thought to lighten the mood with a wisecrack of some sort, suggesting that in Manhattan, Gucci may well have put up a less explicit billboard in honour of Easter week, as it was then. Cardinal Edward Egan, Dolan’s predecessor, quipped, “Should we tell him about Abercrombie & Fitch?” Archbishop Dolan, apparently unfamiliar with the clothing retailer-cum-pornographer, asked in his inimitable style: “What’s that, a deli?”

“I don’t think we should tell him what it is, should we?” said Cardinal Egan.

On the way out of St. Patrick’s one does not have to walk far to see debauchery exploited for commercial excess, the hallmark of our contemporary popular culture. The Gucci store is on Fifth Avenue itself, five blocks north at 56th Street, and across the street is the Abercrombie & Fitch clothing and porn emporium. Over near Broadway is Victoria’s Secret, another retailer-cum-pornographer. The lingerie chain has been a prime source of cultural pollution, dedicated as it is to making an exhibition of that which should remain discreet. There is nothing at all secret about this Victoria.

Last week, Tiona Rodriguez and her friend Frances Estevez, both 17, were stopped by security guards at Victoria’s Secret, suspected of shoplifting. After searching Rodriguez’s bag, alongside some stolen skinny jeans they found a dead eight-and-a-half pound baby boy. Rodriguez said that she had delivered him the day before. Whether the baby was delivered safely and then killed, simply died or was a stillbirth is not known and the coroner’s report is still pending. Rodriguez also has a two-year-old child, placed in the custody of a family member.

That is the sexual revolution, exposed as it were, on the streets of New York. The cultural elite admires the Victoria’s Secret models — beautiful, wealthy women liberated from a prudish past to enjoy uninhibited the pleasures of consenting adults. If one ignores the airbrushing and exploitation endemic to the industry it is possible to see things that way. Yet no amount of airbrushing can erase the human debris of the sexual revolution: Two teenagers in a lingerie store, so transfixed by the images of what they cannot attain that they are willing to steal; a teenager on her second pregnancy, unable to care for her first child; a girl left so completely alone with her sexual rights and autonomy that when it comes time to be delivered there is no one to help her. She can only do what she knows, what the pornographied culture offers her for comfort, so she seeks relief in the commercialization of sensual pleasure. As grotesque as it is, it somehow fits that she took her dead son to Victoria’s Secret.

St. Patrick’s is the great shrine of New York City. But as Sex in the City reminded us, there are other shrines in Manhattan too, and Victoria’s Secret is one of them. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the broken are made whole by the sacrifice of a loving God. At Victoria’s Secret, Tiona Rodriguez and other young and vulnerable women are sacrificed for what is sold as love, but is not even a facsimile but a fraud. No doubt the staff at Victoria’s Secret, dedicated to the presentation of bodies without blemish, were horrified at the presence of the putrefying baby. But he belonged there, both as the reality and a symbol of how the sexual revolution ends in the culture of death.

***

In last week’s column, I made reference to Pope Leo XIII’s invocation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Jubilee Year of 1900, and his Marian devotion. I quoted from a paper by Professor Russell Hittinger without attribution. I regret that, especially because Professor Hittinger is a friend and teaching colleague, whose work I recommend to all as the best work in English on Leo. For interested readers, I recommend: “Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903)” in The Teachings of Modern Christianity on Law, Politics and Human Nature, Volume I, Columbia University Press, 2005.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.cardus.ca/convivium.)

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