In the week before Christmas, I read ‘Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D. Salinger (1951). I can remember my old copy, which was the silver cover 1969 Penguin Modern Classics edition. It had the spine ripped away and the front cover hanging precariously: I had probably picked it up in the thrift basket of a second-hand book shop. That I can recall the physical book but not the story is interesting. Perhaps because it’s predominantly a collection of memories and reflections recounted over just a few hours in the life of 16-year old Holden Caulfield.
Holden has been thrown out of Pencey prep school – and it’s not his first expulsion. He is sensitive, hyper-reflective and critical of people. He is particularly averse to ‘phonies’ – people who are insincere, shallow or fake – even if he is a little phony himself at times.
Following a fight with a school peer, Holden gets on a train back to New York. He cannot go home because his parents do not yet know he has been thrown out of school, so he pays for a room in a hotel. Having spent the night drinking in familiar bars and walking the streets, he returns to the hotel where the ‘elevator guy’ procures him a ‘girl’.
Holden is initially excited: he changes his shirt, brushes his teeth and puts some water on his hair. He starts to to think about all the nearly-but-not-quite encounters he has had with the opposite sex.
Finally, somebody knocked on the door, and when I went to open it, I had my suitcase right in the way and I fell over it and damn near broke my knee. I always pick a gorgeous time to fall over a suitcase or something (Salinger, 1958, p.102).
The girl at the door is not much older than Holden and seems nervous to him. She sits on a chair “jiggling her foot up and down“. She is not interested in small talk.
“Ya got a watch on ya?” she asked me again, and then she stood up and pulled her dress over her head.
I certainly felt peculiar when she did that. I mean she did it so sudden and all. I know you’re supposed to feel pretty sexy when somebody gets up and pulls their dress over their head, but I didn’t. Sexy was about the last thing I was feeling. I felt much more depressed than sexy.
“Ya got a watch on ya, hey?”
“Don’t ya feel like talking for a while?” I asked her. It was a childish thing to say, but I was feeling so damn peculiar. “Are you in a very big hurry?” (Salinger, 1958, p.103)
In the event, Holden asks the girl – ‘Sunny’ – if they can skip anything physical: “I’ll pay you and all“. He lies that he’s just had an operation and that he had under-estimated his recovery time. Sunny is not too impressed, asks for more money than was agreed, and Holden has a second and painful encounter with her the following day – this time with the elevator guy.
Much of my academic research has focused on sex work and so this episode of the book interested me. It captures the peculiar mix of emotions and mundanity that must sometimes characterise such meetings. How some buyers may seek to pay for sex but are really paying for company or intimacy, or seeking something else they cannot define. How a peremptory remark from a time-pushed seller can puncture fantasy and expectations.
I am currently writing a new third year undergraduate Criminology unit called Sex Power and Consumption which will explore the contradictory intersections between sex, power, intimacy, money and markets. These relationships extend beyond the sex industry and have occurred through time.
Often debate on this topic can be difficult, even prohibitive. There can be a significant gap between the experiences of those involved (as articulated in their own voices) and the discussions that occur at the level of academic theory, politics and media. There are lots of truths about the sex industry, but they don’t neatly dovetail into a single truth.
It is through understanding more about everyday experiences of those involved – across the different settings and contexts where sex is exchanged for money or something else – that we can learn more about whether and where harm lies. We can learn that through listening to people’s individual stories. Perhaps that’s why the scene in this book is interesting to me. Fiction is a sourcebook for real life.
© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2021.
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