Both Tennessee Williams and JD Salinger present varying expectations of sexuality which, if not fulfilled by an individual, can be a source of great shame and personal conflict. The contrast between the sensitive, vulnerable characters of Blanche and Holden and the masculine, power asserting characters of Stanley and Stradlater is perhaps the most significant when considering the extent to which sexuality is presented as damaging.
A Streetcar Named Desire is a play in which the themes of both male and female sexuality are explored, and their destructive and vitalizing forces are analysed by Williams. The play, which caused shockwaves in the literary world when it hit the theatres in 1947 was subject to much controversy and was one of the first to portray the basic elements that drive humanity as a whole: death, violence and sex. The distinction between these factors is fine, and the nature of their intertwinement is examined by Tennessee Williams. Throughout the course of the play, the playwright seems to define sexuality in terms of winners and losers; Stanley a ‘winner’, is a powerful man who is assertive in his sexuality, and who ultimately triumphs over Blanche both morally and sexually, whereas Allan, Blanche’s late husband, is a ‘loser’: a hidden homosexual who commits suicide upon Blanche having made a derisory remark about his sexuality after having caught him with another man. Perhaps the most important element of human sexuality that is explored in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is the harmful effect it can have on one’s social standing and consecutively, one’s psyche. Blanche is the vessel through which the audience truly comes to understand the baneful features of human sexuality and how an over identification with the importance of one’s sexuality leads to strife and death.
It is important to consider the nature of consent and sexual abuse when discussing sexuality in post-World War Two America. In an early scene of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden loiters in his dormitory at Pencey while his ‘sexy bastard’ of a roommate, Stradlater, prepares for a date with Jane Gallagher. Unknowing to Stradlater, Holden has had a long time fondness for Jane – the only person he trusted enough show the baseball mitt of his dead brother, Allie. Holden feels terrified for Jane given his experience with Stradlater’s behaviour on double dates: “What he’d do was, he’d start snowing his date in this very quiet, sincere voice—like as if he wasn’t only a very handsome guy but a nice, sincere guy, too. I damn near puked, listening to him. His date kept saying, ‘No—please. Please, don’t. Please.’ But old Stradlater kept snowing her in this Abraham Lincoln, sincere voice, and finally there’d be this terrific silence in the back of the car.” Anyone nostalgic for the simple goodness of the 1950s should consider passages like these, where a woman’s “No” was optional and frequently trespassed. In contrast, Holden later claims that he’s still a virgin because he always stops at “No,” so what sets him apart from Stradlater is his refusal to commit what today would be classified as sexual assault.