Paying for It
Created by: Chester Brown
Published by: Drawn & Quarterly
ISBN: 1770460489 (Amazon)
I have never been to a prostitute. Nor do I really ever intend to visit one. Hiring an escort, like eating balut, is not a thing I ever plan to count among my worldly experiences. Like pretty much all of Chester Brown’s friends—as depicted in Paying for It—I have certain qualms about the idea of paying for sex. That said, Brown, through this memoir chronicling nearly fifteen years of visits to prostitutes, presents a compelling case for the decriminalization of prostitution in a pluralistic society.
Chester Brown, largely noted for his engaging biographical work concerning Louis Riel, stopped dating in 1996. In a conscious act of will, he abandoned the idea that romantic love was something that should be expressed in possessive monogamous relationships. He would later describe the kind of possessive monogamy found in romantic relationships as “evil.” Brown became disillusioned as he noticed the jealousy, envy, and strife that seemed to eventually govern all such relationships. Though he began distancing himself from the concept of romantic relationships as a means to spare himself pain, he eventually came to see this abstinence as a moral position. Yet as we’ve seen in the Roman church too often in recent years, having an ethical stance doesn’t diminish the presence of the appetites.
Brown, as realized in Paying for It, recognizes his abiding desire for sexual contact and begins entertaining the idea of paying for it. This memoir follows the development of Brown’s thoughts toward prostitution, from simply entertaining the idea to coming to terms with his plan to act on his desire to an easy comfortability with his frequent visits to different sex workers in the Toronto area. Brown is rather forthright throughout and the reader gets a look into a thoughtlife that may veer in radically different directions from one’s own. Of course, as with Louis Riel’s, Chester Brown’s life receives a healthy amount of spit and polish and conversations are streamlined to most effectively convey the rhetoric. Still, Brown portrays himself in rather self-effacing and non-flattering visual terms—and the Brown he presents on the page is not anything of the obviously heroic sort.
Brown may be his own story’s hero, but you almost wouldn’t know it.
For a book that catalogues every one of Brown’s sexual exploits between 1996 and 2003—and there are more than a handful—the work is decidedly un-sexy. Paying for It's artwork is simple and rather small and Brown typically fits eight uniform panels on each small page (Paying for It is roughly the size of a small prose novel). The work is very clinical throughout, and while the reader is presented with Brown’s nude form often, the face of any given partner is always obscured. Instances of Brown’s sexual experiences are typically dominated by his thoughts regarding events as they are playing out. Sometimes the reader sits in on Brown ruminating on his own insecurities or the etiquette a particular situation might demand. Other times Brown evaluates the attractiveness of the girl-object underneath him. Post-coital conversations abound, with Brown and the prostitute discussing the nature of prostitution or Brown’s line of work or even the nature of love. After the fact, Brown often ruminates on what kind of review he’ll later give the girl on Terb (kind of a Yelp! for sex workers, from what I gather).
But as fascinating as Brown’s chronicle of these encounters is, I found his intervening conversations with friends much more engaging. Between episodes with prostitutes, Brown spends time trying to justify his opinions and new lifestyle to fellow cartoonists (usually Joe Matt and the mononymous Seth) and ex-girlfriends (with whom he is still close friends). It’s in these discussions that Brown’s philosophy emerges as each of his friends is in some way hostile to the concept of paying for sex. Each conversation focuses on different (though generally related) aspects of the moral neutrality of the sex-worker/john relationship and through these, Brown presents a pretty well-founded defense for about half his position.
After reading Paying for It, I’m pretty well convinced that in any Western society today, prostitution should be decriminalized. This doesn’t say any necessary thing about society’s moral response to prostitution—just that like divorce or homosexuality or smoking or having bad opinions, it’s not one of the things we legally punish a person over. The other half of Brown’s argument, that romantic love is bad, is less well-founded and most readers won’t find it too convincing (despite his occasionally astute observations regarding the monogamous relationship and romantic love).
As with Louis Riel, Brown presents copious endnotes that serve to enrich the text. Brown uses these often to spell out his beliefs further, which despite being pretty much raw text is still fascinating and worthwhile. One of the many appendices (#23, I believe) is devoted to Seth’s response to his portrayal in the book. He uses this space to clarify some of the represented conversations and take a couple cute jabs at Brown—e.g. “Robots don’t have midlife crises.”
All told, Paying for It is a worthy package examining a lurid subject matter in a way that might even be appropriate in more liberal high schools. The book is certainly sexually frank, but so are biology and psychology texts. Many will find themselves morally at odds both with Chester Brown’s arguments and with his life choices. Nonetheless, Brown approaches an old topic with fresh eyes (at least eyes that are fresh to many of us) and does so in expert fashion.
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