Paying For It
by Chester Brown
2011, Drawn and Quarterly
I was expecting not to like Paying For It, Chester Brown’s 2011 memoir of being a john. It’s a complicated book about a touchy subject: paying for sex raises all kinds of questions about choice, exploitation and relationships, and Brown’s story is presented in a format — comic books — that has been traditionally seen as a fringe option. It’s a testament to his skills as a storyteller and artist that his memoir is, by and large, accessible and interesting.
Robert Crumb — known for his erotically charged comics of sturdy, curvy women — provides a short introduction, in which Crumb muses “surely there is much sordid behaviour between married couples as there is in the world of prostitution,” a defense against the usual moral wailing that sex workers seem to inspire. Brown’s own foreword is a brief note about the accuracy of the stories: names have been changed, hair colour altered, tattoos erased and ethnicity ignored in favour of preserving the privacy of the sex workers. Addresses have been deleted, but Toronto readers can still spot familiar landmarks, like the infamous “Hooker Harveys” at the corner of Jarvis and Gerrard.
The story starts with an ending. Brown’s long-term girlfriend Sook-Yin (yes, that Sook-Yin) tells Chester that she wants to start sleeping with other people, and Chester gives her his blessing. To his surprise — and his friend’s disbelief — he’s not jealous of their burgeoning relationship. In fact, the trials and tribulations of the couple’s domesticity allows Chester to figure out that he’s basically over the idea of “relationships,” and that Sook-Yin, for all intents and purposes, will be his last girlfriend. By taking the friend role over the boyfriend gig, Chester has fun, open, honest relationships that are fulfilling and lasting.
The only catch? Well, he’s certainly not getting laid.
Hilariously, in his first foray into johnhood, he bikes down to Church Street. His interiour monologue is riffing between how much money to bring, if there are cops, how to negotiate prices. Some of it is a bit skeevy — he rejects one 28-year-old escort as being “too old,” but eventually comes across “Carla.” Chester’s experience with her is nothing but positive, and after his half-hour is over, Chester is a changed man: “As I walked out of the brothel I felt exhilarated and transformed. A burden that I had been carrying since adolescence had disappeared. The burden has never returned.”
Thus begins a series of relationships with different sex workers. Some chapters explore the world of prostitution, explaining in-calls and out-calls, where to find escorts, online reviews of different escorts (“it’s like movie reviews”), and how to negotiate prices with the workers. Each woman offers Chester insight into their world — why they started doing sex work, what it feels like to be rejected, how to handle close calls with friends who don’t know. He also squares off against judgmental friends; when Chester tells them about the connection he has with some of the girls, his friend Seth retorts, “Here’s an idea: if you want a sexual experience that’s not cold and impersonal — get a girlfriend.”
The book sometimes gets monotonous; Brown rarely draws his partner’s faces, and his drawing style is clean and unadorned, which can have the effect of the women blending together to become one uber-whore. Thankfully, there’s a storyline, and it’s not just a laundry list of all the hookers he’s banged and where. Chester evolves: his relationships deepen, he becomes more comfortable both being a john and defending it.
The strongest part of the story isn’t a sexual encounter — it’s a conversation between Chester and Seth, both fully clothed, arguing the merits of legalizing or decriminializing prostitution. Chester and Seth go through all the standard arguments around both — the need to regulate business transactions, the desire to ensure safety, the push towards guaranteed (or is that forced?) medical treatments, and the question of why governments would have a stake in sex-for-pay arrangements but steer clear of traditional relationships. The book also provides dozens of pages of end-notes and appendices providing rational, balanced responses to other common assumptions made about sex work. Brown, a libertarian, believes deeply that the choice to do sex work is a respectable and valid civil right, and he defends his position energetically.
Paying For It is fun and thoughtful without being heavy-handed. Yup: the topic is weighty, and the drawing style is stark and spare, but it turns out that comics are a terrific medium for exploring this topic. I finished the book with a far more accepting view of sex workers and their business, and Brown’s funny, balanced, beautifully illustrated book deserves all the credit. It should be read by everyone who’s curious about prostitution and sex-for-pay, and everyone who condemns it.
Special thanks to The Beguiling for providing a copy of Paying For It. Please visit them at 601 Markham Street in Toronto for more sexy comics.