Chester Brown signs copies of Paying for It for fans at TCAF 2011. Photo by tbuttars.
Late last year, Toronto was aflutter over Justice Susan Himel’s September decision to strike down Canada’s prostitution laws. The ruling would make it possible for sex workers to solicit customers freely on the street, work in brothels, and hire security to help manage their businesses. Though implementation of the ruling has been delayed by the appeal process, the legal implications make reading Chester Brown’s new graphic novel, Paying For It: A Comic Strip Memoir About Being A John, all the more interesting.
Paying For It describes Brown’s experiences soliciting prostitutes between March 1999 and January 2004. He catalogues every time he paid for sex during that period, as well as his perspectives on love, dating, monogamy, and the prostitution industry.
Paying For It is full of strong writing, biting commentary, and passages that will make you reconsider your stances on relationships, love, prostitution, and sexuality. Its story is a hearty read at 227 pages, with another 50 pages of appendices afterward (more on those later).
While the lack of addresses and landmarks (again, for privacy reasons) keep this book from being specifically “Toronto,” this new work by Brown—who lives in Toronto and has run as the Libertarian Party of Canada’s candidate in Trinity-Spadina—is informative to Canadians interested in the issue of prostitution, regardless of whether or not they have personal experience with it.
In the book, Brown’s use of prostitutes is supposedly spurred on by the end of his last “traditional” relationship, with CBC Radio 1 personality and former MuchMusic VJ Sook-Yin Lee. For three years afterward, Brown struggles with two desires: to have sex and to not have a girlfriend.
Eventually, he decides that hiring prostitutes would be the ideal situation. The story chronicles Brown’s initial apprehensions, his first failed attempts to find streetwalkers, and eventually his successful johnning through brothels and escort ads. Throughout the novel are introspective thought bubbles that drive the narrative, along with lengthy conversations with the women he visits.
In order to ground the story, Brown uses his friends—who react and offer their opinions on his patronage—as supporting characters, often portrayed as ignorant of the realities of prostitution. As many people in the general population don’t know much about the actual machinations of soliciting prostitutes, their reactions and questions seem genuine and they serve as stand-ins for the reader, to a point. At times, Brown seems to say, “I’m going through something you can’t understand.”
This, however, doesn’t mean the things he has to say about prostitution aren’t interesting.
The book’s extensive appendices serve as a platform from which the author explains his advocacy for prostitution. While they should serve as a supplement to the story, more often they mar it. A number of Brown’s rebuttals to common conceptions about prostitutes (depicted as being spoken by straight-laced, “normal” people) are not argued well and only serve to illustrate that these are one man’s views, not a representation of numerous perspectives.
The appendices’ images also illustrate the power of two lines; a number of the questioning figures are depicted with “angry eyebrows.” This can be construed as a classic technique to improve the credibility of the speaker by portraying their opponents as irrational or unrefined. Most of the speakers who offer counter-arguments to Brown’s views in these sections are portrayed in this way. We’ve included two examples, below.
Images from Paying for It.
The speaker on the right seems more rational and level-headed, doesn’t she?
Brown’s story and appendices should really be viewed separately. After reading the intensely personal story of a man who is trying to figure out what works for him, reading arguments on why a person’s way of thinking isn’t rational just seems a bit hypocritical.
Brown uses examples of particularly successful (or horrible) brothels as evidence for why prostitution should be decriminalized, throwing an extremely general answer to an extremely sensitive question. Reading the appendices of Paying For It can be like listening to marijuana activists who would love for pot to be legalized, but whose vision is limited to the short term.
Brown depicts prostitutes’ faces obscured by hair, speech bubbles, or from a reverse angle: a practice intended to ensure their privacy. His drawing style is very simplistic, and the fact that the women’s names have been altered seems to guarantee anonymity, making the hidden or turned away faces seem unnecessary, even dehumanizing. Luckily, it is tempered by the strong personalities of these characters that come through in Brown’s writing.
Paying For It‘s chapters end suddenly, often following a particularly important line. Roughly halfway through the story, Brown leaves a prostitute, thinking, “I guess she was trying hard to get me to come during the blow-job so that I wouldn’t fuck her.” This is followed by a blank page before the new chapter; it’s almost like the inclusion of that page is telling you “stop and think about this, dumbass.”
It’s a compelling use of the format, but it was also abused at certain points; there are chapters that dwell on certain sentiments too long, looking for depth that simply isn’t there—sometimes, a blowjob is just a blowjob.
When considering the comic’s story singularly, Paying for It‘s message is that it’s fine to go against social norms in the quest to find something that works for you. Brown’s experience as a john will not be every john’s experience. While many of us will never seek out prostitutes, the book’s broader relationship theme will resonate with anyone who’s ever tried to navigate the complicated world of love.