The only problem with Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown’s new memoir about his lengthy history of paying for sex with women can be found on page 235. In his meaty “Appendices” section, where Brown attempts to move away from the personal narrative toward a more logic-and-facts type of argumentation (deployed mainly with text), the Toronto artist and author inadequately tackles the issue of “power,” represented pictorially with an illustration of a call girl having sex on his lap. The female character says: “Chester, my legs are getting tired. Could we change positions?” Brown’s response, presumably symbolizing the equality/harmony between the two, is “Of course.” Along with the discussion on a prostitute’s ‘power’ to attract Johns and their ‘power’ to refuse certain acts, positions and requests/demands, this is unfortunately the only time the topic comes up in the book’s 280 pages.
But don’t get me wrong – Paying for It: A Comic-strip Memoir about Being a John is a fantastic intervention in the ongoing and presumably endless debate around paying for sex. Honest, self-reflexive and candid, the panels between the hard covers (published by Drawn & Quarterly) of this follow up to the riveting historical graphic novel Louis Riel display the most personal and intimate moments of an often abstractly represented exchange. Where other media looking at the topic of prostitution range from moral panic to saviour/victim liberalism, Brown’s contribution provides a personal narrative that refuses to conspicuously pander to any political position (at least until the Appendices section) while surreptitiously taking us right into the centre of the culture wars storm.
In this regard, Paying for It is a sneaky book. The story follows one man’s struggle to overcome the pain and suffering of that awfully oppressive convention known as romantic couple love. Shortly after realizing life is much better without a girlfriend, except for that pesky problem of feeding the libido, Brown has the epiphany that paying women to sleep with him twice a month whilst committing himself to a future bereft of female partners is indeed the answer (the author never addresses the problems of lack of companionship associated with this position). Most of the drawings are of Brown working out the arguments of his new direction with male and female friends as well as a healthy dose of panels depicting Brown having sex with nearly two dozen call girls (he is schooled by one woman for referring to them as prostitutes at one point).
I absorbed the pages relatively quickly — sometimes impatient for narrative momentum, sometimes frustrated by how small the talented Brown’s illustrations are, and sometimes very intrigued by the way the story slowly unfolds. What I mean by sneaky: The story is an innocuous tale about a subdued, almost robot-like character who, in the quest for his own happiness and fulfilment, tip-toes methodically and thoughtfully into one of humanities biggest and most explosive disputations. And so Paying for It is both a sly and clever individuated interference in a controversial debate dominated by moralizing governments, panicking publics, and conservative media institutions.
In the end Brown’s main arguments go roughly as such: Prostitution should be decriminalized, left unregulated by the government, and normalized by society since (a) it will never go away, (b) there is nothing wrong with it and (c) we prostitute ourselves every day in different, socially sanctioned ways. While the book—a personal and very brave “John” narrative—and its above arguments understandably give little voice to the sexworkers themselves due to its perspective, less understandable is the absence of any gender analysis.
The anemic discussion of power in the Appendix on page 235 exposes the book’s one fault – the issue of power is essentially a footnote to this tale/argument about one man paying numerous women for sex. Anaylzing the gender dynamics and hierarchies of power that are at play and intersect at the site of paid sex could have taken the book into a much more progressive and inclusive direction but it is clear that Brown does not intend to shake up patriarchal capitalism – rather the moral questions around prostitution. Indeed, he seems content with the state of continued monetization of sexual interaction, and seems as well to not take issue with the extreme gender imbalance that the larger socio-political and economic systems of capitalism and patriarchy produce in both nuanced and violent ways. But, perhaps this is about one battle at a time.
Gender power and related issues of domination and oppression are so inscribed in any act of prostitution, their presence in this book would be a welcome inclusion. Whether Brown chose consciously or unknowingly to elide gender and power from his otherwise provocative, pretty and boundary-pushing book is a mystery to me – as is the question as to his awareness of this omission after the fact.
By the end of Chester Brown’s daring, engaging and entertaining Paying for It you’ll likely either be further entrenched in your political stance on prostitution or you’ll be awakened to a new perspective, that of the libertarian variety. Either way, you’ll read an impressive and important book that makes some provocative statements about relationships and sexuality while somewhat side-stepping the core conversation around gender and power.
Addendum: Perhaps the pitfalls of leading a review with a beef, perhaps the pitfalls of that beef emanating from within my own bubble-like world of male hetero-monogamy and cheery change-the-worldism, or perhaps because I was just hot and cranky when I wrote this review, I now feel compelled to add this wee note. I really enjoyed the book (save for my one criticism) and my review was harsher than I had intended it to sound and has been mildly massaged since first posting. This isn’t an about-face but a rare moment of self-reflection brought on by Jasmine Notredam who has given me a proper schooling in the comments below.