Note: This article is commentary on a comic about prostitution and consent, which is discussed frankly and portrayed in the sample images.
I think of myself as being just about as liberal as they come. I feel strongly that gay marriage should be legal and celebrated; I believe in universal, taxpayer-funded health care; I abhor the death penalty and I support a woman’s right to choose; I think drugs and prostitution should be legal, regulated, and safe.
In fact, that last one? Prostitution? I could — and would, and do — argue tooth and nail for safe and legal avenues for sex work that treat sex work as the legitimate work that I believe it is. This is an issue I could — and would, and do — stake my feminism on.
And then I read Paying For It by Chester Brown, and everything was a lot more grey all of a sudden.
I tell you all of this not because I am desperate to be yelled at on the Twitters by people who think differently than me, but because to understand my journey with Paying For It — and to understand why, in spite of everything I’m about to claim about its content, I still want you to read it — you have to understand me. And you have to understand that these political beliefs define who I am and who I understand myself to be.
Because Paying For It is Chester Brown’s memoir of his life as a john. And as I read it, I found myself so uncomfortable with his descriptions of buying and selling women that I was actually arguing with Brown in my head, asserting perspectives that I consider the antithesis of my own politics.
For context, here’s the jacket copy:
Paying for It combines the personal and sexual aspects of Brown’s autobiographical work (I Never Liked You, The Playboy) with the polemical drive of Louis Riel. He calmly lays out the facts of how he became not only a willing participant in but also a vocal proponent of one of the world’s most hot-button topics—prostitution. While this may appear overly sensational and just plain implausible to some, Brown’s story stands for itself. Paying for It offers an entirely contemporary exploration of sex work—from the timid john who rides his bike to his escorts, wonders how to tip so as not to offend, and reads Dan Savage for advice, to the modern-day transactions complete with online reviews, seemingly willing participants, and clean apartments devoid of clichéd street corners, drugs, or pimps.
I picked up this book certain I was going to agree with it. Here was a humane, open, self-aware discussion of sexuality and sex work. This is my wheel house. Aces. I also picked it up because I love Brown’s sparsely evocative style; Louis Riel is one of my favourite comics ever, and I have great respect for the man’s work. I was ready to love it.
Except that I found myself alienated from Brown’s perspective early in the text. At the opening of the narrative, his relationship with his girlfriend has soured and he is committing to life without romantic relationships, which he comes to refer to as “possessive monogamy.” When he realizes he’s only been having sex with one prostitute, and she only with him, he rejects the idea that he is in a romantic relationship:
What I have difficulty with is Brown’s binary and myopic worldview: his relationship was bad, therefore relationships are bad. He cannot conceive of a happy relationship outside of sex work; he rejects the claims of his friends in the book who claim to have them or believe in them. Brown claims to be a Libertarian, but this is not a live-and-let-live philosophy so much as it is an I’m-enlightened-and-you’re-wrong philosophy, which sent me frustratedly screaming from the room.
So I already found myself on edge as I became increasingly uncomfortable with Brown’s depictions of the women he frequents. He tells us that he seeks out women of a variety of ethnicities, but to protect their anonymity he portrays them all as white brunettes, and he never shows their faces.
The effect is at odds with Brown’s attempt to show sex work in a humane light: it’s deeply dehumanizing that all the women look alike, and Brown’s assertion that this is to protect anonymity is odd (couldn’t he just… draw a different face?). As a reader predestined to empathize with Brown, I found myself taking the oppositional point of view, disagreeing with his claims because of these depictions.
A deeper problem is that Brown is rigidly unwilling to be critical of his experiences:
There is so much Brown doesn’t know and so much he doesn’t seek out. Here, he doesn’t see bruises so the woman must not be abused; elsewhere, he brushes aside concerns about human trafficking with a bizarrely facile argument that basically comes down to his belief that it would be impossible to be compelled into sex work in Canada because Canada is safe. Again, I found myself on a political bench I don’t even believe in — I know, because I have read the research, that most paid sex work in Canada is consensual — but Brown’s unwillingness to even acknowledge the potential for vulnerability among the women he frequents (even a woman who speaks no English and never consents to his touch) is deeply troubling.
And then we have scenes like this:
This series of panels is horrifying. Brown suspects the woman is underage, knows he is causing her pain, is sexually gratified by the pain, and still waits until he has orgasmed to end the interaction. Throughout scenes like this one and the scenes of questionable or non-existant consent, Brown’s interest in his own pleasure and in getting what he has paid for is primary. These aren’t women; they are fetish objects.
The truth is, there’s a fundamental misogyny at the heart of Paying For It that distanced me from Brown’s argument even when I was primed to agree with it. No matter what he claims about the restraints of “possessive monogamy,” the way he treats the women he pays for sex is no improvement. The result was that I didn’t see how to agree with Brown and feel okay, so I disagreed with Brown vehemently — and very nearly lost part of myself.
Critical thinking is hard. I see why Brown resists it.
I didn’t stay on the oppositional side, by the way. I read widely about all sorts of issues, and many thoughtful texts about sex work cleansed my palate and helped me rediscover my liberal ideologies: my problem is not with sex work, it’s with bad johns like Brown. And I’m not the only one with thoughts about Paying For It. James Franco, for example, sort of has all kinds of things to say about it before he gets distracted, and he’s way more famous than me. Maybe all I’ve revealed here is my latent prudery — I don’t know.
But what I want to think is that Paying For It reminded me that art has the power to change minds, and not always in the ways you might expect. And sometimes, you have to work hard to put yourself back together again.