I was walking down the street the other day, and, on the doorstep of a neighbor, I saw Paying for It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John, a graphic novel by Chester Brown. I picked up the book and carried it home. Over the last two days, I read it.
I’m an uneducated, and relatively ill-informed fan of the graphic novel/memoir format. I’ve read the big ones – the Maus trilogy, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and most recently, The Armed Garden, by David B. I enjoyed all of these, but never become a huge fan of the genre.
Paying for It is an unabashed attack on the notion of romantic love in the form of an apology for the consumption of commercial sex. Or maybe the other way around. The author details his seemingly Aspbergerian reaction (or non-reaction) to the desire of his girlfriend, Sook-Yin, first to have sex with others, then not with him, then to have her new boyfriend live with them, and ultimately, to throw Brown out of the house he had shared with her.
He gradually realizes that what he really wants is sex without the nettlesome problem of romantic attachment, and that prostitution – at least in Toronto, where there is an essentially endless variety of providers – offers a nifty solution to this challenge for a guy like him, who simply doesn’t have the wherewithal to conjure sexual partners left and right in the absence of a relationship. The author never seems to descend into the vortex of compulsion and driven behavior that so plagued me, but he does, increasingly, find himself challenged by how “empty” he feels after sexual encounters with even his favorite prostitute.
This book is compellingly readable, and fascinating: I barely put it down once I started, and found it riveting the whole way through. But it’s frustrating. Brown is intent on making two points: first, romantic love is inefficient at best, and tragically flawed, at worst – it causes more misery than happiness, and we all would be better off without it. And second, prostitution ought to be legal and unregulated, like any other form of consensual relations.
These two points subsume and drown out the, to me, far more interesting aspect of his book – the unsentimental, but deeply sympathetic, portrayal of the relationships between certain sex workers and their clientele, and, in particular, of just who it is that johns are (I think, mainly, they’re just “men,” average, run-of-the-mill, men). I’ve written a bit about this subject in this blog, and I find it fascinating how rarely we read of sex work from the “john’s” side. There are a fair number of sex workers who blog, or write books, or write academic treatises, on sex work. But there’s very little of the equivalent first-person narrative written by consumers of sex workers’ services. Brown does a somewhat heavy-handed, but nonetheless good, job of humanizing not just sex workers, but also johns, as in this exchange between him and Sook-Yin about the desirability of living near a brothel:
Sook-Yin: … it would disturb me to have them [johns] walking in the same hallway as me.
Sook-Yin: They’re creeps. Who knows what they’re capable of? If I had a daughter, I’d be worried about what would happen if she was in the same elevator as one of those guys.
Brown: I’m one of those guys. Do you really think children aren’t safe with me in elevators? Just ‘cause a guy pays for sex, that doesn’t make him a pedophile or a rapist.
Sook-Yin: I know you’re okay, but you’re not the typical guy who pays for sex.
Brown: I’ll bet I’m close to what the typical john is like. I’ll bet a lot of johns are mild-mannered introverts.
I’d go a step further: I’ll bet the lion’s share of johns are on their best behavior when they’re anywhere near a prostitute. The combination of shame and fear that I felt certainly had that effect on me, and if there’s one thing I learned in my time in 12-step programs, it’s that I’m hardly unique.
Brown is sympathetic and gentle – almost loving – in his treatment of the women he fucks. He describes them as people, not simply as bodies. He never even uses the word “fuck” in the entire book. And when he describes their bodies in words, he tends to do so in a winningly self-deprecating manner, calling attention to his own superficiality and detachment. But he does it all with precious little affect, which makes it hard to connect, either with him or with the women he describes.
He describes the variety of women he encounters – women who seem to be almost prisoners, women who seem very much to enjoy what they do, and everything in between. He relates honestly the joys and challenges of relying on paid companionship to satisfy one’s sexual urges, many of which joys and challenges are closely intertwined: whenever he becomes “attached” to a woman (and I put the word in quotations, because his “attachments” never seem to be particularly intensely felt), she disappears – the number at which he reached her goes out of service, or she simply leaves the establishment at which he previously had found her. But when a woman disappears, he’s able, of course, to find a suitable replacement almost instantly. And the endless replacements provide variety and newness, as well as a built-in solution to the problem of impermanence.
While the character of Brown in the book is sensitive to the power dynamics between him and the women he beds, it is a sad failing of the book that it rarely engages with these power dynamics explicitly as subject matter. The book shines an unfamiliar light, from an unfamiliar (to many) angle, on the less-seedy-than-many-might-imagine underworld of prostitution, but the author’s distraction by the rhetorical points he wants to make, and his relative lack of interest in some of the more complex aspects of the relationships between him and his sexual partners, make the book less successful than it might have been. Nonetheless, it’s a good, fun, read, and one that will likely change how you think about sex work (unless you’re either a sex worker or a habitual john).