Comic-strip memoir on prostitution shockingly authentic

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February 6, 2014

Paying For It

By Chester Brown

Published by Drawn & Quarterly

290 pages, $19.95

By Lachlan Ross

Taking the prostitution debate into “comic-strip memoir” form, Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown documents his relations with sex workers. The Toronto-based writer’s eighth book depicts a 14-year period (from 1996-2010) during which 36-year-old Brown gives up on the “romantic love ideal” after his girlfriend dumps him. Rather than mourning the failed relationship and searching for a new partner, Brown continues living with his ex, but searches sex sources online.

Paying For It illustrates Brown’s interactions with prostitutes, both sexually and personally, while also including his friendships with ex-girlfriends and close friends. His friends’ reactions to his new lifestyle choice make for numerous debates, sparking the topic of ethics in prostitution. Brown’s clear advocacy of decriminalizing prostitution is backed by endless encounters with professional sex. While Brown notes in a foreword that he didn’t include all conversations to uphold women’s anonymity, the behaviours and reactions of Brown and the escorts create an understanding of why women work and why Johns pay.

Brown’s blatant honesty comes across on the page in thought bubbles during scenes. On page 137, during paid sex, he thinks, “She’s deliberately placing her hair over her face. She’s ashamed. She doesn’t want me to be able to see her face while I’m screwing her… I feel bad for her, but not so bad that I’m giving her a tip.”

While this account may upset some readers, the inclusion of thoughts like this made me believe in Brown as a reliable narrator. His character’s thoughts often don’t match his speech during both sexual interactions and conversations; I think that is a credible human trait. While Brown is a soft-spoken gentleman in speech, he has thoughts like, “That she seems to be in pain is kind of a turn-on for me, but I also feel bad for her.  I’m gonna cut this short and come quickly.” (188) I think this conflict between his outer persona as an introvert cartoonist and his up-front thoughts make for an authentic protagonist, to whom I felt connected.

Brown accepts that not every interaction is successful, but the reader grows with Brown in his journey, discovering what he likes and doesn’t like about each woman. Brown guides with strong narrative voice, forcing me to wrestle alongside him with the ethics of prostitution.

The blatant cynicism expressed by one friend, matched with the logical voice of another, provide both emotional and reasonable concern for Brown’s involvement in the sex trade. The scenes with ex-girlfriend, Sook-Yin, with whom he is still living after their break up for the majority of the book, adds odd twists and comic relief as Brown is also forced to live with her new boyfriends.

Paying For It is an entertaining read.  Brown’s skillful cartoons and sometimes brutally straightforward dialogue make for a frank account of life as a John. His story drew me in; I felt engulfed by a life I had previously not considered. The book shows a regular, honest, man paying for a service, and presents his argument that most Johns aren’t bad people. While some readers may be off put by the content of this memoir, this is a great read for those who can withstand the surprisingly graphic comic strips. For those who pick up the book expecting something different, jaws may hit the floor; this book isn’t for churchgoers.

            Lachlan Ross is a fourth-year student and athlete.

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