Review by Frank Plowright
Chester Brown deserves an enormous amount of credit for sticking his head above the parapet and tackling the subject of paying for sex from a personal perspective. Yet this was quite the divisive book, splitting the readership into those who believe that any form of prostitution is wrong, and those willing to take the book on its own terms.
Brown’s introduction to prostitutes followed disappointment in his personal life, after which he concluded society’s commitment to romantic ideals is outmoded and more often than not leads to poor relationships. 183 pages in he refers to romantic love as “evil” on the basis he believes it causes more misery than happiness, and living up to the ideal is impossible. This re-assessment led to his own conclusions that paying for sex was preferable to the baggage that comes with a relationship. Interestingly, though, after initial variety, Brown settles into a pattern of visiting the same few women, in effect developing the relationships he rejects.
Agree or disagree with his central thesis, there is common ground. Despite the subject matter, this is no prurient memoir. Brown is very discreet about the women he visits, mirroring the respectful manner he treats them when visiting. However, his emotionally withdrawn character (detailed in previous autobiographical works such as I Never Liked You) only really comes alive when revealing his lifestyle choice to friends, and the debates that engenders. He notes the irony of objection from a friend with an obsessive porn habit, and perhaps the book’s most telling comment is supplied by fellow cartoonist Seth. In response to Brown noting he likes to converse with the women he sees in order that the sex is less cold and impersonal, Seth remarks that perhaps a girlfriend is the solution to sex that’s cold and impersonal.
There are disturbing elements, particularly the idea that a woman of 28 is too old for someone ten years her senior, committing to the Ebay style rating comments on specialist sites, so adding to the commodification, and his reaction to a woman consistently going “ow” during sex. Notes at the rear of the book qualify some of this, but given the confessional nature of the main strip, why couldn’t these be incorporated?
In lengthy appendices, Brown addresses the objections to legalising paid for sex, largely from the libertarian viewpoint of minimum state interference in individual lives. A lot may make sense, but as in the main narrative, there’s also the occasional lapse into hectoring. He also seems woefully naïve as to the extent of human trafficking and the deception involved.
While Brown capitulated to the marketing nous of his publisher, the first of his notes addresses his unhappiness with the title of Paying for It, a dual meaning of which could suggest payment other than monetary is somehow being taking its toll on him. He’s right. There’s been an honesty throughout, even in areas he knows may offend – fellow traveller Robert Crumb provides the introduction – and this minor twist has a cost.
Brown’s attempts to remain true to his experiences and the process that firmed an initial visit into a way of life, result in considerable repetition and justification. Paying for It would be improved, and more effective, by pruning. Not every visit is essential to the narrative, and many clog it.
Much has changed since 2011. In Canada where Paying for It fed into a wider debate, purchase of sex is now illegal, while sale of it isn’t.