A graphical memoir about a subject which no one wants to talk about but everyone has an opinion on.
Some weeks ago, I was at the gym working out on the rowing machine when I spied a young Asian man over near the free weights. He was wearing a bright red T-shirt which in bold white block letters read :”Engineers Use Their Right Hand”. I think I can safely assume assume that didn't refer to how people in that profession hold their drafting pens or soldering irons. Perhaps it was merely a good-natured off-color joke, but I believe that at least one reason the joke works is because of the popular stereotype of smart, driven, creative, talented, people (for which read “geeks”) having no talent in bringing home a mate.
Which brings us to the words of Toronto cartoonist Chester Brown from his recently-released and heavily-annotated graphic memoir, Paying For It - A comic-strip memoir about being a John (Drawn & Quarterly, 2011). It is on page 263, in the notes section, that Mr. Brown clarifies the reasons behind his decision to seek out sex-for-pay by describing a pattern which repeated itself many times during his adult life, which he calls “the burden”:
Every time I saw an attractive woman, I wanted to walk up to her and try to initiate some sort of interaction. I usually lacked the confidence to do so. These frequent inner battles led to a lot of tension. I rarely acted, which added to the burden because I'd condemn myself for failing to do anything and for missing potential opportunities. Further adding to the burden was the fact that sometimes attractive women would flirt with me or try even more direct means to get my attention. … Because I was socially awkward, I usually said the wrong thing (or nothing at all) and nothing of significance would happen. I'd condemn myself for blowing all those opportunities and I obsessed about them. ...
Fellow cartoonist and friend Seth elaborates in Appendix 23, page 255:
… The truth is, Chester seems to have a very limited emotional range compared to most people. He's definitely an oddball. That said, he is also the kindest, gentlest and most deeply thoughtful oddball I know. ...
Most people in Mr. Brown's situation sometimes resort to desperate measures to salvage their social and sexual lives. They make frantic attempts at dating, sometimes settling for the very first woman who'll give them the time of day. Some resign themselves to indefinite celibacy. The method which Mr. Brown settled on was hiring sex workers. Paying For It is a sexual memoir cum manifesto (sorry). What made this book stand out for me was not only its use of the graphic storytelling format, but the way in which Mr. Brown illustrated his own thoughts on and experiences with the subject under discussion and his friends' response to his chosen lifestyle. While he's gone to great lengths to protect the identities of the women he's hired and edited out any and all details which could even remotely endanger their anonymity, he does provide us with a glimpse into their personal lives based on actual conversations he's had with them. Brown doesn't regale us with porn-movie glorifications of his experiences, nor does he wallow in grit, squalor and self-pity. Instead he details what he went through before making his initial attempts to hire a sex worker, his first, awkward efforts at finding one, the unnerving experience of being a new client (or of being a woman who's new to the trade) and what happens when issues arise during certain encounters, none of which ever go seriously wrong (sex work contrary to popular belief actually seems to be rather mundane).
The story begins in the late 1990s with Brown's then-girlfriend, actress and CBC radio personality Sook-Yin Lee breaking up with him (you may remember her as the lead character in John Cameron Mitchell's sexually-explicit 2006 movie, Shortbus). Despite the breakup he still lives in her home, in a separate room.
For a few years he enjoys being single but as happens with anyone who's been through a dry spell, certain needs began to make themselves known and with greater and greater urgency. Brown realizes that something must be done but by this time he has come to reject romantic love and its possessiveness. He wants to have sex but doesn't want to get into another traditional relationship, nor has he the confidence or the social skills to pick up women for casual encounters (see above). He decides to try hiring an escort. He goes through several weeks of soul-searching, hashing out the emotional, financial and possible legal issues before taking the initial plunge and hitting the street in search of streetwalkers. That approach failed to bear fruit. Later on he discovers and tries out the ads for escorts in the back pages of Toronto's entertainment newspapers, Eye and Now.
The sex scenes depicted throughout the book are hardly pornographic. There's only enough detail in those panels to let you know what's happening. Even Brown's retelling of his first-ever encounter with a sex worker, ending years of celibacy, is far more likely to make you feel his almost adolescent awkwardness and joy rather than switch from two- to one-handed reading.
The final graphical chapter sees Brown in a steady provider/client relationship with a woman named “Denise. He only buys services from her and she only provides services to him. Take away the exchange of funds, and what we appear to be seeing is a “friends with benefits” relationship, or even a more or less traditional romantic relationship, rather ironic considering Mr. Brown's stated views on that subject.
At 227 pages of eight panels apiece, each panel about the size of a 35mm photographic negative, Paying For It is a fairly fast read, that is until you get to the appendixes and notes. The graphical portion of the book documents the evolution of Mr. Brown's sex life (such as it was and is) and articulates his views about love, sex and especially sex-for-pay. In the appendices he elaborates upon those views. Here he makes a case for the right of all consenting adults to have whatever kind of sex they desire, be it for pay or not. He smartly and concisely deconstructs North American sexual morality, power relationships between men and women, and the social, politican, legal and emotional issues surrounding sex work. He touches on the sensitive issue of human trafficking and presents viewpoints which one is not likely to find on the evening news. Libertarian that he is, he wants government to get out and stay out of peoples' bedrooms; he roundly slams the way the law in Nevada in his view turns women in that state's legal brothels into pariahs or virtual chattel. Reading Brown's articulate, level-headed and to-the-point arguments is a welcome change from the usual legalistic or academic treatments of the subjects he addresses. He doesn't dumb them down or candy-coat them, he simply puts them into a form that nearly any reader can easily understand and will want to read.
In appendix number 3 on page 233, he writes of a world in which sex-for-pay is normalized, in which laws against it have long since been repealed, and no one thinks ill of anyone who provides sex-for-pay or purchases it. He illustrates his point with a story of a man who wishes to have sex with a female acquaintance. He offers her a price, she accepts and so they go off to bed, each never having any fear of negative legal or social consequences. I myself would certainly like to see an immediate stop to people being arrested and publicly disgraced for buying or selling what is clearly a necessary, in-demand and ultimately beneficial service. In countries where sex-for-pay is legal, you don't see people sweating out years-long dry spells, and the undesirable social and psychological issues which go along with them. The prevailing attitudes against prostitution are ultimately rooted in the archaic virgin/whore dichotomy which should have been discredited long ago, as well as the similarly-wrongheaded ideas that sex is a luxury, or a privilege reserved for those who obey prevailing social conventions.
Paying For It gives insight into phenomena which most North Americans vigorously shun but often do not really understand - prostitution and the emotional and sexual lives of people outside the social mainstream. I think that its only negative trait is that it doesn't offer much hope to other smart but introverted and socially-awkward people (call them “geeks” if you must) looking to build a sexual life. Then again, that isn't its primary purpose. It's one person's recounting of his experiences with something which most people would prefer to deny the existence of.
With Paying For It, Chester Brown has shown us that most sex workers and their clients are not the underworld denizens, moral reprobates, failures or monsters which they are often regarded as, but ordinary human beings living their lives as best they can in the face of personal limitations and economic necessity.
Excerpts from Paying For It are Copyright 2011 Chester Brown.
This posting is Creative Commons 2011 by The Fuddler. Non-comm., attrib., no derivs.