Paying For It

Paying For ItSummary: Chester Brown has never shied away from tackling controversial subjects in his work. In his 1992 book, The Playboy, he explored his personal history with pornography. His bestselling 2003 graphic novel, Louis Riel, was a biographical examination of an extreme political figure. The book won wide acclaim and cemented Brown’s reputation as a true innovator.

Paying for It is a natural progression for Brown as it combines the personal and sexual aspects of his autobiographical work with the polemical drive of Louis Riel. Brown calmly lays out the facts of how he became not only a willing participant in but 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.

Complete with a surprise ending, Paying for It provides endless debate and conversation about sex work and will be the most talkedabout graphic novel of 2011.

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Paying For It, by Chester Brown 8.0

‘Paying For It’ is an autobiographical account of graphic novelist Chester Brown’s decision to remain single but start paying for sex to compensate for it, and his encounters with various sex workers from the 1999 until 2010 – when the book was first published.

Critically-acclaimed and topical as it is (Canada’s prostitution laws have been in flux in recent years), I seem to recall having read a review of it online at one point. But I had put it on the back-burner of my mind, as I do many of the gajillion things I’m interested in.

It was only when one my closest friends bought it as a gift, thinking that I might be interested, that I got around to it finally. She had read it and felt that it was noteworthy, that Brown discussed the issues effectively. She suggested that I read it sooner than later.

I didn’t dare ask if she meant anything by it. (joke)

The book begins with the end of his last relationship, which began to unravel when his then-girlfriend, Sook-Yin Lee (Holy crap! Lucky bastard…), fell in love with someone else. They continued to get along fine and lived under the same roof for years, but he started to question romantic love then.

He concluded that he should remain single and start paying for sex.

It was funny to watch him make his initial calls. I understood the way he felt in some ways, how he was afraid of hurting women’s feelings, always second-guessing himself and delicately tip-toeing around what he thought could be misperceived by the escorts.

For all his cool intellectuality, he seems neurotic has heck (I can certainly relate).

I agreed with him about the value of friendships vs romantic relationships and how undervalued the former is in our society. For some reason, friendships are often disposable (especially in this age of virtual “friends”), tossed aside when people find their much-sought-after relationships.

Brown says that friendships are often healthier than relationships – even with the same people. I don’t know that this is always true, but it can certainly be the case. I know that I get along with some of my exes better as friends than as romantic partners. It’s a question of expectations.

He’s right that, from a purely financial standpoint, this is a better deal than having a gf, but I suppose it depends what you’re going into a relationship for. He himself argues that most people get into relationships out of insecurity, to have someone tell them they are loved.

I don’t agree with his conclusion that romantic relationships are drivel and that friendships plus sex replaces it. Of course, he and I have a very different attitude about sex: he seems to use it to get off, whereas my need is for intimacy, something I can’t get by paying for it.

He also brings into question what the model for relationships is, even after over a decade of paying for it. I appreciated that, because that’s been a huge topic of discussion in my last romantic relationship. I like that more people think of them in different terms, depending on the participants.

Why should a romantic relationship be only two people? Why should they get married? Why should they live under the same roof? There are so many questions that we don’t ask. We just accept the status quo as part and parcel with being in relationships; it’s a model that we follow because our society rubber stamps them.

I believe that we really need to be more flexible about what we consider legitimate relationships. Our society has too narrow a view, and not everyone will be happy -or can fit- in those narrow boxes. So long as the participants are happy and that it’s healthy, what does it matter what form relationships take in the end?

Having said this, although he is happy with this way of being, I found it sad to see the lack of intimacy in the interactions he had. It’s even less connected than one night stands: he kept moving on to different prostitutes even though he liked some of them, as though on a quest to quench the unquenchable.

I really enjoyed the conversations that he has with his friends throughout the book, discussing the ethics, morality, and practicality of the matter. I felt my own voice echoed in what some of his friends said, which was fun. One of them, in particular had similar counterpoints to me.

He may have swayed me about one thing: I now think that prostitution should be decriminalized. Not regulated, necessarily, but at least decriminalized. Making it illegal only forces women to go underground, which means being in unsafe conditions and not easily getting help.

However, I don’t agree with his opinion that it shouldn’t be monitored in some way, what with the higher risk that this degree of promiscuity can have on public health. He argues that one night stands aren’t monitored for the public’s health, so prostitutes shouldn’t be either.

The flaw in that argument is that a person rarely has half a dozen (or more) one night stands in a day, whereas prostitutes do. I mean, health workers who go practice in high-risk areas will be screened more thoroughly for contagion than those who work at your local clinic, right?

This only makes sense. And to think otherwise for prostitutes is ridiculous.

But how does one do this whilst maintaining sex workers’ privacy (many do this work in secret) and/or not stigmatize them? Could health officials give out dated health certificates to any member of the public who requests one and then have a public awareness campaign about these certificates?

When one would have sexual relations with anyone else, it could be common practice to exchange health certificates in advance to ensure that we’re no putting ourselves at risk. It sounds crazy, but we also used to think that breaking out condoms would ruin the mood, when it can just be part of the act.

I would get one. I get checked for STIs after any relationship for the sake of my next partner. If a lot of people got them, if it became second nature, this would diminish the public health risk with respect to sex workers. It’s just that Johns would need to ensure that the workers’ certificates are very recent.

It’s food for thought. I certainly don’t claim to know the answer, or to have explored the question enough. I most likely haven’t considered every detail, and/or am merely justifying certain points of view – much like Brown often did. But it’s something to think about more. The current model simply doesn’t work.

‘Paying For it’ is an excellent graphic novel. The drawings are clean and pleasing (and sometimes a bit explicit, it must be said), the paneling is smooth and flowy, and the subject matter is well-presented. And at no point does it get boring – although Brown’s sexual exploits get repetitive.

One may not agree with all, or any, or his arguments, but it’s definitely something that needs to be discussed, irrespective of which side of the issue one is on. What may have worked at one point in time may not later, and it’s always a good idea to revisit the dictates of our society.

I’m very curious to see what will happen with prostitution over time, how our society’s views will change. I’m no great fan of selling it/paying for it, but who am I to say that one shouldn’t? One could likely come up with plenty of reasons why it’s a solution for some. Maybe even the only one.

Nota bene: the book also has a foreword by Robert Crumb and an introduction and afterwords by the author. Also included are extensive Appendices related to the subject matter at hand. Brown is nothing if not thorough.

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