What does good sex consist of, exactly, for a straight man? I’ll admit, in the spirit of full disclosure, that this might not the most apt question to be puzzling out in my current state as a bloated, fatigued, 39-weeks-along pregnant woman, but let’s give it a try anyway: Does enjoyable sex have to do with the achievement of an enhanced level of mutually felt love and intimacy? Is it about the uninhibited playing out of fantasies? The ego boost? Or, is it simply about what Alex the droog once crudely called “the old in-out in-out” — that pleasing physical gratification felt as one’s penis is manipulated to orgasm not by oneself, but by another’s hand, mouth, or vagina?
According to Chester Brown’s comic-strip memoir, Paying For It, it would seem that the latter definition holds truest, at least at the beginning of the narrative. In 1996, the book tells us, Brown was faced with a quandary. His longtime girlfriend had fallen in love with someone else and broken up with him, but this was not really the problem. The issue, instead, was Brown’s desire to have sex with a woman without ever becoming emotionally involved with one again: the jealousy and anguish that he believed traditional monogamy entails were too much of a deterrent. Brown had loving relationships in his life: his intimacy with his ex-girlfriend Sook-Yin, though now platonic, continued; he carried on close friendships with his fellow cartoonists Seth and Joe Matt. What he was missing, pure and simple, was sexual fulfillment. And so he decided to buy some.
Refusing to pay with the coin of love, which he saw as sex’s steep and fickle ransom (as he literally calculates in one chillingly frank early passage, seeing a prostitute every three weeks would cost him less than it did to be Sook-Yin’s boyfriend — “and we didn’t have sex anywhere near seventeen times in the last year”), Brown turned to that reliable equalizer, cash; and from the get go, this seemed to work out very well. Not only did his first time sex with a prostitute feel “amazingly good,” but as he walked out of the brothel, he was also “exhilarated and transformed.” “It was so honest and upfront,” he thinks. “A burden that I had been carrying since adolescence had disappeared (and) has never returned.”
It’s hard not to feel at least a little bit pleased for Brown at this and other relative high points in this emotionally muted narrative. Those familiar with his persona from his past work, especially the great memoirs The Playboy (1992) and I Never Liked You (1994), know him as a sympathetic, sensitive character, the product of a repressed, Christianity-inflected adolescence, whose mentally ill mother died when he was still a teenager. And in contradistinction to what many of us might think of as the behavior of a “typical” John, Brown’s obliging politeness remains on display here. When the legs of one of the prostitutes tire out in a certain position, he is quick to accommodate her; when he is told he is thrusting too deeply and painfully, he agrees to stop right away (though admittedly, while inwardly grumbling: “it’s only six inches!”); if they seem willing, he is interested in conversing with the prostitutes he sees about their lives and routines. He is, in short, quite an exemplary customer.
Calling someone a respectful John might sound like faint praise indeed (not unlike that bit from Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge, where a badly behaved, not very smart drug addict insists that “I was always very cordial to everybody. Certainly, my dealers liked me”). Nonetheless, I think it does aptly reflect the book’s argument for the decriminalization of prostitution, which Brown sums up at one point as the following:
Your body is your property… you should have the right to do whatever you want with your body… as long as you respect the property rights of others… If you respect the property rights of others and treat them with courtesy, you’re living a moral life.
In other words, paying for sex, as long as you observe the appropriately courteous marketplace behavior, should be considered no different from either a conventional sexual relationship (as Brown writes, “prostitution is just a form of dating”) or from a conventional economic one. Indeed, most of the arguments against the decriminalization of prostitution that Brown rebuts in the (sometimes exhausting and lengthy) appendices at the end of Paying For It have to do with the question of free will, either obliquely or directly; and the classic libertarian argument that he is a proponent of comes up again and again: viz., since your body is your own property, you’re free to do what you want with it, just as long as you’re not harming another’s.
Brown’s sexual/economic utopia sounds a lot like what Marx mockingly called the “very Eden of the innate rights of man.” Within the sphere of commodity exchange, Marx writes in Capital, everyone — whether employer or laborer — is equal and free to form a market relationship by virtue of his or her essential property rights. The problem, however, begins once one realizes both the possible prehistory and the potential future of this freely contracted relationship. How is it that the wallet ended up in the John’s pocket and not in the prostitute’s? And what are the ramifications of this (often gendered, class-based, ethnicity-based) division of resources?
The issue, then — at least for me — is not whether paying for sex should be decriminalized. Brown makes a pretty good argument for this course of action, and it seems plausible that while some women might despise sex work, others may pursue it as a fairly easy moneymaking opportunity, and should not be censured or punished for practicing it. What is more troubling, however, is the pretense that free will is a transparent, unproblematic accompaniment of capitalism; that money is an innocent vehicle that consistently enables choice rather than oftentimes restricting it.
This, I think, is just as true of sex as it is, for example, of health care. As I waddled along recently, trailing in the footsteps of a chipper guide on a maternity ward tour here in New York, I was repeatedly told that I’m not a patient, but rather a client, or more to the point, a shopper. I have a “choice,” the tour guide explained, and I should “exercise” it. If I wanted to procure, say, a private postpartum room for the flat fee of 850 dollars a night, I had the “choice” to do so. If this for whatever reason didn’t suit, I had the “choice” to “shop” for a shared room, or for other options elsewhere, at other hospitals. What no one spoke of, however, is that arriving at the place where one can even begin to make a choice is not part of a self evident, inevitable process; that it has everything to do with a very specific history of class relations which may very well preclude one from becoming the shopper one is so lustily encouraged to be.
Unlike myself, Brown obviously doesn’t seem to think it depressing that we’re living in a world in which everything – because it is objectified into property – can be bought and sold. In fact, he accepts it at face value. Towards the end of the narrative, he embarks on a long-term, paid relationship with “Denise,” one of the prostitutes he sees. Even though it’s a monogamous arrangement, he admits that it’s not one that many would consider mutual. While he loves her, she only likes him, and probably wouldn’t have sex with him if he weren’t paying her for it. From Brown’s perspective, though, the relationship with “Denise” is mutual, since, as he writes, “sex is always about trade: ‘I want to give you physical pleasure because I want physical pleasure in return’, or, ‘I’ll have sex with you because I want affection’, or, ‘you can fuck me for 200 dollars’.”
Which brings us back to the “good sex” question we began with. Brown’s previous work was often structured around the interaction with inanimate objects. In The Playboy, what formed the narrative was the obsessive return to a porn magazine, and to the places where one buys it, hides it, jerks off to it, and so on. In I Never Liked You, there was a somewhat less obvious but still central repetition of panels over the course of the narrative, in which the passing of time was conveyed through Brown’s munching on an after-school snack — the box cyclically taken out of the cupboard and the crackers eaten one by one. It is somehow disturbing to see Paying For It anchored by a similar strategy, in which the narrative is continually marked by Brown’s interactions with prostitutes, always proceeding through a depiction of the initial contact, the sexual act, and the paying for said act. There is a commendable honesty here, to be sure: a kind of downbeat, detached naturalism. But there is something dispiriting about it too. As we read along, we might begin to ask ourselves: is having sex with a woman just like having an itch pleasantly scratched, not unlike a gussied-up version of masturbating? Or, for that matter, eating a cracker? Is this, as they say, really all there is?