Glib initial reactions on reading Chester Brown's Paying for It:
1. Oddly enough, I didn't.
2. Years and years ago when Brown first became autobiographical I wrote that if you were going to do confessional comics you ought to have more to confess than masturbation and nose-picking. Check.
3. Reads: "I do want to thank the Canadian Council for the Arts for generously assisting me financially while I wrote and drew this work." Thinks: "Oh, I'm sure they're thanking you too!"
I like to imagine the Canadian Council for the Arts anticipating what that fine young fellow Chester Brown is going to follow Louis Riel with. Something about the Manitoba Schools Question, perhaps. Oh, it's called Paying for It, eh? Well, that sounds more like the Klondike Gold Rush. Bit of a hackneyed subject, but the lad is bound to have found a novel approach . . .
As the book opens, Brown's long-time girlfriend announces that she's fallen in love with someone else, and that she wants to pursue the romance. Brown asks if he has to move out, she says she'd just as soon he didn't, and Brown accepts the readjustment to roommate status with equanimity. The relationship had succumbed to marital bed death some time ago. Beside that, Brown has come to the conclusion that romantic love is a snare and a delusion, its rewards transitory and its pains enduring. He resolves that this girlfriend will be his last, and that henceforward he will fulfill his sexual needs exclusively through prostitutes. At the going rate he calculates he can afford a half hour session every three weeks, and that this ought to be sufficient. He proceeds to give an account of every prostitute he frequents over a period of 14-odd years.
Paying for It is a straightforward work of advocacy fixed around a principled repudiation of romantic love as an evil per se. In this context prostitution becomes a benign and benevolent remedy for a social ill. According to Brown, and it's his word against nobody's, he finds companionable non-sexual friendship is more than adequate to fulfill his emotional needs, he finds the brief company of prostitutes agreeable and the services more than satisfactory. The effect is a bit like a television commercial which instead of ending after the revelation of the washday miracle, continues to recount its wonders washday after washday. As the subject matter here is naturally far more interesting than laundry, the result can't help but being engrossing. First off, it's a story few would tell because nearly nobody wants to announce to the world that he's the sort of fellow who has to pay for sex, regardless of how distinctly he might give that impression. Many are happy to declare themselves regular users of marijuana because the image the practice projects is of a raffish, roguish rebel against petty and foolish laws. The frequenter of prostitutes, even among those who don't condemn the practice in principle, is seen as a creep, an image that Brown does little to discourage when he draws himself to look like the Crypt Keeper. Nevertheless, Brown has no compunctions because he sees himself as something of a Bolívar figure.
The extent to which his point of view is an outlier is reflected in the reactions of his friends. The attitude expressed, albeit in a passive-aggressive way, is tacit disapproval. While they are enlightened bohemians who don't morally condemn the practice of prostitution, they prefer the practitioners and the patrons to be abstractions. They expect the sort of people they know to renounce their prostitution privileges on the honor system. Not that this makes them any less interested than you or me in the details of the experiment. They are somewhat more receptive to his discontent with romantic relationships, knowing the feeling, but unlike Brown they are not rebels but reformers, still loyal to Cupid's regime.
From a certain male perspective there is nothing on Earth more logical than prostitution. A more convenient accommodation to certain aspects of male sexuality could hardly be imagined. Romance is a barter economy, and to many of us being limited to the equivalent of what we have to trade with can be a grim prospect indeed. Unless you are sufficiently attractive one way or another there are women you'd love to have that you simply can't have honestly, and if your theory is that an unattractive person can have inner qualities that compensate then you're perfectly welcome to get one for yourself. That things normally unattainable could be had for something as easily had as money seems nothing short of a miracle. "Am I to understand that you would be willing to exchange this treasure for that shit? It's a deal!" For my part I would say that there are any number of women I have no personal interest in whatsoever that I would like nothing better than to have sexual intercourse with, and my guessing is that among men this is essentially universal. Many men will go through the motions of romance to achieve the purposes of visiting a prostitute. (But then, many women who will play along with this in order to sell the fellow on affection, and they don't always fail. If men have a tendency to put sexual gratification in column A and affection in column B and women vice-versa, it doesn't necessarily mean they don't have an interest in what's in column B.)
Clearly then, the reason we don't have bordellos on every street corner, like gasoline stations, is that it's not seen to be nearly so good a deal for women. Not that it's exclusively women who hold this view, though my working hypothesis would be that if you show me a society where prostitution is practiced unfettered I will show you a society where women don't have the vote. Through the magic of the Internet one might see from time to time photographs of flabby aged men having sex with nubile young women and it is one of the most repulsive things on earth. Whether this sort of thing is more unpleasant or psychologically damaging than what say a nurse might have to do in the course of his or her duties is the nub of the question. The consensus view of the majority culture is that setting yourself up in business as a prostitute is such a universally bad decision that nobody ought to be allowed to make it. On top of that there is the idea that the transaction is intrinsically immoral, which continues to have appeal among the piously stupid. Actually, many religions have adapted to the modern day by adding affection to procreation as a legitimate excuse for sexual intercourse and pretending that was what they said all along, a position that still precludes prostitution. Then there is the theory that the female body is the common property of womanhood in general and that therefore no woman is entitled to use her body in a way that is not approved by the Central Committee of the Womintern, but this idea never seems to go beyond the theoretical. Here's the sticking point: It is implicit in the transaction that the customer is a person who the prostitute would not be having sex with if she wasn't getting paid. In this prostitution bears the same resemblance to rape that working for wages does to slavery, which is to say that they're not the same thing but there are certain similarities. Many take it as an abuse of consenting adult privileges, which were granted grudgingly in the first place. From this ambivalence comes the ambivalent status in this country at least, wherein on the one hand prostitution is outlawed but on the other hand doesn't enforce the law with any rigor so long as business isn't done on the streets.
Myself I do not frequent prostitutes because of my deep moral conviction that it costs too much. It puts me in mind of the chapter in J.K. Huysman's À Rebours where des Esseintes resolves to turn an honest working class youth into a thief and murderer by treating the lad to trips to luxurious houses of prostitution and then cutting him off once he gets used to them. (My recollection is that the experiment is spoiled when one of the prostitutes takes a liking to the boy and makes a ponce out of him instead.) When I do toy with the idea notionally I tend to get stuck on the question of whether one can pay for sex without exploiting someone else's misery. My mind hesitates not so much because I'm sure the answer is no than that I can't be sure the answer is yes. I would be lying however if I said I didn't wish yes were the answer.
My first hand impressions of working prostitutes was in Hollywood in the late 1970s. In those days the forces of libertinism had pushed all the way up to Pyongyang and were contemplating crossing the Yalu. Then the Chinese army invaded and though no formal peace treaty was ever signed the sexual revolution settled into a stable if uneasy armistice along the 38th parallel, where it remains to this day. Perhaps like the Chinese army my metaphor is running away with me. One of the world's unshakable myths is that prostitution thrived on Hollywood Boulevard. In the popular mind "Hollywood Boulevard" is synonymous moral squalor, so in the popular mind that's where prostitution must be. Here on Earth One, I don't think I ever saw a street prostitute on Hollywood Boulevard, for the simple reason that wherever you went there was always a car parked between the street and the curb. Where you saw the prostitutes was on Sunset Boulevard, and believe me, the minute the sun went down it was like cockroaches coming out when you turn off the lights. The goods on display looked more like sour grapes than forbidden fruit, and left me with the impression that the ones you could have for money were not the ones you dreamed about. (Funny story from that period: One day while riding a bus down Franklin Avenue I see a stunning young woman, far above the street prostitute class, standing in the familiar solicitous way on the curb. Thinking to myself "if that's for sale," I am half tempted to take a bus back the other way just to see if I'd seen what I thought I'd seen. Then I remembered she was standing about a block away from a Scientology center.) Shortly after Morning in America the police decided that the age of permissiveness was over and clamped down on the trade, largely through the use of patrolmen on horseback, which was an interesting sight as well.
That of course was street prostitution, which is not what Brown is cartooning about. Indeed, as he goes biking around in search of street prostitution there is none to be seen, and thus we are cheated of the sight of Chester ferrying a working girl to their assignation in the basket. Once he turns to the sex ads in the weekly paper he feels as though he's walked through an unlocked door. He finds the women in their attributes all he could wish for, and he doesn't seem to be particularly liberal about beauty. Satisfactory transactions are many, unsatisfactory ones are few. Perhaps this reads on Richard Pryor's dictum, "Good is as bad as pussy gets." As Brown finds his way through the simple and convenient consumer aids available, it takes on the aspect of a how-to manual.
How good is it as comics? Well, the subject matter is so intrinsically interesting that you'd have to be very bad at comics to fail with it, and Chester Brown is good at comics. His page layouts, which once resembled a haphazard scrapbook, now look like the album of an anal retentive stamp collector. The impression is reinforced by the identically sized panels with their heavy outlines, which in their miniaturist precision recall the grace note drawings in old newspaper Sunday pages, the "trading stamps," or Chester Gould's "Crimestoppers Notebook" or Al Capp's "Advice fo' Chillun." Through these tiny windows the nymph-like women have a non-pornographic eroticism about them. According to the ground rules Brown sets, he doesn't depict the faces of the women in order to protect their anonymity. Though he attempts to fill in the women's personalities in the word balloons that render them faceless, if you're going to hand your opponents a loaded gun you have to expect to get shot with it. Also purportedly to protect identities he doesn't reveal the women's ethnicities, which strikes me as withholding vital information.
To this quite substantial and closely packed comic strip narrative is appended a further 50 pages of exegesis on the issues raised. This is of less value than the comics portion because Brown really doesn't argue points very well. What he will often do is pick a spokesperson or set of spokespersons for a particular point of view and act as though having disposed of or supported this person's individual argument then he's dealt with the entire point of view. He also has a weakness for the Procrustean bed. For example, he claims that anti-prostitution arguments would sound ridiculous when applied to male prostitutes, going on to say "As a culture we see men as being in control of their sexuality, so we accept that men can choose sex work." Leaving aside the fact that it is just as illegal for men to be prostitutes as it is for women, this elides the rather large fact that men who choose sex work can't choose the gender of their clientele. The heterosexual male who wishes to work as a prostitute has little choice but to have sex with men, and this brings into sharper relief the sticking point referred to above. That doesn't make it wrong but it does make it part of the discussion.
A very interesting and persuasive point he makes is that legalization of prostitution may well not be in the interest of prostitutes. He notes it would deprive them of the dividends of working outside the law while imposing new burdens that might be worse than the old. As usual he doesn't argue it well, as he points to the onerous regulations and practices of legal prostitution in Nevada as if the Nevada way were the only way prostitution could be legal. Nevertheless one clearly realizes that if prostitution were made generally legal in the States at least, like smokers, prostitutes and their clients would inevitably be seen by do-gooders as cash cows to be milked to fund their do-gooder projects.
An aspect of the story that didn't occur to me until weeks after I read it is how curiously the behavior of Brown's last girlfriend parallels his. If these were ordinary people and Brown didn't see her as a warden who had given him his parole, the reaction of his friends would have been "What a bitch!", and warring camps would have formed. It is she and not he who precipitates the break that sets his research project in motion. The difference between them is that only one of them can get sexual gratification without affection. While the course she takes is less morally ambiguous than what he does it's not exactly 100% conventional either. What the couple has done is discard the parts of their relationship they found unsatisfactory while keeping the remainder. Though this is not clarified until the notes at the end of the book, Brown not only keeps living under the same roof after he is demoted from the bedroom but follows the menage to a subsequent roof, and stays under it until she finds a romantic partner who doesn't want this vestigial third wheel hanging around anymore. He is sanguine as he hears her lover's quarrels through the walls, drawing from them moral support for his own policy.
Brown sees himself not as a sexual outlaw but as a conscientious objector. While he offers his tale to all with the voyeuristic spirit, one gets the feeling he truly wishes to reach those who might throw off their chains if they were only sufficiently emboldened. His determination to see his practice as representing a higher virtue becomes the lens through which he portrays his experience. It's a lens that seems to blind him to what is essentially comical about his denouement. Romantic love is the heroin of emotions, which users will seek no matter how many times it ruins them financially, though they know they will in all likelihood become habituated. "You're not really high you only think you are" is not a promising theme for an anti-drug program.
But then, this is a subject where nobody wants to take yes for an answer. If the customer speaks up for prostitution he is dismissed as an exploiter. If a sex worker speaks up for it he or she will be dismissed as either self-deluded or retailing another kind of titillation. As for Paying for It, it's 227 pages of Chester Brown on all the prostitutes he's gone to bed with. Why would you not want to read it?