Paying for It draws on Chester Brown's life as a john

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      Chester Brown must have known what he was getting himself into. In creating Paying for It, the Toronto-based cartoonist was setting himself up for criticism, not just of his work but of himself and his chosen lifestyle. The graphic novel, published this month by Drawn & Quarterly, documents Brown’s interactions with prostitutes over the course of a decade or so. It also includes notes and appendices in which the author lays out his arguments in favour of the decriminalization of selling sex, and against the notion of romantic love in general.

      The book, as you might imagine, has engendered a bit of controversy. Reviewing Paying for It in the Chicago Reader, Noah Berlatsky called Brown’s drawings of the prostitutes “dehumanizing”, and characterized the artist’s libertarian view of sex-as-commodity as “an expression of the individual autonomously pursuing pleasure” and a “soul-crushing sexual ethic”.

      “People are taking issue with certain things in there,” Brown admits, speaking to the Straight over the phone from his home. “I certainly think someone who is brighter and more articulate than I am could have expressed things in a better way, but the book came out as well as it could given my limited abilities. No, I wouldn’t change anything.”

      As for “dehumanizing” his subjects—Berlatsky pointed out that Brown never shows their faces, “turning them into expressionless ciphers”—the cartoonist had his reasons for drawing the sex workers he visited as uniformly black-haired enigmas. Specifically, he was protecting their identities.

      “Yes, I left things out, particularly when it came to matters that might reveal the identities of the prostitutes I saw,” Brown says. “In the very first scene, the first time I see one, in a brothel, she asks me that question about what I do for a living, and I answer that I’m a cartoonist, and that I write and draw comic books. And then she started talking about comic books in her life, and it was very interesting, but that could have been revealing. She had particular experiences with comic books, and maybe she’s talked about those with other people, and so, yeah, I omitted that entirely from that conversation, as if she hadn’t told me any of that stuff. And at every encounter there were things like that, that I left out—things that could have revealed something about a particular woman that might have identified her.”

      Brown, on the other hand, made a habit of being as open about his own identity as possible in his dealings with prostitutes. He started out using the pseudonym “Steve McDougal” but quickly dropped it, partly because of his relative notoriety—his comic-book biography of the 19th-century Métis leader Louis Riel won the author several awards and was lauded by Time magazine—but mostly because he simply had nothing to hide. “I had been talking with one of the women about what I did [for a living], and she had expressed an interest in seeing something by me, so I brought her one of the comic-book issues, from when Louis Riel was serialized as a comic book,” Brown recalls. “And when she saw my name on that, I explained that I’d been using a fake name. And after that point, I realized that johns who are married might have good reason for using fake names, but I’d been open with all of my friends and most of my family about seeing prostitutes, so it wasn’t any kind of big secret in my life.”

      Brown was, in fact, “out of the closet” with his friends right from the beginning, and in Paying for It, he shows himself in conversation with fellow cartoonists Joe Matt and Seth, railing against romantic love and “possessive monogamy”. Ironically—and here is where Drawn & Quarterly would probably like me to warn you of a possible spoiler—it was through his venture into the world of paid sex that Brown found love, or something like it. His relationship with “Denise” began as one between client and contractor but has since become monogamous. Mind you, each of their sexual encounters still concludes with a monetary transaction, and things aren’t progressing the way they would in a standard romance. Brown is okay with that, and so is “Denise”.

      “In boyfriend-girlfriend relationships,” says Brown, “usually there’s this pressure: ”˜Let’s move things to the next step. We should move in together and after that there should be a proposal,’ or whatever. There seem to be these steps, and there’s nothing like that in this relationship, where it feels like we’re supposed to be moving it in a certain direction. The relationship is the way it is, and we both seem to be happy with it the way it is.”

      Brown wouldn’t change a thing, in other words, and the same is true for his inevitably controversial book. Well, mostly true. Upon further reflection, Brown allows that he might do one thing differently if given the chance. “There’s a scene in the book where Seth intimates that I’m going through a midlife crisis, and I totally deny it,” he says. “My thinking about that has changed a little bit, in that I think I probably was going through what many men experience as a midlife crisis; it just didn’t feel that way to me because I didn’t experience it as a crisis. A lot of guys might hit middle age and start wanting to have sex with younger women, and might actually do it. If they’re in a relationship—if they’re married, say—they would probably experience that as a negative thing and be down on themselves. They could experience it as a crisis. But because I wasn’t in that type of relationship, it didn’t feel like a negative thing to me. If I was doing it over, I would at least address that in the notes, and say: ”˜There might have been something to what Seth was saying.’ ”

      Chester Brown will appear at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch on Wednesday (May 18).

      Comments

      12 Comments

      anonymous ofcourse

      May 15, 2011 at 2:48pm

      Sounds like a guy with a sex addiction, and never had the support to pay for, say one half year's worth of hookers for therapy instead. I feel for the guy, and all the sensitive, introverted comic kids who never got to grow up. The usual way for someone in an addiction, in denial, to deal with their unhappiness is to say 'that's how it is and has to be, and it should be legal for everyone so I don't have to grow up'. It isn't easy, he'd have to confront the pain of his life.

      But paying his 'girlfriend' doesn't have anything to do with love. It's called prostitution, and is the hallmark of a desolate life. Our immature culture lauds and permits this kind of immature way of life: there's no love if it can't be bought. The cartoonist didn't choose as a child to one day be hooked on fantasy-based interactions with no doubt drug-addicted abuse victims, but he is responsible for dealing with his exploitative behaviours and the other consequences to his friends and family, the prostitutes, and primarily his self too. A diabetic didn't choose to get the disease but they are responsible for getting better and taking care of themselves.

      It is also up to the culture pushed by the media to not encourage or enable the disease - whether diabetes or sex addiction.

      It's good that the reviewer cited other critic's calling out Chester Brown's b.s. for what it is. It's too bad that Drawn & Quarterly isn't making a comic book made by the few women who have made it out of the drug addiction and trauma of abusive histories which puts, statistically proven over and over again, most prostitutes in the business. And it's unfortunate they didn't have the balls to publish a story about a meek cartoonist who realised that he had a problem. Maybe one who learned to get help, say attended a 12 step program for sex addicts like himself (many of whom in their disease try to glorify prostitution, think of it as avant garde and libertarian etc.) and but got clean and realised they were using society's abused little girls.

      Too bad D&Q doesn't publish stories about someone who overcomes fear, stops thinking he can abuse women whenever he wants because he has some cartoon-money to pay for it, someone who realises 'oh sh_t, I'm not in a relationship-I'm paying a hooker who, if I giver her enough money, tells me she's only sleeping (or whatever they are up to) with ME—this is clearly me in delusion!'.

      Too bad they don't laud someone who's gotten healthy, instead of found a way to stay sicker. But that would be too positive and unappealing to the audience that still likes... cartoons, burning man, exhibitionism and stripping in the guise of burlesque, and an all-out oppositional stance to anything that resembles maturity. A thousand girls is a conquest for little boys, real intimacy with one woman over years, and no money involved for god's sake, is the work of of a man.

      Again, the Straight offers another sick manifestation of a sick culture, with sick parents, and sick sales goals.

      What kind of art can be shared that isn't by, about, maybe for alcoholics and sex addicts who have no way out? What will it take to celebrate healing and healthy lives instead?

      "it was through his venture into the world of paid sex that Brown found love, or something like it. His relationship with “Denise” began as one between client and contractor but has since become monogamous. Mind you, each of their sexual encounters still concludes with a monetary transaction, and things aren’t progressing the way they would in a standard romance. Brown is okay with that, and so is “Denise”.

      Charles Bukowski

      May 17, 2011 at 7:26pm

      Chester Brown is a fan of Robert Crumb, who writes the into. to Paying For It. Chester dedicates the book to his friend and inspiration Joe Matt - who writes comics about his being a Loser with a porn obsession. All three men are talented illustrators and all justify their abuse of women as progressive. Read Chester's book - he is honest that he gets a turn on from a hooker who is in pain while he has sex with her. Twice he is worried that a girl is under 18 - not because he doesn't want to be a pedophile but because he is scared about being arrested...he never confirms the actual ages and just takes the women's word for it that they are "legal" age wise. A couple of hookers won't look at him during sex - he thinks that's a turn off but never considers they may hate him and their situation. Chester is who is is - like most people he doesn't consider feelings of others and lives in a psuedo intellectual life where he puts forward social theories without having to live with the consequences...because like most people he doesn't care to consider them on an emotional level. It makes me want to cry.

      kaur

      May 18, 2011 at 8:25am

      The reality is that the sex trade is a booming industry and it always has been and always will be there. Anonymousofcourse is someone with little understanding of men’s sexuality and perhaps has some contempt for it. Dare I say I sense some insensitivity as well in regards to the plight many men face.

      Why do men go to Johns? Chris Atchison, an instructor at SFU studied prostitution and gave John’s a voice so that we could learn more about this group that is rarely studied, heard and often misunderstood. The results have profound implications and show a group that is too often demonized as monsters and thugs. The research results show another picture and Johns are humanized when they are given a chance to tell their story.

      Sorry, Chris Brown but ”˜cartoonoory’ just isn’t a way to humanize Johns or give them credibility, however I appreciate the attempt to do so. It just reduces a serious issue into a caricature. The fact that Chris had to resort to this attempt is a sad state of affairs of not feeling safe to discuss a topic because of the backlash and ignorance from various powerful interest groups.

      @Charles Bukoski: The fact that you are what you are - like most people who don't consider the feelings of others such as Johns or consider them on an emotional level yet put forward psuedo-intellectual public comments, without having to live with the consequences ...because like most people you don't care to consider them on an emotional level, well it makes me want to cry. Actually not really, but it does make me sad and angry about ignorant and closed minded, self-riteous people.

      kaur

      May 19, 2011 at 7:28am

      Geez, I wish there was a magic edit button after the fact...
      In my previous comment, I meant to say 'Why do men go to prostitutes?', instead of 'why do men go to 'Johns' and in the 3rd paragraph, I meant to say Chester Brown instead of Chris. Sorry for the sloppiness, I must have been trying not to cry when I wrote this.

      Here is some more info about the study regarding 'Johns':
      http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2010/01/11/f-prostitution-current-jo...

      Frank

      May 21, 2011 at 8:42am

      Keep up the great work Chester.

      John John

      Jun 29, 2011 at 9:28am

      No woman gives it away for free. Therefore, either all women are prostitutes or no woman is a prostitute.

      dinosaur

      Jun 30, 2011 at 11:03am

      @John John, I disagree. I’d say that women are closer to the analogy of "dominatrix" in many cases. Sex is power in a relationship.

      Here’s how theorize this: because of the huge gains made towards women’s equality in North America, including their earning power, women realize that they no longer have to "give out" like in past generations. The dynamics in the bedroom has shifted to where men are more likely to be at the mercy of women in domestic relationships. Look around. The majority of younger women I see and know wear the pants in the relationship and call the shots. It’s the men who are submissive.

      dinosaur

      Jul 2, 2011 at 9:35am

      The problem with theory is that it's so removed from reality.

      Back in the day, men would provide for their wives. Women were taken care of. But since women now earn as much as men and earn as many college degrees, men must pay in other ways. Thus, we now see men doing housework, give up much of their power and decision making ability, sharing equally in child rearing tasks, etc etc. Men are still paying for it, but in different ways. This is why you see so many submissive American husbands.

      But lets not kid ourselves, since the beginning of time women have been demanding things in exchange for sex. A prostitute asks for the money up front. A non-prostitute allows you to open a credit account and later collects on the bill.

      dinosaur1

      Jul 3, 2011 at 7:36am

      I want to clear that I'm the first dinosaur and I didn't post the second comment by the person who used the copycat name. I don't agree with dinosaur2 because...

      "Let’s not kid ourselves." SEX is POWER in a relationship (and women are now often on top). I think your housework, childrearing, chores, etc argument/theory feeds into itself. If you say that women earn as much as men and are as educated but "demand things in exchange for sex", then maybe that’s the reason why men are doing the housework, chores etc more often in contrast to the patriarchical dinosaurs of the past.

      You end your argument with the statement "A non-prostitute allows you to open a credit account and later collects on the bill." So I guess you are saying that women are not prostitutes? Anyway a woman with earning power can open her own credit acct and pay her own bills.

      John John

      Jul 7, 2011 at 10:19am

      You are correct. I posted the 2011-7-2 comment. I'm not sure how your name was included. My apology.

      I think we agree. Because women today earn as much as men, men must give other things in exchange for sex -- and the things men now give in exchange for sex are submission in the relationship, marriage, monogamy, housework, etc.

      I would argue that the criminalization of prostitution is a means by which middle eastern religious morality is imposed upon men. Since the beginning of time, women have been demanding things in exchange for sex and men have been willing to give things in exchange because human males, as in nearly all other species, have the greater need. This imbalance in need creates a sexual economy.

      Let me put it in plain terms: If it weren't for sex, do you really believe men would get into relationships with women?