In 1999, Toronto cartoonist Chester Brown decided to try out being a john. He was tired of long-term monogamous relationships—never a reliable way of getting his rocks off—and he decided that paying for sex would at least be straightforward. He’d pay for a woman to fuck him or give him a blowjob (or both) and he wouldn’t have to worry about a relationship. Because Brown, it seems pretty clear, is a colossal worrier. As he briefly recounts his dating history, he’s good at being friends with women, but he’s a less-than-successful boyfriend. Reading through the book, I’m pretty convinced he made the right choices for him. The question is, do I care? Yes, people are talking about the book because of the subject matter. And yes, it’s an interesting book from a documentary point of view. But typically, a documentary about the sex trade focuses on the workers—generally portrayed as either abused sex-slaves, beaten by pimps and murdered as they struggle through drug addiction on the streets, or else empowered and liberated independent businesswomen. Neither of these angles spends a whole lot of energy on the john’s perspective, which is Brown’s specific theme.
Problem is, I’m not that interested in the john’s perspective. I have some pretty strong preconceptions about johns: I lived in a Vancouver neighbourhood with streetwalkers, during the Pickton murders, and I never felt unsafe because of the women and men working the streets. I felt unsafe because of their clients’ crude remarks and threatening gestures. Which means I fall into the category that Brown describes—those who make negative assumptions about people who pay for sex. Which rationally is a bit silly—if people have every right to have sex for money (and I believe men and women do have this right and should be given the right to practice in safety, whatever that means), then sellers need decent buyers. And Chester Brown seems to be a pretty good john. He pays. He tips generously. He’s relatively polite. He shows up on time. His cartoon self seems reasonably well-groomed, and he is apparently STD-free. So, let’s call Brown an ideal john.
Paying For It is entirely about women in the sex trade, since that’s what Brown has paid for. But he argues convincingly that our views of men and women who engage in sex work tend to be different—men are seen as being in control of their bodies whereas women are looked upon as being abused, disempowered by the industry.
Has Brown changed my opinion about johns? No. I always assumed there were some decent buyers as well as nasty ones, and his story proves this true. But he has made me think about the role of the john for the length of time it took me to read and reread the book. (I wouldn’t have reread it by choice, but it’s polite, when reviewing a work that took the author roughly a decade to live through and countless hours to draw and perfect.) I found a lot to think about, agree and disagree with. But mostly I was bored.
Brown’s graphic style—in both senses of the word—is nicely stripped-down, and he makes an intriguing choice to keep his own expression mask-like throughout the book, which seems fitting for his repressed character. I like the honesty—or, what I assume is his honesty—in this detailing of every time he paid for sex between 1999 and 2003, and his insistence on including every prostitute he has seen since. Essentially, the book is a graphic list of who he has fucked since 1999 and what he’s learned in doing so. I just wish the result was more interesting.
Sex is pretty repetitive. It’s the people involved that give the thing variety and interest. But in choosing to omit the sex trade workers’ personalities, opinions, and thoughts, Brown has committed a serious error for his book. The women he has sex with are using pseudonyms—logically enough—but he has also consciously eliminated their personalities and backgrounds. He claims in the Foreword: “Quite a few of the sex-workers I spent time with opened up to me and told me about their families, their childhoods, their boyfriends, and other aspects of their lives. I wish I had the freedom to include that material in the following pages—it would have brought the women to life as full human beings and made this a better book.” Yes, it would have.
Brown assumes, probably correctly given the stigma associated with sex work, that the women in his book have people in their lives who don’t know what they do for a living, and he argues that he is protecting them by keeping the women essentially silent in his memoir. But it’s impossible to empathize with his experiences when the women taking part in his memoir are reduced to vaguely aesthetic outlines on glossy white paper. I don’t buy his excuse that there was no way to give us some hint of the women’s lives and experiences, to allow the female characters of the book to escape from cliché and silence. I understand his need to protect a few characters in the book, who explicitly state that they want to be left out “as much as possible”. But in today’s world of creative nonfiction, Brown had a variety of options to include more reality, so to speak, rather than less. And he chose not to.
The last fifty pages of the book are devoted to notes and arguments. Brown can be very convincing, and I enjoyed his micro-essays about money’s influence, sexual objectification, human trafficking, etc. But why didn’t he turn this into actual graphic chapters in the book? He might at least have fully explored the micro-essays through his exchanges with his (male) cartoonist-friends, who are lovingly portrayed in the book. Having some variety in the highly repetitive “oh which prostitute should I contact, great this one’s available/gorgeous/hideous” chapters would relieve the tedium.
Maybe the lack of women’s personalities is revealing of the role of a john—or at least, revealing of why Brown has found this solution is the best for him. This might have been a startling documentary, revealing, talk-engendering, and fascinating. Instead, we’ve got an intereresting memoir which would be useful in a gender and sex studies class, a graphic un-novel that fits without too much discomfort (surprisingly) beside Brown’s other works, such as his comic-strip biography of Louis Riel. Read Paying For It if you’re interested in the sex trade and want a well-researched, clearly-argued defense of the john. Otherwise, buy a copy of Brown’s Louis Riel; you’ll enjoy it more.
Drawn & Quarterly | 292 pages | $24.95 | cloth | ISBN #978-1770460485