PAYING FOR IT gets a review from NPR

“A John's Soul-Baring Memoir Of 'Paying For It'” / NPR / Heller McAlpin / May 16, 2011

Paying for It, cartoonist Chester Brown's memoir in comic strips about being a john, is — well, asking for it. The word controversial doesn't begin to describe this remarkably frank but profoundly disturbing book, which not only attempts to defend sex for pay, but insists it's preferable to romantic love.

Brown, a Libertarian from Toronto, has never shied from provocative subjects. Best known for his comic-strip biography of the 19th-century rebel Louis Riel, he first delved into his own sexuality with The Playboy (1992), an exploration of his guilty adolescent obsession with Playboy magazine. But that's kid's stuff compared with Paying for It.

After the girlfriend he was living with fell in love with another man, Brown decided he was done with romantic love. But there was a rub: "I've got two competing desires — the desire to have sex, versus the desire to NOT have a girlfriend."

Brown's solution is to shop for and buy sex in much the way one might procure a coveted pair of expensive shoes. He presents graphic, meticulous accounts of his dealings with some two-dozen different prostitutes (or escorts, as they prefer to call themselves) over the course of several years.

Interspersed with these reports are debates with his closest friends, including ex-girlfriends, about the morality and ramifications of paying for sex. He repeatedly deflects their arguments about exploitation, health risks and emotional vacuity by countering that "sex is always about trade" and that, for the first time in his life, these transactions feel refreshingly "honest" and "upfront." He insists that most prostitutes sell their bodies willingly — dismissing their lack of options and signs of obvious displeasure. His assumption that most johns are "mild-mannered introverts" like himself, and that violence against prostitutes is no more prevalent than in domestic relationships, also seems willfully naive.

Constrained by his budget, Brown calculates that at $160 per half-hour session, he can afford to have sex once every three weeks, spending a total of $2,720 per year — about what he estimates he spent in a relationship. He trolls for his partners on the Internet, cross-referencing through websites that offer user ratings of prostitutes. When he finds a woman who pleases him, he returns repeatedly — suggesting he's less into novelty than reliability.

Brown's dispassionate — or anti-passionate — sex odyssey is matter-of-factly presented in eight black-and-white panels per page. Paying for It is decidedly graphic, yet the impetus is clearly reportorial rather than pornographic, and Brown's cadaverous self-portraits are anything but flattering. Despite post-coital conversations gingerly inquiring into the women's working lives, and his adamant defense of legalizing prostitution (argued further in multiple appendices), Brown comes across as courteous but creepy. His decision not to show any of the prostitute's faces — in order to protect their privacy — has the perverse effect of dehumanizing them.

One of the more perplexing aspects of Paying for It is Brown's admission that, six years ago, he settled into a monogamous relationship with a woman he calls "Denise," whom he continues to pay for amazing sex. Each time, we wonder, or have they cut a deal? Is there more to their relationship than scheduled sexual encounters? Brown doesn't say. The man who eschews romantic love as evil because it's "about owning, hoarding and jealousy" even admits that he loves her, one-sided though it may be. "So paying for sex isn't an empty experience if you're paying the right person for sex," he concludes in this body-and-soul-baring memoir that is sure to stimulate strong reactions.

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