Winnipeg Free Press wowed by PAYING FOR IT

“An Open Book” / The Winnipeg Free Press / Detour / May 26, 2011

In his recent run for a seat in parliament in the federal election, Toronto Libertarian Party candidate Chester Brown could theoretically have found himself in an old-fashioned sex scandal if one of his opponents chose to point an accusatory finger Brown's way to accuse him of using the services of prostitutes.

There's just one problem with that scenario. Brown not only admits to employing prostitutes -- lots of them -- he has written an entire book about it.

Paying for It, subtitled "a comic-strip memoir about being a john," hit bookstores earlier this month. And while it may be packaged in a disarming graphic-novel format, it is a startling, honest memoir examining Brown's scrupulously reasoned decision to reject the entire notion of romantic love and employ prostitutes to satisfy his sexual needs.

It's a jolting change of pace if you only know Brown from his celebrated 2003 graphic novel Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography. But if you've been paying attention to Brown's work, you'll recognize his unfiltered sensibility from his 1992 book The Playboy, an autobiographical account of Brown and his decades-long relationship with Playboy magazine, encompassing onanistic male sexuality, popular erotica and oodles of guilt and shame.

"It's probably because of the previous book that I'm used to expressing myself openly like this," says the 50-year-old, Montreal-born author on the phone from his home in Toronto. "I didn't even think it was difficult when I did The Playboy. I remember drawing the first few pages of The Playboy and I was really enjoying myself.

"When I'm drawing and writing, I am in a room alone by myself, creating this work," he says, acknowledging that the process becomes more confessional at a public reading.

"It's a different thing than when I'm actually standing in front of an audience reading from the book."

Brown's new tome is nothing less than an attempt to change the prostitution paradigm. Being a prostitute or being a prostitute's client, Brown asserts, is no cause for shame, providing both parties are respectful of each other.

In the book, Brown starts off as secretive about his decision to pay for sex, following an amicable breakup with his girlfriend, CBC presenter Sook-Yin Lee, the only freely identified female character who appears in the book. (In depicting prostitutes, Brown changes their names and doesn't even draw their faces to guard their anonymity.)

But he refuses to be ashamed of his identity as a patron of prostitutes. And while his predilection caused some lively debates amongst his circle of friends (duly portrayed in the book), he says he did not lose any friends over the issue.

"I wasn't sure what the reaction was going to be. It still feels like a risk when you come out with an admission like that," he says. "I knew my friends were good people who cared about me, and I suppose if I had been asked which way I thought they were going to go, before I told them, I would have said, 'I think they will still want to remain friends with me.' But you still have that worry in your head."

He likens the secretive, shame-based realm of the prostitute-john subculture as akin to that of homosexuals in the '60s.

"At one point, most gay people, not all, were ashamed of being gay and didn't want to come out of the closet," he says. "And with most prostitutes and johns, that's how they feel at this point."

-- -- --

Will Brown's campaign succeed in changing the paradigm?

Well, no, at least not in the political arena. Brown failed in his bid to make a difference in the downtown Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina in the recent federal election, in which he received 454 votes, winning support of just 0.7 per cent of the electorate compared to NDP incumbent Olivia Chow, Jack Layton's wife, who squeaked in 35,000-plus votes in front of Brown.

But as an artist, Brown believes he is getting a fair hearing, going by the reviews.

"The reception has been better than I thought it would be," he says. "I expected the reception to be mixed, and there certainly have been negative reviews. I expected more that really hated the book and there's only been one (review) like that."

"It does seem like attitudes are changing," he says.

One might assume Brown's anti-romantic attitude has changed given the book's denouement, in which he cops to a mutually monogamous six-year relationship with a prostitute he identifies as "Denise," whom he continues to pay for sex.

That situation has not changed since the book's publication. In fact, Brown says they are actually discussing the future for the first time.

"For quite a while, we never did talk about how it would be nice if this lasted several more years," he says. "But she actually did say something like that recently. And I was surprised because that was the first time I heard her say anything like that.

"So yeah, we'll see. We'll see how this relationship goes."

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