The Dispatch reviews PAYING FOR IT

“A Client's View of Prostitution” / The Dispatch / Rob Hardy / October 24, 2011

Canadian Chester Brown is a well known artist of comic strips, most famous for his comic-style biography of Canadian resistance leader Louis Riel, and some autobiographical work. When his relationship with his last girlfriend foundered in 1996, he realized he was no longer interested in romantic love or monogamy. He still wanted sex, and he still wanted the love of his friends, but he didn't mind if the two wants stayed separate. Skinny, not handsome, and ill-at-ease around new people, he came upon the solution. He'd start going to prostitutes. That's what he has unapologetically done ever since, because the arrangement has worked out well for him, and he'd like people to know about it. Nothing to be done, then, but to draw an autobiographical comic about his adventures in the world of commercial sex. He includes the interactions this brings him with prostitutes and with his friends and former girlfriends who don't know anyone else who has done this sort of thing, and some of whom think he is more nuts than they previously realized. The book is Paying For It: A Comic-Strip Memoir about Being a John (Drawn and Quarterly), and shows once again, if anyone needed further evidence, that comic strips aren't just the Sunday funnies and they aren't just the playground for muscle-bound guys in tights and capes. Funny, self-deprecating, iconoclastic, and thought-provoking, Brown's chronicle will allow those who have never visited a prostitute to learn a little bit about what it is like, and how it is that commercial sex might turn out to be satisfactory for both parties involved. (It should be noted that Brown lives in Toronto, and Canadian laws about prostitution are relatively liberal compared to our own.)

Paying For It is an elegantly produced book. The bulk of its 280 pages is comics, of course, but before those is an admiring introduction from R. Crumb, and afterwards are appendices and copious notes on what has been illustrated. Brown explains, for instance, that he has taken pains to keep the identities of the prostitutes secret, and although his little drawings would not do for visual identification, the speech bubbles of the prostitutes often cover their faces or they are turned away from the viewer. He explains that he submitted the work to the friends who are shown in it, to make sure that they didn't object to how they had been drawn or quoted (in this and in plenty of other episodes, Brown just seems a really nice guy). He gives annotations that explain some of the action or dialogue in the comics. In his first encounter, he and the prostitute are sitting, clothed, on a bed, and she says, "Okay, what would you like to do?" and he says, "Uh, I'd... like to have vaginal intercourse with you." The note at the back of the book explains: "Yes, that's what I really said." There are eight tiny, minimalist, black-and-white panels on each of the comics pages. Some of them show Brown and his hire in action in bed, but they are far too small and undetailed to be even close to lurid. Most of the panels, on the other hand, show him talking with the prostitute, or talking with his buddies or former girlfriends about his new way of life. Through it all is a bald, bespectacled, cadaverous figure whose facial expression does not change. That's Brown, and I was not at all surprised that a photograph of him at the back of the book shows that he really does look like that (although he doesn't have glasses, now that he uses contacts).

By the end of the book Brown knows something about how best to arrange hires to his liking (though he might disagree with R. Crumb's description of his belonging to a group of men who are connoisseurs in the world of paid sex), but in the beginning it was anxiety all around. He worried that he would look like a loser to other people, and then he worried that he is worrying about what other people think. He is such a newbie that his initial worries seem especially ridiculous once one has gotten to the end of the book: "How would it even work? Most guys who pick up streetwalkers have a car. Since I don't have a car, how would I go about it?" But he takes heart from a book of advice from the ever-useful Dan Savage: phone an escort, make an appointment to meet in a safe location, be respectful, use condoms, and tip the lady. The first nervous encounter (on March 26th 1999, to be exact - Brown kept a journal) ends with satisfaction on both sides, and Brown thinks on his bike ride home, "It was so honest... upfront. It felt... natural."

It has felt natural to him ever since. Many of the encounters are funny. "Wendy" doesn't meet him at the donut shop on time, so he phones, and she says, "Chester, I'm sorry. Something came up. I'll be there soon. Give me ten minutes." (It turns out she was having problems with her landlord.) And then she is disorganized about getting a room, and when they are settling in, it turns out she forgot condoms and invites him to come with her to buy them. He loses interest, but she gets her pay. With "Gwendolyn" as with many of the women, the conversation turns to how she got into the business. She explains, "I was working at a massage parlour, but I hate giving massages, so I figured I'd give this type of work a try." Brown asks, "A legit massage parlour or a rub-and-tug?" and she replies, "A rub-and-tug, but even at rub-and-tugs you're expected to give massages, and it was hard on my hands and fingers. It's less work to just have sex with the guys instead of massaging them. And you make more money, too." Gwendolyn also replies to his question that no, she's never taken a client who turned out to be someone she knew, but there was a close call. "A guy phoned and I recognized his voice - he was an ex-boyfriend of mine." The solution: she disguised her voice and said she charged 600 for a half hour. "Beatrice" has the television on the whole time at her place and watches a soap opera throughout. Afterwards, in the penultimate panel, she asks "Why are you giving me a tip?" and in the final panel, Brown is walking home and thinks, "Why did I give her a tip?" Once Brown gets his own apartment, he is ready to invite prostitutes in, but runs into the classic bachelor's problem: his rooms are a mess. "If I'm going to have a prostitute come up here," he thinks, "I'd better clean up this place." One woman, having found out that Brown is a cartoonist, remarks, "I used to like Archie comics." Brown replies, "My stuff's quite different from Archie." (Bingo!) And there are decisions, decisions: "Should I see Millie or Denise next?" he thinks. "Millie's younger and more beautiful. On the other hand, Denise is better in bed and she is pretty. But she's not as stunning as Millie. And Millie doesn't charge as much as Denise does. And Millie's very bubbly and friendly." Eventually (surprise!) a decision gets made.

The encounters seem friendly, and many of the women have agreeable personalities and intelligence. One woman asks, after seeing Brown bring in a book on American history, "Does Johnson think the Civil War was started by tariffs or slavery?" Mutual satisfaction is the general rule. Of course, part of the reason for this is that Brown is a thoughtful gentleman; it is not at all surprising that the women like him and would be glad for return visits. In one of the book's many appendices, Brown's friend Seth writes, "The funny thing about Chester is that out of all the men I know he's quite possibly the one I think would make the most considerate boyfriend or husband for a woman... and yet he is the one who picked the whoring. It's a funny world." Many of the panels here show Brown and his friends in Socratic dialogues about marriage and dating and the place of prostitution. Brown's friends are relentlessly interested. "This is disgusting," says one, "but it's also good gossip."

The conversations with friends bring up ideas about prostitution that Brown covers more at length in his appendices. By the time a reader has gone through Brown's many encounters, it will be plain that for at least some women, prostitution is a financial choice, and like any other choice it can be more-or-less freely made. Brown's takes on disease, sex-slaves, violence, self-respect, and other aspects of prostitution are stated with good sense, although he knows his friends have disagreed with parts of them as will any reader of this book. His stringent views against romantic love and that "marriage is an evil institution" will be especially hard to take. Paying For It might have its manifesto moments, but like any good memoir, it introduces the reader to a likeable, interesting character in the process of change and growth; and besides, it is a realistic introduction into a world many readers will not have encountered except in legal cases and celebrity scandals.

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