First, the good news: Chester Brown's "Paying for It, A Comic-Strip Memoir about Being a John," is a funny, honest, thought-provoking book. Through his minimalist illustrations (almost sketches, really), Brown tells the entertaining story of how and why he began frequenting prostitutes after his live-in girlfriend, Sook-Yin, decided that she was "falling in love with someone else" and wanted to share her bed with the other guy instead of him.
Most men might find this sort of domestic arrangement unacceptable, but Brown seems to casually accept it with no hard feelings. As underground comics legend Robert Crumb notes in his Introduction, and Brown's friend Seth observes in Appendix 23, the author is a rather cold fish with "a very limited emotional range compared to most people." So, after enduring two years of celibacy following his break-up with Sook-Yin, Brown decides that "paying for it" is the best way to reconcile his desire to have sex with his determination to NOT have a girlfriend. It's an odd choice, but one he believes is the most appropriate for him, given his disillusionment with even the concept of romantic love.
Unfortunately for Brown, prostitution is just as illegal in his native Canada as it is in the United States. This makes him more than a bit paranoid when it comes to trying to arrange his first appointments with the female escorts he sees advertising in some of Toronto's weekly newspapers. Brown's fumbling initial experiences are amusing, and even somewhat touching in an awkward way. But he eventually figures out how it all works.
From there it's onward to a revolving menu of carnal comfort food, at least as he describes it. Brown circulates among roughly two dozen different partners, before finally settling into monogamy with one. As the encounters proceed with each escort (all given fake names that are different from their already unreal "professional" names), Brown endures a fair amount of bad sex, has some truly awesome, wonderful sex, and struggles with a recurring sense of emptiness that often follows his erotic trysts.
This is where the book is at its best. Brown has an excellent ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for humor and irony. As one reviewer points out, the pillow talk Brown captures in his word balloons is pitch perfect even if his drawings are fairly flat and barely two-dimensional. As a bonus, Brown fills in the blanks between his "dates" by recounting conversations he has with his friends, many of which involve interesting discussions about the morality of what he is doing and the nature of what makes for a healthy relationship with another person, regardless of the context involved.
Along the way, Brown builds a convincing case for why prostitution should be decriminalized. After talking with numerous women, some of whom are "agency" or brothel escorts, and others who are independent contractors, he comes to the conclusion that Canada's laws against prostitution are more harmful than the vices they are meant to stop. Brown persuasively argues that most of the social ills blamed on the sex trade are a direct result of the fact that the ladies who engage in sex for pay are marginalized as people and not treated with the same dignity and respect as other providers of personal professional services. His logic here is difficult to refute, as is his assertion that many prostitutes freely choose, and even appreciate, their jobs, particularly when they can earn more money from taking intimate appointments than by doing anything else, and also get to set their own schedule and see a roster of regular clients.
The bad news is that Brown doesn't quit when he's ahead. Having articulated a clear view of why the status quo is unacceptable, he then becomes enamored of the idea that only a totally laissez faire, free-market approach to prostitution is the correct policy for sex workers and consumers alike. According to the artist, all regulation of the business is inherently evil and wrong, even when the goals are to protect the workers and the public health and welfare. Instead, he refers to imaginary, so-called "sexual civil rights" for individuals, without ever acknowledging that all rights generate corresponding responsibilities for citizens to behave with a measure of restraint. Furthermore, given that not all forms of prostitution are benign or identical, local communities have every reason to uphold their own standards and seek some degree of control over sex workers whose actions cross the line between exercising their own rights and causing harm to others. Contrary to what Crumb says about prostitutes, in his Introduction to "Paying for It," not all efforts to regulate their business are based on "liberal do-gooders' attempts to `reform' them." Regulation is about balancing the rights of adults to do what they want in their own lives, and with their own bodies, with everybody else's rights to not be victimized by people who cannot control themselves.
It's easy to tell what's behind the breakdown in Brown's logic. For all of his obvious intelligence, as the book delves deeper into the realms of gender politics and sociology, the writer's self-awareness starts to slide into a more ideological tone. Once again, the narrator's friend, Seth, nails it in Appendix 23, saying: "Often his [Brown's] opinion is a little too dogmatic for my tastes -- a little too tied to the libertarian party-line." Readers may well feel the same when Brown resorts to cherry-picking sources to suit his own philosophy.
For example, Appendix 17 of "Paying for It" approvingly cites psychologist Jeffrey Schaler's work "Addiction Is A Choice" by agreeing with him that substance abuse is not a disease. Brown quotes Schaler denying "that there is any such thing as `addiction,' in the sense of a deliberate and conscious course of action which the person literally cannot stop doing." Really? This claim is ridiculously simplistic and absurd on its face. Aside from the many well-documented studies of how long-term alcohol and opioid abuse causes physical changes in the brains of heavy drinkers and addicts, interfering with the normal function of their neurotransmitters, has either Brown or Schaler ever been around a junkie craving a hit of heroin? Glib theory is no match for the stark reality of watching a woman get dope-sick and go through withdrawal symptoms because she cannot smoke or shoot up the narcotics her body wants.
Elsewhere, Brown tends to extrapolate from his own experiences with prostitutes, and generalize about how their relatively upscale escort business is representative of paid sex at the lower end of the pecking order. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While the commercial dynamics of the transaction may be the same, there is a world of difference between the young lady who decides to earn good money the old-fashioned way, by entertaining professional gentlemen at her safe worksite, and the old (or underage) streetwalker hustling for small change from the more dangerous customers in the red-light district. Brown gives short shrift to the tougher problems that desperate women have to overcome, just to survive, when they are soliciting strangers in public places and struggling to avoid the police, violent johns, hard drugs, and all of the other obstacles in their path.
Admittedly, Brown does appear to recognize the very real crimes of human trafficking and sexual slavery in our culture today. Even there, though, he complains about how any attempt to regulate prostitution would be more apt to result in a "black market," where girls would be powerless to defend themselves, than it would serve as a tool to identify and eliminate such abusive underground operations. At the risk of sounding patriarchal, it's just difficult to take him seriously when he speculates that an environment in which anything goes would be more beneficial for women than one in which their basic human rights are protected.
Altogether, "Paying for It" is a fine memoir that everyone with an open mind should enjoy. With all due respect to Alan Moore, whose praise on the back jacket cover is effusive, I don't know if "this book will love you long time," and reward repeated readings, but it is definitely worth perusing at least once. Brown's latest creation belongs in that rare category of graphic biographies that makes you laugh and think at the same time.