by Melissa Gira Grant
We know by now that men don’t go to prostitutes only for sex. For those men who are there to buy the experience of acceptance, sex is just a narrative device, forming the perimeter of the act. This is how Chester Brown illustrates sex with prostitutes in his new graphic novel Paying For It. Once he has paid a woman for sex and he’s stripped naked, the individual women’s rooms fade to a storybook black entirely inconsistent with his unflinching eye for all sex’s detail, but – this allows him to halo their bodies in light, dividing their skin from the dark. Maybe it’s just one way of showing the isolated moment of orgasm in a comic strip. The light always comes back on, and all too human conversation follows. There’s nothing idyllic about these exchanges. It’s not his point. Paying For It is prostitution in all its boring, everyday splendor. Unlike most contemporary prostitution myths against which its positioned, there are no victims and there are no saviors.
Chester Brown writes with the career client’s understanding of the practicalities of commercial sex. His project here is not too different from the one taken up by regular clients of prostitutes around the world: that of cataloguing their experiences by partner, date, sex acts performed, cost, and how much they enjoyed it. In his search for new prostitutes to hire, Chester Brown writes that he comes across websites where clients post these stories in a review-format, but distances himself from the behavior – one he himself engages in with Paying For It. It’s not just for the sake of cold record-keeping that he documents his time with prostitutes. If that was all Chester Brown – and those other clients – needed in order to make sense of what prostitution means in their lives, they could just use a spreadsheet.
There were two types of regular clients I encountered as a prostitute. One sees prostitutes over and over because he accepts the interchangeability of sexual partners when one’s aim for sexual partnership is self-centered; that is, it’s not one of mutual partnership, but a quest for self-definition. There is nothing wrong with this. It’s precisely what one should pay a prostitute for. Another type of regular client seeks a transcendent experience he ascribes to the individual attributes and skills of the prostitute he is with in that moment. He is a more traditional lover sort. He believes that the potential of sex – and of uncovering his selfhood – is in the body of the prostitute. He is buying not one perfect sexual act that will reveal the self, but one perfect state of being that will yield perfect sex.
Paying For It introduces us to – or, Chester presents himself as – the first type of regular. He wants us to believe that he’s telling us his story not to boast, but so that he might understand himself. His prowess, as he experiences it, is as a truth-teller. His heart is no less in his pursuit of coming into comfort with himself, even if he’s not willing to share his emotional life with another human being. Chester Brown portrays a man capable of that kind of opening up: early in the book, he goes through an unconventional sort of breakup with his live-in girlfriend, who continues to live-in and take other lovers. (She’s Sook-Yin Lee, the actress who portrayed a woman on a similar quest in John Cameron Mitchell’s landmark sex movie Shortbus.) The rapid cycling through of Chester Brown’s sex partners – and that he pays them – may make him come off like a man in search of kicks, but he’s just gone looking for himself. And he shows up, in nearly every frame, as consumed with the ritual of finding paid sex as he is coming to terms with what his actions say about the kind of man he is, the kind of men all men are.
Mercifully he makes few pronouncements about the kind of people that sex workers are. He puts this right up front in his story: he doesn’t want to out the women he hires, so he doesn’t draw their faces or include any information that might identify them to a reader. While this can seem like a dehumanizing choice, especially given how often the media defaults to such blurring and cropping in its depictions of prostitutes, in Paying For It, it’s an ethical consideration. Chester Brown rightly limits his gaze to himself, and some friends who consented to appear and be quoted. (In the appendices, he even gives them space to respond to his portrayals.)
Where Paying For It falters is less a problem of Chester Brown’s scope as a storyteller, and more a matter of how a book like this lands in such a limited field. Every book about sex work bears far too much importance, when there are so few that resist universalizing prostitution out of one person’s experience. (One that does this very well is another graphic novel: Rent Girl, by Michelle Tea and Laurenn McCubbin, which has big and contradictory things to say about prostitution, and is still a deeply personal and particular story.) When Chester Brown winds up the book with two too-fast conclusions, one romantic and one political, he’s doing what feels like an about-face, a play at repositioning what came before as a moral tale of the kind he has opposed to this point. Then, once he drops the curtain on his story, he tacks on a call for the decriminalization of prostitution. It’s not that I disagree – but I went cold with his hasty proposal of a legal framework, as a coda to a story far more moving than any debate on prostitution. It would take nothing away from the rightness of his story, and how nakedly he tells it, to simply let it stand as his own.
Melissa Gira Grant is the co-editor of Coming & Crying, a collection of true stories about sex. She's written about prostitution, politics, and technology for Jezebel, Slate, and The Guardian (UK).