Paying For It

Sex sells.  Or, at least that is what we have been led to believe.  Why is it that half-naked women sell everything from used cars to beef jerky?  Because sex sells!

But what are we really buying when we are buying these products that are advertised with sex?  Are we buying the product?  Are we buying the sex?  Are we buying the thought that somehow, by making the purchase we are getting closer to the sex?  That will give you pause next time you reach for the beef jerky.

It was a line of questioning similar to that which started Chester Brown on a path that many have followed but few have written about.  Paying For It is Brown’s memoir of over a decade of being a John.  It is a warts-and-all look at prostitution from the John’s point of view, including not only his interactions with the prostitutes, but also his philosophical, moral, and political conversations about prostitution with his friends.

Brown is an analytical person and this shows in every aspect of this book.  He appears to scrutinize every situation he is in, and never really gets out of his head to enjoy the moment.  The book takes Brown from his last girlfriend through his exploits with prostitution up to his present relationship.  We see no only Brown’s actions, but also are invited in to his inner-most thoughts as he meets with the various women.  Surprisingly, his thoughts are about as direct and analytical as his approach to meeting prostitutes.

At times it is difficult to tell what is a factual retelling of the events and what is Brown taking the opportunity to espouse his beliefs on the topic.  Normally I would say that this whole thing was staged to give him a soapbox, but there are notes in the back from other creators (most notably Seth) who express that much of the book happened in this manner and that Brown approaches most of his life like this.

But what about the sex???

Sure, there is sex in the book.  But I have to say that the sex is handled in the same business-like manner as the rest of the book.  There is nothing titillating or arousing about it.  It is, actually, far less entertaining and engaging than the other scenes in the book. It is, however, the only time in the book when Brown’s facial expressions change.

Brown’s art is minimalist.  There is a strict eight-panel grid that is adhered to throughout the story.  This gives the reader the feeling that no one aspect of the story is more important than another (echoing my statement above that the sex is handled in the same manner as anything else in the book).

What I find interesting is that Brown never shows the face of any of the women he sleeps with.  He says early on that he is changing the physical appearance of the women if that appearance would, in any way, reveal their identities.  While I applaud his determination to protect the “innocent” in this story, the fact that he refuses to show any faces (regardless of how close they may or may not be to the actual people involved) is actually disturbing.

Instead of presenting the women (visually) as complete people, he is making them solely in to bodies to be looked at.  They are just faceless, anonymous bodies.  This is the opposite of what he insists he wants to do.  He states that he wants to humanize the prostitutes and show them for the real people they are.  But, by only showing their bodies, it has the opposite effect.

I think the best way I can describe the experience of reading Paying for It would be to explain who authored the inner flap pull-quotes:  a professor of economics, a professor of sociology, and a professor of psychology.  This book is not about sex.  This book is about the economics, psychology, and politics of prostitution.  It will provoke thought and discussion amongst those who read it.  It will also provoke strong feelings of frustration, anger, joy, and inspiration.  It is complex book that will open your mind and challenge your beliefs…but it won’t turn you on.

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