Paying For It, by Chester Brown: Sex Work, Regulation or Decriminalization?

Paying For It, Chester BrownI have a lot of conflicting thoughts about this book. On the one hand, Paying For It is a fascinating memoir detailing Chester Brown’s time soliciting prostitutes in Toronto from the late nineties through the late zeroes. It brings up all kinds of noteworthy questions about sex work, romantic relationships and the different kinds of love we experience. I have no idea what the answers to these questions are, but I love the questions themselves. Questions are almost always more interesting than answers, and sex work seems like a topic we should be talking more about right now. On the other hand, the way in which Brown approaches possible answers to these questions is at times shortsighted and irresponsible, something I’ll elaborate more on later.

I’ve long thought that prostitution should be legalized and regulated in a similar manner as other “vice” industries: tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, etc. It seems strange that it hasn’t happened yet. Prohibition has a long history of causing more harm than good (see Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness for several examples). Paying For It is pushing a slightly different option for sex work legalization that Brown suggests would be better than regulation: decriminalization. Brown argues that regulation would bring more negatives for sex workers than positives, and that the eventual normalization of sex work after decriminalization would follow as a natural result, given enough time. I’m still not entirely sold on the idea that regulation is a bad option, as I found Brown’s arguments against it not always sound, not to mention a little self-serving. He does however make some very valid points in this always entertaining graphic novel; enough I think, to make anyone consider the alternative he’s suggesting.

Chester BrownThe main idea from this book that I still find intriguing a few months after having finishing it, is Brown’s suggestion that we should abandon the concept of possessive monogamy, or in other words, propriety in romantic relationships. Putting aside whether the idea has merit or not, if we are able to change this about ourselves, the problem then becomes: how should we value sex as a society if we decouple sexual propriety from romantic relationships? Brown suggests valuing it directly with money. While it is possible that money might be the best option, that option is not without its own set of drawbacks. Money, particularly when combined with free market capitalism, often has an insidious way of ruining everything it touches. This is a complicated sociological and psychological problem to tackle, but fascinating to read and think about.

I feel like the more interesting question is whether sex and love can even be decoupled from one another. Personally, I don’t think they can—not entirely at least. Like most of this book, it seems like a libertarian ideal that is decently sound in theory but falls apart in practice. Of course, that is just my subjective opinion, and speaking more in a sense of utilitarian ethics, I see nothing wrong with the separation; It may actually be better for the world, but I remain unconvinced of the concept’s large scale feasibility. On a case by case basis, sure, I can see it working for specific individuals, but beyond that, I think it wouldn’t be possible without a radical restructuring of western society.

Chester Brown, Paying For It
All of these questions are brought up and examined fairly well in the main narrative of the comic as Chester Brown introduces himself to the world of prostitution. In addition to this, about 1/5th of the book is a set of appendices and notes containing information and arguments against potential counters to the idea of decriminalized sex work. Unfortunately, the appendices are where you start to see some of the blind spots in Brown’s perception and reasoning. I think his argument would have been more effective without their inclusion. Most of the logic is sound, but several sections, especially the Drugs, Pimps, and Human Trafficking ones, are entirely too reductive on extremely complex, nuanced issues. At one point he dismisses drug addiction as a myth, and clearly has no solution to the issue of human trafficking, so he brushes it aside as a non-issue. This is insanely irresponsible.

Brown argues his point against easily defeatable straw men of his own invention. If often feels like he is more interested in being right than arriving at the best possible conclusion, which suggests he is someone who has too much personally invested in the argument. One aspect of sex work under decriminalization that Brown seems entirely blind to, is its potential for the emotional manipulation of sex workers as well as other psychological abuses. Brown appears to be a highly logical, reasoning person, which I believe partially blinds him to the reality and experiences of those of us who may be further toward the emotional, feeling side of the personality spectrum. I would love to read some perspectives from sex workers themselves on the different legalization options. Decriminalization vs. regulation arguments aside, Brown’s blind spots aren’t doing his argument any favors. Whatever the solution to the issue ends up being, it needs to first and foremost address the safety and security of sex workers. That is the priority and the entire reason for suggesting a change to the legal status of the oldest profession in the first place.

Paying For It, Chester Brown

All in all, Paying For It was a fascinating, thought-provoking read. I enjoyed the visual aesthetic provided by Brown’s minimalistic, clinical illustrative style. There’s a lot of cartoon sex, and after a while it became a little visually comical, but it is presented in such a straightforward manner as to never feel over-the-top or exploitative. It made me question several preconceived notions about sex work, love, monogamy, relationships, and other social norms and introduced me to several experiences and perspectives I have never considered. If you are interested in any of these topics, especially from an epistemological or sociological angle, it’s definitely worth a read.

Hostage, by Guy Delisle

Hostage, by Guy Delisle

I’m convinced that graphic novels are the perfect form for historical accounts and memoirs. Like film it’s partly a visual medium, but it’s free from the tropes, narrative boundaries, and language of film. It’s also firmly in the realm of literature, but free from the usual trappings of that medium as well. It has all of the strengths of both, and few of their weaknesses. The story can be presented in a simpler language, straightforward and raw, and this often gives it a lot more emotional impact. In several ways historical accounts feels more real, and more personal when presented in panels. There’s a long history of doing just that: Persepolis, Maus, and last year’s March for example were all exemplary, and Hostage belongs right alongside them.

Delisle has done admirable work capturing the disorientation of Christophe’s hostage experience. The language barrier between him and his captors keeps him entirely in the dark as to why he’s been kidnapped, where he’s being held, what the status of negotiations (if any) for his release are, etc. His world is reduced to 4 walls and a ceiling. The reader is kept in the dark right there along with Christophe, experiencing his story as he tells it. Noises and events occur outside of his view and understanding, and he’s left only to guess what they are; constructing his greater world from fantasy. His mind escapes through his love of military history, as he attempts to lose himself in some of the great battles of Napoleon and the American Civil War.

The illustration uses subtlety and simplicity to emphasize how slight the differences in Christophe’s day-to-day life become while in captivity. For example, the thin light moving across the wall shows how his perception of time has been drastically reduced. It’s absence after he’s moved to a more tightly controlled area, is devastating. This isn’t said, but subtly shown. There’s a story unfolding in the words, and more detail unfolding in the illustrations. They meld together, and create the greater story where they overlap. It’s fantastically well done.

Guy DelisleOccasionally a new person feeds him, or forgets to, or leaves him uncuffed at night. Sometimes he’s allowed a shower, sometimes his captors offer him a cigarette. The most heartbreaking part of this for me was the hyper excitement that Christophe experienced at the most basic of pleasures; things I take for granted every day of my life. Finding some Garlic in a storeroom that he’s kept in, and eating it after months of the same soup and bread day after day puts him into a state of euphoric bliss unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. That hit me really hard. When your life consists of being handcuffed to a radiator for months, any little deviation from the norm is the highest peak imaginable. At one point he’s given an omelette, and nearly forgets that he’s a captive, it’s so indescribably delicious to him.

Christophe obviously lived to tell his story to Delisle, but I’ll leave that resolution up to you to discover for yourselves. I will say that it’s quite a nerve wracking ordeal, and the most thrilling part of this book. I highly recommend checking it out. Hostage is available from Drawn & Quarterly.



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