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A Disappointing John

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August 26, 2011

A Disappointing John

Brown's "Paying For It" misses its potential

by Melissa McCabe

Paying For It: A Comic Strip Memoir about being a John
Chester Brown
Drawn & Quarterly: Montreal, 2011

This summer, Chester Brown’s new graphic novel Paying For It—a memoir about his encounters with a string of Toronto sex workers over the past decade—is being snatched up faster that ribbed jimmy-hats at a bodacious bawdy house.

Brown’s work gives us the voice of the john, a person often scorned and usually silenced. He is heard now; he is calling for understanding, for open mindedness, for the acceptance of a different sexual lifestyle, for the rights and protection of sex workers. I think we need to listen.

Having sworn off dating after a break up with long-term girlfriend Sook-Yin Lee of Much-Music fame, Brown decides one day to look for a sex worker. He doesn’t appear terribly suave as he stumbles nervously through the uncharted territory of brothels and call girl advertisements, but he never for a moment looks prudish or ashamed of himself either.

The sharp black and white artwork of the 227-page graphic novel is interestingly composed and the story is honest, intimate and to the point. But I have to say, it didn’t entirely meet my expectations.

I expected the memoir of an intellectual john speaking in defense of his lifestyle, to emphasize awareness and responsibility. I expected him to say, "See? People CAN pay for sex without abusing or exploiting anyone. So let’s stop being prudes about it!"

Instead, I read about Brown picking up women who sometimes appeared to be strung out on drugs, women who he hoped but wasn’t sure were 18 and women who seemed less than willing or distraught about what they were doing—and there wasn’t much compassion coming from him.

In one chapter, Brown finds himself having sex with a woman who hides her face during intercourse. He thinks to himself, "She’s ashamed, she doesn’t want me to be able to see her face while I’m screwing her," rather than reflecting on what forces brought this young woman to do this job she finds loathsome. He thinks "I feel bad for her, but not so bad that I’m giving her a tip," and later reflects, "I’ll have to give her a bad review on Terb (Toronto Escorts Review Board)."

In his introduction Brown prepares readers for an almost complete omission of women as characters. He explains that he left out the sex workers’ perspectives and never shows their cartoon faces for the sake of protecting their privacy. He claims to have genuine affection for the women—a sentiment that doesn’t come through in the scene described above.

One wonders why he couldn’t have used creative liberty to allow the sex workers a voice while still protecting their identities. This certainly would have lent much to his writing.

Canada may follow the lead of a number of countries in fully decriminalizing sex work. In the face of that, this memoir provokes a much needed discussion. No conversation on this topic can be productive without the voices of those involved in the industry.

While Chester Brown provides us only one side one of the account, he still manages to offer us insights and set an example of unabashed openness that I think is essential to any discussion of sex work and the law.

Melissa McCabe is an intern with The Dominion.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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