Thursday, May 5, 2011

A price and consent: Chester Brown on sex, choice, and Paying For It

Paying For It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John (Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95) begins with a depiction of the author’s amicable break-up with his third and what turned out to be final girlfriend, the actress and former VJ Sook-Yin Lee. The year is 1996. Chester Brown was only in his mid-30s. In the subsequent decade and a half Brown neither became a monk nor decided her preferred his own gender. Rather, after some hesitation, he started visiting sex workers, very gradually arrived at the conviction that what we conventionally call romantic love is bullshit, and that the world’s oldest profession is not only acceptable but that its decriminalization was a cause worth fighting for. Brown, who previously authored a celebrated comic-strip biography of the contentious 19th century Métis leader Louis Riel, is an intelligent, even-tempered artist whose work is consistently engaged in issues of individual freedom. Paying For It is an overtly politicized memoir. It’s not incidental that Brown has twice ran as the Libertarian Party candidate for Toronto’s Trinity-Spadina. (Monday’s election earned his 454 votes, placing him fifth in his riding.)

Paying For It is a fairly unusual graphical novel. An emblematic panel features Brown, rendered as rail-thin, his opaque spectacles obscuring his eyes, laying on his side, ding-dong dangling, in post-coital conversation. “My stuff’s quite different from Archie,” he explains to a sex worker curious about his profession. There’s much humour in the book, often arising from Brown’s politeness and uncertainty regarding etiquette. (Brown's customary neutral facial expressions, his Bressonian drawing style, if you will, also contributes to the overall air of deadpan humour.) One chapter finds him visiting a prostitute that continues to watch soaps during the entirety of their transaction. A not atypical line: “She began to lick and suck my balls. Not this again…” Brown is endearing in his attempts to communicate his needs with respect and clarity, but he insists that he’s a fairly typical john, and that the dangers associated with prostitution are grossly exaggerated or misunderstood. While compelling and entertaining, Paying For It, which features a number of sometimes heated conversations between Brown and his friends about prostitution, as well as a series of exhaustive, informative appendices, is very much a didactic book. That’s not slander—its didacticism is one of the book’s strongest attributes. And, once read, I can’t think of a single reason why any thoughtful person would dismiss it, regardless of how firm their feelings are on the subject.

JB: What do you think a comic-strip memoir about being a john offers that a strictly prose-based memoir wouldn’t?

Chester Brown: I’m not sure that there are advantages. In fact, there’s a disadvantage in it because of my decision not to show the faces of the women. It might have been easier to protect their identities in a prose work without the disguising device being so intrusive.

JB: Let’s talk about that. The book’s foreword explains how important it was for you to not include any details in
Paying For It that might endanger the privacy of the sex workers you’ve visited. Did you ever consider contacting some of them to ask if you could include their personal stories?

CB: In most cases I don’t think I would have been able to track them down. I’m not sure I would even know how to go about that. Obviously, I showed the book to the woman I’m currently having sex with. Other than her there are two prostitutes that I might have been able to get in contact with, but it didn’t occur to me to try. Maybe I should have.

JB: You’re meticulous about facts, very precise about dates. I don’t know that people read a literary memoir expecting it to be purely factual, and when you read a memoir in comic-strip form it’s that much more obvious that the form itself will impose a certain layer of artifice.

CB: You may be right. There was a point where I was considering doing
Paying For It as fiction. But because I really believed in this as a cause, I felt that the message would come across better if I was clearly speaking from personal experience, that creative license was not an option.

Paying For It addresses very thoroughly the question of romantic love and whether it holds any inherent value, but something that isn’t directly addressed is the idea of seduction. When your sexual activities are pre-arranged and the transaction makes explicit what’s expected from both parties, do you ever miss the ambiguity or anticipation of seduction?

CB: I never liked that part of romantic love, the uncertainty of what was going to happen. I can see why some people do, but it’s not something I responded to. I prefer things this way, where it’s clear what’s going to happen. Although things don’t always happen the way you hope. You can see in the book that in more than one case I ended up not having sex with the woman I’d arranged to see, so there is still some element of uncertainty.

JB: The most interesting narrative thread in
Paying For It comes from seeing your attitudes toward love and sex shift as you try to sort out your feelings and arguments about being a john. The book closes on a really interesting note, with your relationship with the prostitute “Denise,” one that’s gone on now for years and seems to be exclusive. Would you describe this relationship as your compromise between conventional romantic love and financially arranged sex? There’s the implication that you enjoy a kind of companionship, which some would consider the central benefit of long-term romance.

CB: It’s certainly a relationship that brings both of us some degree of emotional comfort, though without the disadvantages of what most people consider to be romantic love, what I call possessive monogamy. There’s that whole question of what is romantic love. Toward the end of the book I have several people trying to define it. Depending on your definition, I could characterize my feelings for Denise as feelings of romantic love, but there are surely some people whose definitions would not accommodate our relationship at all. So I’m leaving that a bit open. I have deep feelings for this woman, but because we’re not trying to pin it down, because we’ve made no formal commitment to each other, what we’re engaged in is distinct from what a lot of people want from romantic love.

JB: I’m personally hoping that you continue to develop autobiographical work. One of the demands of that path is the willingness to keep interrogating some unresolved aspect of your life. Now that you’ve published
Paying For It, do you feel there are any aspects of your private life that will remain off-limits, or is it all up for grabs?

CB: Unfortunately, there are things that do have to remain off-limits. We’ve been talking about Denise. You may recall she has that line where she says that she’d appreciate it if I put her in the book as little as possible. If I’d told the complete truth about our relationship and how it developed, that would have made a much better book. But I can’t talk about that stuff. I have to respect her wishes. I can’t see her changing her mind about that in the future. So she being a big part of my life means there’s a big part of my life I can’t talk about. With regards to other aspects, we’ll see. There might be some other interesting things that happen to me that I’ll be able to write about. I have no idea what they’ll be, but hopefully that’s part of what will make them relevant when they appear.

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