Friday, 16 September 2011
Romance is Dead - Chester Brown's 'Paying for it'
Chester Brown’s latest graphic memoir ‘Paying for it’ was originally meant to be titled ‘I pay for sex’. A blunt declaration of intent if there ever was one, and whilst I understand the business sense in softening the title somewhat; I think the original does a far better job of conveying the confessional nature of the book. Sure, it might have offended a small minority of the book buying public, but it would have better prepared them for the unflinchingly honest account of paying for sex that lies within.
The opening pages set the scene, with Brown and his long term girlfriend Sook-Yin cordially ending their relationship. Seemingly unfazed by the arrival of her new boyfriend, Brown continues to live in their shared flat. He overhears the new couple having sex, listens in on their petty arguments, but feels not a twinge of jealously. Upon discussing the situation with friends, he concludes that he’s far happier being friends with Sook-Yin than he ever was when they were lovers. Applying this same logic to his past relationships he postulates that romantic love brings out the worst in people, commenting to an ex-girlfriend that she’d seen him at his “meanest and pettiest” when they were dating.
And so, it’s with a strange emotional detachment that Brown decides he’s had enough of romantic love. He rationally dismisses the concept as a socially enforced norm that does more harm than good. Upon reflection, he finds that the only thing he misses about having a girlfriend is sex. As time passes, Brown wrestles with two competing desires; the desire to have sex versus the desire to not have a girlfriend. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that he lacks the social skills to pick up girls for casual sex. His timid, thoughtful persona does not lend itself well to trawling clubs for sexual partners. With limited options, and an unshakable aversion to romantic love, Brown decides the only feasible way to satisfy his sexual needs is to pay for sex.
After two years of conflicted internal debate he finally takes the plunge and goes in search of his first ‘paid for’ sexual experience. Hereafter, the book unfolds like a diary; with one chapter dedicated to each prostitute Brown sees between 1999 and 2010. What may come as a surprise to most readers is that there’s nothing remotely erotic about 'Paying for it'. Right from the go get, it’s clear that Brown intends to engage your brain, not your nether regions. By keeping his art detailed yet cartoonish, he achieves a degree of objective distance. This in turn gives the impression that you’re viewing some kind of elaborate social experiment, as seen through the framed windows of the artist’s panels. 'Paying for it' can seem cold and distant at times, but it's a necessary evil in order to maintain the level of anonymity required by Brown's sexual partners.
In many ways, 'Paying for it' bears an uncanny resemblance to Brown’s earlier comic memoir ‘The Playboy’, which examined similar themes of sexual desire. The big difference is that Brown is no longer dabbling in adolescent obsessions with porn magazines. Unlike ‘The Playboy’ there’s no guilt or awkwardness, but rather a mature realisation that he’s grappling with significantly larger social issues. It’s a big jump, and a very brave one at that, especially given the strength of opinion around his chosen subject matter. To see it depicted in such frank and open terms is disarming, educational and on occasion even amusing.
What really caught me off guard was Brown’s thoughtful and considerate nature. Despite his coldly logical rants and wholesale dismissal of romantic love, there’s a sensitive side to his character that comes through in his actions. This is exemplified by the level of respect he shows the girls he sees, making excuses when he can’t go through with sex in order to avoid denting their confidence. Each prostitute sets clear boundaries, which he adheres to stringently. These may seem like small concessions, but they do much to reveal a kinder, more complex sexual interplay that's all but ignored by the media.
One thing ‘Paying for it’ does exceedingly well is dispel the clichéd image of prostitution peddled by the gutter press and the Christian right. Being privy to the little details makes all the difference, especially the transitory yet affectionate friendships that unfold between Brown and his partners. His memoirs put a human face on things, and the picture that begins to emerge is of a cross section of women who have chosen their profession, who are well paid and respect themselves. It also becomes increasingly apparent that the average ‘john’ isn’t the misogynistic drunk we might think him to be. From these experiences Brown begins to form a well reasoned pro-decriminalisation stance that develops alongside his radical re-definition of sexual relations.
Much of the debate for and against prostitution takes place between Brown and his close friends, Joe Matt and Seth. Their informal chats form the stage upon which many of the book’s more salient points are made. What I found particularly amusingly was Joe Matt’s indignation and disgust at Brown seeing prostitutes. For those of you who haven’t read Joe Matt’s equally self-effacing comics, it's worth noting that he spends much of his time obsessing over porn films. Double standards? Oh yes, absolutely, but it’s all fuel for the fire. Even though the three friends rarely seem to agree on anything, they do provide the perfect sounding board for Brown to voice his opinions in detail.
In renouncing the shackles of romantic love, Brown argues that paying for sex is essentially no different to the emotional ownership and trade-offs that occur in a romantic relationship. In a further refinement of his argument, he clarifies that he’s against what he terms 'possessive monogamy'. As the book draws to a close, Brown finds himself in an ongoing 'relationship' with just one woman. They don’t see other people but cash still changes hands for sex. A financial transaction still takes place, but it’s a transaction they’re both comfortable with. For Brown, their relationship avoids the all the pitfalls of romantic love; there's no implied ownership, instead a clear cut economic arrangement. Brown's overbearing ideal of romantic love is left out in the cold, but to the keen observer it’s obvious that their relationship skirts dangerously close to the very conventions he's trying so hard to escape.
Even if you don’t particularly agree with the viewpoints laid out in ‘Paying for it’, it still makes for fascinating reading. Those with a bone to pick can always refer to the exhaustive appendices at the back of the book, which cover practically every conceivable angle and counter argument you might care to come up with.
Even if the sexual exploits of a balding forty-something cartoonist aren’t high on your 'to read' list, I’d none the less urge you to take a look at this engaging discourse on romantic love vs. prostitution. ‘Paying for it’ is an eye opening tell all with very little held back. Regardless of where you stand on prostitution, you’ll be left with plenty to chew on by the time you’re done reading this.
Review by Matthew Dick.
Drawn & Quarterly's Chester Brown page