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The double message of Chester Brown's Paying for It



"It's because I do see sex as sacred and potentially spiritual that I believe in commercializing it and making this potentially holy experience more easily available to all." —Chester Brown

The quote, from Paying for It (Drawn and Quarterly), Chester Brown's new graphic memoir about his experiences with prostitutes, is odd—not so much for what it says as for what it doesn't say. Throughout the book, Brown sets himself firmly against romantic love and marriage, and hypes the commercial approach as best not just for him but for everybody. But how does that make sex holy? Or, to put it another way, if it isn't love that makes fucking sacred, what does?

At the start of the narrative, Brown and his girlfriend, Sook-Yin, are going through an amicable break-up, and he realizes he doesn't want to have a romantic relationship "ever again." In fact, he decides that romance is inherently bad. It brings out all of Sook-yin's insecurities, he notes. "It does that for everyone—me too."

Finished with love but unwilling to give up on sex, Brown eventually decides to get some the old fashioned way—by paying for it. As he learns the ins and outs of johndom—how to find "whores" (as he sometimes calls them), when to tip, where to look for reviews online—he also becomes a more and more adamant proponent of legalization. The book alternates between Brown's sexual transactions and his arguments with friends, family, and the hookers themselves about the morality of prostitution.

His case, by and large, is convincing. Admittedly, I'm biased—I thought criminalizing sex work was a bad idea before I read the book. But Brown pushed hard against my already liberal opinions, arguing forcefully that prostitution should be unregulated as well as legal. In his 23-part appendix, he points out that state-sanctioned prostitutes in Nevada often aren't allowed to leave the brothel without permission and are sometimes forced to buy condoms and food from the brothel owner at exorbitant prices. He even insists that prostitutes shouldn't be subject to mandatory health testing. "Medical treatment," he writes, "should always be voluntary—it should never be forced on anyone."

But while Brown's words make a strong case for the dignity and necessity of legalized prostitution, his pictures are more ambivalent.

This is most noticeable in his dehumanizing portrayal of the prostitutes. Brown never shows their faces. He draws the backs of their heads or covers their features with dialogue balloons instead, turning them into expressionless ciphers. His representations of sex, similarly, have a regimented similarity. He and his sex contractor appear against a black background and fuck with the joyless, repetitive predictability of wind-up dolls.

Brown depicts himself still more disturbingly. Thin, with a bald head, sunken cheeks, and round, opaque glasses, his cartoon avatar resembles a skeleton. And the reasoned arguments that issue from that cadaverous skull begin to grind like a granite lid scraping across a tomb. Romantic love is evil. Marriage is evil. There is only money and desire.

Brown has turned himself into a libertarian caricature. And it's libertarianism—the child of Enlightenment utilitarianism—that forms the basis for his rejection of romantic love. A conventional relationship, he argues, "causes more misery than happiness." Rather than maximize joy, it interferes with the cheerful, autonomous operation of the individual. Brown touts his own long-term, monogamous relationship with a prostitute named Denise precisely because it's based on his desire rather than on potentially traumatizing reciprocity. "I'm having sex with Denise because I want to, not because I made a marriage vow to her or because she'd get jealous if I saw someone else."

And that's what's sacred to Brown. As a libertarian, he worships the individual, and paid sex involves neither commitment nor community. It's an expression of the individual autonomously pursuing pleasure. Sex is sacred because it's private.

The irony here is that Brown thinks that he's rocking the foundations of romantic love. But romantic love is already an ideology of autonomous gratification. It assumes that we marry for love, and that love is personally fulfilling. Brown doesn't dispute the liberal, capitalist goal of personal fulfillment. He just argues that fulfillment is maximized by the market.

That's a logical position. In fact, it's so logical it verges on madness. If everyone is an entirely independent desiring subject, then everyone is also an object—reduced, like Brown's prostitutes, to faceless toys manipulated for everyone else's satisfaction. If we want a less soul-crushing sexual ethic, we may need to consider the possibility that sex is about other people. And possibly even about God. Otherwise, we can look forward to life as happy, fulfilled, free-spending skulls.

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