Home > Comics, Literature, Reviews > The Politics of Paid Sex: Chester Brown’s Paying For It

The Politics of Paid Sex: Chester Brown’s Paying For It

Chester Brown is one of Canada’s premier graphic novelists, best known for his so-called “comic-strip biography” of Louis Riel (which I wrote about academically, at great length) as well as more intimate autobiographical works like The Playboy and I Never Liked You. He is also, it turns out, a john, as well as an extremely doctrinaire libertarian. Both of these aspects of his personality are on full display in his latest comic-strip “memoir” of his relationships with prostitutes, Paying For It.

This is a curious and fairly didactic comic book, with none of the epic, compelling narrative sweep of Riel and not nearly enough of its complex, unsettling ambiguity. In a writerly voice that trespasses well into stridency, Brown fiercely defends prostitution on strict libertarian grounds, defining it as a willful transaction between consenting adults upon which currently-prevailing social mores impinge continuously and hypocritically. Brown, a stunningly straightforward and rigid visualist, intercuts stark depictions of sexual encounters with prostitutes with their illuminating pre- and post-coital conversations, and also inserts his thoughts about the issue into his narrative, through thought bubbles, conversations with friends, and most of all through his endnotes and appendices.

Although this closing flood of text , citations and philosophical, moral and political arguments deepens and contextualizes his rhetorical defense of paid sex, it has the same effect that the similarly detailed notes in Riel did, setting up a dichotomy between the instant impact of the comic imagetext and the sober, nuanced arguments of the notes. As it did in Riel, this demonstrates a sense of doubt in the ability of Brown’s chosen type of artistic form to express the political and moral complexities his notes discuss. He can’t make his case entirely through comics, ultimately, so he falls back on words alone.

His case, such as it is, is libertarian in the extreme, privileging individual property rights above all and openly characterizing any infringement of said rights as “evil”. This is in contrast to his response to any and all moral strictures against prostitution, most of which he takes the time to dismiss. The truth is that Brown’s moral and political perspective, to say nothing of the personal eccentricities that lead him to paid sex as a viable option, leaves significant gaps in his thinking. His absolute faith in the free market leaves him blind to its myriad abuses, which do apply to prostitution and will apply even if it is decriminalized and “freed” by capitalism, as Brown hopes.

Still, despite all of these elements hobbling Paying For It, the book’s argument for greater tolerance for prostitution and less morally-bound mischaracterizations of it are brave and laudable. And when he tones down the rhetoric long enough to allow the personalities of his whores (their faces always artfully obscured, presumably for their own protection but also simultaneously reducing their agency and giving impetus to accusations of objectification), they emerge as genuine, intelligent, and unfailingly realistic in their own approaches to the sex trade. Even with all of its libertarian excess, Paying For It is most effective in establishing a tone of fairness and honesty in relation to the politics of paid sex. For that alone, it deserve more than its share of positive notice.

Categories: Comics, Literature, Reviews
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