Paul Bryant's Reviews > Paying for It

Paying for It by Chester Brown
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Oct 01, 2011

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bookshelves: graphic-novelly-stuff
Read in October, 2011

My latest excursion into the ever-intriguing field of graphic novels turns out to be a radical challenge to the way we think about relationships, sex, romance and the whole kit and caboodle. A lot of the graphic novels I've read are autobiographical – Fun House, American Splendor, Clumsy, Maus, Persepolis – and this one is wildly so as it focuses on the author's sex life. But Chester Brown is no penis-wielding Henry Miller (or fetishistic Robert Crumb), he's a shy, bald, retiring type who works as a cartoonist & lives a very quiet life. There are no dramatics here, Chester presents himself and his sex life in the flattest, most banal manner. But liveliness and drama is not what this book is for. It's a structured argument for a complete overhaul of human relationships.

The book covers Chester's life from June 1996 to January 2004. We meet Chester as his girlfriend tells him she's falling in love with someone else and would he mind if she slept with this guy. Mild-mannered Chester of course says that would be okay. He loves Sook-Yin, but he's quite aware they're not "in love". They've been together a few years, but it's not like it used to be. So he's not too surprised. So she gets involved with this other guy, Justin. Then, since it's her apartment, she asks Chester if Justin could move in – she feels bad and doesn't want to ask Chester to move out. She doesn't think her own sex life should make Chester homeless. So Justin moves in and Chester's friends say:

- And you're fine with this? You're not angry or jealous?

- I'm feeling like my normal contented self.

- Just keep repressing those emotions, Chester.

- I'm not repressing. I didn't say I felt good about it. But I don't feel bad about it. Jealousy is not natural, it's learned behaviour.

So they all live together in the apartment. Chester likes to pontificate about life. He tells his friends that romantic relationships are rubbish and he doesn't want to get into any more of them. One friend says that well, at least you get sex as well as miserable times from a relationship.

Chester : Having a girlfriend doesn't mean you have guaranteed access to sex at any and all times. Usually there's a lot of sex at the beginning of the relationship and then it drops off after time. The longer a couple has been together, the less sex they're having.

Chester's friend : Even at the end of our relationship. Trish and I were still having sex all the time.

Chester : Then you guys were the exception. That's not how it usually works. Ask any married guy.

Chester's friend : Even if you're right, most people are having sex SOME of the time – you're not having sex at all.

Chester : Okay, you've got a point.

You noticed - it's hardly sparkling. In fact this book is a sparkle-free zone. There's a notable absence of anything resembling humour. With stilted unlifelike dialogue, plain and flat cartooning, piece by piece, Chester builds up into an extreme argument. He explains how he hates the possessiveness and suspicion which attends most romantic relationships, and the emotional fallout if either is unfaithful, which he sees as almost inevitable. He just can't take all the emotional hassle anymore and he doesn't like the social pressure to look normal by being in a romantic relationship. He reads a Dan Savage sex advice book and learns about the different forms of paying for sex. He wants to give it a try but he's nervous and there's a lot of shilly-shallying but finally he hooks up with his first hooker. He's talking to the hooker afterwards and she says that the johns have to be brave to do this stuff because they leave themselves open to being mugged ("there might be a man hiding in the cupboard or anything") and he tells her that the hookers have to be brave because the johns might turn violent.

He tells his friends: "It felt odd but not clinical. And she wasn't cold. She was very friendly and nice."

Here's one of Chester's trains of thought which might make some people's hair stand on end:

I don't know if I can afford to do this on a regular basis. If I went every two weeks that would be $4160 per year. Every three weeks would be 17 times a year…$160 times 17 is $2720. That's more manageable. I'll bet I annually spent about that much in relation to being Sook-Yin's boyfriend. And we didn't have sex anywhere near 17 times in the last year that she was my girlfriend.

So you can see where this is going! Anyway, after a catalogue of various experiences with various girls, he ends up sticking with one prostitute for years, and this woman ends up quitting the business, except for Chester. So he still pays her, and they don't live together, but they've grown very fond of each other. "Paying for sex isn't an empty experience if you're paying the right person for sex"
is the last line of the cartoon section of the book.

Then come the 50 plus pages of explanatory notes and appendices.

Some further points Chester would like to make :

- when he was born homosexuality was actually illegal and men were put in jail for being gay. He believes that paying for sex will in future be seen as just as normal as we now see gay relationships and people will wonder why it used to be illegal.

- Chester is against possessive monogamy on various grounds, mainly to do with the fact that it's not good for people's mental health

-He gives three scenarios and says there is no moral difference between them (I wonder if you agree? )
a) a woman is thinking "I don't want to have sex with this guy, but I need the money, so I will.
b) a second woman is thinking "I don't want to have sex right now, but he's my boyfriend and I love him, so I will"
c) a third woman is thinking "I no longer feel desire for my husband, but for the sake of our marriage I'll have sex with him"

- Many people think prostitutes are abused violently by johns and/or their pimps. He quotes Sheila Jeffreys' book "The Idea of Prostitution":

Prostitution is sexual abuse because prostitutes are subjected to any number of sexual acts that in any other context, acted against any other woman, would be labelled assaultive or at the very least unwanted and coercive.

Chester says - au contraire. Having researched the matter directly and indirectly, "paid-sex is usually pretty much the same as unpaid-sex" (i.e. there's the equivalent amount of coertion and violence).

But he does concede that many hookers do encounter violence, and says that their plight would be alleviated if prostitution was decriminalised.

- Chester is keen to say that most of the hookers have "chosen" their profession, and most of the johns are nice guys like himself who have a modicum of sensitivity and don't want to make the girls do stuff they don't want to do, and never get violent. It may be so, but we have no way of checking. It can't be denied that prostitution exists in the margins were drugs, big illegal money and violence are constants. It may be that Chester is whitewashing the whole thing and making out his experiences to be more common than they are. Or maybe most prostitution happens between pleasant middle aged guys and sweet young girls who haven't got crack habits.

- If a woman has a drug habit and being a hooker is the only way to pay for it how can you call that a choice, Chester? Well, Chester has got a book called "Addiction is a Choice" by Dr Jeffrey Schaler, so he doesn't see it in those terms. It's okay with Chester if you want to get yourself a massive coke habit. Your thing, your choice.

- One of Chester's friends made the following comment which Chester was happy to incorporate:

The fact is, Chester seems to have a very limited emotional range, compared to most people. There does seem to be something wrong with him.

Well, I liked Chester. But I'm not inviting him round for dinner when my mother in law is here.
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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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notgettingenough most of the hookers have "chosen" their profession

That simply beggars belief. Most prostitutes in the world are forced into it. Unless, for example, good old Chester is going to say that women who are trafficked into countries like the UK, imprisoned, passports taken from them, and forced to provide sex in return for staying alive are doing it by choice.

At a pinch one can say that a person who gets a drug habit and becomes a prostitute has exercised her free will. One cannot say that of the vast majority of women and children, if it comes to that, who are in that 'industry' as it is for the people who own them.

Which of course, once you start examining it, makes this guy's argument a bit fantasy land, wouldn't you say?

message 2: by Manny (new)

Manny Chester's certainly got an interesting story to tell. But why does he think it's typical?

Paul Bryant Chester doesn't think his specific story is typical, but he thinks his experience as a john is typical, i.e. he was a mild mannered middle aged guy and wouldn't have said boo to a goose, and the hookers were nice - young - ladies who appeared not to him - after many hundreds of conversations with them - to be under any coercion. He's keen to differentiate the ones he saw from the "common streetwalkers". He thinks the violence, crack habits and coercion happens in that area, not in the women who do "outcalls" and "incalls" as they say. He has a whole big appendix on who's trafficked and who isn't, and he frets over whether one or another of the women he saw was trafficked - and then he lays out that most people who are trafficked volunteered - indeed, paid - to be trafficked.
Yes, Chester, I'm sure they did but they probably didn't know what their new life in the West was going to involve when they gave their life savings over to some mafioso.

message 4: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Generally agree with all the comments. Some nuances to add:
-- Young women (e.g., in Japan or Brazil) who engage in prostitution to buy luxury goods. Probably not too many, I think, but probably not so few that it's a non-phenomenon.
-- Depending on which country and class you're talking about, marriage can be violent, demeaning, and dangerous. I don't think rural Afghan or Pakistani wives have the best of times, and often, particularly if the marriage is arranged, it is a commercial transaction between family of boy and family of girl. All I'm saying is, let's not get too rosy about marriage in comparison to prostitution.
-- There are probably some distinctions between levels of prostitution just as there are levels of distinction between low wage labour. Many low wage workers are certainly trafficked and victimised. Others are not. Without having done the research, and not to in any way minimise how awful trafficking is, I would think prostitution probably works the same way. Chester as one guy on the street is probably seeing only one tiny overly optimistic segment of the whole picture.

message 5: by Manny (new)

Manny I think that if you can get to the absolute top and become a $1000/hour call-girl, you may have a decent life. Dan Savage has an interesting account of meeting one in Skipping Towards Gomorrah. But even there you can find plenty of dissenting voices. Paul Theroux gives what felt like a more nuanced account in Doctor Savage.

message 6: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Ah, you mean someone like an employee of Margaret Macdonald. Actually, I'm thinking of someone like this or this. As you can tell, I've been googling on The Guardian.

message 7: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker I even came across a rather amusing article about wives in Japan needing male prostitutes, because their job-addicted husbands see them as an extension of mother and hence only need servicing in the realm of laundry and food. And as the husbands get sex from prostitutes, these poor women have no outlet for their needs.

message 8: by Paul (last edited Oct 05, 2011 04:28AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant "Young women (e.g., in Japan or Brazil) who engage in prostitution to buy luxury goods" - I came across this phenomenon in People Who Eat Darkness, a book about a murder of a woman working in the Japanese sex industry (reviewed) - schoolgirls (15 to 17) would go on "paid dates" and were not reagrded as beyond the pale by their peers.

From the third of Whitaker's links:

"I never see more than two clients a day; most days I see only one; on other days none at all. Yet in just three hours' work I can earn the same as I used to earn in a week working at the office. "

This prostitute charged £150 per hour, very comparable to the rates Chester tells us about.The numbers are amazing. Say she sees 2 clients a day, five days a week. That's £1500 per week, or £72,000 per year. So she gives herself 5 weeks holiday per year, unpaid of course, and that brings her salary down to 64K. That is still a top management salary, and in the article she says the money just made up the wages of her previous job, which was as a PA

If these figures are somewhere near the truth then individial prostitutes are making a lot af money. If most prostitutes are not college educated, they must be earning three times what they would get in a straight job. I must assume that it all goes up their noses or into a pimp's account because the standard idea of a non-high class call girl sex worker is of a woman with no money at all.

message 9: by Whitaker (last edited Oct 05, 2011 05:00AM) (new)

Whitaker Well, I have a friend who used to lecture in geopolitics in a university in Colombia. Apparently, some of women undergrads were quite happy to make a side living as prostitutes. The pay was, aggregated on a monthly basis, three times what a university grad in a "normal" profession working in Colombia would make (assuming they could even get a job).

I would suspect that proportion of voluntary sex workers is smaller than the proportion of forced sex workers simply because the pimps would benefit from economies of scale.

Prostitution in Singapore is not illegal, although pimping is. It's licensed in a manner of speaking. There are some areas for sex work, and the women carry a health card for regular health checks. A social worker I met once did a study on them, and said that for an uneducated, low-skilled woman leaving a bad marriage where she had been financially dependent on the man, sex work was a viable short to medium term option that could be empowering. I have no idea how accurate any of this is, but I think there is some measure of truth to what Chester is saying (hah! I just realised that Chester is, sex-wise, like those benighted Japanese sararimen.)

message 10: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Well, based on this ("I never see more than two clients a day; most days I see only one; on other days none at all."), if she was doing 1 client on most days, then the sums would work out to more like £48,000 a year.
-- 85 days (17 5-day weeks) with 2 clients
-- 150 days (30 5-day weeks) with 1 client

Mostly, I would think it's only doable if you have a pool of fairly regular clients.

message 11: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant Sounds reasonable - 48K is what a person in the British provinces would aspire to in their middle management job, thank you very much. In London, different rules apply.

message 12: by Manny (new)

Manny Perhaps this is just part of the global trend away from jobs-for-life and towards short-term contract work? And you can also see that many people prefer to outsource to third-world countries when that's feasible. It's all discussed at great length in Houellebecq's Plateforme...

message 13: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker I think that's right. In a pure dollars and cents way, she's probably no worse off than the professional freelance worker I keep reading about these days.

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