Tuesday, March 5, 2013

I Paid For It

I'm not a big buyer of books.  I read a lot, but I usually get my books through the network of libraries I belong to/work at.  The exception are books that I really like and I want to reward the author with a purchase (David Sedaris, Bill Bryson, Elizabeth Gilbert) or books that are too risque to be found in the library (Dan Savage.)

Under normal circumstances I never would have paid money for a book called Paying For It: a comic strip memoir about being a john by Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown.

What happened is that as I walked past a book store a while back, something in the window caught my eye.  It appeared to be an atlas of all the lands in Game of Thrones. (Actually the book series is called A Song of Fire and Ice, with Game of Thrones being the first book, but no one recognizes the series name, and plus it's stupid.  "Game of Thrones" sounds way better.)  As I've become obsessed with that world over the past few months, my betrothed encouraged me to buy the atlas.  I don't usually make such brash impulse purchases like that, but I threw caution (and $40) to the wind and bought the atlas.

It was a huge disappointment.  It wasn't actually an atlas but 10 maps folded into two sleeves.  Although the maps looked pretty, they didn't really give me any more information than the maps in the books do, and each map was a separate poster that I'd have to unfold individually to look at.  Each individual map was not easily labeled so it was hard to keep them straight.  I would have much preferred a real atlas that I could page through.

So with buyer's remorse I returned to the book store.  They wouldn't give me a cash refund, though, just store credit.  This was a fantasy/comic book store, so my options were limited.  When my eyes fell to Brown's comic memoir about paying for sex, I liked the tiny pictures and neat script, and was intrigued about the subject matter.  So I "paid for" the book, although I was really just using my store credit.  Does that count?


So let's talk about prostitution, shall we?  Brown's memoir is a mix of personal discovery, philosophy, and advocacy.  As he discovers and navigates the world of prostitution, he gets in lots of arguments with his friends about the ethics and legality of what he's doing.  

Let me start with where Brown and I agree.  Like him, I think prostitution should be legal.  Women (and men) should have the right to sell such services if they freely choose to do so.   

However, that's about the extent of our agreement.  I think prostitution should be legalized and regulated, so as to protect those in the industry from abuse, harassment, and being taken advantage of.  Brown, whose libertarian tendencies become more and more apparent as the book goes on, thinks it should only be "decriminalized."  Like most libertarians, he trusts government regulation less than he trusts pimps.

Brown's personal story of how he came to become a john is kind of sad.  Basically, he can't handle being in a romantic relationship because relationships are full of messy emotions where people sometimes have bad feelings.  He associates romantic love with pain, and therefore decides not to have any more girlfriends. Throughout the book he posits immature, cynical, and sad observations about love.  (i.e. love and marriage are "evil.")     

So what about sex?  How can he get sex if he's not willing to put in the work toward a real relationship?  His solution comes about in a slow evolution toward prostitution.  He can simply pay someone for that service.  And so the story winds through the dozens of different prostitutes that Brown patronizes over several years.   

[Mild spoiler alert. I talk about the end of the book below.  It's not a huge surprise ending, but if you plan to read it yourself, I'm giving away the, ahem, "anticlimactic" ending in the next paragraph.]  

Unfortunately, the story sort of fizzles out at the end.  After several years of sampling, Brown finds one prostitute whom he feels a strong connection with and stops seeing any others.  They have been in a "monogamous sexual relationship for years."  He pays her for sex, and loves her (though he is not "in love" with her), but never explains their unusual brand of monogamy. I understand he wants to protect her identity (he changes all prostitutes' names in the book), but he seems to gloss over one of the most interesting parts of the book.  How does he manage to create a monogamous relationship with someone he pays for sex?  Does that mean she doesn't have sex with any other men, either for money or for free?  Does he completely support her financially, or does she have a day job? He leaves the reader begging for details.    


Although I agree with Brown's main point that selling sex should not be a crime, so many of the arguments he makes in the book are annoying.  I don't personally have a problem with him seeing prostitutes.  If he's fulfilled, and the women are happy to get his money, then good for everyone involved.  In the book, most of his friends judge him for paying for sex.  If I were his friend, I don't think I'd be judgy--I'd like to hear more about his exploits.  (Like many men, I do find the idea of paying for sex titillating.  I could just pay a hot young woman to have sex with me?  Maybe because I'm perpetually a 14-year-old boy who's still amazed that any woman would have sex with me for any reason, this idea intrigues me.)  But while Brown is arguing for legalization (or "decriminalization") of prostitution, he seems to be trying really hard to convince his friends and readers (and maybe himself) that what he's doing is not wrong.  So much of the book feels like a personal plea for acceptance.  

One reviewer mentioned that all the faces of the prostitutes in his book are obscured, which dehumanizes them.  I thought it was to protect their identity

It's in the appendix where Brown's most obnoxious arguments come out.  Besides strawman arguments of extreme feminist positions, cynical rants against love, and the naive libertarian belief in an unregulated free market, some of his views are just bizarre.  

Brown claims that there is no moral difference between a wife having sex with her husband out of marital commitment and a prostitute having sex with a john for money.  There may not be any moral difference, but there certainly is an emotional difference.  It's not all about morality.    

Brown's not content to just legalize (and commercialize) prostitution, he wants to normalize it.  In one passage he envisions a future Utopia where prostitution has been legal for generations.  In the enlightened year of 2080, it's perfectly normal for a guy to offer any woman he knows money for sex.  Most men and women have done it-- it's just like dating.  Women don't find this offensive, and if they're not interested they just say no. Everyone's in complete control and no one is harmed or offended.  And the only thing stopping this beautiful arrangement? The evil government!

But here's the thing.  There are lots of services that are legal and normal now, and I would find it highly tacky to ask a friend or a co-worker to do it for me.  "Hey, could I give you $20 to wash my car?"  It has nothing to do with morality or legality, it's just creepy.  Why wouldn't it be the same for sex?  Reducing sex to a commodity where everyone buys or sells it is not a world I want to live in.  Although I'm fine with people paying for sex, I still want the main motivation for doing it to be love, affection, or mutual pleasure.  (Incidentally, sex for mutual pleasure seems to be conspicuously absent from any of Brown's points.)  Brown's dream to normalize paid sex seems to undercut any rational points he does make in the book, because he comes across as a crazy person.       

It's scary how much he looks like his drawings.  Despite this and some of his twisted (and damaged) attitudes toward relationships, he seems like a nice person who wants to do the right thing.  Or at least wants to be fair. 


asplenia said...

If you hadn't posted the author photo, I wouldn't have realized just HOW MUCH he looks like his drawings. I wonder what made him this way? What experiences made him shut down? It makes me have some empathy for him, but not enough to want the world he fully imagines. Like you, I vote for love too.

Tim said...

Yes, asplenia, I had the same reaction when I saw his picture at the very back of the book (only after I'd read it.) I didn't think it was possible for someone to look so much like the cartoon version of himself.

He claims to be happy with his arrangement, so who am I to judge? What annoys me is how strident he is that everyone embrace sex for pay like he has. (And he says some pretty offensive things about people who want love. Which is almost everyone.) It's actually not very libertarian to insist that everyone like what you like.