Chester Brown's Paying for It isn't the first work to explore the world of the sex trade, nor is it the first personal account of dealing in that trade, but it just might be the first required text for anyone seeking to understand the world of sexual commerce. A large part of that value is, surprisingly, because it is in comic form.
Those familiar with his work already know that Chester Brown has a breezy, simple style that is far more indebted to comic strips than it is to the highly detail-oriented peers he's often lumped with. That minimalism has served Brown well over the years, allowing him to make dense Canadian history palatable in his previous masterpiece Louis Riel. Freed from the kind of detailed visual distraction that would have made this kind of work less successful in the hands of a Daniel Clowes or Adrian Tomine, Brown is able to strip down to the heart of the matter in uncluttered terms; the focus is on the mood rather than on the form.
In Paying for It that mood is self-actualization, specifically Brown's growing awareness that monogamy is simply a lifestyle that does not, and will not, work for him--at least not in the way society would define it. Brown's epiphany relieves him of a burden he's carried since his adolescence, a need to conform to a definition of happiness that society has instilled in him without his conscious approval, and it sets him off on a journey through the world of paying for sex. Once Brown has this epiphany, he stops worrying about what people will think of his sexual actions. Instead, he just gets around to enjoying himself.
Brown's self-awareness is the focal point that makes Paying for It so successful at being both a memoir and an insightful dissection of a controversy that has been passed down from generation to generation, and from culture to culture. It relieves the work itself of the burden of proof and allows it to remain personal. This book is first and foremost an intimate piece of art that provides its creator an outlet for a subject that has become extremely important to him.
The universality of that search for Self and Brown's iconic, bare style make Paying for It surprisingly effective at conveying the humanity of the sex trade in a way that the most authoritative works cannot. Witnessing Brown's dawning comfort in his new sexuality is a powerful representation of what gets lost in the data and statistics. We're given glimpses at Brown's early, awkward attempts to find the right girl to frequent, and the difficulties he has in choosing one girl over another--of communicating to later sex workers that they might not be right for him--parallel similar difficulties that arise in dating.
By making his early forays as a john Woody Allen-like in their blunt depiction of the more embarrassing aspects of being human, Brown smoothes the transition into headier terrain. At first, Brown's escapades in paying for sex are endearingly clumsy and easy to think of in dating terms. However, the more he commits himself to "paying for it," the more the act loses its similarity to society's notion of romantic relationships.
It doesn't take long, in fact, for Brown to become somewhat obsessive about things like "erotic review boards," which provide forums for johns to compare notes with each other. At times, Brown is distracted during his encounters, thinking not of the act itself but of what he'll write in his inevitable review. Yet that unflinching need of Brown's to depict his sexual interests in such an unflattering light is a large reason why Paying for It works.
As much as Brown criticizes the traditional model of "romantic relationships," he's just as willing to display the issues that prohibit his lifestyle from being an acceptable alternative for everyone, even if his words don't always reflect that as much as his actions do. Yes, Brown genuinely believes that "romantic relationships" are deeply flawed and perhaps even beyond fixable, but at no point does he depict his lifestyle as entirely free from issues either.
Not too far into the work, Brown encounters a couple problems that restrict his enjoyment of his chosen lifestyle. The first is an emptiness that consumes him after spending time with a girl who otherwise satisfies him. No matter what Brown does, that feeling won't go away. His first theory, that he simply gets sick of anyone he spends too much time with, is disproven and Brown eventually has to concede that his new lifestyle isn't perfect. The second incident strikes an even deeper blow, forcing Brown to reconsider his need for consistent affection.
That may sound like relatively small stakes, but through the lens of Brown's thought process it's a profound, engaging development that works better than any number of sex rights campaigns could at portraying the human element of sex work. Brown doesn't appear to want to be a spokesman for johns or an advocate for sex workers, he is not seeking to be the face of the sex trade. What Brown appears to desire instead is to show that he is as human as anyone else, and that the stigma surrounding his lifestyle (and the women who make it possible for him to enjoy that lifestyle) is not only unnecessary but illogical.
It doesn't matter if you're passionate about the subject or haven't thought much of it one way or the other, Paying for It is required reading for anyone who seeks to better comprehend the limits of romantic love.
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