This Cartoonist Wants to Convince the World the Virgin Mary Was a Sex Worker
Chester Brown talks about paying for sex, the spiritual dimensions of prostitution, and his new, sex-charged reimagining of the Bible.
Creating a 270-page comic book about why Jesus "thought prostitution was a good thing" is typical Chester Brown: total nerd. Total shit-disturber. Zero fucks given.
In 2011, Brown challenged popular perceptions of sex worker clients with Paying For It, his obsessively detailed best-selling memoir about being a john that became one of the most talked-about graphic novel releases of the year. (Actor James Franco even wrote a long weird thing about it for VICE.) But Brown's hang-ups about sex and religion date back as far as the 80s, when he drew himself into steamy sex scenes with the Virgin Mary in his long-running comic Yummy Fur. When he's not writing about sex, he's won more mainstream accolades for his comic-strip historical biography of Canadian Métis leader Louis Riel. Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus, Brown's newest and potentially battiest release yet from Montreal publisher Drawn & Quarterly, presents an alternative interpretation of the Bible in which the Blessed Virgin was a prostitute, a fact Brown claims was "covered up" by gospel writers.
In Mary Wept, Brown unveils this Biblical conspiracy theory in annotated, documentarian detail that some might find oddly detached: even one of his best friends, the iconic cartoonist Seth, has remarked it "seems there's something wrong with [Brown]," and that he "seems to have a very limited emotional range compared to most people." The literal dialogue and stylized black-and-white illustrations make Mary Wept read, at first blush, like a kid's Bible comic—until, that is, his retelling of the Book of Matthew, in which God appears to Jesus's mom as a pair of disembodied feet, Joseph confronts Mary about rumors she's been having sex for money, and things basically continue to get weirder from there.
Yet Brown, 55, who grew up in a religious family in Chateauguay, Quebec and identifies as a Christian, argues that the seemingly in-your-face blasphemous qualities of his latest work aren't at odds with the Bible at all. He talked to VICE about the spirituality of sex work, why johns are viewed so negatively in our culture, and how all this radical honesty has affected his dating life and friendships—including that with his former girlfriend, actor, broadcaster, and musician Sook-Yin Lee. And we discovered something: Even dudes who've published detailed accounts of having sex with prostitutes can still get embarrassed.
VICE: Your new book aims to prove that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a prostitute. Any death threats?
Chester Brown: Nothing like that. Everyone seems to be receptive to the book.
I do have one really good friend who is also super religious, and she found the book very blasphemous and offensive and was a bit upset after reading it. I gave her the book when it was still a stack of photocopies and said, 'You don't have to read this if you don't want to,' but she insisted. But despite the fact that she did not like the book, we're still friends. She's from a Catholic background and reveres the Virgin Mary. I don't even need to question why she found it offensive.
Why tackle the Bible?
There's a spiritual dimension of prostitution: it's sex, and there is always potential for a spiritual connection in sex. It's two people uniting. In that, there's always the possibility of transcendence.
The title is interesting because, as you point out, the Hebrew word for 'feet' is a euphemism for penis.
I guess the first time I learned about that euphemism was when I read [Jane Schaberg's] The Illegitimacy of Jesus, which was an important book for Mary Wept. One of the things I learned is that the Hebrew word for 'feet' was a euphemism for 'penis.' The author of The Illegitimacy of Jesus mentioned that in reference to the story of Ruth. I've seen that in works by biblical scholars and confirmed that euphemism was in use in the Bible. The title Mary Wept refers to the anointing of Jesus: Usually, when men were anointed in the Bible it was on the head. For a person to be anointed on the feet is a bit unusual. And that seems to be calling attention to something, so I'm speculating that the ceremony in which Jesus was anointed has a sexual component.
You identify as a Christian, and say we live in a "whorephobic culture" rooted in the Bible. By saying Mary was a prostitute, what are you hoping to prove?
Even if I didn't have a commitment to sex worker rights, if I had come up with that theory I would find it interesting enough to put out into the world regardless of my opinions about prostitution. But in my case, the two go together. I probably did notice those curious features in the Biblical stories because of my interest in sex work. Other scholars who look at this material weren't focusing on the subject the way I did, or weren't attuned to thinking about whether Jesus was well disposed toward prostitution. So my perspective had me looking at the material in a way that most other people wouldn't.
I have a definite bias. I'm not sure I'd call the book didactic, but pointing out what I think is in the Bible does help make the case, or further my argument, that prostitution should be decriminalized. The main point of this book is that I think Jesus actually thought prostitution was a good thing, and that Christians later tried to cover up the fact that Jesus had close associations with various prostitutes.
How has your life changed since going public about the fact that you're a john?
Not that much, to be honest. When I started paying for sex, however, was a big change in my life. When I did do that, I was out with my friends and family almost immediately. Publishing Paying For It and becoming more public was a further step, but it didn't feel that significantly different.
I had known for a few years that I did not like the experience of being in romantic relationships, which left me unsure of how I was going to find sexual satisfaction in this world if I'm not very good at casual sex or just picking up women. That's not a strong suit. I don't have the social skills necessary for it. Once I realized that paying for sex was a viable option, it really did feel life-changing; even more so once I started seeing the woman [who is a sex worker] that I started referring to as Denise in Paying For It. I've been seeing the same sex worker for 13 years now, and realized that, beyond a sexual relationship with a sex worker, you can have a deeper, more caring relationship too, and it's just as satisfying as a romantic relationship. So that was a transformative relationship.
I'm at the airport waiting room right now with people all around me. [laughs] So this is kind of awkward.
Huh. It's interesting that you feel embarrassed. You've been seeing the same sex worker for 13 years and have romantic feelings for her—are those feelings reciprocated? And you still pay her?
I know she does not have romantic feelings for me. She cares for me in the way that one would for a friend, but she doesn't want to live with me, or have babies with me, or get married to me.
I've never asked for a discount, and in fact have chosen to raise the rate at the rate of inflation. She has never asked me to do that but I decided on my own to do that and she always thanks me when I do so.
I'm actually paying more now than I was at the beginning (or the same, if you factor in the adjustments I make for inflation). We go for coffee and dinner and sometimes go see a movie together, but I don't pay her for that. I pay her only when we get together to have sex.
Do you still say, like you did in Paying For It, that you'll never be in a romantic relationship ever again?
Since Paying For It, I did give a romantic relationship a try again with a very nice woman who became romantically interested in me. It didn't work out. But you never know how things will go. I'm hoping I learned my lesson that romance does not work for me. I guess I thought that publicly admitting that I was paying for sex would mean that no woman would want to get involved with me romantically. I've since seen that was not the case. There are still women out there who would find me attractive and be willing to have a relationship with me, so as far as 'never again,' I was wrong. In that recent romantic relationship, I was reminded of why I don't like being in relationships, even if the woman I'm involved with is a great person.
How long did that last?
Four or five months, and I still see her regularly now as friends.
Did you stop seeing Denise?
No, I continued to see Denise and the woman that I was in the romantic relationship with knew about it. I was completely honest with her, and she accepted that because she'd read Paying for It and understood the situation, but as you can imagine things did not work out well. I'd hoped they would. She seemed okay with it, but she ended up getting jealous. I had to make a decision to choose between Denise and the woman I'd got romantically involved with, and I chose Denise.
She must be pretty special.
Denise is a babe, she's wonderful. She was 30 when I first started seeing her, she'd be in her 40s now.
One of your longest non-paid sexual relationships was with Canadian broadcaster, musician, filmmaker, and actress Sook-Yin Lee.
Sook-Yin and I were romantically involved for three years, and then the total time that we lived together would have been nine years. We met when she was in a band called Bob's Your Uncle, and the sound person in the band really liked my work, and he introduced Sook-Yin to it. She read it and loved it, and on a Bob's Your Uncle tour she got in touch with me. We met, and hit it off and became boyfriend and girlfriend. It was a great relationship. I still really love Sook-Yin, and I see her all the time. But it didn't work out romantically and whatever. She's still a wonderful person.
What does she think of the book? She tweeted about the book and called it 'obsessed' with prostitution and sex-workers' rights.
She enjoyed it—I can't remember specifically what she said. Her boyfriend [poet and multi-instrumentalist Adam Litovitz] was super helpful as far proofreading the book. I guess she intended 'obsessed' to be positive. I'm happy that she likes the book, and it's terrific that I ended up with such supportive publishers. I guess there are challenges to marketing a book like this.
Prostitution only became an illegal act in Canada in 2014, when the Conservatives passed Bill C-36 criminalizing the purchase of sexual services. The aim of that was stated to be protecting prostitutes. How does that make you feel?
It's a horrible law. Everyone in the sex worker rights community thinks it's bad. It harms sex workers in various ways. They still have to be secretive about their work because they don't want their clients being arrested. Denise has no interest in seeing me end up in prison. That would result in decreasing her income and that would be a negative thing for her.
For other sex workers, they would still be reluctant, if they were in a dangerous situation, to call police: they don't want to draw attention to themselves as prostitutes, because they could potentially—and this has happened in Sweden—put surveillance on their place of business to see what clients are coming in and going out, which could hamper or decrease their business.
Things like mandatory health testing that comes with regulated prostitution seems discriminatory for me: why should they be singled out for medical testing, and not the people who have sex all the time? People who have casual sex in a one night stand—no one is calling for them to be medically tested, even though they might have had as many partners as Denise had. It's discrimination based on whorephobia.
Guys like me who pay for sex work really don't like it. It's not good for either side.
In Mary Wept, you seem to revere sex workers. But in Paying For It, you call one woman a "monster in a mini-skirt." Others you reject because they're too fat, or too old, or have breast implants, or cellulite. You fuck girls you suspect may be underage, who you know aren't enjoying it, or "act like they're dead" in bed. Is there a disunity here?
In all those instances, like when you talk about the women who I mentioned that had cellulite, something like that is an observation. I'm talking about the reality of what was happening. I found that woman absolutely beautiful, and the fact that she had cellulite didn't mean she wasn't beautiful, so making certain observations like that could be perceived as negative but it actually wasn't for me. About the younger girls—I was choosing not to see older women because I couldn't see what they looked like. I was going from text in an escort ad. So I figured I'd be more likely to get an attractive women if I chose ones who were younger.
There isn't always an ideal situation between sex worker and client, and while most of the time things were at least polite between us, sometimes things get negative. Even between Denise and I she sometimes gets angry with me for something I say or do, like in any relationship.
But I think most of the time what happens between a sex worker and a client goes the way it should and there aren't hostile feelings. As far as a disunity in the way I'm looking at it, you can see why the two books really go together: I show the reality of what can happen in Paying For It, and in the Mary Wept version I'm talking about the spiritual dimensions.
Do you think paying for sex has made you a better person, spiritually?
It's certainly benefitted my life and opened up my life, and it probably has made me in some sense a better person. It's certainly enriched my life.
In Mary Wept, you quote Yoram Hazony, who says, "God admires those who defy the decree of history, and who dare to better themselves in ways that were in conflict with the order that has been created." Couldn't some people say that your re-interpretation of the Bible is just a project of self-justification on the grandest scale for you as a john?
They could be right. I've read a lot of people's opinions on who Jesus was and because the gospels are so contradictory and in certain ways fake, it's easy to read almost anything into Jesus, and interpret the material to justify whatever position you're coming from. It could be that's what I'm doing here. But before people completely dismiss what I'm saying, like if I'm incorrect about why I think Mary was a prostitute, they have to explain what's really going on in the genealogy of Matthew, which was the trigger for me that made me think that, or why the alternate version of the parable of the talents, what's going on there, and provide a better explanation. I hope that there will be some debate about this. If people can disprove what I'm saying, that's great. I'm happy to see the debate happen.
And actually the sex workers probably feel like the money they're getting benefits their lives. Sex worker clients are seen so negatively in our culture that I think it's worth pointing out that negative perception is overblown and in a lot of cases incorrect. Which isn't to say that there aren't bad people who pay for sex.
Being a john isn't necessarily a good thing. It's about how you treat other people. A john who at least treats the sex workers he encounters with courtesy and politeness isn't a bad thing.
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