Chester Brown’s 2011 graphic novel, Paying for It, is a bold examination of straight female prostitution, as well as a cogent argument for its decriminalization, through an entertaining depiction of Brown's own forays into the world of sex workers in Toronto.
I was introduced to the book by one of my undergraduate students who had read it in his ethics class, and I was reluctant to write, even though I loved it, because of the way that my attention might be misconstrued.
I’m not saying that I don’t agree with many of Brown’s points, nor am I saying that I have ever paid for sex, but I am saying I am enamored of Brown’s ballsy approach to his subject. With a kind of George Plimpton–like headlong throwing of himself into his subject, a deep participatory engagement and reportage à la William S. Burroughs with junk in Junky, and a David Shieldsian unflinching dissection of self, Brown becomes our ambassador into the world of paying for sex.
What is so refreshing is his honesty and commitment to his subject. He goes in with a kind of Socratic ignorance and then documents the accrual of his opinions as he sleeps with more and more women. Through well-documented arguments with friends he talks out all the issues he sees pertinent to this world, and finally in a written-out appendix (almost totally devoid of the illustrations that constitute the bulk of the book), he makes his argument for a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body.
Brown argues that prostitution is only an issue when the subjects are women, that in the gay world males being paid for sex is a nonissue—in fact, my gay friends have told me that if a guy is paid for sex he actually has a higher status because he can demand money, rather than just meet non-paying parties on Grindr. Of course Brown doesn’t advocate sex slavery or sex trafficking, but this is a separate issue that has been conflated with general prostitution. Brown’s argument is that if women want to have a right to control their bodies when it comes to abortion, then they have a right to do what they want with the same bodies when it comes to sex.
Again, I know I am a high-profile personality and these opinions may be taken as my own, but they are Brown’s. What impresses me is the way he uses himself as a test case while actually engaging with the real issues of his life (he lost his girlfriend and wanted sex).
Here is a little piece I wrote back when I was at UCLA and thinking about attending graduate school:
Intense Emotional Experience
I had similar experiences years ago, in New Orleans, when I was preparing to play a prostitute in Nicolas Cage’s directorial debut, Sonny. I needed to do some research. In the script Sonny services women, but in reality most male prostitutes service men. I began to frequent the gay strip clubs. Before this movie I had only been in one strip club, a straight one in the San Fernando Valley. Now I watched endless boys strip down to G-strings while they strutted on the bar above the eager reach of middle-aged, dollar-stuffing men.
Eventually, I found a guy about my age named Maury, who seemed like a good model for my role. Maury was straight but serviced men. He was handsome: short-cropped brown hair, muscular, charismatic, sexy, and cocky. He was a hustler, by which I mean a liar. On his triceps he had a heart tattoo inscribed to “Angela.” The first night he said Angela was his three-year-old daughter and he was prostituting himself to take care of her. Later that week he said Angela was the name of the girl that cheated on him and ran off with all his money, leaving him thousands of dollars in debt. Maury and I would sit backstage, between his dances, and he would make up stories about his life.
I was really getting to know my subject. I saw the way he hooked the men at the club, “Want to see me tie my dick in a knot?” I saw how he let loose with whiskey at three in the morning. I heard his lies, attempts to romanticize his life. The only thing I had not seen was the prostitution.
On the fifth night, at 1:15, we were in the back. He was retelling a story involving a rich princess from Iran who fell in love with him, telling it differently than he had told it the previous night, when a guy in his mid 20s walked straight up to Maury. Standing so close it looked like they might kiss, he said, “I got a guy, but he wants two. Now. At the Ritz.”
His hair was cut close like Maury’s, he was tall and thin, and he wore a leather jacket over a white T-shirt. There were marks of dissipation below his eyes.
Maury looked at me. “I got James here. He’s researching me for a movie.”
The other guy looked at me, calculating, then said, “All right, bring him along.”
“I’m just doing research,” I said. “I don’t want to, you know, do anything.”
The guy—his name was Jason, I learned later—was in a hurry. “You’re cool, man. This fucker’s so out of his head, you can just sit in the corner with your shirt off and watch. Come on, this will be the best research you could ask for.” He was right.
Maury quickly went to the back and put on his jeans and a shirt, and we walked down Bourbon to Canal and over to the Ritz. The lobby was empty. Jason gave a discreet nod to the short, wall-eyed man behind the desk. The man just stood there and looked. A wax statue. We went up to the ninth floor; Jason had a card key, and he let us into one of the rooms.
“We’re here,” Jason said into the dark room. Inside there was a hall that opened up into a bedroom at the end.
“Back here,” said a weak voice. It was male. Jason led us down the hall to the bedroom. By a shaded bedside light I could see a gray-haired, balding man lying on top of the sheets. He wore white briefs, and that was all. His bare stomach protruded like a hillock. Jason said, “Guys, this is Bob. Doctor Bob.”
“’Doctor Bob,’” said the man on the bed. “That’s funny.” He laughed to himself, and his paunch moved as a unit.
“You are a doctor, aren’t you, Bobby?” said Jason. He turned to us. “He is, fucking heart doctor or something. Rich.” He said it loud like he didn’t care if Doctor Bob heard.
“Who did you bring?” said the doctor. In the dim light it looked like his eyes were closed. Jason said, “This is Maury and uhhhh...”
“Quentin,” I said. Fuck, this is so stupid; forget doing Spider-Man 2, I thought.
“Well that’s great, boys,” said Doctor Bob. “The more, the merrier; the more, the merrier!”
“I brought some of that stuff,” said Jason. He pulled out a baggie of cocaine and poured a little pile on the desktop. I didn’t like this. The prostitution was one thing, but the cocaine was another level. I was witnessing great stuff, but it was frightening. It was the first time I had seen cocaine. Jason arranged four lines. Doctor Bob clambered up from the bed and rolled a dollar bill and started snorting. He had gray hair all over his body. A silver-backed ape bent over the desk.
“Fuck me,” he said after the first snort; after the second he said, “Oh, fuck me!” Then he hobbled back to the bed and lay down. He started squirming on top of the sheets. He was clenching and unclenching his fists and mumbling to himself. The other guys each took a snort. Jason asked if I wanted a line, and I said no. They started taking their clothes off.
“My fucking wife and daughters are coming to town tomorrow,” said Doctor Bob from the bed. He giggled to himself, very softly. The drugs and whatever else he had had were taking effect; he was still talking and his words were dribbling out. “Oh, lemme see those cock-cock-clocks.” He was still squirming—a minimal rocking movement, like a baby in a bassinet. When the boys were naked, he looked over. His eyes still looked closed. They showed like blueish-puffy-sweaty polyps when his face arced through the swath of light. He turned on his side and reached for the boys, with both hands.
“Hold on, Bobby,” said Jason. He slipped on a cock ring; his penis bulged with blood. Then he climbed up and stood on the mattress, over Doctor Bob. Maury got up and stood over him too, their cocks erect and dueling. I just sat in the corner with my shirt off. There could have been 13 students in there watching, and Doctor Bob wouldn’t have noticed. The boys stood over him, and he stroked them. Jason took off the doctor’s briefs, and his little larval penis rested unerect in a nest of white pubic hair.
It was different from the movies. There was no music score; there was no slow motion. It was simpler. Just a simple transaction. But it was more intense than a movie. I was watching someone’s private behavior. It was illegal, and there was cocaine on the table, and this guy’s wife and daughters were coming to town in the morning, and I had been in one strip club in my life before New Orleans and now I was an accomplice to this, and it was all a lot. I saw myself in jail while some other un-researched actor stepped into my role.
And that's what I submitted to the USC film school. They wanted a couple of writing samples. The first prompt said, “Briefly describe the most emotionally intense moment you have experienced.” You must be thinking, Oh, shit, was that real? I figured as much. You probably got tipped off when you read my name on page 2. Maybe it even pulled you out of the story a little bit? Well, don’t worry—this is all a story, so you can’t be pulled out of it. It’s the story of my application to USC. And everything about Maury is definitely, definitely real, except that I toned it down a little because it was already too long and I didn't think USC wanted to hear all the lurid details; but let me assure you that there was a lot more going on that night at the New Orleans Ritz-Carlton than just “stroking.” A lot more. I’m talking penetration and fucking and sucking in every room, all over every room. Oh, yeah, and I got involved. Not that it was fun being with that old guy—he was nasty—but it was fun participating with Jason and Maury. It felt like we were a team. I felt like I could get into the whole prostitution thing. It was kinda rock and roll. It was funny because the old guy, Bob (funny how I named the old guy “Doctor Bob” in the story, right? That wasn’t his real name. I can’t even remember his real name, but Doctor Bob was one of the founders of Alcoholic Anonymous. He was incredibly devout and helped tons of people get better, but he was a proctologist, really he was a drug-addicted proctologist, so I thought it was pretty clever to call my gay doctor Doctor Bob. Little inside joke), when we all took our pants off, he said, “Oh, wow! He [Jason] has the biggest cock, and he [Maury] has the fattest cock, and you [me] have the... hairiest cock,” because I wasn’t used to shaving my pubic hair, I was still just a kid, so I had this big hairy bush. And I did all the coke with them. I did the most.
Just kidding! I didn’t do anything—I just watched. I swear I didn’t do anything. But Maury did have the fattest cock; it was so fat I don’t think he could tie it into a knot like he told all the men in the bar. They all had sex, and then Maury and I left, and I never talked to him again.
So none of that other stuff was in the USC submission, especially because they said, “Limit your response to two double-spaced, typed pages.” I guess I went a little over. Well, screw them. If I don't get in, I though, who gives a poo? I want to go to writing school anyway. I was applying to both writing schools and film schools—UC Irvine, Iowa, and Columbia for writing and USC, UCLA, AFI, and NYU for film. I mean, I wanted to do both. If I could do writing and film school at the same time it would be great. All the great writers of the 20th century were tied up with movies anyway. Joyce tried to open a movie theatre, and Fitzgerald and Faulkner worked in Hollywood, albeit for money and they were already dead as novelists, but still the two mediums have always been closely tied since the invention of the talkies. Even the big holdout, Salinger—who would never give up the rights to his books, I suppose, because the film they made out of his short story, Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut, in 1949, was so horrible (and he was a weirdo), but still he wrote incessantly about movies and acting—hell, one of the Glass children was an actor, and Holden goes to see the Lunts, and even if Salinger was criticizing acting as “phony,” he was still fascinated by it. Besides the fact that he wrote a letter to Ernest Hemingway, after they met in Paris during WWII, that he was going to write a play about Holden Caulfield to act in himself! And you know what, motherfucker dated Charlie Chaplin’s fucking daughter before Eugene O’Neill swooped in and stole her from him, so I’d say he just had a few bad experiences with the movie business and that is why, at least one of the reasons why, he was the recalcitrant motha that he was, and hell, I can relate, the movie business can eat you up, and you end up doing bad shit, but still it didn't mean I wanted to give up on it.
(Actually Salinger dated Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, and Charlie Chaplin was the one who stole her from him. Easy mistake to make, seeing as how Charlie Chaplin and Eugene O’Neill were the same age. Actually, this is all coming back to me now; O’Neill disowned his daughter after she married Chaplin. Her name was Oona O’Neill. How could I forget that? She was only 17 when they got married!)
I thought that the USC prompt was pretty invasive. “Your most intense emotional experience"? It almost felt like a cult where one is required to confess all one's sins before entering the group. I wonder what the other applicants wrote about. Had anyone been to war like Hemingway or Salinger? Probably not; the military isn’t cool like it was in their day. Hm, I actually have a lot more intense stuff than what I wrote about. Like driving drunk and killing a woman with my car when I was in high school. It was a hit-and-run; I never got caught. I wrote about it in another story, in a writing workshop at UCLA, but nobody knew it was real. At least they didn’t do anything about it. Then I got caught drunk-driving another time and was court-ordered to go to AA; that’s how I know about Doctor Bob. But I never got caught for the dead woman. (There’s a funny line about the two founders of AA, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith: One was a stockbroker, and one was a proctologist, soooooo "they have one hand in your wallet and one hand up your..." Haha). I guess I’m not supposed to write about all of that; it’s an anonymous program, but whatever. And so I never got caught for the hit-and-run/murder. But I didn’t want to put that down as my intense experience for USC because I didn’t think it would reflect on me very well, even if I wrote about it brilliantly.
The other writing sample that USC wanted was an original character sketch, just two pages defining a character. We weren’t supposed to write about ourselves or anyone we knew. I wrote about myself anyway. Here’s a little taste:
Quentin is a boy of 12 living in suburban America in 1989. He is an example of what American 1980's pop culture, politics, and major social ethos can do to a middle-class suburban child's absorptive mind. Although he is sensitive and artistic, he has no cultural references other than the arguably shallow pool of 1980's outlets. In contrast to these superficial influences, Quentin is irrepressibly pure and optimistic. One of Quentin’s major challenges, whether he is aware of it or not, is maintaining this purity in an ever-increasing cynical world.
The 1980s were a comically tragic decade; and as a result of growing up during this time, Quentin is a comically tragic character. In hindsight, the decade can seem so ridiculous it's funny, but also pathetic for people who had to grow up in such a culturally strangled era. Despite his intelligence and sensitivity, Quentin is forced to express himself through the ridiculous paradigm of 1980s culture, lending a bittersweet humor to his adolescent experience. Whenever Quentin is home sick, he has three VHS tapes he can choose from: Ferris Bueller's Day Off, A Christmas Story, and Whoopi Goldberg's Jumpin' Jack Flash. He has seen each 40 times and is able to recite verbatim Ferris Bueller's opening monologue. Quentin's sense of dress, personality, vocabulary, and cultural references, and thus, his psychology, are defined by movies, video games, and music of the mid-to-late 80s. As a boy in Renaissance England might memorize passages from Ovid and Horace, Quentin has memorized quotations from Top Gun, The Goonies, and songs by Debbie Gibson, Milli Vanilli, MC Hammer, and Vanilla Ice. He has even learned to play the score to his favorite Nintendo game, The Legend of Zelda, on his clarinet. He has the inclination to make something special of his life but is stifled by the cultural rubric and political mores of his time. He is confined in his own Phalaris's bull of suburban 80's America. His calls for help are amplified by his emotional intensity and innate wisdom, and thus he rises above the insincerity of his social milieu.
Et cetera, et cetera. You like that Phalaris’s bull reference? Yeah, I got that from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. The metaphor isn’t perfectly felicitous, but it’s a flashy reference, isn’t it? Kierkegaard was talking about what it is to be an artist, transforming one’s pain into something beautiful. I thought it was pretty clever to use that flashy reference in a character sketch about a boy who can’t reference anything other than 80s movies. In the end, it’s a pretty romantic notion. What if you have no pain? What if you’re a white dude that grew up in Palo Alto and everything was pretty nice and the worst you experienced was getting rejected by a girl? Well, I guess I experienced more than that. I did kill that woman in my car.
OK, just kidding, I never killed anyone. (No, seriously, I never killed anyone. I don’t want to get arrested or lambasted for false claims like James Frey. Look it up, I swear. I never killed anyone! I was just putting that down to see if anyone cared enough.) But I have experienced more intense things than the prostitution experience. The prompt was just so intrusive, and I don’t like to write about myself. Haha, you’re laughing, right? I don’t. I’m fucking serious: I don’t! I wish I could write about cowboys or whales or something, but I can’t. This is it: write about what you know, and I don’t know shit.
So a couple of weeks ago I was at this dinner for Murakami over at MOCA. It was a ten-year retrospective of Murakami’s work, and Kanye West performed, and Marc Jacobs had his whole Louis Vuitton connection, and he was there selling handbags, and it was a huge event, the biggest that MOCA has ever, ever thrown. That’s what they said: "ever thrown." So I was sitting at this table next to Chris Burden, and if you don’t know who he is, he’s this amazing artist who got a lot of notoriety in the 70s for pieces that involved personal danger, most notably Shoot, where he had a friend shoot him in the arm with a rifle from five meters away. He had taught at UCLA since 1978, my birth year, crazy, right? So yeah, he taught there for 25 years, really helping it become one of the premiere art programs in the country, hiring Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, etc. Anyway, he resigned in 2005 over an incident with a student who brought in a gun as part of a performance piece in which he loaded the gun and then played Russian roulette in front of his classmates. Later the student claimed that it wasn’t a real gun or bullet or whatever, but it has never been confirmed, and regardless, at the time of the performance, there was no way to tell. Chris pushed the school to expel the kid, but they didn’t do anything about it. When Chris inquired with a lawyer about what could be done, he was told that there were eight other pending firearms cases at the school. Chris said something about the cases involving athletes packing guns and that the school wanted to cover them up for the sake of the athletic department.
Chris was still worked up about the whole thing. People may look at him askance because he did the whole Shoot piece, and wasn’t the kid just following up on ideas that Chris had started? But the crucial difference is that Chris did it in private; it wasn’t on a school campus. I just bring the whole thing up because, well, what if I wrote that I wanted to kill myself? Would that be taken seriously? When does anything get taken seriously? “I want to kill myself,” I said. I said. Just now, I said it. Just kidding.
So the other amazing thing in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or—or two amazing things, I should say, are “The Seducer’s Diary” chapter at the end of the book and the fact that he pretended that the whole piece was just a manuscript that he had found in the secret compartment of a desk, or, as he says, an escritoire (or as the translators, Hong and Hong, say he says) he bought at a second-hand store. I remember reading the “Seducer’s Diary” sitting in a rental car, with a large cup of black 7-11 coffee and a pack of Marlboros, looking out on a snow-covered beach in Belmar, New Jersey. I was shooting a movie in Asbury Park, one city over, and I would drive to Belmar on my off days because there was a community room in the basement of a run-down hotel on the oceanfront where they held AA meetings, and after the meetings (this was long after my drunk-driving arrest, so I had been going for years) I would sit in the car and smoke and read Kierkegaard’s crazy book.
Well, “The Seducer’s Diary” is amazing. Amazing, why? Well, because it traces step-by-step the corruption of a girl’s life by a man that claims to see his seduction of her as an artistic process. In the end, he wins her eternal devotion and then leaves her. I used to go to this acting school, and Jeff Goldblum taught at the school and seduced all the young girls that came out to California to be actresses. I mean 18- and 19-year-olds sometimes. I thought about giving him a copy of “The Seducer’s Diary.” I don’t think he would like it. (And who am I kidding, I just came back to UCLA to hit on all the undergrads anyway. JUST KIDDING!) “The Seducer’s Diary” comes in a special edition, separate from Either/Or, edited by John Updike. Johnny U, in his excellent introduction, makes the connection between Soren’s real-life failed love affair with Regine Olsen and the seduction in the book. He calls it “a wound masked as a boast” because Kierkegaard was actually deeply affected by the loss of Olsen and the book was his attempt to portray himself as a scoundrel in order to make the break with Olsen easier. I wonder what wound I’m covering here with this piece?
Anyway, you’re all probably thinking, What kind of fucking story is this? What happened to Maury from the beginning? This is all over the place. He’s just throwing a bunch of his grad-school applications and some random tidbits together because he procrastinated and doesn’t have a story. And you know what? I hate all those stupid literary references, they’re fucking annoying and stupid; they’re just his way of bragging about the books he’s read. Well, you know, what, James? Who gives a fuck? We’ve all read them. And it’s not like you use them in any analytical way; you just cite little pieces of gossip. Wow! So impressive. Well, shit. OK, OK, maybe my references are just a way of bragging. Not like I haven’t heard every other author brag about his childhood reading lists from Nabokov to William Saroyan to Harold Bloom, who all claim to have read shit like Schopenhauer when they were five. And I can’t believe that I brought up Harold Bloom; he’s the pseudointellectual’s favorite reference—popular criticism, whatever, he’s a genius, blah, blah, blah, anxiety of influence. And, yeah, maybe I am writing this last minute, but I’ve had a lot to do! I went to Boston this weekend for an old high school buddy’s wedding, and then I stopped off in Iowa to look at the writing program. I’m trying to get into grad school, OK? I’m busy!
I got to sit in on a class conducted by Anthony Swofford (Jarhead). He conducted a seminar about “why we write.” Here’s a portion from the email he wrote to me (watch your heads—serious names are dropping now. I learned this technique from Hollywood, the place everyone says they hate but really where they all want to be. Except JD. And even he did).
We're reading from a book called Why I Write, ed. by Will Blythe. We're reading the essays by Norman Mailer, Joy Williams, Rick Bass, and Jayne Anne Phillips. We're talking about those essays and the ideas within them, and the students are responding, in some way, to the question, Why do you write? I hate that question, but I think it's occasionally an important one to consider.
Impressive, right? OK, maybe you’re not impressed. But see? Swofford is a guy who just wrote about his life. About fighting in a war, like Jerome David and Hemingway. But also, see, he wrote about it in a different way from the older boys because war isn’t cool anymore. So anyway, this is my story; it’s me (but not really). I don’t have any war to write about, so I just take a bunch of random shit and throw it together, but I don’t think it’s so random, and I like it because of all the connections I see in it.
The last random item I’ll throw in is my trip over to Harvard after the wedding last weekend. I have always been a big Faulkner fan, and, of course, Quentin Compson, from The Sound and the Fury, kills himself while attending Harvard. (Did you like that I called the boy in my character sketch, which was about me/not about me, Quentin?) My high school buddy who was getting married was a huge screw-up in high school (he was in the car when I killed that woman), but has turned his life around; miraculously, he graduated from Harvard Law School last year, so his wedding was full of his Harvard Law buddies. One of these guys was a Faulkner freak, and he confirmed the existence of a small plaque on the Anderson Bridge at Harvard, commemorating Quentin Compson, where he supposedly killed himself.
After the wedding I took the T and went over to Harvard. I found the Anderson Bridge on JFK Street, and after some time spent scouring the whole bridge, I found the plaque. It’s a very small plaque, in an alcove on the bridge, near the boathouse. Harold Bloom, in his book The Anxiety of Influence, calls Quentin a modern Hamlet. (It’s funny—I looked up The Sound and the Fury in SparkNotes, and it said, “Quentin’s focus on ideas over deeds makes him a highly unreliable narrator, as it is often difficult to tell which of the actions he describes have actually occurred and which are mere fantasy.”) So the plaque was very small, and by the way, the bridge was very small—Quentin supposedly drowned himself by putting flatirons in his jacket and jumping off (or did he tie them to the bottom of his shoes?), but I don’t buy it. The natural survival instinct would make him take his jacket off once he started running out of air. Anyway, I finally found the little plaque. I was so excited that I took a picture of it with my iPhone and use it as wallpaper. It reads: “Quentin Compson. Drowned in the odour of honeysuckle. 1891–1910.”