Georgia Straight talks to CHESTER BROWN about PAYING FOR IT’s controversies

Paying for It draws on Chester Brown's life as a john    |    John Lucas    |    May 10, 2011

Chester Brown must have known what he was getting himself into. In creating Paying for It, the Toronto-based cartoonist was setting himself up for criticism, not just of his work but of himself and his chosen lifestyle. The graphic novel, published this month by Drawn & Quarterly, documents Brown's interactions with prostitutes over the course of a decade or so. It also includes notes and appendices in which the author lays out his arguments in favour of the decriminalization of selling sex, and against the notion of romantic love in general.

The book, as you might imagine, has engendered a bit of controversy. Reviewing Paying for It in the Chicago Reader, Noah Berlatsky called Brown's drawings of the prostitutes "dehumanizing", and characterized the artist's libertarian view of sex-as-commodity as "an expression of the individual autonomously pursuing pleasure" and a "soul-crushing sexual ethic".

"People are taking issue with certain things in there," Brown admits, speaking to the Straight over the phone from his home. "I certainly think someone who is brighter and more articulate than I am could have expressed things in a better way, but the book came out as well as it could given my limited abilities. No, I wouldn't change anything."

As for "dehumanizing" his subject - Berlatsky pointed out that Brown never shows their faces, "turning them into expressionless ciphers" - the cartoonist had his reasons for drawing the sex workers he visited as uniformly black-haired enigmas. Specifically, he was protecting their identities.

"Yes, I left things out, particularly when it came to matters that might reveal the identities of the prostitutes I saw," Brown says. "In the very first scene, the first time I see one, in a brothel, she asks me that question about what I do for a living, and I answer that I'm a cartoonist, and that I write and draw comic books. And then she started talking about comic books in her life, and it was very interesting, but that could have been revealing. She had particular experiences with comic books, and maybe she's talked about those with other people, and so, yeah, I omitted that entirely from that conversation, as if she hadn't told me any of that stuff. And at every encounter there were things like that, that I left out-things that could have revealed something about a particular woman that might have identified her."

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