Macleans | Nicholas Köhler | May 2, 2011
PAYING FOR IT reviewed by Maclean’s
In the whole of the Platonic canon, Socrates leaves Athens just once: in the Phaedrus, the second of the dialogues on romantic love. As Socrates walks through the city he sees Phaedrus, an attractive young man, deep in thought. Phaedrus tells him he has just heard a speech about love and invites Socrates to walk with him into the countryside to hear the details. Under a tree, he outlines the speech: you should always be with someone who doesn’t love you rather than someone who does. Someone who loves you will make your life difficult: they want to be with you always; they become jealous, frightened you’ll leave, and so discourage you from meeting people who might take you away; they become angry when you change; they suffocate you. With someone who doesn’t love you, you can come and go as you please. It doesn’t hurt to be with someone who doesn’t love you; often it hurts to be with someone who does.
Later, just as Socrates turns to leave, he stops. He realizes that by discussing love in these terms he has committed the sin of impiety against the god Eros. To make amends, he must make his own speech: that to be in love is actually the greatest good.
Consider now a modern treatment of the issue. Cartoonist Chester Brown’s new graphic novel, Paying For It, is sure to stir controversy when it’s released next month, for its explicit chronicling of his life paying for sex, and for its impassioned argument in support of prostitution’s decriminalization. But the book is at its best when it explores the same territory as the Phaedrus—the nature of romantic love. The comparison isn’t so far-fetched. Brown, a Canadian, has been instrumental in popularizing the notion that comics are capable of a lot more than just caped superheroes, and he’s best known for a psychologically acute biography of Metis leader Louis Riel.
Yet he’s also written painfully candid autobiography: one book, The Playboy, deals with a pornography habit. Propelling Paying For It, as well as his ongoing life as a john, is Brown’s breakup with Sook-Yin Lee, the former MuchMusic VJ and current CBC Radio host, with whom he lived for many years. “I love you as much as ever, and I’m sure I’m always going to love you, but…I think I’m falling in love with someone else,” she tells him. “Do you want me to move out?” he asks. “No. I…at this point I just want to date him…even if I do end up having a sexual relationship with him, I don’t know if that will mean that I’ll want to stop having sex with you.” Then she asks: “Do you hate me?” He replies: “I love you as much as ever.”
In fact, Brown feels an odd serenity, even as he continues living with Lee and hears the development of her new sexual relationship through the walls of his bedroom. Soon, he realizes romantic love is the last thing he wants. “Being the friend is way better than being the boyfriend,” he tells an ex-lover. “It’s something about the dynamic of romantic love…The people I’ve behaved the worst to were my girlfriends.” But he’s left with a quandary: “I’ve got two competing desires—the desire to have sex, versus the desire to NOT have a girlfriend…I don’t know how I can reconcile them.” The answer, as it turns out, lies in the pages of the alternative weeklies where sex workers advertise their services. His first attempts to meet prostitutes are blackly funny—he patrols the streets by bicycle seeking streetwalkers—and his introduction to the protocols of the modern brothel are fascinating and leave little to the imagination. (Is requesting lubricant impolite? What to do when a prostitute watches soaps mid-coitus?) For Brown, it’s all deeply satisfying. “It was so honest,” he writes of his ﬁrst session. “A burden that I had been carrying since adolescence had disappeared.”
Brown occasionally bores as he advances his case for decriminalization, and though it’s a thoughtful book, some of the darker corners of prostitution—human trafficking, say—are left strangely unexplored in its comic-strip component (he addresses such things in an appendix). But Paying For It captivates in part because you sense a coming Socratic conversion. Brown never admits to blaspheming Eros; still, as he tells Maclean’s, the book “feels like a love story to me.”