The sex worker rights movement desperately needs more men outing themselves as johns, standing with sex workers, and defending the right for consenting adults to buy and sell sex. But while I was reading Paying For It, a graphic memoir by Canadian john Chester Brown who does just that, I kept thinking one thing: I would never want this guy as a client.
I’m not flattering myself—it’s clear that Brown wouldn’t want me either, since I’m over 20 and don’t offer half hours—but it was hard to set aside that reaction in spite of the fact that 1) I’m in complete agreement with his arguments for decriminalizing prostitution, 2) I loved his citation of the nearly defunct $pread magazine in his appendix and 3) we share an obsession with sex work. But I’m not the only one who finds him abrasive. In the book’s appendix, one of his friends writes, “Chester seems to have a very limited emotional range compared to most people. There does seem to be something wrong with him.” Internet commenters routinely tear him apart, though most have assuredly not read the book, reinforcing how far johns will have to go in order to surmount their own set of stigmas when they are now so easily dismissed as perverts and sociopaths.
The book begins as Chester reexamines the usefulness of conventional romantic relationships after his dissolves in an unusual fashion. (He was dating beautiful semi-celebrity Sook-Yin Lee.) He ultimately decides it’s all bullshit and he never wants to have a girlfriend again. This, coupled with his self-confessed lack of game, makes him prime material to start buying sex. So he does.
From a social standpoint, Chester is the ideal john: he’s not married or in a committed relationship and he doesn’t excel socially. People who are largely against men hiring prostitutes will make cautious exceptions for just such individuals. “Well…,” they reason reluctantly, “if you’re incapable of getting laid any other way and you’re not betraying your significant other, I guess it’s okay.”
Less socially acceptably, Chester occasionally seems detached to the point of amorality. He’s only mildly concerned about the possibility that one woman he see repeatedly is under 18, and is aroused by another escort’s apparent pain while he’s screwing her. He’s not categorically a bad guy—when a different escort tells him he needs to hurry up and come, he loses his erection and doesn’t get off, but still tips her.
From my (escort) standpoint, he’s the type of john I religiously steer away from, and that’s largely due to his immersion in review board “culture.” It doesn’t take too long for Chester to start cataloging the physical attributes and sexual performance of every woman he sees in anticipation of going home and writing about it for other dudes. Even his non-prostitute seeing friend asks, don’t “prostitutes […] expect a measure of privacy and discretion for their johns”? And his (temporary) regular tells him she doesn’t want to read the reviews because they’d make her uncomfortable, but Chester is not dissuaded.
In the five years that I’ve been networking with other prostitutes, I’ve only ever met two who were enthusiastically in favor of reviews. At best, my acquaintances and friends have seen them as a necessary evil, a form of advertising they dislike but worry they can’t do without. Most women I’ve met hate them and sometimes forbid them outright, like I do. I get why some guys want to read Yelp-like write-ups before seeing someone, and I can understand why Chester wants to complain about it when he loses money on a disappointing experience.
But his fickleness and shallowness rubbed me the wrong way. When one girl stays quiet and inert during sex, he decides he likes her honesty (because she isn’t pretending to enjoy it.) When a different girl gives him “the best blowjob of [his] life” but then stays still during penetrative sex, he doesn’t tip her and plans to disparage her in a review. Initially he hews to escorts ages 18-20, and when he complains about a girl’s legs being “a bit thick,” it invites some eye-rolling. (“Oh, the girl you’re paying $80 to fuck you doesn’t have the body of a photoshopped supermodel? Call consumer protection!”)
To his credit, Brown is diligent about not giving away the identity of the women he sees, but instead of fabricating facial features he simply depicts them exclusively from behind or with their heads cut off by the frame or text bubbles. This renders his stream of escorts literally faceless and largely interchangeable. And though Brown ostensibly enjoyed his encounters, at least enough to keep seeing escorts, the sex is coldly rendered and abrupt. Often, the deed consists of several panels of two tiny white bodies rutting in a square of blackness—or more accurately, one body rutting and the other being rutted. Although (spoiler alert?) he eventually leaves the hobbyist lifestyle and settles down with one regular prostitute, this development isn’t explored much. “Denise” asks to appear in the book as little as possible, and he’s rightly honored that request, probably at a detriment to the story.
The book ends with a dense text-only section refuting anti-sex-work arguments—except for the myth that prostitution is bad for marriage. Bizarrely, never-married Chester says that he agrees with this though many prostitutes and, privately, many johns, have claimed the contrary, reasoning that sex workers are a safer, more reliably discreet option for extra-marital sex than a mistress, and the unavailability of that sexual outlet might otherwise prompt men to leave chaste marriages.
So, regardless of how I felt about Chester the john, I’m grateful to have Chester the cartoonist as an ally. I hope his book reaches many people who might otherwise never give much thought to the legal state of prostitution, and I hope it influences them for the better.