Dear John: A cartoonist’s comic strip memoir about paying for sex
Wed, Aug 17, 2011 (6:34 p.m.)
Chester Brown has no problem paying for sex. Over a period of four years he visited more than 20 prostitutes and shelled out thousands of dollars for sex, some of which was great, some of which was just okay and much of which involved women he genuinely cared for. He never contracted a sexually transmitted infection, was never arrested and his close friends and family, who knew he was seeing prostitutes, never rejected him.
In Paying for It: A Comic Strip Memoir About Being a John, Brown, an award-winning cartoonist from Toronto, puts a human face on the often maligned and caricatured figure of the john. He writes with a degree of honesty and thoughtfulness one rarely finds when it comes to the subject of men who pay for sex, detailing both the mundane and more profound aspects of his experience, from searching classified ads and reading online reviews to discussing romantic love, which he personally rejects. He presents these ideas—ones that undoubtedly challenge many people’s beliefs about the sanctity of sex, love and monogamy—in an easy-to-read comic-strip format that invites readers to think differently about prostitution.
Brown’s story is an interesting one. Following the end of a serious relationship over a decade ago, he decides he never wants to have a girlfriend again. He soon realizes he has two competing wishes: the desire to have sex and the desire to not to have a girlfriend. “Maybe I should pay for sex,” he eventually concludes.
For Brown, this is a pragmatic decision and one that carries no shame. He’s not lonely or desperate. He’s not self-loathing, nor does he have contempt for women. He’s just a regular guy who wants a fulfilling sex life, but without all of the expectations and insecurities that often accompany romantic involvements.
The first prostitute he sees is Carla, whom he found through an escort ad. He’s relieved to find she’s beautiful—and not a cop. “This is too good to be true,” Brown thinks to himself. He gives her money, they talk, she takes out a condom and they have sex. Could she tell he was nervous? Did she know it was his first time paying for sex? In the end none of those insecurities matter. “As I walked out of the brothel,” he writes, “I felt exhilarated and transformed.”
Chester Brown the john was born.
Brown, 51, describes himself as a typical john. He’s somewhat introverted, a little shy and not likely to be mistaken for a chest-thumping alpha male. The image he paints of the average john, and the reasons why someone such as himself might choose to pay for sex, couldn’t be more different than the stereotype of johns as callous and deeply flawed men with little regard for women and nothing better to do than assert their dominance.
“There’s so much about sex in conventional relationships that’s so complicated, particularly heterosexual relationships,” Brown told me by phone last week. “I remember having this weird feeling with my first girlfriend, before we even had sex. Should I buy condoms just in case? If I bring them out will it look like I am over-planning?
“In prostitution there is no subtext. Everything is out there on the surface. We know what’s going to happen. There isn’t a mysterious part of the relationship, and there isn’t the same degree of shame around sex.”
Early in the book, Brown takes out his calculator and determines he can afford to see a prostitute once every three weeks, or 17 times a year, for the equivalent of $2,720 annually. Once Brown crosses over into the “paying for sex line”—as opposed to the “free sex line”—he, in many ways, becomes the epitome of a rational consumer who spends his money wisely in accordance with his needs. Much like people who shop for other kinds of experiences, he reads online reviews, writes his own and returns to see women whose company, and services, he enjoys.
“There is very little research on johns,” says Barb Brents, a sociologist at UNLV who has studied the history of prostitution and legal brothels in Nevada. “While this book is a memoir, it goes a long way toward demystifying johns. There’s no sneaking off. There’s no shame. We get to see his thought process, his choices and his interactions.”
Paying for It also shows that there’s more to the economic exchange between a john and a prostitute than just sexual gratification. According to Brents: “A lot of what Brown writes about echoes what prostitutes have said about the men who see them, that it’s not just about sex. They negotiate feelings and deal with each other as human beings.”
The importance of the emotional intimacy between a prostitute and john is not lost on Brown. “As robotics advance,” he tells me, “it’s hard to imagine a sex robot being really appealing in the way that having sex with a human being is. And that’s because of the emotional component. You are dealing with another person who has feelings and is willing to express them.”
In 2004, Brown started seeing a prostitute named Denise on a regular basis. He’s been seeing her monogamously for more than seven years now, and, although she no longer works as a prostitute, he still pays her for sex. “There’s a level of genuine emotional engagement, and a willingness on her part to spend time with me that she isn’t getting paid for,” says Brown.
He tells me he prefers prostitution to getting married, summing it up best in the last panel on the last page of Paying for It: “Paying for sex isn’t an empty experience, if you’re paying the right person for sex.”
Lynn Comella is a Women’s Studies professor at UNLV.