June 2012

Paying for It

by Chester Brown

Central Question: Are sex and romance any more mutually exclusive than the sacred and the profane?
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly; Number of prostitutes visited by author: twenty-four; Author’s feeling after first visit: “As I walked out of the brothel I felt exhilarated and transformed. It was so honest—up-front. It felt… natural. A burden that I had been carrying since adolescence had disappeared”; Difference between being a john and being a boyfriend, according to author: “The guy who’s paying for sex isn’t using sexual relationships to shore up his fragile ego”; What movies and prostitution have in common: message boards for discussion and anonymous reviews (Brown is particularly fond of TERB, the Toronto Escort Review Board); Representative sentence: “And what’s unfair about paying for sex?”

“There are always hookers on Church Street.”

This seemingly offhand observation, made early in Chester Brown’s Paying for It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John, sounds like the punch line to a familiar type of joke, the “rabbi and a priest walk into a bar” variety. It has the same casual knowingness, the same intimation of transgression rendered as an informal bit of commentary operating on lowest-common-denominator assumptions that are not, perhaps, entirely unfunny. Not “ha-ha” funny but “huh? weird” funny, the frisson of tension suggested by the juxtaposition of hookers and Church. Mary Magdalene notwithstanding, we do not expect to encounter ladies of the night in the proximity of a house of worship. And so there is something positively quixotic in the notion of a pleasure seeker, in this case Brown himself—on his bicycle because he does not have a car—storming Church Street to find love by the hour.

As it turns out, there are no hookers on Church Street. Brown circles aimlessly, makes a detour, and finds only a cop car or two for his trouble. Prostitutes, he learns, are actually much easier to find on the back pages of the free Toronto alt-weekly. Or at least they were in 1999, when Brown first decided to reconcile the competing desires of his life—“the desire to have sex, versus the desire to NOT have a girlfriend”—by, well, paying for it. (Casual sex and one-night stands apparently do not exist in Canada.)

Yet the image of hookers on Church Street lingers. It is the memoir’s motif, its theme song, suggesting that the mingling of the sacred and the profane is both less and more complicated than we usually assume.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

—Yevgeniya Traps

Yevgeniya Traps is a doctoral candidate in English.

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