Paying for It and Political Didacticism

Rob Hutton
5 min readAug 21, 2018

I recently finished Chester Brown’s 2011 graphic memoir Paying for It, a work that kicked up a bit of fuss in the micro-world of alternative comics upon its release. The book is ostensibly an autobiographical account of Brown’s experience with sex workers, but the clear agenda (complemented by extensive appendices and notes) is an argument for the decriminalization and normalization of sex work. It’s not a good book.

Now, a bad comic book is not particularly remarkable (Marvel and DC have put out practically nothing but this decade.) But I thought Paying for It was an instructive example of a work whose political didacticism hinders it as a work of art. This is very visible to the average reader because the political point that Brown is making is not a particularly common or popular one — that is, a decriminalization argument coming from the perspective of a john. But I think the same problems plague much contemporary political art, no matter how admirable their place of origin.

The goal of Paying for It is to use Brown’s experience to demonstrate how paying for sex is, or should be, unremarkable and harmless. His encounters are sometimes strange, but never violent or exploitative in the way sex work is often portrayed in media. There are probably a great number of things that drive men to seek out prostitutes: a misogynistic desire to control or harm women, but also loneliness, a sense of romantic failure, or a desire for self-destruction. Similarly, there are likely many roads and many motivations that lead women to sex work, some empowering and some depressing. One could write about the continuity of affective labour, usually expected to be given by women for the sake of men, that ranges from the prostitute to the cashier, or a culture that presents relationships as a means of self-validation while marking many people as entirely undesirable.

You will get none of this from Paying for It. Because Brown wants to argue that being a john does not suggest any kind of character flaw, he essentially refuses to engage in any self-reflection that would suggest his turn away from non-paid relationships stems from deeper insecurities or neuroses. As Brown recounts it, he started seeing sex workers because he wanted sex without being in a relationship, a perfectly rational decision with as much deeper meaning as picking the value brand at the grocery store.

Nor do we get any deeper insight into what brings women to prostitution. Paying for It provides an exhaustive chronicle of all the sex workers Brown slept with, but we never see any of their faces or much of their personalities other than the various sexual tics that he directly experiences. In an introduction, Brown says that this dehumanized presentation is necessary to protect the women’s identities, but this is unconvincing. Perhaps more important is the graphic novel’s need to present sex workers in the same way as it presents johns: as rational market actors and little more.

Even the graphic language of comics is muted here. Brown’s pages unfold in static grids. Even when a page only contains one or two panels, they are no bigger than any other. The characters are small, with only a few identifying marks and little emotion. Brown’s art has always tended towards inexpression, but here it is downright stoic. He undoubtedly wanted to avoid an exploitative, pornographic effect. In reality, Paying for It works to preclude any kind of emotional response at all.

Brown ultimately seems not to trust his medium, the seedy subjectivity of comics, to make a persuasive point. The appendices are all hand-written prose, with comics panels used only to prevent straw arguments from anonymous people which are effortlessly debunked by cool, rational lettering. In order to make his political point, Brown feels as if he has to evacuate his work of any artistry.

The legal outcome that Brown wants — the decriminalization of all sex work without condition — is one that many people on the left are fighting for. In the wake of the passage of legislation like SESTA and FOSTA, sex worker advocates have rightly highlighted the ways in which criminalization puts vulnerable women at even greater risks. Brown’s perspective is more difficult for feminists to embrace than that of the enlightened social-media sex worker, but it does seem to me that if one wants to argue that sex workers are canny self-empowered exemplars one can’t portray all johns as predatory creeps. In this sense, Paying for It could be said to do a valuable service, and perhaps present a more coherent argument than that of many pro-sex work feminists. And yet, after reading it, one is not moved to any action except taking a long shower and resolving never to discuss the topic again.

In itself, a bad comic is just a bad comic. But I see the same trends in the demands traditional progressives make on art. We demand that who is right and who is wrong be spelled out, and that any admission of unwholesome desire be marshalled back into a comfortable conclusion. This need for an uncomplicated certainty begins to infect the ways in which we interact with other people: wrongdoers must be entirely responsible for their actions, the good must never waver, and any uncertainty is to be quickly corrected. We should all become like Brown’s characters, dryly expressing our desires with footnotes and all.

The injunction today is to always make art political. And who could resist, on a planet whose political order seems to be hurtling into oblivion, with a bevy of apocalypses awaiting us if we don’t take action yesterday? But removing the humanity and contradiction from art makes neither good art or particularly effective propaganda. If we insist that our art must be political, then our politics must also be artistic.

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