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Over the past few days I found myself reading Paying For It: A comic-strip memoir about being a john by Chester Brown. It wasn’t the first time I’ve read Brown’s work, having gone through Louis Riel a few years ago. Rather than review it, I want to address my experience with the work because of how it challenged my viewpoint on the world.

In case the title was not a strong enough indicator, the comic book is about Brown’s experience paying prostitutes for sex, and more specifically how he has found it to be a more fulfilling relationship than typical romantic relationships. He finds the typical relationship to be problematic due to the encouraged idea of “possessive monogamy” that is a common mindset in that sort of dynamic.

What the book challenged me on most prominently was my opinion of johns. Prostitution is a topic that’s come up for me in discussion before, and I cannot say I’ve ever really had a firm position to stand on with it. On the one hand, I feel that women should be free do with their bodies what they want, and I am certainly not in a position to dictate that they cannot do something like this if they’re comfortable with it. On the other hand, I have held the belief that it might not be the safest of pursuits. STI’s aside, I have concerns with the possibility of mistreatment or violence. In my experience, customers can be very crappy in general, so I could only assume they would be crappy in some of the worst ways when sex is concerned.

What the book has made me realize more consciously is that for some reason I am distrustful of johns, their motives, and their perspective. While I’ve had no problem with a woman choosing to use her body in this way, I have issue with johns paying for sex because of how I feel they are diminishing women’s bodies to a commodity by paying them for sex. Perhaps some of them are, but Brown brings an interesting perspective to the table that made me second-guess my feelings.

What he primarily brought to my attention was the idea that paying for sex with someone who has chosen to pursue this kind of income is really no different morally than casual sex between strangers in a one-night-stand situation. If anything, the exchange is more honest. Expectations and limits are more clearly laid out, and what each party is getting out of the exchange is understood. As he brings up in the book as well, most instances of sexual relations are an exchange in some way, whether it is purely for the sake of the enjoyment between people, or someone is doing it out of desire for affection and intimacy, and so on.

He brings up further how people take issue with money’s influence in the equation, when a prostitute would otherwise rather not have sex. While a prostitute will have sex with someone for money, even if they don’t physically desire sex, someone in another situation may have sex with their significant other not because they desire it, but because they love them and are willing to oblige. He points out that there is not real moral difference between the above scenarios, and I found myself agreeing.

Furthermore, while in the past I may have stigmatized johns as people who feel they are buying women, I am made to consider that this isn’t necessarily true. What is being paid for is sex, not the woman. Brown points out that in his instances he never felt like he was trying to own the women, or that they money was buying them. It was only the service that was for sale, and that was all his money entitled him to.

What’s important to note as well is that he become close with a number of the women in the book, often talking to them at length about themselves, their background, and their work. He admits to having felt a great amount of affection for many of them as people as he got to know them. So not only are his own motives and experiences a prime example of an attitude among johns I hadn’t given thought, but also what he heard second-hand from the women he had seen. This helps make the perspective he is presenting more believable to me, who has never engaged with this lifestyle directly.

More than anything else, however, the book showed me through his personal experience that the fact he was paying for sex didn’t really say anything about him as a person — other than it being something he found more fulfilling than the drama of romantic relationships and “possessive monogamy.” His reasons for doing it, as presented, seemed perfectly reasonable to me and he seemed to be a very kind and thoughtful person. Paying for sex is still something I don’t think I’d ever do myself, but my takeaway from reading this is that I will not fault others for doing so, so long as they are respectful. It has taught me to be a little more open minded about a perspective I was otherwise negatively biased toward, and I appreciate the work for that.

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