Monday, June 18, 2012

No Romance: Paying For It

Chester Brown's highly-publicized Paying For It drew a lot of controversy for his views on the legalization of prostitution. To be sure, he spends much of this book discussing his experiences as a john and discusses the pros and cons. He backs all of this up with a detailed set of appendices arguing his points further, making the book less a memoir than an out-and-out polemic. I would argue, however, that the view he's arguing most vehemently is not in favor of prostitution, but against romantic love. To be sure, he has to move the goalposts several times in order to precisely define what he's opposed to with regard to romantic love, eventually settling on "possessive monogamy" as the villain of his book. I don't use the word lightly, given that he out-and-out declares marriage and romantic love to be "evil", an assertion that he argues almost entirely by anecdote rather than reason or statistics. As a philosophical argument, arguing by anecdote tries to make universal one particular personal observation. However, asserting that fire is bad because one person you know got badly burned is an erroneous leap of logic. By the same token, Brown's own miserable experiences in romantic relationships naturally prejudice him against the very concept of "possessive monogamy".

It's difficult to review this book without coming to grips with the arguments he puts forth. As such, in most respects I find it to be Brown's least significant work in a body of work that is obviously extremely accomplished and significant. One can't overestimate the impact a story like Ed The Happy Clown and I Never Liked You on a couple of generations of cartoonists, and Louis Riel was also a stunner. Unfortunately, Brown handicaps himself in a myriad of ways in this book. For example, he notes that if he were able to provide more details on the women he saw that made these experiences so worthwhile, he would have had a stronger book.  He's right. The rote, almost robotic nature of the interactions as he depicts them here make him come across as an emotionally stunted, borderline monstrous person. Obviously, there are any number of people in the world of comics who vouch for Brown's sweetness and caring as an individual, but that's neither here nor there with regard to the Brown we see in the text itself. In the book, Brown tries to defend seeing escorts who might possibly have been mixed up in human trafficking by downplaying the likelihood that the scenarios he encountered might have fallen under that category. What cannot be denied is that one young woman he saw was reluctant to see him and was urged to do so by the madam in the room; if that's not sex under coercion, I don't know what is.

There are other critiques of Brown's portrayal of sex to be made. One implied aspect of romantic love is mutual sexual satisfaction. Obviously this does not occur for every couple in every scenario, but a financial transaction by its very nature is supposed to be an investment on the part of the purchaser that their pleasure is the only important part of the transaction, which is a rather limited way to experience sex. Certainly, many escorts advertise "the girlfriend experience" which can imply mutual pleasure, but a world where all sexual encounters were purely financial would be a more tedious and less warm one.

Beyond any critiques of Brown's defense of prostitution and to what degree he draws satisfaction from these experiences, it's his attack on romantic love that I find more interesting and more problematic. There are a number of fascinating exchanges between Brown and his longtime friends Seth and Joe Matt (and the scenes with the three of them are uniformly fantastic), with Seth scoring the most direct hits. When Brown says that he enjoys talking to the escorts makes the experience seem "less cold and impersonal". Seth retorts, "If you want a sexual experience that's not cold and impersonal--get a girlfriend." Later, Brown makes a reasonable point against lifetime ("possessive") monogamy when he says that people change over time, and can't be expected to be compatible in the same way several years into the relationship. When the escort he's with says that if you love you're partner, you'd at least be willing to try to make it work. Brown's reply is truly the heart of his position against monogamy "Romantic love is work. Call me lazy, but I don't want to do the work". What it boils down to is that he's not interested in doing the kind of scary communicating and negotiating with a partner that leaves one vulnerable to being hurt, in exchange for the possibility of strengthening bonds and retaining intimacy. Nor is he willing to risk the possibility of drifting apart and breaking up, with the messy outcomes that involves. That is entirely his right, but using this argument by anecdote to create a universal maxim a la Ayn Rand is astoundingly puerile and in denial of empirical evidence. It denies the existence of romantic love and the potential value of monogamy as he defines it simply because it's too much work for him.

The punchline is that he's effectively monogamous with an escort named Denise. He justifies this by saying that there's no contract tying them together, which is a weak sauce argument given that few marriages stay together simply because of that piece of paper. What is sad in the end is that Brown admits he's not sure Denise would still have sex with him if he didn't pay her, despite the fact that he's her only client at this point. While he derives a certain thrill from being able to have sex with women without the burden of going through social rituals that he's not adept at playing, that thrill has to be blunted by the knowledge that without the financial aspect of that relationship, they wouldn't spend time with him. Brown makes no differentiation between sex and intimacy in this book, nor does he ask himself the question if intimacy is truly possible in a purely financial transaction. If intimacy isn't important to him, it's not his right to declare romantic love to be "evil" if one of its benefits is something he doesn't experience. If it is important to him, how can this be experienced in an escort/john situation? Intimacy involves vulnerability, and vulnerability implies risk. Intimacy implies the possibility of getting one's feelings hurt and hurting someone else's feelings.  In other words, it involves the frequently painful aspects of human interactions in a relationship and means that in order to achieve it, a commitment to working for it is necessary. Just because Brown isn't interested in that kind of work doesn't mean the rest of humanity isn't willing to try the frequently painful and frustrating but also often rewarding and fulfilling process of love. Brown is so busy engaging technical and moral arguments about prostitution's legality and existence that these other issues either barely register or are brought up and never engaged. It's a shame, because Brown is otherwise amazingly forthcoming about his desires (in a way that is usually not especially flattering to himself), is clever in his cartooning, and provides many moments of humor.

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