Review of the book I read on Thursday, July 21st.
I've read quite a few memoirs by prostitutes over the years, because I am interested in memoir and I am interested in feminism and I am interested in economics. Also in sex. This leads to reading memoirs and essays by sex workers.
However, I had not previously read any memoirs by customers of prostitutes, because, well, they don't seem to turn up as often. Chester Brown's willingness to discuss his interactions with prostitutes is very unusual. His unemotional, flatly biographical, non-sensationalist but definitely ideological approach is even more peculiar. The style of his comic is very stripped-down: panels are all the same size, word balloons take up a lot of space, pictures of people walking along streets are pretty much the same picture repeated with different words. The lines are heavy blackwork and there isn't a lot in the way of facial expression. This means that when there is sex, and there is, it is extremely obvious that it is not intended as anything other than careful documentary.
After breaking up with his girlfriend, the actress and radio personality Sook-Yin Lee (who can be seen in the delightful film Shortbus), Brown decided that he was against romantic love as an institution, and began to see prostitutes regularly. It seems to have been a fairly amicable breakup, although his friends took the whole ideology shift as an expression of some kind of inner pain; I wasn't there, I don't know. Brown doesn't think so. He's a pretty libertarian type and believes that prostitution should be legal because people have the right to make whatever paying contracts they want with their own bodies. Eventually he comes down on the side that it's not necessarily love he's against, but possessive monogamy, with jealousy and everything that goes with that; he also admits flat-out that he is not up for the work of maintaining a relationship and is using money to take the place of putting in that work. At the end of the book he is engaged in a monogamous contract with a particular woman: neither of them sleep with anybody else, he loves her, and he always pays. He claims not to know of a word for this arrangement. (She is a kept woman, and in the French court would have been his maîtresse déclarée. It is not as though this is a new setup he has thought of.)
Unsurprisingly, this memoir is a fascinating mishmash of the interesting and the problematic. He (very politely) chooses not to give identifying details of the women he patronized, leaving out their working names, actual hair and skin colors, and anything any of them said that might be used to trace them. This is probably a good idea, given that some of them are engaged in variants of the work that I think are illegal in Canada (I can't remember whether it's illegal to have the prostitute come to one's home or to have them work out of a brothel, but one of the two is). However, it means that he can't depict them as people. He says he's had a lot of interesting conversations with them about their lives and the philosophy of the business and that he thinks they're mostly happy people who chose their jobs freely and like their work: well, okay, he can say that, but the burden of proof is on him, and he does not give enough detail for me to really believe him. In addition, the no-identifying-details thing has the effect of making the women feel interchangeable and adds to the aura that is traditionally associated with prostitution, that customers treat prostitutes as inhuman and interchangeable commodities. I think there must have been a line between giving information that could identify these women and paring down what they had to say quite this thoroughly.
Also, he gives some very good reasons for wanting prostitution to be both legal and unregulated (legal because then prostitutes will be able to get better health care and call law enforcement more easily; unregulated so that the kind of punitive licensing one gets in Nevada doesn't come into play and produce a black market). But he is operating from a position of privilege, serious privilege: he is the consumer, he is a white male with the money in this equation, and he simply does not seem to understand the kind of societal pressure that can drive women into prostitution when it is not the work they want to be doing. He does not understand the relentless pressure put on women by society to be beautiful and desirable; he does not understand the dynamics of the abusive relationship that can develop between a woman and her pimp (just because she may think of him as a boyfriend doesn't mean he can't be exploiting her; I get the impression that Brown is the sort of person who does not understand why people do not instantly leave any relationship that has become abusive, and the reasons why not of course begin with the physical problems of violence); he literally denies the existence of trafficking. Which just. I don't even. Trafficking? Is a major, serious issue, has been forever, isn't going away any time soon.
This is the most interesting mixture of the sex-positive and the wrongheaded. I mean he goes through and tries to analyze whether any of the women he slept with might have been trafficked: well and good, that's a reasonable thing to do, and he concludes that he doesn't think any of them were. Fair enough. He's buying fairly expensive prostitutes in Canada. The odds of them being were low. Cheaper, on the other hand, or in some other places-- What I am saying here is that the author has the flaw of generalizing from his personal experience to universals. He also does not, I think, understand quite how much these women have invested in keeping him happy and in saying what he wants to hear. (Their physical safety is riding on it, as is the economics of the current transaction and the chance of a repeat customer. One thing a lot of the memoirs I have read by prostitutes agree on is that you never tell a customer you don't like the life, because it never goes well, the very best thing that can happen is that they get rescue fantasies and the worst doesn't bear thinking about.)
As a result, I think this is actually a very good memoir, because it demonstrates the mindset-- the things that one needs to think about, the things that one needs to be in denial about-- of a person who is a regular john. And as I said that isn't a kind of book that crops up, much. It's very interesting to get a chance to look into the head of somebody who does this.
Just be aware, it's quite a dense set of things to wade through and consider; I want to yell at him about at least half of it and throw various other books at him. Which of course also makes it a successful book.