Chester Brown is an award-winning Toronto cartoonist who wrote the graphic memoir Paying For It, which chronicles his experiences as a john after deciding that relationships are too much trouble.
Stephen Elliott described Paying For It in a Daily Rumpus email as “concise and packed with meaning—the best book I’ve ever read about sex work, and I’ve read a lot of them.” The following is a clipped version of David Henry Sterry’s interview with Brown, which appears in Johns, Marks, Tricks and Chickenhawks, a book on sex-work professionals and their clients edited by Sterry and R. J. Martin, Jr.
The Rumpus: I’m talking to Chester Brown. So you wrote the book Paying For It. Which was about paying for It—it being sex, of course. So I was curious about something. I’ve been trying to get men to talk about paying for sex, and it seems like at this time in history, it’s much easier for people to admit that they sell sex then that they buy sex. I wondered if you had any thoughts about why you think that is.
Chester Brown: Obviously there’s a stigma against both. I would think it would be about equal. But I suppose it’s obvious why there are guys who don’t want to come forward.
Rumpus: Why do you think that is?
Brown: Maybe it’s the idea of what you’re supposed to be like as a man, and, of course, most people who pay for sex are men. Although there are some women who do, but, yeah, it’s this idea that men are supposed to be able to get sex if they want without paying for it. You’re supposed to be able to seduce women or be appealing in some way, and if you’re not able to do those things, if you’re not able to get sex without paying for it, you’re not the sort of man our culture thinks you should be. I’ve certainly heard guys say, “I don’t have to pay for it,” as if that’s some kind of significant thing.
Rumpus: Yeah, I’ve heard the exact same thing from so many men that I’ve asked. They puff up their chests and say, “Hey dude, I never had to pay for it!”
Brown: Also, it occurs to me that there’s been a relatively recent tendency in the media to see prostitutes as victims and johns as exploiters. I don’t think most prostitutes see themselves as victims or see their clients as exploiters, but that way of seeing prostitutes and johns is pretty common now outside of sex-work circles, and it’s more shameful to be the exploiter than the exploited.
Rumpus: So what was your first experience, buying sex?
Brown: I think it was late ’99. No, no, no—early ’99. I’d gone without sex for a couple of years. My girlfriend, my last girlfriend, had broken up with me, and a few years passed, and finally I was so sexually frustrated that I decided to go ahead and pay for it. It was at a brothel here in Toronto. It turned out to be a really positive experience with a very nice woman who was very attractive. It was such a positive experience that I was sold on the lifestyle or whatever you want to call it. There was no turning back. I don’t know what would have happened if that first time hadn’t been as positive as it was.
Rumpus: And what was this woman like?
Brown: Like a lot of prostitutes, she was very good socially. She had good conversational skills, and she was chatty, but not too chatty. She could initiate a conversation if there wasn’t one going on, or, you know, she just knew how to talk and make me feel comfortable, and a lot of that isn’t in the book because I didn’t feel…Actually, a lot of what she told me was stuff about her family and, you know, personal stuff. It got personal really quickly, which surprised me. I thought these women would be more guarded, but she told me a lot about herself that I couldn’t put in the book. Her willingness to be open put me at ease.
Rumpus: I’ve noticed that the best sex workers that I’ve purchased sex from have a way of just making you feel at ease and comfortable.
Brown: Yeah, yeah.
Rumpus: I guess that’s true in almost all sorts of service industries, like from a psychiatrist to a nurse to a bartender. The best in their field, they just make you feel like you can let your guard down, because they let their guard down a little bit. It’s kind of a fascinating dynamic.
Rumpus: So did you see that woman again? Or was this just a one-time thing?
Brown: I saw her three times. And unfortunately, there was a little bit of an uncomfortable situation the third time. I guess I just going on a bit too long sexually, and she didn’t like it. There was a bit of poor communication. I didn’t quite get what was going on. So unfortunately, things ended on kind of a strange note between us, and I didn’t see her again. I didn’t want to go back because it had been a bit uncomfortable and strange. You know, I see one woman regularly now.
Brown: And if something like that happened with her—I call her Denise in the book, so I’ll call her that for this interview too—if something like that happened with Denise, we would probably be able to deal with it because our relationship has been going on longer. Plus, I was new to paying for sex, and probably, if I was seeing someone for the first time now, I’d know how to handle an awkward situation like that better.
Rumpus: I also think that’s one of the—I hesitate to say pleasures, but advantages to having a relationship with a professional like that is that you get to walk away with honor. There’s no expectation. Because you paid for it. Whereas with civilians, you’re invested in this relationship, there’s a social contract that says you can’t just walk away after most civilian sex.
Brown: Yeah, that’s true, although, as I said, I’m paying only Denise for sex now, and it’s been years. I couldn’t just walk away now.
Brown: If I did want to end the relationship with Denise, for whatever reason, we would have to have a conversation about it. Not that I’m thinking of ending it, I’m very happy in it, but it’s not a casual relationship anymore. It’s not casual the way a prostitute-john relationship would be if you saw each other once or a few times.
Rumpus: So do you find that a different quality in the sex that you have in civilian sex than professional sex?
Brown: Huh. Well the best unpaid sex, where you and the woman are really into each other, and there’s a lot of really intense passion, and things are really hot between you…I’ve never had that kind of sex when I was paying for it. The best unpaid sex is going to be, I think, more passionate and more hot than the best paid sex. The best paid sex can still be really great and really intense, but, you know, without the emotional passion there, it’s not going to be quite at the same level as the best unpaid sex.
Rumpus: Yeah, I agree with that. But sometimes sex workers have the most amazing skills. I enjoy that.
Brown: That’s true. The best blowjobs I’ve had have been from prostitutes.
Rumpus: Yes, I’d say that’s true, and I have a large data pool to pull from. Has there been any fallout from you coming out about being a john, about paying for it, from friends, family, or people online?
Brown: Not that I can tell. No real negative fallout. I mean, certainly not all my friends or family think what I’m doing is good, they might have a somewhat negative take on prostitution, but it seems like they’re all still willing to hang out with me. No one has shunned me or shut me out of their lives. The relatives that I thought might have the most negative take on it still seem to love me.
Rumpus: You mentioned that for the last eight years you’ve only paid one woman for sex.
Brown: That’s right. The first time Denise and I had sex would’ve been back in 2003, and in early 2004, I started seeing her exclusively. Although, at that point, back in 2004, I had no idea I’d still be having sex with her eight years later. She’s managed to keep me fascinated all this time. I’m never tempted to call anyone else or search for anyone else. And she’s basically left the profession. She stopped seeing other clients several years ago. And she doesn’t have a boyfriend; she’s monogamous with me. But I do still pay her for sex.
Rumpus: And do you ever have to explain this to like civilians that you are dating or anything?
Brown: To civilians that I’m dating?
Brown: No. I don’t date civilians. I don’t even try. I’m totally out of the game of dating or trying to get a girlfriend or anything like that. I’m very happy with the situation I’m in with Denise. I’m not looking to get married or anything like that. I’m just a john now. I’m going to be paying for sex for the rest of my life.
Rumpus: That’s very interesting. It’s definitely outside the norm. As a society, we’re programmed so that at a certain age, you have to have a girlfriend, you have to have a wife, you have to have a kid, you have to have a house. These things seem so arbitrary to me, but it’s like our culture wants us desperately to fall into this mold of conventional relationships.
Brown: Well, after my last girlfriend broke up with me, I looked at how our relationship had gone and how my previous relationships had gone, and even though those girlfriends had all been very nice women, I realized that I did not like being a boyfriend. I didn’t like that role, so I thought I had to figure out some other way to, you know, have sex. And I much prefer paying for sex to being a boyfriend.
Rumpus: What didn’t you like about being a boyfriend?
Brown: A lot of things. When you’re in a relationship, the dynamic seems to change over time. I only had two long-term girlfriends, but with both of them, as time went on, the sex tapered off in terms of frequency. We had sex less and less often. And talking with friends or whatever, hearing other people’s stories, that seems to be the case with a lot of romantic relationships. You know, if a relationship has gone on for five or six years, that couple is not having as much sex as they were at the beginning of the relationship. In a lot of marriages, the sex stops altogether. So that’s a very common thing, even if they still like each other. And I just didn’t feel free. I felt like I was reporting to someone else all the time, accountable to them. Like if I wanted to buy something expensive, I had to get permission from her. Another thing was, I felt like when I was in a romantic relationship, I was responsible for the other person’s happiness, and maybe that’s my own peculiarity, but I didn’t like that feeling. You can’t be everything for another person.
Rumpus: I find myself overwhelmed by that from time to time. There are many cultures, contemporary and historically, where the social norm is for a married person to have a spouse and then to have a lover who tends to be more the sexual partner than the spouse. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for us North Americans.
Brown: Yeah, well, that’s one way other cultures have handled it, but there’s also polygamy.
Brown: There are a lot of cultures where it was normal for a guy to have multiple wives.
Brown: I don’t think our system, where we have one romantic partner, where we get married and we’re only supposed to have sex with one person—that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Not that polygamy makes any more sense. I’ve found a system that seems to work for me, and it doesn’t require monogamous commitment from anyone. I think the big problem is what I call “possessive monogamy.” I think we should have a lot more freedom in our sexual lives. We should stop making monogamous commitments. Trying to get your sexual partner to make a monogamous commitment to you is not a loving thing to do; it’s selfish. Having said that, though, I have been monogamous for the last eight years with Denise, and it’s working for me. But one of the reasons it works is because there isn’t any heavy pressure on the relationship.