Discussion Topic

Chester Brown's depiction and normalization of sex work in Paying for It

Summary:

In Paying for It, Chester Brown depicts and normalizes sex work by presenting his own experiences with sex workers in a straightforward and non-judgmental manner. He challenges societal stigmas and portrays sex work as a legitimate and consensual transaction, focusing on the mutual respect and autonomy of the individuals involved.

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How does Chester Brown depict sex work in his graphic novel Paying for it?

Several elements of Chester Brown’s autobiographical graphic novel Paying For It suggest that prostitution is not shady and is just like any other occupation. For instance, one element that plays a big role in humanizing this profession is dialogue. Recall how nervous Brown is before his first time with a woman working in prostitution. He, like so many other people, has been socialized to assume prostitution is a sketchy profession full of people who are trying to steal from people like him. He even checks under the bed in the room to make sure no one is hiding under there. Despite his fears, his first interaction with Carla goes smoothly and they interact politely with one another. She expresses interest in what he does for a living and makes him feel comfortable. Then when he tips her she says, “You’re an angel—thanks so much. I just moved and that eats up money, so this will really come in handy.” By including this line, Brown shows how people working in prostitution are just like everybody else, working to pay to support their normal needs.

Brown also draws realistic illustrations to normalize the occupation. For instance, he depicts his own nude form and awkward moments of intercourse to suggest that what is happening is natural. This underscores that prostitution is just like any other sexual interaction. Brown’s depiction of prostitution opposes traditional representations of the occupation in literature and pop culture, which tend to criminalize, criticize, or fetishize sex work.

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How does Chester Brown depict sex work in his graphic novel Paying for it?

One of the defining (and, to many readers, alarming) characteristics of Chester Brown’s autobiographical graphic novel Paying For It is its vivid depictions of sexual intercourse. Brown aims to normalize paying for sex and deconstructs stigmas about it. The illustrations help him normalize sex because they do not feature anything out of the ordinary that would not happen outside of sex work. They actually depict many awkward encounters that are common in unpaid sex. For example, when he first is intimate with Angelina he includes thought bubbles above his head to show that he is thinking about what will happen next. He also uses a mix of aerial shots and close-up shots to show the reader exactly what the experience was like. These images, like so many others in the book, make the encounter seem cold, awkward, and impersonal. There is nothing special or passionate about what happens, but the details in the illustrations do make it seem realistic. Consider the image in which Brown observes Angelina's cellulite, or how he asks her name when he is putting his clothes back on. Small details like these in the illustrations make the characters and their experiences seem quite believable.

In addition to normalizing sex work, Brown also suggests that paying for it is in many ways better than having sex in a relationship. Recall how he says:

"It's because I do see sex as sacred and potentially spiritual that I believe in commercializing it and making this potentially holy experience more easily available to all."

Here, Brown argues that the satisfaction he finds in sex should be commodified. Throughout the book, he feels that the emotional complexities of relationships make unpaid sex difficult to enjoy and thinks commercializing sex would combat this issue. This perspective is evident in his illustrations of sex, which are all set in empty rooms with faceless women. In a feature on the book, writer Noah Berlatsky explains that the intimate encounters in these scenes are intentionally “joyless” and full of “repetitive predictability.” In removing everything but the physical act of sex from his images, Brown suggests that sex should just be about physical pleasure and that paying for it makes that physical pleasure easier to attain.

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How does Chester Brown depict sex work in his graphic novel Paying for it?

Chester Brown shows that sex work is a legitimate profession through his interactions with the prostitutes that he patronizes. Brown’s experiences are mindful. He treats the women conscientiously and tries to account for their feelings. At certain moments, he’ll check in with them to make sure they're all right. For example, when he thinks he might be hurting Angelina, he asks her if they should use a lubricant.

Such exchanges highlight the validity and compassion that constitute Brown’s experiences with prostitutes. For Brown, the stigma that surrounds the women’s profession doesn’t mean that he should treat them differently than other professionals.

Of course, Brown isn’t so sure about the legitimacy and humanity of sex work at first. Initially, he suspects that the stereotypes might be true. He fears that he could be robbed or cheated in some way. Soon, he realizes the business is upfront and honest. With some prostitutes, he shares his real name. Brown tells Anne his actual name and brings her one of his comics. Their close bond underscores the personal aspect that can be a part of sex work.

Anne’s story also draws attention to the issue of exploitation and force. Anne tells how she got into sex work. She wasn’t pressured or made to do it against her will. A friend suggested she try it out. She worked with the friend for a little while, then she moved onto a different place.

Anne’s trajectory shows how sex work can function like other legitimate professions. A doctor can work for different hospitals, a teacher can work for different schools, and a sex worker can work out of different spaces. As in other professions, Anne can set her hours. Anne doesn't like working nights, so she works afternoons.

Business for Anne can be slow, but overall it seems like Anne and the women make enough money for basic necessities. They’re not necessarily rich, but, as Edith says, they’re doing “okay.”

Another way that Brown tackles the legitimacy and humanity of sex work is by conceding the problems. Anne doesn’t like working at night because clients tend to be drunk. Yet the presence of issues doesn’t mean that sex work should be delegitimized. After all, most jobs have problems.

In the appendices, Brown continues to address debates around sex workers, sex slaves, and choice. Using scholarly texts and case studies, Brown argues that women should be free to choose their profession. He contends that resources and laws should be applied in such a way that reflects the dignity of sex workers and the specific demands of their job.

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How do Chester Brown's illustrations in Paying For It help normalize sex work?

In his autobiographical graphic novel Paying For It, Chester Brown aims to deconstruct negative stereotypes about sex work. For instance, he wants to show that women who work in prostitution are not dangerous or suspicious; they are just like everyone else working to pay for their expenses. He also wants to show that having sex that you pay for is just as normal as having sex and not paying for it. One way he does this is through illustrations of his own naked body. He makes himself vulnerable and expresses his awkward thoughts, from wondering when to take off his shoes to wondering whether or not to use more lubrication in intimate moments. These close-up and personal moments are quite different from typical depictions of prostitution in popular culture, which tend to fetishize or criminalize it.

For example, consider the scene in which he tries to “last longer” with Carla, and she gets frustrated and says she is in pain. In this scene, like many others, Brown does not shy away from the awkwardness of physical intimacy and aims to portray it as accurately as possible. Afterwards, he draws himself lying in bed wondering how he should approach his next encounter with her. The illustrations of physical problems in this scene and the images of him reflecting on them afterwards are quite common experiences that help him normalize sex work.

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