And here's the big wrap-up to this week's discussion of PAYING FOR IT! I hope you relished it as much as I.
Question 5: And then my last question for you is “Did the argument work for you, or change your thinking on this issue whatsoever?” I mention this because that while I really didn’t much like the underlying book, I’m fairly naturally inclined to be on Brown’s side on this. I live in San Francisco, and, of course we’re known for liberal positions on sex, and I’m all for sex work to be very legal, but I also want to be sure that the workers are safe and healthy and well cared for and compensated. And that almost certainly entails some kind of regulation because humans are messy messy creatures. I’ve never seen a prostitute, and really don’t want to (heck, even the one time I was in a strip club [in Portland, to pick up a keg of beer for a party] I thought it was one of the most dehumanizing experiences of my life -- I can’t even imagine what sex would be like in that kind of transactional way), but I certainly support the underlying notion that consenting informed adults should be able to do much of what they want to with their own bodies. Brown didn’t sway me away from my view of “regulation is needed”, however. I don’t know if you’re closer or farther from me, but did this book change your perception, even fractionally?
ABHAY: Do I think that romantic love and marriage are evil institutions which we should replace with widespread prostitution? No. No, I think he’s fucked in the head. You know, congratulations to the guy for finding something that works for him, but I’m not attending any church that tithes by the half-hour. As for his other, less obviously batshit arguments-- I thought he had a good response for “wouldn’t you-as-a-kid be ashamed of adult-you.” The rest are a blur already, though. When I do bad things, I just do bad things and be a bad person, and I say to myself “well, whatever works,” and that’s good enough for me...? If I take music off the internet (hypothetically), I don’t spend my time trying to make idiotic arguments about the RIAA being evil, in some weird attempt to make myself feel better about being a fucking thief. I’m too busy listening to free music and enjoying the sweet, sweet fruits of crime. Hypothetically. Brown really reminded me of those people, the “I’m not stealing-- I’m sticking it to the RIAA” crowd, so shrilly insistent on their nobility, even though no one really cares how noble they are and plus they get to listen to free music. See also, potheads who say things like “it comes from the Earth.” So do tarantulas. Theft, hookers, strippers, drugs, arson-- those things should just be their own rewards.
TUCKER: I do think the way prostitutes and sex workers get treated is fucked, and should be changed. I thought that it should be legalized before I read Paying For It, and I still feel that way after reading it. On the subject of regulation--I just feel like that’s a waste of my time to engage with. Do I think aliens should be allowed to come to Earth? Sure I do. But I’m not going to continue that thought experiment past that “sure I do” and start coming up with a bunch of future magic rules regarding these visits, because it’s a pointless exercise. If Chester Brown cares that much about sex workers and legalization, let him continue on the roads to changing the rules surrounding it, and let him propose various kinds of regulatory or non-regulatory solutions to those legalized prostitutes who live in the future. I’ve got my own pet issues that I worry about and donate money to and wish more people cared about, and I’m content to focus on those.
JEFF: I think trying to argue for the legalization of sex work by talking about a john’s experience is absolutely 100% the wrong way to argue for it, but it seems to be the approach johns go for, time and again. I’m no expert on the subject, but hasn’t it been pretty definitively established that any culture in which sex work is illegal punishes the workers much harder than they do the customers? Even in states here in the U.S. where johns have their pictures telecast on late night TV, that’s nothing compared to the women who end up even more openly shamed, charged with crimes, and just generally shat on. Arguing that sex work is legal because it would make the lives of johns easier is such a fucked up and entitled argument. It sounds like someone arguing for the more humane treatment of animals in slaughterhouses because it’ll make the food taste better.
And maybe that’s why Brown assembles everything into PAYING FOR IT in the way he does: he believes any dude will gladly pay for sex if we can just get rid of the social stigma, the restrictive laws, and the lie of romantic love. Therefore, if he can appeal to men about the benefits of legalized prostitution, the world will change for the better (because men are the ones who run the world and they’re going to be the ones who will make the change, right?), not just for johns, but for sex workers as well. I dunno.
I do think that by showing sex work from the point of view of a john, he makes some stellar points why people should not engage in sex work. Although he doesn’t dwell on it, Brown goes from a guy who tips at every encounter to a guy who thinks, in mid-coitus, “Unfriendly, not very pretty, no blow job -- no tip for this one.” He starts as a guy who thinks, “In the future, I’ll try to limit myself to ten minutes of sex in a thirty minute appointment,” and becomes Mr. “That she seems to be in pain is kind of a turn-on for me, but I also feel bad for her. I’m gonna cut this short and come quickly.” [Emphasis is mine.] When our encounters with fellow human beings become economic transactions, bit by bit we unlearn what’s important about interacting with other people -- and what’s important is literally, just that, interacting with other people -- and begin making sure the economic transaction is worth our money.
The point of paying for it is to make sure we get what we want, but over time the human interaction in sex work becomes something beside the point, as we slip down the rabbit hole of obsession and fetish. Maybe Brown didn’t continue exploring the path of “hey, I really enjoy hurting women while having sex,” but I think it’s safe to assume there are johns in the same situation who would and have: because the other person’s say in it is already (at least partially) compromised by the money, and your sense of compassion is already that much more eroded by all your transactions -- you’ve already gone from “In the future, I’ll to try limit myself...” to “...and come quickly.”
Another problem with turning human interaction into an economic transaction is it further distorts and complicates human beings’ ability to be honest with one another. Sex workers will sometimes not want to have sex with you, just as lovers will not always want to have sex at the same time, but a sex worker will not be the lover that pushes your hand away and tells you why it’s not going to happen. Sex workers have to have sex, because that’s what they do. It doesn’t stop there, as we all know: sex workers have to have sex when they don’t want to have sex, and most of them feel pressured by various forces (the money, the view of themselves as good at what they do, the knowledge you will not come as quickly if you don’t think they are enjoying themselves) to convince you they really want to have sex and they want to have it with you.
We pay a price as human beings when we force ourselves to go so heavily against everything we’ve been hardwired to feel. Many soldiers suffer from PTSD when they go, again and again, into the place in themselves that requires them to survive, to act contrary to every instinct that is telling them to flee. And I think it is the same for many sex workers who force themselves to act contrary to every instinct and become something for you to fuck, again and again, no matter how they really feel about it.
Most of us get depressed when we have to smile at the asshole at the other end of the counter and all he’s doing is saying something incredibly stupid about who’s stronger, Hulk or Thor, or when we have to laugh at something our stupid boss tells us. That horrible fake smile the check out person at the grocery store gives us when they hand us our change? The look in their eyes that reveals they dislike you deeply while they’re thanking you for their business? Brown thinks a future where being greeted by that smile and that look when we open the door to our bedroom is a really good one. He doesn’t mind a world where we’re depressed about smiling or laughing, because he’s free of the burden of working up the confidence to talk to an attractive woman. It seems like a spectacularly bad trade to me.
For a guy who insists that he sees sex as a deeply spiritual, Brown apparently doesn’t believe in a spirituality that requires personal sacrifice -- or as he puts it when one of his prostitutes argues for romance, “Yeah, effort. Romantic love is work. Call me lazy, but I don’t want to do the work.” Although I feel sex work should be legalized and regulated, there’s a lot to recommend the world of effort -- where even when we fail to connect, we learn something about ourselves, about other people, about the way the world works. Otherwise, we all risk becoming whores, not in the “sex for money” way of it, but in the way Henry Miller defined it in Tropic of Cancer, in the way I thought of the term when I saw Chester Brown’s face at the back of his book, his kind and not-unhandsome face which many women wouldn’t require payment to caress (unlike some of the damaged and ugly people who would never know intimacy if they weren’t willing to pay), his satisfied, reptilian face that would rather pay for it than get to know a woman he didn’t find attractive, or work to keep loving a woman he did:
Germaine was a whore all the way through, even down to her good heart, her whore’s heart which is not really a good heart but a lazy one, an indifferent, flaccid heart that can be touched for a moment, a heart without reference to any fixed point within, a big, flaccid whore’s heart that can detach itself for a moment from its true center. However vile and circumscribed was that world she had created for herself, nevertheless she functioned in it superbly.