The Prostitution Institution demystified: an open response to “Paying for It”
The following is a review and response to Paying for It: a true-to-life cartoonist memoir by Chester Brown of his personal experience with paid intercourse, discussions on the legalization and decriminalization of prostitution, and a sincere philosophical search for the meaning of romantic love.
Reading Paying for It was definitely one of the more thought-provoking experiences I’ve had this year. It’s barely been twelve hours since I put the book down and I’ve mentally gone over Chester Brown’s arguments dozens of times. That’s because the material he leaves us to think on is, at least for me, engaging and often affecting stuff. And I like to think it won’t just be me, because the actual memoir part of the book – the true-life story of how Brown grew out of “romantic love” and started seeing prostitutes – is as open and honest a memoir as can be. It’s not in itself an argument for the lifestyle he chose, even though there are more than a few scenes of him debating it. It’s a sincere, candid account of what happened, how it happened and why, and though he obscures real-life details on brothel addresses and personal details of the many call girls, his honesty on the experience, especially the emotional aspect, is nothing if not commendable.
It may be odd to consider emotions in Paying for It, as Brown, an immensely skilled cartoonist, opts to draw his characters this time round with stagnant, expressionless faces. The most we ever see to indicate facial emotion is a few tears from his last girlfriend; we do not even see her lip curl into a frown, nor do we ever see anyone in the book smile. This is not at all typical practice for Brown (read any of his other works, including the Louis Riel book he mentions in the memoir, to witness his mastery at portraying expression). This is a conscious choice, but still, emotion is there. Brown’s arguments with his friends over his new lifestyle grow heated, dipping into sarcasm and accusation. Brown himself never shies away from telling us about the pleasure of his incalls, the repulsion and subsequent guilt he’d feel when rejecting certain call girls, and the heavy emptiness that at times would catch up to him. And the one ongoing thread the story has is Brown’s honest confusion and frustration over romantic love; he gives the full details of how his notions on it and its significance changed, and shows the experiences that led him to rethink his initial opposition of romance and forge a new way of viewing the romantic ideal.
That’s what makes the memoir so digestible. Even if you disagree with him – or simply find him uptight and preachy – during his arguments on prostitution, he bares all to his audience, and so there is no mystery to how and why he feels so strongly on the topic.
As a result, I imagine that Brown’s memoir, taken alone, won’t change anyone’s mind on the subject of legalizing prostitution. Yes, he is sincere and often sympathetic, but he makes no pretense of his reasons being deeper or more important than anyone’s. If you believe in chastity, there’s nothing here that argues against it. If you fear that most prostitutes are mistreated, then Brown knowingly provides limited assurance on that, taking counter-examples only from his personal experience and even disclosing moments that suggest some of his callgirls – including ones he enjoyed multiple times – came from shady backgrounds.
And boy, I can imagine that, if not for the hype and acclaim this book’s received, owed in no small part to the deserved reputation Brown’s built for himself, lots of women are going to read this with the red flag of misogyny going up from time to time. Yes, Brown is shown to have healthy relationships with women – both callgirls and female friends – but he’s liberal when it comes to sex, and while he never treats callgirls as less than human, his attitude towards many of them is based foremost on the sexual service they can give. He gets fewer and fewer qualms over rejecting girls he finds unattractive (by pretty high standards). And it’s only those who satisfy him that he ends up having real conversations with; at one point, he makes an incall to a girl who is both interested and knowledgeable of a book he’s reading, yet he only thinks of how the sex with her comes up short. Each chapter of the book, outside of the first and last, is named after a callgirl he visits, and while some he sees until circumstances prevent otherwise, others he moves through pretty quickly, the shortest chapter taking a mere three panels.
For guys, as much as the book can challenge you, it’ll still be easy to laugh off some of the more flippant scenes. I’m sure it’ll be much harder for women, especially those not used to looking at sex so liberally, and I can’t blame them for that. Nor can I at all blame Chester Brown for presenting everything in stark detail. Again, the importance of the memoir is that Brown has candidly told us how he came to be invested in the long-standing debate on prostitution, leading the reader to rethink his own investment on the issue.
And once you have decided to rethink your investment – or simply even your interest – in it, then you can delve past the memoir and into the last hundred pages of Paying for It, which contain the numerous appendices and notes holding the actual refined arguments that Brown has prepared. Yes, the annotations make it clear that Brown is aiming for this to be a political book after all, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Once more, this is a tell-all, and I think the divorce of his arguments from the actual memoir is a smart, practical way of allowing the reader maximum enjoyment from this experience. There is no need to slog through too many arguments to enjoy the story, and when you do feel like reading his arguments, he’s arranged them in a format as digestible as the memoir, complete with citations and easy-to-follow page references. Brown is honest enough to include not only his own thoughts, but the thoughts of others, and so it is clear that though he is mostly set in his views, he expects and understands heavy opposition on certain points.
Decriminalization versus Legalization
For the record, I’m all for prostitution becoming legitimate. I’ve held that stance for a long time, and my beliefs essentially echo what Brown’s appendices have compiled, so I won’t get into it here – it boils down to tolerance, personal freedom, and minimizing black market-related violence by pushing forward a legitimate market in its stead.
Where I depart from Brown is in the finer points of how it should be legitimized, and one discussion he emphasizes is whether prostitution should be legislated or merely decriminalized. Brown is heavily on the side of decriminalization, and believes that legalizing and therefore regulating prostitution invades freedom, hinders expression, and potentially encourages the black markets to remain active since not all prostitutes will want to be registered. He asks how it makes sense to regulate prostitution when other personal pursuits, like his cartooning and artistry, remain private endeavors. He suggests that unless the rights of another are infringed in a practice, the government should have no part in it. A specific case he brings up on the downsides of legalization is the situation in Nevada, wherein regulated prostitution prevents prostitutes from traveling freely outside brothels unless accompanied by law enforcement, with all additional expenses borne by them.
He has valid points, and certainly if a practice is regulated unfairly, then it would be much better to have no regulation at all (mere decriminalization). However, if we are to assume there is the possibility of fair, helpful regulation by the government for the best interests of those being licensed, then I think there are several pitfalls to non-regulation that Brown doesn’t address.
Control by Corporate Entities
If prostitution falls out of the hands of the government, then it can easily fall into the hands of big business. People may be able to prostitute freely, but large capitalist institutions will arise to recruit “premium” prostitutes and market them efficiently. Brown himself makes clear that, to him, quality of the sexual service and attractiveness of the callgirl is a major factor, and I doubt anyone would disagree with that. A significant percentage of most countries’ population would gladly pay the premium, and so a big prostitution company would be appealing not only to customers, but to the prostitutes as well. They’d view recruitment by the company as the best way to receive premium payments for their service regularly.
But such a company can impose their own set of regulations that “legitimately” persecute and hinder the rights of their workers – who’d be contractually obligated to submit to it. The situation described by Brown in Nevada may be a result of government regulation, but it could – and definitely would – be just as easily adopted by businessmen of a prostitution company looking to control their assets. In the Philippines, one of the largest employers mistreats its rank and file workers by requiring them to wear uniforms and apply makeup that they themselves must purchase out of salaries already at minimum wage; it’s part of their contract and they have no way around it, and they’ll stick with the company because it could still be seen as the best or only option. Businesses prioritize profit and wealth, and become very protective of their assets to that regard. Given how extremely profitable prostitution would be, it’s easy to imagine how worrying related corporate practices could become.
If government regulation entered the picture, specific laws could be set against prostitution becoming too corporate-controlled, limiting contractual stipulations and protecting sex workers’ rights. Yes, this would in turn encourage a black market that could adopt the same unethical practices suggested above, but if legal, easily-accessible prostitution exists anyway, demand for the black market would go down. A lot of it again comes down to the tricky point of whether governments can be trusted to regulate fairly. It will depend on the country, but on average, I’d say you could trust governments over big business.
Effect on Coercive Trafficking
Then there’s sex trafficking, which Brown does address, but not to a satisfying degree. He points to research indicating that sex trafficking makes up only four percent of all human trafficking, and that most trafficking is to benefit illegal immigrants looking for work. I wouldn’t immediately contradict these figures, but any such account is subject to strong reporting bias. Not only are the real figures unrecorded, but any figures released by governments of developing countries involved in trafficking are questionable, as they may intend to control the perceptions of public performance. The concern, however, is not on what the real figures may be, but what effect the decriminalization of prostitution would have.
Decriminalization would logically make sex trafficking operations more difficult to uncover. Once they have brought sex-slaves into the country, they can institute call services with less fear of investigation. Coercive measures would then allow the operation to appear completely legitimate on the surface, the slaves forced to pretend they were brought in with consent. Slaves may have the right to report these operations to the government thanks to decriminalization, but coercion would prevent the opportunity. There’s also the factor of taking advantage of slaves’ impressionableness and lack of education, a very real concern with people taken from certain countries – including my own. Government regulation would make investigation into these matters easier, as all operations would be subjected to discerning how the sex workers were recruited.
Difficulties of Health-Monitoring
Brown feels strongly on the matter of regulation calling for regular check-ups to detect possible STDs in licensed prostitutes. He believes that a person’s health is his or her own business, and that’s a hard general point to argue against. Then again, going back to the point of big business, regular check-ups would probably become mandatory for workers anyway in large prostitution companies, as in other contractual institutions. Removing the “business problem”, though, would still leave the problem of ignorance and lack of education. This is a tricky subject, but decriminalization would allow anyone, including the young, the impoverished, and the uneducated to engage in unsafe sexual intercourse with multiple partners. My senior Economics thesis was on the relationship of Income Inequality to HIV Spread, and one of the transmissive mechanisms found significant was indeed risky sexual behavior, including the taking of multiple partners whether through prostitution or otherwise. Also a significant mechanism was the lack of social capital, which relates to the spread of necessary information through a culture, including basic education on sexual practice, and with HIV rates growing because of these mechanisms, it does sound logical for governments to do something about it.
Requiring regular check-ups would not prevent anyone from practicing prostitution, it would simply educate and inform all parties to a worker’s health – and the potential danger of STDs. But I admit, this is a tricky one, and while my gut tells me it would be better, especially in developing countries of information asymmetry, to require check-ups, it’s not entirely justifiable. After all, risky sexual behavior also includes unsafe homosexual intercourse, and I’d never ask the government to require regular check-ups on all homosexuals.
Practicing decriminalized prostitution without being properly informed on the consequences of liberal intercourse leads me to another issue: the underage sex-worker. In his memoir, Brown meets multiple callgirls whom he suspects to be underage, even though their given age is legal. His suspicions are incorrect in the case of one, but there is nothing at all to suggest this would always be the case. Suffice it to say, sometimes it can often be hard to tell whether a worker is underage or not, and with decriminalization, no investigation into the matter would be enforced, and underage prostitutes would logically become far more abundant. That leads to a whole other discussion on, among other things, the necessity of a “legal age” for prostitution, but I rest the point there; legalization and regulation would naturally lessen the underage practice, and decriminalization would naturally increase it.
The Sexual Double-Standard in the Modern World
The ideological point Brown makes is that applying legalization to prostitution would be a double standard. Why on prostitution as opposed to other occupations that involve individual expression, like cartooning? But Brown himself places a double standard in his appendices of sorts, talking about the intimacy and sacredness of sexual activity and how that should be reason for prostitutes being exempt from taxation and other such legislations.
Personally, I do believe that for now, in the current modernized side of the world, a firm double standard placed on sexual activity is justified. I just feel – in present society – that it’s a murkily-lined practice to get into. However it came to be, it remains that most people of developed (and even a number of undeveloped) nations view sex differently from any other activity. I’m not just talking about prudes who’d discourage pre-marital sex; even those who liberally engage in sex, whether for affection or the thrill of it, place a stronger gravitas on it than most other activities they engage in. It is the province of baser Id impulses (for lack of a better term) that we are less likely to restrain or control, even when we know better. Whether or not that is a product of societal development, such is the nature of the current world and many current societies. I imagine many will not be able to afford sex the same intellectual dissociation that Chester Brown does, and I just can’t imagine that suddenly making prostitution legitimate will remove our baser behavior towards it, that we will suddenly treat it with the same restraint and “maturity” (if you will) as other allowed activities. Maybe in the future we will, but right now, I don’t think we can.
And I talk about the “right now” because for many societies, the question of whether prostitution should be legalized or decriminalized should be a “right now” topic. It might not deserve to be at the top of every governmental agenda, but it deserves attention and discussion, both from those involved and those not. For good reason, the oldest profession isn’t going away.