My Review of Paying For It: A comic-Strip Memoir about Being a John, and prostitution in China

Paying For It is a graphic novel by Canadian comic artist Chester Brown, detailing his experience of having paid sex with prostitutes. Actually it is a graphic memoir. And graphic indeed: his penis looms large in many of the panels.

A friend thoughtfully bought for me after I told him that I am completing a novel about prostitution.

The book begins in 1996 when the author’s living-in girlfriend breaks up with him as she falls in love with someone else. Instead of struggling with emotional turmoil (well, most of us experience such ordeal when going through break-ups), Brown is left with a practical dilemma: how to satisfy his sexual desire while refusing to pursue a romantic relationship. Well, the answer is obvious: frequenting prostitutes.

So the artist takes us to a journey of sexual adventure. In five years time, he sleeps with dozens of prostitutes, Carla, Anne, Wendy, Yvette, Anne, Jolene, Larissa, Angelina, Kitty, Gwendolyn . . . and finally Denis (not their real names, of course). One chapter is dedicated to each of them.

Between the sessions, Brown fills us in with intellectual discussions he has with his friends about the morality, prostitution and romantic love.

The man is quirky, nerdy and dry, with great sense of humour. And the book is funny. I started last Friday night at around 10:30. By 2 am, I decided to put it down. (well I am a pathetic slow readers) But I laughed so much that I could sleep and ended up staying up until I more or less finished it.

One review of the book by a former prostitute complimented the pillow. Brown asks how they work and the girls tell him the tricks of dealing with period and their dissatisfaction with their breasts and so on. I often wonder what kinds of conversations go on between a prostitute and a client, I mean in China. That’s something I find hard to imagine. I’ve interviewed a lot of prostitutes but I got little vivid information on this. I wish I could find a Chinese John who is willing to share the info with me as honestly as Brown shares his info with the world.

Being an artist, he is very observant. Only one girl has eye contact with him, he notes. And another girl gives him a blow-job
enthusiastically but when she lies down for a full-fledged sex, she covers her face with her hair. She feels ashamed, Brown believes.

The author describes himself like an average John. But are average Johns all so considerate and good-hearted? When a foreign prostitute keeps making ‘ow’ sound, he comes quickly as he thinks the girl is in pain.

I find his lack of facial a little odd, which probably reflects his matter-of-factly approach to prostitution. His mouth is a slit and remains so even during sex – most of us would have our mouths open, gasping for air, in moments of excitement.

I admire the author’s honest and courage – he is well aware of the society’s attitude towards Johns and prostitution. And he has built a convincing case to de-criminalize prostitution.

How about China?

Maybe I should talk a little bit about the background. As soon as the Communists took power in 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong ordered the closure of all brothels; jailed the owners and pimps; reformed the prostitutes and declared that the People’s Republic of China to be the first country in the world that had eradicated the evil practice of prostitution. Although it is still illegal, prostitution has made a spectacular return since the loosening social controls and growing wealth of today’s China have liberated people’s bodies as well as their minds.

Who are the prostitutes? The majority of them are country girls from the poor hinterland, unskilled, poorly educated and ill-prepared for life in the city. Many of them work in karaoke bars, sing and dance halls, hair saloons and massage parlors.

My beloved grandma worked as a prostitute for years after she became an orphan and then she was sold into prostitution. I’ve become fascinated by the subject ever since my mother disclosed this secret to me, shortly before grandma’s death.

I am working on this novel about prostitution and also considering a non-fiction on the subject. For me, prostitution serves as an interesting window to see China and the tensions brought by the reforms. It deals with gender issues, economic issues (it contributes a lot to the GDP), the changing values and the sexual norms and of course corruption.

Pan Suiming, China’s top sexologist, contends that China has a specific type of prostitution that entails a bargain between those who use their power and authority in government to obtain sex and those who use sex to obtain privileges. All exposed corrupt officials have mistress, often more than one.

I am not sure that there are many of such nice Johns in China. I am sure many are nice enough – they are just humans. But I think in a civilized and democratic country like Canada, the clients are more likely respect the working girls. In China, men often think they can do whatever they like to the girls, for example, refusing to use a condom. The prostitutes are often the victim of robbery and violence. There are quite a few cases of them being murdered.

Like Brown, I agree that women should have that choice. It’s her body. She should be allowed to do whatever she likes with it. I only hope that there should be more NGOs that can offer the working girls some support. I am very pleased to see that slowly such NGO’s are emerging. I know one former prostitute-turned lady (as robust as her chest) who runs such an organization in Tianjin, offering prostitutes free condoms, knowledge how to protect themselves and how to save money but she doesn’t try to pursue them to quit the profession.

I know I am getting side tracked. I should stop here.

Paying For It is not only entertaining but thought-provoking. I am grateful that my friend Joe, (who is not a John) took the bother to send to me.

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2 thoughts on “My Review of Paying For It: A comic-Strip Memoir about Being a John, and prostitution in China

  1. Lijia dear, I read the book you talk about: paying for it, and I read your mind and your curiosity. However I can not be refuted if I say that customers in Canada are the same as the Chinese and worldwide. I speak as a man, who before being married I did not think the moral limits. Today in Italy the prostitutes are 60000, 60000 and the inmates are also Catholic church does not want to deal with the problem and so did the political parties, for fear of losing electoral support. Many of these prostitutes are Chinese, Moroccan, Russian, Egyptian … and as you say, all come from the countryside or really difficult to search for that fake happiness of economic welfare. Because unfortunately, what Europe exports is too often only image and stereotypes, forgetting the Dante Alighieri, the Caesar Baptist, Manzoni … that is, the culture, the only way for true social redemption. I myself when I arrive in Shanghai at night walking the streets come insistently stopped by men who want to offer me their “merchandise”, is the oldest profession in the world knows, and I think that the problem arises when there is exploitation of women. Hopefully I will not be released by the theme. However if you want some more detailed information is at your disposal.
    P. S.
    I hope I have translated it correctly in English, I apologize in advance if not. Hello and force China. Franco.

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