Over the past decade, I've spent far more time talking about romantic love with cartoonist Chester Brown than any of my other male friends. Yet it is hard to describe Chester as a romantic. His last conventional relationship ended in 1996, when he broke up with his long-time girlfriend, Sook-Yin Lee, the well-known CBC personality and film director. Since then, Chester has had sex only with prostitutes.
Chester's sex life, which has long been a staple of amused and amazed conversation in my social circle, is now getting a wider public airing with the publication of his new comic-strip memoir, Paying For It, which details his midlife decision to abandon the search for a soulmate and become a very satisfied customer of Toronto's thriving sex trade.
Drawn in an elegantly distilled variation of the classic 1920s comic-strip style, Paying For It deserves to be celebrated as a work of art. But it's also a book with important policy and social implications. The wounds opened up by the case of prostitutes murdered by Robert Pickton in British Columbia are still fresh and, last year, Madam Justice Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior Court struck down the province's prostitution laws, arguing that they endanger the very sex workers they were supposedly designed to protect.
The new Conservative majority government is likely to introduce fresh laws to circumvent Judge Himel's ruling, so prostitution will remain a contentious topic.
Even before I met Chester, I believed that prostitution should be decriminalized and normalized. But I had come to this position from a different political route: Chester is a libertarian who fears government regulation; since I'm a social democrat, I find Chester's fetishization of property rights much more offensive than his habit of paying for sex.
Yet Chester and I agree that there is something twisted about the way our society marginalizes sex workers. My feelings crystallized in 1996 when Toronto resident Marcello Palma murdered three prostitutes in a two-hour rampage. What shocked me at the time was the remarkably blasé attitude of the Canadian media: Many papers buried the story deep in their pages and gave it a few paragraphs. It was hard not to contrast that with the killing of a young patron at a Toronto café two years earlier, which received repeated (and deserved) front-page coverage.
The message was clear: If you're what society perceives as a normal person, your life has value. If you are a prostitute, your death barely deserves a second thought. The Palma case prefigured in many ways the troubling social attitudes that allowed Mr. Pickton to run his human slaughterhouse. Prostitutes become easy game for thugs and killers when we as a society exile them to a shadowy legal underworld.
Decriminalizing prostitution is merely a matter of changing the law books. The harder task is to normalize sex work and change the social attitudes that do so much harm. But the evolution of support for gay rights offers a model for how such a social revolution could occur.
Ultimately, sex work should be considered a trade, like auto repair or journalism. (Some people will never accept it; then again, some people will always hate the media, or mistrust their mechanics.) We're far from that goal yet, but Chester's own life shows how quickly prostitution can be normalized once it is brought out into the open. When he first started talking about his patronage of prostitutes, his friends didn't shun him, but we did tease him, defending against our discomfort with the shield of humour. Over the past few years, those jokes have gone stale.
Since 2004, Chester has been going to the same call girl, whose identity is protected in Paying For It under the pseudonym Denise. My partner and I often marvel show Chester burbles when he talks about Denise, with a kind of innocent puppy love. I once joked that he's more devoted to his call girl than most men are to their wives - now I recognize it's a simple statement of fact.
Paying for sex has made Chester happier and more psychologically balanced. He was somewhat uptight when I first met him, but in recent years the floodgates of his emotional life have opened, making him a better friend. I've learned to cherish his honesty, and I try to emulate it.
Of course, not all johns are as considerate and thoughtful as Chester. But then again, since the world of prostitution is so murky, it's hard to know what other johns are like. Part of the value of Chester's frankness is that it helps us start talking about johns as real people, not as some stereotype we imagine.
Social mores being what they are, Chester never brings Denise out when my partner and I have dinner with him. But the need to separate your sex worker from your friends, like many other conventions around sex work, will change with time, especially if people attend to the message of Chester's new book.
Guest columnist Jeet Heer is a writer based in Regina and Toronto.