113th Annual Conference - Portland, Oregon
Friday, November 6 - Sunday, November 8, 2015

Getting Graphic: Sex Work, Comics, and Coalitions of Genre 

Bethany Qualls, "University of California, Davis"

Chester Brown’s Paying for It: A comic-strip memoir about being a john (2011) provides a contemporary lens through which to examine both current theorizing and past feminist rhetoric surrounding prostitution, sex work, and agency. I argue that genre-bending works such as Brown’s represent another voice in feminist coalition building, underlining potential new methods of representation.

Proposal: 

How does sex work get theorized? Who does the theorizing? How does a graphic narrative/novel fit into this debate? Chester Brown’s Paying for It: A comic-strip memoir about being a john (2011) provides a contemporary lens through which to examine both current theorizing and past feminist rhetoric surrounding prostitution, sex work, and agency. Poised as consumer/client, Brown’s “comic-strip memoir” throws theories of sexuality and sex work into sharp relief through its simple panels and sparse drawings, its multiple, researched appendixes and notes, and its engagement with multiple perspectives. Ultimately Brown undercuts the notion there is something fundamentally wrong with exchanging money for sex.

Following the theorists Cathy Cohen and Kimberlé Crenshaw, I argue that genre-bending works such as Brown’s represent another, productive voice in feminist coalition building around prostitution. The narrative itself includes researched notes that range from scholarly to activist in tone, blending multiple viewpoints on decriminalization, current laws, trafficking, bodies, and problematizing the interactions money, power, choice, and notion of love in local and global contexts in a fresh way. The commodification of the comic as a genre adds another dimension to my argument, calling into question larger issues of creation, exposure, and who has the power to publish. The concerns of ownership and control thus yoke sex work and publishing practices together. Both graphic in the sense of giving explicit details and using visual imagery, Brown’s text is hard to categorize since it plays with expectations of both form and content. Not smut, not academic treatise, not apologetic: just what is this text adding to current sex work discourse?

Currently there are plenty of narrative collections, stories, and memoirs by sex workers (or former sex workers), many titillatingly titled and anthologized, but few from a john’s perspective. The great binary divide of the academic debate – are prostitutes totally liberated or completely coerced into sex work – becomes problematized by representations of sex workers in Brown’s memoir and other autobiographies. Diverse representations of prostitution outside of purely written or visual forms offer another way to literally see that such divides are untenable. The problems of prostitution have no single resolution, but need very much to have all the voices of those involved represented in the solution-making process. The intersections of genre and mode in Brown’s text reflects the intersections of actors and structures that govern sex work today, emphasizing the possibility of multiple feminisms and feminists working together. If johns and prostitutes can be literal bedfellows, why not theoretical ones as well?