Sex Work: Kirstin Innes on debut novel Fishnet
Kirstin Innes has spent years studying the Scottish sex industry and has now sewn these experiences into acclaimed debut novel Fishnet. She talks to The Skinny about her writing process, and the mixed morality surrounding the world's oldest profession.
Over coffee in Glasgow’s Mono, Kirstin Innes explains how she came to write her debut novel Fishnet, which explores sex work in Scotland through the story of two sisters, Fiona and Rona. “I was working on a novel anyway, a really, really tangled idea. I was trying to write a novel in the structure of the Gay Gordons.” Creatively stuck and working as a journalist at the time, her editor had sent her off to interview various women in the sex industry, such as Furry Girl, a pro-hair porn director. She approached an escort in Edinburgh with what she remembers now as “a very stupid and naive email.” She didn’t get a reply, but was intrigued; sex work seemed to be in the zeitgeist with the recent publication of the Belle de Jour call girl diaries. Keen to find out more, she began a new writing project which would eventually become Fishnet.
In an effort to portray the world of sex workers as accurately as possible, Innes spoke to many women within the industry and followed their online blogs, taking in as much information as possible. I ask how much her journey echoes that of the novel’s main character Fiona, who becomes obsessed with sex work when she finds out her missing sister Rona was working as a prostitute before she disappeared. “To an extent,” she answers. “Not completely. Obviously she becomes sexually involved and she’s sort of fascinated. I played around with lots of points of view and I felt that it would actually be irresponsible, personally, to write a main character who was a sex worker. So I went on this journey. I knew nothing.”
Her exposure to the lives of ordinary women who choose to make a living through sex work had a profound impact. Having identified with a feminist discourse which typically views sex workers as victims and all prostitution as inherently abusive, the women she met challenged her preconceptions. “I called myself a feminist. I had done women’s studies courses at University, and my feminism told me that sex work, or prostitution as we called it at the time, was wrong and something that we had to rescue these poor women from. What was happening to me was that my politics were being completely flipped on their head by this. So that kind of journey that Fiona goes on, I thought it was an interesting one to try and convey.”
Innes' investigations into the sex industry have convinced her that viewing sex workers as victims is ultimately damaging, and is counterproductive to safety. “There have been recurrent moves to introduce in the Scottish Parliament what is called 'the Swedish Model' – the complete criminalisation of the purchasers of sex. It purports to send out a message that women are not for sale, that prostitution is not acceptable," she continues. "What that has actually done in practise is drive the industry completely underground. It makes some very, very vulnerable people even more removed from care and the police. It completely breaks down that very essential relationship between the police and sex workers. This is happening a little bit in Edinburgh. Edinburgh City Council always had a tolerance for brothel workers. And then one day in 2013, the new police force in Scotland raided all of these brothels. The pretext for this is that they were looking for trafficked women, but they didn’t find any. Sex workers themselves do not want the Swedish Model, but we have this pattern which plays out in almost every country in the world where legislation affecting sex workers is made without speaking to them to see what would actually make their lives safer and better.”
I ask Innes if she believes that the perceived concern for safety is in fact a disguised concern for the morality of sex workers: “Absolutely. What really bothers me is people saying that we want to send a message that women are not for sale, for example. It’s all very well to send a message but the second that your message actually puts someone else’s life in danger, that’s not feminism.” She defines her current position as pragmatic and says, “You need to approach this on a practical level of individual people.”
It is somewhat unusual for a contemporary novelist to use the medium of literature to directly challenge views about a certain group in society, and to invite the reader to identify with a group more commonly pitied or vilified. Innes explains that the reason this project ended up being a novel rather than non-fiction was because she wanted to take the reader on a journey to increase their empathy with the subject. But while Fishnet may have been written with an aim to provoke thought and discussion about sex work, the engaging narrative is also about family and friendship, and is lucid in its descriptions of growing up and going out, taking in nightclubs, casual sex, mundane office jobs and a hen night in the Highlands.
The book is particularly good with dialogue and the Scottish vernacular, and it is no surprise to hear Innes is inspired to write about Scotland and Scottish identity. “Right now I want to tell stories about Scotland set in Scotland. When I was a teenager just starting to read adult books, there was this amazing flowering of Scottish literature, so the first books I read were contemporary books set in Scotland. AL Kennedy, Janice Galloway, Alan Spence, Jackie Kay, Ali Smith. While I’m here I will write about here, I guess. It’s not necessarily a hugely political act. It just seems to be that here is where the story is that I want to tell.”
Innes has obviously been inspired by the stories she heard while researching Fishnet, and is keen to champion the campaigners who are fighting for their livelihoods. During our conversation she points out that the digital age has affected the ‘oldest profession’ just as much as it has affected everything else, the Internet giving sex workers a tool to market themselves on, as well as a resource for networking and campaigning. “People should look into Laura Lee, she’s pretty wonderful. She’s amazingly brave in that she has put a face to herself. Right now she’s taking on the Northern Irish Assembly to assert that their new legislation is actually threatening the human rights of sex workers. She’s funding this entirely herself. I always think people should go straight to SCOTPEP, the Edinburgh organisation which is advocating for sex workers. There is another great woman who tweets as @pastachips. She’s ferocious, and on it, and politically savvy. It started off as blogging but a lot of this is on Twitter now. Sex work on Twitter is definitely where the discussion is at.”
Rather than speaking for sex workers, with Fishnet Kirstin Innes makes a compelling case for engaging with sex workers and including them in society, rather than condemning them with a stigma which can be so damaging. “Where you need to start is taking on board that these people are human beings who have made choices as well. The second you start seeing someone as a victim, you are not empathising with them, because you’ve put yourself up on a higher level than them.” Her message is unequivocal; in order to move forward and legislate effectively on this issue we must begin by speaking with the sex workers themselves.