Kirstin Innes on Fishnet: 'It took me a long time to work out whether I had the right to do this.'
The ex-List writer talks about her research into the sex industry for her debut novel
Most people think they know what the word ‘prostitute’ means. In early 2009, I certainly did. It meant a victim, a poor soul, probably a drug addict, a sad indictment of our patriarchal society. I hadn’t met anyone working in that particular field, but I was a feminist, and my understanding of what feminism meant, back then, told me that prostitution was unequivocally bad.
At that time The List was putting together its Valentine’s Day sex issue. As staff writer, I was working on a feature called Sex in the 21st Century, interviewing women who worked in glamorous, ‘empowering’, sex-related jobs. With some in-depth Googling, I found a feminist porn director, a woman who ran upmarket, female-focused sex parties, and an ‘indie pornographer’ called Furry Girl, all of whom agreed to talk to me.
I also found the anonymous blog of a woman who worked as an escort in Scotland. She didn’t ever respond to my (many, naïve and presumptuous) emails, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her blog and her voice. I’m still ashamed to admit why: she was so articulate and positive about her life and the choice she’d made, and it hadn’t occurred to me that a ‘prostitute’ could be like that.
Over the next year, without being entirely sure why, I began researching the online sex industry, in Scotland and all over the world. That research has formed the basis of my first novel, Fishnet. The entire ecosystem of a completely new (to me) industry unfurled, hyperlink by hyperlink. Forums like Punternet, where sex workers’ clients post reviews, a strange mix of vicious misogyny that confirmed my worst suspicions about sex work, and thoughtful, heartfelt writing that confounded those suspicions.
There were also support groups set up by sex workers to help each other and websites where old hands offered advice and buddying services to newcomers. And there was the increasingly vocal group of online sex workers’ rights activists: women and men who got mad and couldn’t take it anymore, and who found that the internet suddenly offered them ways to express themselves and address potential dangers head on. Over a range of blogs which were often part-shop window, part-political platform, these brilliant, angry, articulate voices argued for their own rights – as humans, as workers – to be considered.
After about a year of lurking around at the fringes of this world, a very uncomfortable voyeur, bloating with knowledge that I didn’t know how to process, I plucked up the courage to contact some of the women whose blogs I’d been following. Some spoke to me online and I met two in person. I’m not sure I fully realised what a huge risk they took by agreeing to meet a journalist, but I very much appreciate that they trusted me. I will also note that it’s extraordinarily difficult to pity an erudite, witty woman staring you in the face while talking rings around you.
My understanding of what feminism could be fundamentally changed during this period. So often, legislation about sex work is made without consulting the people whose lives it will actually affect. I began to realise that while it’s all very well saying that you wish to make a statement that women are not for sale (and a lot of the women I spoke to would say that they sell their skills, not themselves), if your enactment of that principle puts a single sex worker in danger, it’s not a feminism that I want to be part of.
Because of the hugeness of this new world and the numerous, shifting complexities of sex-work politics, there were times when the research threatened to overwhelm the book. Fishnet is also a novel, and a story about the relationship between two sisters and what happens to a family when one person goes missing.
Eventually I had to put the journalist away, switch off the internet and just live with my characters for a while. Sex work is not a full stop, for my characters or in real life, but if you’re interested in where the debate around sex work currently is in Scotland, ScotPep, an organisation advocating for sex workers’ rights, is a worthwhile starting point.
I’m very, very aware of being a non-sex worker who has presumed to write a novel about sex work. It took me a long time to work out whether I had the right to do this: I’m still not totally sure that I do. Once the novel was completed I felt this pressure intensely and hid it from everyone for a year; a friend eventually pointed out to me that a number of people had given up their time to talk to me, willingly, on the understanding that I was going to try and publish a novel that would address issues they had huge personal stakes in.
If there’s a value to Fishnet, I hope it’s that it does what novels can do: open up the possibility for greater empathy, and therefore bring this debate to life for people who hadn’t considered these issues before.
Fishnet is published by Freight on Mon 6 Apr; Kirstin Innes speaks alongside Helen Mathers at Aye Write!, Mitchell Library, Glasgow, Sat 25 Apr, and at Rally & Broad, Stereo, Glasgow, Sun 26 Apr.