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Romancing the Phone

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Robert Scheer

Phoney Baloney: Phone sex operators are skilled at giving good phone, but what's really going on at the end of the line remains part of the mystery.

Men still may be on top financially, but when it comes to phone sex, female fantasy operators say they're in control

By Mary Spicuzza

SABRINA CHERISHES the freedom of her job. The quick-witted, articulate 19-year-old works from home, sets her own hours and makes decent money. Unlike nine-to-five working stiffs who torture themselves with alarm clocks and rush-hour traffic, she can bring home the bacon without leaving the comfort of her couch. She may fit the profile of most telecommuters, but this teen doesn't even own a computer.

Sabrina earns her living giving good phone as a fantasy-maker.

The phone-sex industry has been labeled both pornography and prostitution. Left-wing social critics often cite the popularity of adult hotlines as a symbol of our impersonal society, one that commodifies sex and sells it for a few dollars a minute. Traditional feminists--mostly of the white, middle-class persuasion--have condemned this particular slice of the adult entertainment world as yet another example of the objectification of women.

Meanwhile, more radical cutting-edge types--Wendy Chapkis and bell hooks, for example--theorize that sex workers, including phone girls, are resisting the system, taking control of their sexuality and upping incomes while screwing The Man.

The phone-fantasy industry is a world where gender relations, big bucks and steamy imaginations intersect in ways upon which no two people seem to agree. Yet no one can say it isn't lucrative--by the early '90s, the U.S. pay-per-call industry was already bringing in upwards of $975 million a year.

But for Sabrina, the job isn't about post-modern theory or the net income of the information services industry. It's about personal power, making money and talking dirty.

Sabrina works for a company that claims to connect callers with local Santa Cruz girls. Apparently, hotline owners don't share the content of their ads with employees. Sabrina, a resident of Atlanta, had no idea why her interviewer was so convinced she lives in California.

Unlike some operators, Sabrina offers absolutely no apologies for her current career choice. She makes it clear she'd never do anything she doesn't like to do and relishes the power she wields over male callers. "Men these days like to be controlled. These guys do anything I say," Sabrina purrs contentedly. "I'll have a caller get me a drink, then tell him it's disgusting and make him dump it over his head. I've gotten guys to jump up and down on their beds while singing the ABC's, lick toilets--basically they give me what I want."

Not only does Sabrina's job take her to make-believe worlds where she calls the shots, but she says that in the eight months she's been providing oral satisfaction she's also learned more about people than ever before.

"Just about everyone I talk to has some kind of fetish. A lot of guys tell me they want to sniff my shoes, suck my toes and bite my toenails," Sabrina giggles lightheartedly.

"I'd say the weirdest fetish lately was this guy who likes his women tall and stretched out," she recalls. "He told me to stretch and wanted to know how my body felt. When I insisted my arms felt longer, he started getting all excited asking if I felt like Gumby."

When she confessed to experiencing her inner Gumby, her caller fell to his knees in ecstasy.

Ah, the Gumby fetish. It's hard to imagine just what is so erotic about a perpetually smiling, stretchy-limbed, green cartoon character. But then again, many women have an inexplicable attraction to Keanu Reeves.

Office Romance

IN ROBERT ALTMAN'S Short Cuts, a film based on stories by Raymond Carver, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a frazzled mother struggling to pay the bills by working as a phone-sex worker. In one scene, she changes poopy diapers while faking an orgasm with a caller. That jarring image raises questions about what phone-fantasy operators really do while creating a gilded fantasy world for their clients.

Sabrina insists she usually just lies on her velvety couch, relaxing and pampering herself. She confesses to occasionally getting excited by the role-playing and then just lets her fingers do the walking. "Unless the guy's a jerk," she sniffs. "Then I file my nails or do chores or something."

Heather, a Sacramento-based fantasy-maker, explains being able to achieve multiple tasks while working is her favorite part of the job. "This is just so easy. I can cook dinner, do housework, watch TV, whatever I want to do--all while I'm working," the efficient 30-year-old explains. "It's pretty funny, the difference between what I'm doing and what guys think I'm doing."

Not all phone-sex operators have the privilege of giving oral satisfaction from the comfort of home. Many hotlines have fully staffed, professional offices filled with fantasy operators and their managers, though they usually don't boast about it in their classified ads right under "Hot Kinky Babes" or "Horny Housewives" headlines.

A current hotline ad vividly describes Sarah, a young, petite-yet-buxom blonde just waiting to chat with Mister or Miss Right. Given her description, she sounded unrealistically close to some Aryan fantasy of a living Skipper doll. Suspecting a brunette with a little more meat on her bones, I am once again reminded of my naiveté when Sarah says she is speaking from an office cubicle in London.

Unlike playful Sabrina, Sarah explains that phone fantasy is merely her winter job to pay the rent until the summer rolls around, when she can again work full-time. Sarah says she rarely gets aroused by her work--perhaps because she's usually surrounded by bright fluorescent lights.

No bubble bath, chocolate bonbons or comfy couch for this 23-year-old British fantasy-maker. From Sarah's description, working in her office sounds much like being trapped inside a Dilbert cartoon. Except for the dozen moaning women in headsets, of course.

An office setting is not uncommon in the phone-sex industry--also known as information services. Sarah's fantasy-from-the-cubicle world is similar to that portrayed in Spike Lee's Girl 6, a 1995 film about a struggling actress who takes up phone sex while her career is going through a down-cycle. Like the film, written by Suzan-Lori Parks, a playwright who worked as a fantasy operator herself, Sarah speaks about her current job with stark realism.

"Most of the guys are really nice, regular guys," Sarah says. "A lot of them are married. Most of my callers don't even want me to talk. They're just lonely and want someone to listen to them."

Across the board, operators agree the majority of guys they've talked to have been your average Joes. Nice guys aside, Sarah speaks honestly about the darker sides of her career. "We do get men who are drunk and abusive when they call," she says. "Some are just sick and just want to talk about their fantasies with children. All I have to do is just hang up on them."

Every operator mentioned the vile types, those who would make even a staunch pacifist want to reach out and touch them with a swift kick to the head.

Global Economy

EVEN THOUGH FANS of phone sex may be typical boy-next-door types, and the fantasy operators genuinely well-meaning, articulate people, this particular brand of oral pleasure isn't exactly what co-workers chat about over morning coffee. Still, it wouldn't be a multimillion-dollar industry if people weren't using it.

Despite concerns from some in the hotline industry that the Internet would make old-school sex services obsolete, phone sex has proved itself to be a well-established and growing business.

Nothing reflects this quite as dramatically as the economics of Third World countries involved in the adult hotline industry.

Some hotlines are routed through poor nations that get a cut of the action when phone-sex companies looking to save money bounce their calls through the open-handed country's telecommunication systems. Other businesses run their services from faraway lands to escape regulatory constraints or to tap into cheap labor forces.

Approximately 1.5 percent of all international telephone traffic in 1997 was sex hotlines, grossing about $2 billion, according to the International Telecommunications Union, which monitors global phone businesses. Due to American companies sending calls through the Latin American nation of Guyana, the country's telecommunications revenue equals $130 million, or 40 percent of Guyana's gross national product. And the small New Zealand protectorate of Niue in the South Pacific has more sex lines than the island has inhabitants.

All of this has led folks at Inter Tel to suggest that "telephone sex may be good for development."

Despite the worldwide popularity of phone-sex hotlines, fantasy operators know that it's their individual performance that keeps callers on the line and coming back for more. In a recent edition of ia2000.com, an industry print magazine for phone and online adult services providers, industry insider Beth Gavin gives the lowdown on what makes a great sex operator.

Gavin's tips include a good sense of humor, stocking up on noise-making toys to create a variety of sound effects and taking regular vacations to avoid the dreaded phone fantasy burnout. "Get that caller's name and use it, use it, use it," she cheers like an ex-pep squad member-turned-aerobics instructor.

Jim, who worked as a phone-fantasy operator for over a year in San Francisco, found fulfillment in the way he was able to bring his outside interests to his job on the sex hotline. The sexuality educator found he could teach gay male callers about safe sex and consent issues by using the medium of fantasy. And he got paid to have the safest sex around.

Lisa, a 38-year-old Sacramento-based fantasist, says her ability to create multiple characters makes her one of the most requested operators in the company.

Within the first 15 minutes of our conversation, she'd fluidly slipped into more than a half-dozen accents from barely legal sweet to worldly mature.

When asked her secret, Lisa explains her genuinely giving nature and warm feelings for her callers, who she says are nicer than most men she meets on the street.

"I just don't stroke their cocks," she says. "Instead, I stroke their egos."

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From the February 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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