Opinion

Peepshow: What can phone sex operators tell us about men & masculinity?

By September 18, 2020 No Comments

By Jessie Sage
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
info@pittsburghcurrent.com

When you think of phone sex, what comes to mind? 

I am assuming that for most of you this conjures up imagines of the cheesy, soft-focus 1-900 ads from the 90’s. Kenny G playing in the background, a scantily clad woman saying in a near whisper, “Come chat with me…” 

I saw these ads for phone sex services as a kid, and I didn’t expect to grow up to become one of these “fantasy girls,” though I do in fact work as a professional phone sex operator. 

The reality of my job, though, looks much different than this. In fact, it more closely resembled online dating. Or at least, the beginning stages of dating: the flirtatious text messages, the long late-night conversations, and the awkward and fluttery sexual tension.

Yet, there are obviously a couple of key differences.

 First, phone sex is commercial. It is paid affective and emotional labor; it is sex work. 

And second, unlike dating platforms, there is no expectation of physical or IRL dating. While my clients may at times joke about waiting to meet, I don’t believe that this is what they are seeking (after all, there are more direct paths to in-person meet-ups).

This brings up two related questions: What are clients buying when they call phone sex operators, and why are they doing it? 

The answers to these questions illuminate something about the function of sex work in our culture. And more, about the needs and desires of men.

***

There is a stereotype of sex workers’ client that I am sure you know: they are desperate or socially inept (at best), and predatory (at worst). These men, it is thought, are either incapable of having sexual relationships with women without paying, or they prey on them, exploit and abuse them, and reduce them to their sexual function before discarding them.

This has not been my experience with clients (and here I acknowledge my privilege–I am not saying that these things never happen or that I haven’t had bad clients, but rather that they haven’t dominated my experience in the sex industry). 

In fact, while I do peddle smut in various forms, it would be inaccurate to say that this is what I spend the majority of my time doing, or that my interactions with clients can be reduced to sex. The vast majority of my work, I assure is, is banaler than you imagine it to be. 

It is a transaction–an exchange–of money for attention: I serve as a friendly voice on a lonely night, an outlet to talk about or play out a kink they may be embarrassed to talk to their spouse or partner about, a fantasy narrative to excite them and get them off, relationship advice, information about various sex communities, political commentary on social issues, small talk, etc. 

Thinking back on all of my calls and text histories it seems to me that I am primarily selling one thing: intimate interactions for men, space for men to be able to share parts of themselves that they feel unable or unwilling to share outside of the bounds of sexual transactions. 

And since this is such a booming market, I think that we need to spend some time thinking about what it is about masculinity that feeds this market.

***

Clients themselves are best able to answer this question, and for this reason, I interviewed a handful of men who patronize phone sex operators. Though not my own clients, because I was afraid their erotic attachment to me, would color the interviews.

When I asked John* what he was looking for when he called phone sex operators he replied, “We can get pornography online for free, but when it comes to loneliness, NiteFlirt [one of the primary phone sex platforms] is the best.”

Calling phone sex lines as a way to fill a void of loneliness is also how Mark saw it. When I asked him what he thinks phone sex operators are selling, he responded by simply stating, “What you are selling is interactivity.”

Other interviewees talked about these interactions as meeting particular needs. Frank commented, “I was looking for affirmation.” And Michael, “It was an outlet for me to get what I wasn’t going to get in my personal life.”  

Joe saw the sexual nature of these interactions as an entry to intimacy. He remarked, “I really enjoyed the butterflies I would get when I was connecting with a new person. It was almost like I was sharing a part of myself with someone new.”

These clients are pointing to their own loneliness and need for affirmation; for space to express their emotional lives. But these are emotional needs, not necessarily sexual ones. So why turn to sex workers?

In response to this question, Joe offered, “Sex gets put on the table, and everything else is a hidden agenda item.”

Michael offered a possible explanation as to why this would be. “I don’t think that there is a way of solving [our loneliness] that doesn’t include sex, even among the most gentlemanly,” he said. “That is how men know how to feel connected.”

And John added, “A lot of men want romance, but they think it needs to be wrapped in a turn-on.”

In other words, in a world in which men are only allowed to be vulnerable, to be open, and to be intimate with those they are having sex with, it is safer for them to seek out the intimacy that they desire when it couched in sex. 

If you take nothing else away from these responses, I think it is important to think about this notion of sexual transaction. Indeed, far from being the central driving force in my work, is often a cover for something deeper. Something that tells us more about masculinity, intimacy, and loneliness. 

My work with men has led me to believe that while men’s pain is not the same as being marginalized or oppressed, it is in fact profound. In my experience, men seek out the attention of sex workers because they feel unseen and unheard. Moreover, the only needs that they feel comfortable seeking to meet are their sexual ones. Jake said this best: “Men don’t know how to do the work. They will think it is a sex fantasy. Even when they are direct about what they want, they don’t want to talk about what they need.”

We ought to start paying attention to the conversations that are happening around toxic masculinity, but rather than coming at them with anger, it is important to also approach them with empathy and (dare I say it) love.  

I will close a quote from bell hooks, who says this more eloquently than I could hope to:

“The truth we do not tell is that men are longing for love. This is the longing feminist thinkers must date to examine, explore, and talk about. Those rare visionary feminist seers […] are no longer afraid to openly address issues of men, masculinity, and love.”

I want to suggest something here that may sound audacious to those of you outside of the sex work community: Perhaps we should think of sex workers as the rare visionary seers who can teach us to address these issues of men, masculinity, and love.

 

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