Phone Sex, Revisited

July 9, 2018

 

Alysia Sawchyn currently lives in Northern Virginia. She is a nonfiction editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection, and her writing has appeared in Fourth Genre, Barrelhouse, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. 

Sawchyn's nonfiction, “Phone Sex, Revisited,” was originally published in The Southeast Review Volume 35.2 and was one of our 2017 Pushcart nominees for the 2018 Pushcart anthology.

Phone Sex, Revisited

 

I don’t often talk about my brief stint as a phone sex operator. The information surprises, often prompting a high-pitched, overly enunciated Really? or excessively personal questions. Let me get this out of the way: Was it hot? No. Did you get off while doing it? No.

 

I am less bothered when women ask me about it because there’s often an alliance there, underlying the curiosity. Choosing to work in the sex industry gives the illusion of control, dangles the elusive promise of mastery over—or, at least, acceptance of—one’s body and sexuality. We all want to know what that’s like.

 

Those who know about my previous occupation sometimes look at me hard, like there might be an outward sign of my past, like I should be somehow marked by desire. I am generally a disappointment. My daily life predictably consists of too much coffee and too much time at a desk. When I’m tired, though, my speech slows and drops, picking up places I’ve lived, most noticeably a drunken four months in North Carolina, and those who have heard me speak in those vulnerable moments tell me that’s when they get it.

 

“Your voice,” they say.

 

Drained of all affectation, intentional or otherwise, I can sound pretty sultry. My already alto voice has been sandpapered rough by a decade of smoking, and I’m enjoying its sensuality while it lasts.

 

 

I got the phone sex job through a woman named Taylor. She had small Chinese characters tattooed four inches in from each of her hipbones, and there was something satisfying about wrapping my mouth around them—I liked the idea of tasting truth or joy—even though I don’t remember what she thought they meant. When our mouths were unoccupied, Taylor told me wild stories about mixing tracks for a nationally popular band and teaching drug dealers how to properly cook crack. One night we ended up outside a trap house with a bedsheet for a front door. Taylor instructed me to stay in the car but leave the door unlocked; she repeated, Leave the goddamn door unlocked if you know what’s good for you. I always nodded, always responded, Yeah, Oh, wow, or with a throaty hum of assent. I was eighteen, and it seemed easier to agree, tacitly or otherwise, than to push back, no matter how unbelievable the story. Though I would like to say this has changed, that this is a story of overcoming and redemption, it still seems easier to be silent. I am often a coward hiding behind a guise of manners and propriety.

 

When Taylor said she’d take me in for an interview at the phone sex company where she worked, I only half-believed the offer until we were standing together in the featureless lobby of the call center. I’d immediately agreed, though. The job paid better than minimum wage, and I was a year out of high school with poor social skills and no college prospects. I had ideas, too, about what it meant to be a phone sex operator, about what, perhaps, the job could do for me as a person. The beige-gray carpeting shimmered with the promise of confidence and sensuality.

 

The building was one of many offices with tinted windows and venetian blinds in a strip mall on a major road. To all appearances, it could have been a car insurance company with an all-women staff. I’d imagined these women would be like Taylor: sultry, outspoken, comfortable with insincerity. This was the image I’d hoped I, too, could mold myself into after working there for a time, an unfortunate answer to What do you see this job doing for you? But my illusions barely had time to take shape before they were challenged. As Taylor and I stood in the lobby, a short, obese woman who looked about fifty limped past us, leaning heavily on a black metal cane.

 

“She’s one of the best,” Taylor said. 

 

“Really?”

 

I am now pleased this woman was probably not what the callers envisioned either. Her unexpected appearance made her acquiescence to others’ desires more empowering, like her body was a secret, what she held on to so she would not be swallowed. But I did not have words like that then.

 

 

I interviewed for the position, but I wasn’t drug-tested. Taylor mentioned on the drive over, shouting, high-pitched over the bass of her stereo, that the bathroom was smack-friendly. A job perk. I nodded in assent. It was early in the morning, her cell phone rang and rang and rang, and she turned the stereo’s volume even higher.

 

The woman who interviewed me, who would later become my trainer, was interested in only three things: my lack of criminal record, my unflappability, and my voice’s flexibility.

 

 

“Can you do a Valley Girl accent?” she asked. 

 

“I think so.”

 

She looked at me, expectantly.

 

“What do you want me to say?” I said.

 

“Let’s start with normal conversation. Sometimes you don’t jump into the sex right away.”

 

I found out later this was generally untrue. Like with most corporate jobs, orientation posited the best possible scenarios as the ones I would regularly encounter. That said, it was best to drag the conversation out as long as possible because we were paid on a sliding scale based on incoming call duration.

 

I immediately forgot what normal conversation sounded like, though I’m not sure I had a solid grasp on it to begin with. I talked about the weather, the oppressive humidity, but my trainer frowned. I switched to shopping, channeling what I could remember of watching Clueless: shoes, lingerie, things I imagined beautiful people bought and enjoyed discussing. That seemed to go better.

 

“Asian is next,” she said. “What kind?”

 

She frowned again.

 

“Just, Asian. You know,” she answered. 

 

I did.

 

There was so much about that time that now makes me want to take hold of my teenage shoulders and shake. Half my family speaks English with “Asian accents,” in lilting and clipped tones, like quarreling birds.

 

I worried I wouldn’t get the job. Failing to be hired at a phone sex company would have been a demoralizing assault on the ego. But I passed.

 

My trainer said, “You’ll get better at the accents over time. They don’t have to be perfect, we’re just feeding imaginations.”

 

 

The job is easier than it sounds. The men calling in are often frantic and desperately-lonely sounding. We are only bodiless voices they can attach to whatever they desire; it is only important that we agree with what they ask and that we are enthusiastic in our agreement.

 

I was given a tour of the office. It looked like every other office I’ve seen, except maybe less decorated. I looked for Taylor’s blonde hair over the grey cubicle tops, wanting to make eye contact and share a smirk. I could not find her. She was likely out back or loitering in the smack-friendly bathroom, smoking a cigarette and talking on the phone. The sharing of space, the lack of ceilings and proper walls between operators, could, my trainer admitted, get distracting at times.

 

“It’s important to keep your voice low,” my trainer said. “It stops your work from interfering with others’—plus, it makes you sound sexier.”

 

The sound of another woman moaning could either inspire the caller to envision a room full of aroused women climaxing together, like a multi-breasted unity, or to acknowledge the reality of women working in too-close quarters, women who stared at computer screens and talked on the phone all day. Even though callers only needed a little push, the briefest imagined touch of a guiding hand, in the right direction, it was best not to break the illusion of intimacy.

 

I cannot remember the trainer’s name or what she looked like, but I know I studied her and was disappointed to find nothing physically remarkable. I expected some kind of sign, much like people do of me now. I wondered what she looked like naked, if underneath her clothes she had hidden ink or metal through soft flesh. Probably, she was just like me.

 

 

Standard incoming call procedure went something like this: I answered the phone; the operator would tell me what, if anything, the client—I was chided the first time I said customer—requested; and I’d repeat it back to her. If the caller didn’t have a special request, I was assigned a default character, a vapid woman—cue Valley Girl accent— named Natalia. On the first day of work, my trainer gave me a name tag, a blue-bordered rectangular sticker that had the words Hello, my name is printed on it. Someone, presumably my trainer, had handwritten Natalia into the blank space for me. It seemed futile to point out that the only people who would actually see it would call me by my real name. I said nothing.

 

Before the first live phone call I took, my trainer had a talk with me. “Under no circumstances,” she said, “should you tell them anything true about yourself.”

 

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” I replied. 

 

“Sometimes people slip up.”

 

 

I asked questions at the beginnings of calls: What’s your name, How old are you, How often do you watch porn—it was assumed they did—  Are you married? This last one was to be phrased in an indirect manner, something nonchalant like, Is your wife home or Where’s your girlfriend? The follow-up was harder: Does she know we’re talking? The object was to integrate the questions into the conversation while taking down as much identifying information as possible. If he ever called back and gave enough details, the next woman to talk to him could find my notes—objective, punctuated, devoid of my heightened awareness of my trainer—by keyword searches in our database. The computers at every workstation were for data collection, and given my difficulty writing while speaking I saw my hopes of transformation into a confident, sensual woman skulk away and hide underneath my desk.

 

This was my caller’s first time, too. Or so he said. We were in this together. I talked him through the process of inserting a dildo into his ass while watching porn. I told him I had long, red hair, like the woman in the video he described. They always asked what I looked like, which was actually a prompting for me to intuit what they wanted me to look like.

 

“Yeah, that’s you,” he said. 

 

“Yeah, baby, that’s me.”

 

After about ten minutes of my encouragement, he hung up without warning. I worried I’d done something wrong.

 

“That happens a lot,” my trainer said. “It usually means they came.” 

 

I imagine I told Taylor about this later in the car. I imagine we laughed, made unkind jokes. I probably mentioned the training materials I’d spent the bulk of the day reading, a Wikipedia-like database that detailed the nuances of every imaginable fetish. I’d learned more than I’d cared to reading through it, but was uncomfortable admitting my ignorance. One of Taylor’s favorite stories about  a previous relationship involved a woman who had a gel sold at fetish shops that allowed a person to set her on fire while she remained unharmed. This woman, Taylor claimed, liked to have a leash around her neck, liked to crawl around on all fours and be walked like a dog. Of course, Taylor held the end of the rope. Of course, I nodded along.

 

 

A policy at the call center, less a rule and more a guiding principle, was that I shouldn’t hear children in the background of the client’s phone line. If I did, I was supposed to teasingly ask them what the noise was and suggest they go into another room, saying, I’d like to be alone with you. An exception was a regular who called in always wanting to talk about Spiderman. He didn’t want to be Spiderman—sexually or otherwise—he just wanted to talk about him for long periods of time and was willing to pay nearly four dollars a minute to do so. He’d stay on the line until it cut off. The women who’d taken his calls said they could sometimes hear children running around, could always hear cartoons on his end of the line.

 

“But what’s the harm in that?” they’d ask, shrugging.

 

He was not the only regular caller who wasn’t interested in sex. Another man frequently wanted to talk through the process of painting his toenails and discuss the polish quality, his choice in color. I find these requests less distressing than I do the sexual ones. There is a seeming purity to them, an earnestness in the search for a human connection, that was lacking in the other calls where a man had a hand on his sex.

 

There is a consensual aspect to the phone sex relationship, and a loneliness, that colors my perspective with empathy. This view, though, overlooks the possible harm, potentially ignorant spouses or partners. It is easy to stay on the page, in the narrative present. That’s a personal failing of mine, not considering the ramifications of my actions when the fallout is hidden from my sight or barely in its periphery. What I have withheld to this point, why Taylor has remained in this story: She had a girlfriend while we were sleeping together, a stocky woman whom I’d met in passing a few times, with a laugh and a voice like a Texan beauty queen.

 

 

This was the position’s fine print:

 

When call volume was low, I worked the local chat lines: Call 1-800-867-5309 to meet local singles! I had a separate identity for this assignment. My name was Dory—no name tag—and I was in veterinary school because I loved horses. I spoke with a man who said he’d recently gotten back from somewhere in the Middle East. He said he’d had trouble since he’d come home, couldn’t talk, couldn’t connect, couldn’t stand to see mouths move and sounds come out. He realized this was a problem. He never asked me what I looked like.

 

“I’m lonely,” he said.

 

I wanted to say, Me too. But that would’ve been against the rules. 

 

These hotlines, though sometimes resulting in sexual conversation, are advertised as ways to connect and meet real people—there is no suggestion of inherent falsehood or pretense. And though my actions might suggest otherwise, there is something inside of me that twists at unrequested deceit. It was this something, this conscience, I had hoped would fade as part of my fantasized transformation from this employment. But it remains. 

Some years after all this, I ran into Taylor’s girlfriend. I heard her laugh bounding through a room and recognized it immediately, its familiar tug on my conscience. I made myself say hello, and she greeted me happily, with what looked like a genuine smile. When I asked after Taylor, her now ex-girlfriend said she hadn’t heard from her in a very long time.

 

“I think she’s in jail now,” she said. 

 

“For what?”

 

She shrugged.

 

I asked for the ex-girlfriend’s phone number, said we should catch  up sometime. She agreed, a bit puzzled. We met for root beer floats. I intimated my transgressions, my unkindnesses and betrayals—I don’t think the phrase I was fucking your girlfriend actually came out—and she nodded in response. She seemed surprised by what I was telling her, but not because it was unexpected. Rather, she had always known. I had overestimated her wholesomeness, believed her earnest, open face to be the extent of her person. She’d understood Taylor’s relationship to her, its parameters and insincerities, and was a willing participant. I was mistaken in believing I’d kept something from her, that I was satisfying Taylor in ways she could not. Looking back, I was eighteen and didn’t understand my own desires. I only knew the empty feelings of want and lonely and thought any abatement of them was better than nothing at all. This is where the river of my empathy originates, from a spring of regret. It took until my mid-twenties for me to articulate and act upon my desires in ways that were relatively open and sincere.

 

I want to tell you now a story about a man who called the hotline. When I asked if he had a wife, he murmured, Yes, and then, in response to whether she knew he was calling, whispered No. A man who then hung up the phone, never to call again. But that story does not exist. Though life is sometimes comically neat, this is not one of those instances.

 

There was no mastery in any of my conversations at the call center, no special agency bestowed on me for my time as a phone sex operator. It was a job, albeit sometimes stranger, funnier, and more demeaning than most, but I am no more confident in my appearance or sexuality, no more immune to jealousies and sentimentality, no better a liar, than the next woman as a result of it. I did not learn to play men and their desires like a many-stringed harp; I only said Yes and, Yes and, like the improvisation game where an actor is required to go along with whatever the leading person envisions. In the end, the job was about pleasing another person, catering to their needs, telling them what they wanted to hear. It was what every day can be like if I’m not careful.
 

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