"Hi, this is Penny. Is that Mr Baxter?" A syrup-sweet voice sighs. Mr Baxter is about to have telephone sex.
Penny is a stranger to him, which is half the thrill. She describes her long blonde hair, 40-inch bust and lacy black panties, Mr Baxter [not his real name] confesses details of his lonely life. He is 52, and recently divorced, although he and his wife did not make love for years. He has never done this before, he is nervous and, by the way, she can call him Raymond. "Just relax," coos Penny. "Imagine I have just walked into your room, I'm kneeling at your feet, kissing your inner thigh..."
Seconds later, it is all over, with a whimper and a groan - although he has paid pounds 17.50 in advance for 15 minutes.
When he's gone, Penny, a plain 42-year-old brunette in jeans and T-shirt and no make-up, laughs: "Men are so silly."
A divorcee and mother of a teenage daughter, she is one of 70 women (and a handful of men) home workers, employed by Pleasure Dome, an adult chat line company set up in Southampton five years ago by Nigel Jones, 42, a former police officer and his wife, Tricia, 41, a former nurse.
The Joneses are unlikely figureheads for the murky world of sex chat lines. At weekends, they go cycling or walking with their three-year-old son. She has an 18-year-old daughter from a previous marriage and he has two sons aged 19 and 15. Their wholesome appearance contrasts with the dirty raincoat image of their industry. It is hard to imagine that this pair preside over a nether world of forbidden fantasy.
The sex chat is used by men - very rarely women - from all walks of life. Tricia and her girls have had them all. From transvestite vicars in frilly knickers to accountants dressed as adult babies and pensioners with food fetishes. "One regular customer only wants to hear girls eating large bags of doughnuts or big juicy apples," confides Tricia. "He calls from a telephone box on a street corner in broad daylight. The mind just boggles. The most common fantasy, though, is probably still black stockings and enormous breasts."
In the last five years, the couple have moved out of rented accommodation into a luxury house. Nigel drives a Mercedes and says the company has an annual turnover of pounds 500,000.
Life was not always this good. When they met in 1988, Nigel was a custody officer and Tricia was working for a doctor's emergency service. During their first three years together, they suffered a string of setbacks. He was accused by a prisoner of actual bodily harm. Although cleared, he later retired on medical grounds in 1992. Over the same period, Tricia lost her job and suffered a miscarriage.
They say they were in debt, supplementing their income by strawberry picking, when Nigel saw a television documentary about sex chat lines in America. "I told Tricia, 'We could do that.'" They advertised in top- shelf magazines and waited for the telephone to ring. The first call came within hours of the advertisement being published, at 4.30 am from a newsagent in Middlesbrough. "I was so petrified that to this day I cannot remember what I said to the man," she says.
In the first week, they took 65 calls, charging pounds 14.99 for 15 minutes, with customers paying by cheque or postal order. Within two weeks, the number of callers had trebled. But Tricia still felt ambivalent. "We did argue," she says. "During one row, I threw the telephone into the garden. I had an old-fashioned religious upbringing and I was trying to work out whether what we were doing was immoral or not. In the end, I decided it couldn't be because it was not as if I was a prostitute meeting a man and having sex."
Even so, it took Tricia months to tell her mother, and Nigel's father still prefers to believe they work in telesales. As she became more proficient, the number of callers grew: "We developed a system, partly to screen out the real weirdoes and silent nuisance calls, where I would be the receptionist. I would ask what kind of a girl the man wanted, age, figure, and if anything in particular turned him on. Then, I would run upstairs and call him back, pretending to be anything from 17-year-old Lisa with schoolgirl plaits to 50-year-old Liz with the 60-inch chest. I used my own voice, because I am no good at disguising it - but, amazingly, no one ever suspected it was all the same person."
Nigel recalls: "When the punter was close to orgasm, Tricia would give me a wink and, just as they climaxed, I would switch the stereo on to play the 'Hallelujah Chorus'. They really seemed to appreciate that."
As the business grew, they hired women to handle the phone lines, some of whom had approached them asking for work through the adverts. Others were recruited by word of mouth. Full-time receptionists were also employed to operate the screening and distribution of calls. Tricia now concentrates on the accounts and marketing. The women are paid for each call they do, receiving 15 per cent of the pounds 17.50 fee, a percentage which increases to 17.5 per cent if they are requested by the client. There are further bonuses for women who receive more than 30 per cent repeat business. The women who concentrate and sound sincere are always more successful. They say some earn up to pounds 400 a week.
The Joneses are clearly prospering, despite recent measures to curb adult sex lines and premium rate calls.
Premium rate lines in the UK generate about pounds 260m a year. Of this, adult lines including tape recordings, make up only one per cent (pounds 2.6m), compared to 18 per cent in 1992 (this doesn't include sex chat lines like the Jones's, operated through credit card payments). This is a direct result of curbs introduced two years ago which meant all 0898 and 0338 numbers could only be advertised in top-shelf adult magazines. Furthermore, the user had to pro-actively opt-in by requesting a pin number. This dramatically reduced the number of calls. Many companies decided to re-route their traffic abroad. Calls now commonly terminate in Guyana and the Caribbean. The decline in the UK market has corresponded with an explosion of international sex chat lines. These are more difficult to monitor - although the regulator, The Independent Committee for the Supervision of Telephone Services (ICSTIC ), can bar access. According to ICSTIC, such international calls operate from 40 countries world-wide and last year generated $2 billion.
Other sex chat companies circumvented the restrictions by setting up credit card systems, whereby the customer pays first, and a woman then calls him back. These calls do not fall under the jurisdiction of ICSTIC because they operate on the normal telephone system.
The restrictions have not gone far enough for the Campaign Against Pornography. To Cap, sex chat lines represent "classic exploitation". A Cap spokeswoman says: "Most of the women on the chat lines are black, having to pretend to be white to fulfil men's fantasies. They are often single mothers on benefits, who are paid pro-rata. They take terrible abuse from the punters but dare not hang up because they have to keep the men on the telephone, running up a bill. These places are often run like sweatshops, with a group of women and their telephones sitting around a table. The women are exhausted and the level of depression is high."
Tricia and Nigel Jones, members of their local Chamber of Commerce, present themselves as the respectable face of the industry. "Our girls work alone, from home, they are paid well and promptly. They are not forced to do anything," says Tricia defensively. "We are naughty, but nice... the third social service. We should be provided on the NHS." Nigel insists that they are opposed to the international telephone sex lines: "Because these lines are abroad and more difficult to police, anything goes. The conversations the women will have are truly obscene and disgusting. We do not go beyond what you might get pictorially in a top-shelf magazine, nothing illegal," he says. But at times you suspect that they remain ambivalent about the source of income which supports their comfortable lifestyle.
Nigel admits he is relieved that his wife no longer takes the calls. "I never really liked her talking dirty to other men." Tricia admits she would not be happy knowing Nigel used the service. "Although I would rather he do that than have an affair."
Meanwhile, in a photographic studio at the Surrey offices of Gold Star Publications - publishers of such top-shelf magazines as Parade - Lynda Leigh, a nude model and dancer is about to start work, providing "sex on the Internet". The service allows Internet users to type in instructions for Lynda to strip from their home computers. Customers log in from as far away as Australia. It is billed as live visual interaction, the ultimate threat to sex chat lines. Users pay by credit card. Wearing black bra and knickers and high heels, Lynda faces a video camera. Her instructions flash up on a computer screen: "Take your top off..." And so it goes on, until she is completely naked, obligingly posing full frontal for the invisible viewer. "This is the ultimate," enthuses Gold Star's marketing man, Mark Sortel. "It's as good as having a real woman." Sortel insists the credit card billing system counters misuse by children. Lynda Leigh, a former hairdresser, takes a break between calls and eats fish and chips. "It's really not that difficult," she explains. "Here, no one can pinch my bottom or call me a fat slag, as they do when I'm dancing in strip bars. It's easier here because I'm not looking into their faces, I don't have to see what is in their souls"
How sex hackers could treble your domestic phone bills
When journalist Ruth Battish discovered her quarterly telephone bill had soared from pounds 150 to pounds 441, she demanded an itemised bill from BT. The bill revealed calls every few seconds to exotic locations abroad.
She told BT there must be some mistake. She and her husband Ilan didn't know anyone in the Philippines. Days later, BT came back with an explanation: the calls were made to adult sex lines - phone lines which often terminate in foreign countries in order to circumvent restrictions in the UK.
Ruth endured long questioning sessions with a complaints investigator from BT: "In the end, she said our line had been checked and there was no fault on it. I began to have terrible rows with my husband. I would ask him: 'Are you sure it is not you?' Then I would look at his face and I knew he was telling the truth."
Ilan recalls: "I was angry and hurt that she thought I was making these calls. I came close to packing my bags."
From never checking her phone bill, Ruth became obsessed with the times and dates that calls were made. She went back through her diary, logging every call to a chat line against her own and Ilan's engagements.
"It began to dawn on me that some calls had been made when we had been out together," she says. "Others had been made when Ilan was on shifts." With this evidence, she tackled BT, but it was insistent the calls had been made from her line.
Then Ruth discovered that, for several years, BT has been denying the existence of a suspected new form of fraud, said to be adding hundreds of pounds to domestic bills: hackers, known on the Internet as phone phreakers, aim to thwart the telephone companies by making free calls. The phreakers are said to use a "beige box" which lets them tap into domestic services.
Phreakers are said to work at night, when there's less chance of the householder picking up the telephone, and to use sex chat lines because many of the adult services have chat rooms - thus enabling six or more phreakers to talk to each other. Customers remain ignorant until they get their quarterly bill.
Ruth called the Telecommunications Users Association, who said that telephone companies had too much at risk to admit that their technology was fallible.
BT has now agreed to refund the bill, but the couple are still unhappy: "What we want is for BT to admit they are fallible, rather than putting people like us through hell."
A BT spokesman says: "In terms of someone hacking into a private line, we do not say that it is impossible, but we do say that it is very, very rare. Whenever a customer complains about a bill, we do a series of checks. If someone was hacking into a line - the official term is teeing in - it would show up. But if they had hacked in in the past, it would not show. And some customers do make calls which they would rather not own up toReuse content