Fantasy lines: The private lives of phone-sex operators

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When I see the late-night ads for premium-rate phone sex lines featuring nubile, tanned young women, I get curious about who is actually on the other end of the phone. Like many people, I sometimes imagine that she's a bored housewife, moaning and calling herself a "naughty girl" while smoking a fag and doing the ironing.

But whether they are working in a packed call centre wearing headsets or from home wearing lingerie, phone-sex operators (or PSOs) are as diverse as the callers. I can definitely see the appeal of wanting to make money from talking dirty, like the Americans pictured here in Phillip Toledano's compelling portraits. But these women (and men, some very successful PSOs have been boys with high-pitched voices!) have to do so much more: they have to morph into a role that is part therapist, part sexual surrogate. They also have to improvise and create multiple personae in order to play the submissive secretary, the naughty nurse, the adult baby, the porn star or the barely legal teen girl.

In fact, a quick skim of UK websites reveals that any scenario not involving children or animals seems to be up for grabs. There are some who believe that, in an era of YouPorn and free internet chatrooms, phone sex lines may soon become an anachronism. Although callers often pay more than £1 per minute to 0909 numbers, and the industry still rakes in billions, the salaries advertised for operators are from £10 to £24 per hour – and that, presumably, is if the phone rings constantly.

There is a darker side to phone sex. I once had a boyfriend who ran up £2,000 in charges in six weeks and lied about it, which seemed insane when he had a girl who was perfectly willing to engage in filthy banter for free. Experts say that women are more likely to view porn use of any kind as a betrayal, so men should tread carefully before letting their fingers do the walking.

But in moderation, I think that the allure of phone sex is the same as Erica Jong's "zipless fuck". It's absolute anonymity on to which we can project our fantasies. Who cares if the sexy-sounding woman on the other end of the line is actually a 20-stone mum of four? In the caller's mind, she's "Cassandra", a horny 18-year-old university student.

I just hope that the in-your-face nature of adult webcams doesn't kill phone sex for ever. It's good to have a bit of mystery; and after all, as Truman Capote once said about masturbation, "The good thing is that you don't have to dress up for it."

The mature operator

"I'm 60 years old, have a BA in cultural anthropology from Columbia University, and I've been married for 25 years. I have a son in his last year of college who lives at home. He's a double major in English Literature and Religion. Men call me for an infinity of reasons – but mostly for what I call 'Executive Stress Relief'. It's not sex; it's a cocktail of testosterone, fuelled by addiction to pornography, loneliness, and the need to hear a woman's voice. I make twice the money I made in the corporate world. I work from home, the money transfers into my bank account daily. I'm Scheherazade: if I don't tell stories that fascinate the Pasha, he will kill me in the morning."

The natural

"When I first started I was nervous. But after a while, I guess you could say the kinkier the sex talk, the more I was like: Wow! The phone is like my new toy. Let's just say I have found myself and my sexuality through this. I find myself attracted to females just like I'm attracted to males, so yeah, you can say I play for both teams. I really enjoy being a phone-sex operator!"

The working mum

"I've only been a phone-sex operator for a few months now to help with extra income – I'm a single mother of two young boys so money is very important to me. I'm in a loving relationship with a wonderful man who loves my kids and treats me very well. He understands that I'm only doing this part-time, to help save for my children's college fund."

The philosopher

"Tuning into men's voices, instead of getting caught up on their looks, was the same as a person suddenly going blind, only to find their other senses enhanced. I learnt to listen to men in a deeper way. My job behoved me to reach beyond the little mind games; I think if all women did phone sex before they lost their virginity, they would make much better choices."

The giggler

"The most amusing part about the job was when my partner was in the room with me, reading while I worked. I'd try to avoid eye contact with her, because I'd see her stifle a smirk or make a gagging gesture or look at me pantomiming utter shock, and I'd start laughing uncontrollably."

The voice

"I never thought I'd work in phone sex. All those years doing customer service, people would comment on my sexy voice: I thought I was being professional, not sexy. Now customers leave with more than a smile." 'Phonesex' by Phillip Toledano is published by Twin Palms this autumn

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