"What colour knickers are you wearing?" is not a question most of us would imagine putting to a Samaritan, should we ever call the 24- hour national listening service. Yet, it has been revealed to the Independent on Sunday that the Samaritans receive a significant number of sex calls, mainly from men, and that this is putting off some female volunteers, possibly even making them leave.
"The worst part is when you feel totally manipulated," explains one female former Samaritan of 15 years' experience. "I could take somebody asking, 'Have you got big tits?' or saying, 'I've got a big cock', because it was not at all personal and did not invade my emotional territory. What I hated was when someone told you their story and sucked you in completely and you gave absolutely everything of yourself, only to find out that they had been masturbating all the time. Then, I felt totally abused."
Each year, the Samaritans receive around four million calls, 48 per cent of which are from men (there are two e-mail addresses now, which attract a lot of male contacts). Calls from men are on the increase, while Samaritan volunteers are still 70 per cent women. Last February, the Samaritans launched "Operation 10,000" to recruit another 10,000 volunteers, because volunteers fell by four per cent in 1996, while the volume of calls increased by five per cent. And as 32 per cent of all callers are silent, it is only conjecture as to what is often happening on the other end of the line, though the majority of callers are usually suicidal or in despair.
Understandably, the Samaritans are very concerned about acknowledging publicly that they have sex callers, fearing it will put off potential volunteers and encourage more abusive callers. "We do not think this sensitive issue is so large that it is disturbing the normal balance of what we do," explains Simon Armson, chief executive of the Samaritans, "also we do not believe this is the main reason volunteers leave - people have their own reasons for leaving."
Indeed, the Samaritans have excellent volunteer training, including information about and help with dealing with sex callers, albeit quite late on in training. But this still does not diminish the impact of receiving a sex call, particularly when you are trained to be warm, welcoming and obliged to listen while "hugging down the telephone".
"I have had a couple of regular callers in the past 10 years," explains a seasoned female Samaritan. "One comes on each time with the same patter and my hackles go up." There can also be a knock-on effect. "If you get a few sex calls in a row and you pick up the phone and hear a male voice, you can think, 'Oh, Christ not again', and this poor sod, his budgie's just died or worse, and you have made a wrong assumption."
Male Samaritans also receive sex callers. "I get women chatting me up - sometimes gay men, too," says one. "But it does not worry me, because I know I'm helping someone for a short period on the phone during their crisis. Plus, they don't know who I am, where I live, or my phone number."
Professionalism - and altruism - usually wins out. Although Samaritans stress that they are not counsellors, rather "befrienders", they are scrupulously trained to hone in on feelings. "Even if a male caller is being abusive and masturbatory, we explain to him that we need him to talk about his feelings, rather than simply using us to excite himself," says the seasoned Samaritan. "We are always trying to reach the person, to convey that we care about them, even if some of them are addicted to this kind of behaviour."
Psychosexual psychotherapist Dr Sidney Crown would argue that some of these callers are trying to get help for their addictive sexual behaviour. "A man who is inhibited about going to a proper counsellor or therapist about their problem may phone an organisation like the Samaritans," he says. "They would be too scared to confront their problem in broad daylight and face to face, so they are attracted to the anonymity of the helpline.
The Samaritans are keen to point out that they are not the only target of such calls. The proliferation of helplines has meant an increase in the number of unpleasant calls to voluntary sector agencies. Most report, very relunctantly, that they do receive malicious calls. MIND, the mental health charity, has had a persistent female caller for eight years who finally had her phone cut off by BT and was given a prison sentence for harassment; CRUSE, who help the bereaved, report sex calls from frustrated widows (usually sex talk rather than masturbatory); RELATE, the relationship counselling organisation, has threatening calls from irate husbands and partners; disability organisations are harangued by occasional fascist callers, saying disabled people should be exterminated.
The key issue seems to be meeting the needs of the caller while protecting the rights of the listener. The Telephone Helplines Association (THA) was set up in March 1996 to create and provide national criteria, standards and support for organisations with helplines. Last week, the THA and BT jointly launched an updated helplines directory for public and practitioners. Kathy Mulville, acting director of the THA, explains: "We aim to help the public contact bona fide helplines and help practitioners work together to improve their service and protect themselves."
Another ethical problem facing helplines is finding a balance between maintaining confidentiality and protecting themselves. New BT technology can trace callers and allow listeners to select out persistent malicious callers. But because anonymity must be maintained, most organisations feel they cannot utilise these functions because they fear that genuine callers would be put off.
Over time, the Samaritans have brought in new policy and practice concerning sex calls. Their main aim is to continue to provide a service to those who need it most - the lonely and suicidal. While Armson stresses, "Samaritans always err on the side of caution with a caller and therefore listen long enough to establish properly what the call is about", Samaritans can now end a call if they feel it is genuinely abusive. "This decision is informed by experience," says Armson, "but a Samaritan does have the right, after careful consideration, to end the call in a Samaritan way." This means telling the caller to take a break and call back if they need to, giving the Samaritan time to get support.
Also, it is unlikely that a sex caller would get the same volunteer should they call back, especially now the Samaritans operate a national one- number system (meaning calls get directed to the next available listener, anywhere in the UK). "In the old days, I used to listen and listen, whatever someone said," says the seasoned Samaritan. "I explain how I can help and that if he persists I won't be able to help further and, after a time, I will end the call. Now I know I can end the call, it enables me to treat the caller with much more sympathy than if I was forced to listen."
Samaritans one-number helpline: 0345 909090. E-mail: email@example.com. Anonymous e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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