With pornography ubiquitously available for free online, what keeps the phone sex industry alive? | Pittsburgh City Paper

With pornography ubiquitously available for free online, what keeps the phone sex industry alive?

“Sex gets put on the table, and everything else is a hidden agenda item.”

With pornography ubiquitously available for free online, what keeps the phone sex industry alive?
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Jessie Sage
Typically, when I tell folks that I am a phone sex operator, it's met with confusion. “That still exists?” This even comes from those within the sex industry who believe that the internet, with its ubiquitous porn and live sex-camming, must have rendered the phone sex industry obsolete.

Admittedly, prior to finding out that a friend of mine was doing similar work, the only picture I had of this work was one of those cheesy soft-focus television ads from the early 90s. Given that image, the fear before taking my first call was that I wasn’t going to be good at dirty talk. Instead, I discovered that this anxiety revealed my own mistaken assumptions about sex work: that it is primarily about sex itself.

In Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, Harvard researcher Niobe Way theorizes that after around the age of 15, in a heterosexual framework, the relationships that boys have with one another become more distant. While they have close friendships prior to this, part of their socialization requires them to give this up. At the end of this process, she argues, many men believe that the only intimacy available to them is found in sexual or romantic relationships with women.

My sense, in having hundreds of intimate conversations with clients, is that this feeling of isolation and loneliness is profound. Indeed, upon asking one client what he wished that sex workers understood, he answered, “That we are lonely, and that we are vulnerable.”

For a presentation I gave for the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival this spring, I interviewed a handful of clients to get their perspective. In reflecting on his use of sex lines, one client said, “Phone sex is a great thing that helped me through a lot of rough patches in my life.”

Another commented, “We can get pornography online for free, but when it is about loneliness, phone sex is the best.”

When asking a third client what he was looking for when he made these calls, he responded, “Affirmation,” and then added, “What you are selling is interactivity.”

Of course, this interactivity has a sexual element to it. Yet, many clients understand the relationship between their sexual desire and their other needs to be intertwined. One admitted, “I don’t think there is a way of solving [our loneliness] that doesn’t include sex. This is how men know how to feel connected.” Another described sex as a front that allowed him to address his other needs, saying, “Sex gets put on the table, and everything else is a hidden agenda item.”

In a world in which men are only allowed to be vulnerable, to be open, and to be intimate with women that they are having sex with, it is safer for them to seek out the intimacy that they desire when it is couched in sexual transactions. Far from being the central driving force in my work, sex is often a cover for something deeper, something that tells us more about masculine socialization, intimacy, and loneliness.

Peepshow Podcast

In Episode 28 of The Peepshow Podcast, we talk to Stacey Swimme about her 20-year career in the sex industry, an accomplishment that is being celebrated this week.

Swimme began her career at 18 in a strip clip in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her career has evolved to include cannabis and sex work activism, escorting, and most recently, phone sex.

Additionally, Stacey worked to obtain a counseling certificate. When asked her motivations for this, she said, “I wanted to be better at sex work, in a way.”

This response deeply resonates with my experiences. If sex work could be reduced to sex, training in psychology would hardly be necessary. Yet, Stacey found her training in counseling to be valuable: “I recognized that I had an ability to influence the people who were spending time with me because they were coming into a space specifically to be vulnerable.”

She adds, “I kept seeing a need for this and I thought, ‘Okay, I need to get more skills to help with the transformations that people are coming to me for. They don’t know that is what they are coming for, but it is. They unload so much shit.’”