LIFESTYLES

Lust at the end of the line

The phone-sex business thrives on fantasy, loneliness

NORA UNDERWOOD February 8 1993
LIFESTYLES

Lust at the end of the line

The phone-sex business thrives on fantasy, loneliness

NORA UNDERWOOD February 8 1993

Lust at the end of the line

LIFESTYLES

The phone-sex business thrives on fantasy, loneliness

NORA UNDERWOOD

For about 40 hours a week, Ashley Finbow sits in the west Toronto flat she shares with her husband and talks on the phone to total strangers about sex, graphically and explicitly. The callers, both men and women, pay $10 for five minutes of erotic conversation, usually based on a sexual fantasy. “You never know what the person on the other end of the line wants from you,” says the 24-year-old Finbow. To those who ask her to play the role of a dominating woman, she speaks roughly, even abusively. Other callers are more imaginative; Finbow says that when the movie Batman Returns was in theatres last year, several men who liked the Catwoman character asked her to work “the whips, the black vinyl, the boots and the scratching bit” into her conversation. Helping lonely or repressed people to enjoy their fantasies has become a full-time job for hundreds of men and women recruited by well-publicized, thriving— but controversial—phone-sex agencies in Quebec and Ontario. “It’s a lucrative business,” said Jules Goldstein, president of Money Marketing Inc., a Toronto-based company that operates sex lines in both provinces. “If there’s more and more starting up, there’s got to be a reason.”

There are probably several reasons. One of them is the new technology. Push-button phones and voice-mail devices have allowed a range of marketing, information and communication services to expand rapidly across the country for the past six years. In many parts of the country, there are phone numbers—some free, others not—for sports scores, weather forecasts, horoscopes, psychics, jokes, religious messages and general trivia. People shopping for a mate—heterosexual or homosexual—can choose from hundreds of tape-recorded descriptions of men and women. But the most substantial growth has probably been in Bell Canada’s so-called 976 Service in Ontario and Quebec—976 being the prefix in seven-digit numbers. And much of the action at the other end of the 976 line is live, not recorded. Socalled party lines and phone-sex services account for most of the business; indeed, of the approximately 300 options currently available on the 976 exchange, about 180 are what Bell calls “romance lines.”

But for the women who work the sex-and-fantasy lines, the appeal is money, not romance. About two years ago, Finbow responded to a newspaper ad that claimed that women could make as much as $120 a day. Her training, she said, consisted of spending time in a small room listening to women talk to callers. What she heard made her feel so sullied that “when I got home after that first shift, I watched every Disney movie I could find.” She adds, “I’m a little tarnished now.” Currently, she says, she clears an average of $900 every two weeks after taxes—more than she earned in previous jobs behind an Eaton’s jewelry counter and as a hand model for cable tv’s Home Shopping Club. For that, Finbow works on weekday afternoons and Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., answering calls that are automatically switched to her home phone. “I could make more if I wanted,” she said, “but I just can’t because I get so tired that

my voice becomes hoarse and I don’t sound sexy after a while.”

While Finbow has fielded calls from unpleasant men and angry wives, she said that most of her work is uneventful. Many of her callers, she said, are married men who claim that they “do not like seeing their wives doing things like oral sex and talking dirty.” But she also gets calls from couples, who say that they are trying to spice up their sex lives, and from women who feel that “most of the men in their lives have never done anything for them.” Her employers, a numbered company about which Finbow professes to know nothing, have strict rules prohibiting any role-playing involving children, animals or rape. “I wanted to be an actress,” added Finbow, “and I guess in a way I am now.”

Other women have taken to the

wBÊÊÊÊKBÈÊâ*. work

more easily. Tiffany,

24, who agreed to be interviewed under her work name only, said that she likes getting paid for doing something she enjoys: talking. “I was always told as a child that I have the gift of the gab,” said Tiffany. “And the guys enjoy it We’re providing a service.” Tiffany said that she got involved in phone sex three years ago to raise money for her stepfather’s funeral, after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She would not reveal how much money she earns but said that she works between 40 and 80 hours a week and “I do well.” Her fiancé does not mind what she does for a living because, she said, “he likes the roof over our heads.”

To Tiffany and others, there are two reasons for the growth in popularity of phone sex lines: loneliness and AIDS. Like Finbow, Tiffany said that many of the men who call her are married. “The biggest complaint is that as soon as the wives say, ‘I do,’ they don’t anymore,” added Tiffany. “And this sure beats using a condom.” She said that she has never become emotionally involved with a caller nor has

she met any of the men. “We’re not here to destroy marriages,” she said. As for the charge, it represents value for money, said Tiffany, adding: “If we just gave it away, nobody would call.”

Bell Canada does not give it away either—the cost of some 976 services can be steep. For lines directed at teenagers, including the chat lines, callers are billed up to $3 a call. Entertainment programs, including the fantasy lines, cost up to $10 for a five-minute call. Bell receives five per cent per call plus 27 cents for the first minute and 12 cents for each additional minute. In 1989, the 976 numbers generated an estimated $2 million in revenue for Bell in Ontario and Quebec. But with Bell Canada’s total revenues at $7.2 billion that same year, noted Bell spokesman Perry Blocher, the 976 services were not a major element in company profits.

But aside from revenue, the 976 lines have also generated friction for Bell. Some parents have complained that their children, enticed by TV and newspaper ads for 976 numbers, have run up huge phone bills. As a result, Bell made a service available in July, 1990, that, for $4 a month, blocks calls from a subscriber’s phone to the 976 exchange. Bell also gets protests from subscribers—and spouses— simply outraged at the idea of phone sex. Blocher says that the only thing Bell can do is to randomly call the programs and make sure that they are not breaking the law. “The whole issue of 976 is quite sensitive for us,” he added. ‘We’re in a difficult situation in that we have to

provide the service and fulfil our tariff obligations and satisfy the customer at the same time.”

Telephone companies in other provinces have so far shied away from doing revenue-sharing deals with phone-sex companies. Gordon Lummis, public affairs spokesman at Maritime Tel & Tel in Halifax, which covers Nova Scotia and, through a subsidiary, Prince Edward Island, says that the profit aspect of the service may present some people with an ethical dilemma. “You’ve got to separate the medium and the message,” he said. When the phone company is receiving a percentage of the revenue of a service, he said, “all of a sudden the medium versus the message becomes blurred. When there’s revenue-sharing, I think we have the responsibility to make sure it’s in good taste or not illegal.”

For his part, sex-line operator Goldstein maintains that the services fulfil an important need by providing an outlet for sexual fantasy and frustration. “Loneliness is 99 per cent of this business—whether it’s the young guy who struck out at the bar or the woman who needs to talk to another woman,” said Goldstein. “Yeah, there are some sickies out there, but maybe we’re preventing a guy from raping someone on the street tomorrow.” Goldstein says his company has supervisors who closely monitor the calls, and he defends the growing use of fantasy and sex lines. “Have you ever heard of anyone going to a bar and meeting anyone decent?” says Goldstein. ‘We’re providing something on the telephone that does not give AIDS. We’re providing something that does not hurt anybody.”

Some people, however, express concern that the phone-sex services are a slippery slope to a less than desirable attitude towards women. “Objectifying women leads us down the garden path to all sorts of other kinds of abuses and discrimination and sexism and every other evil that’s perpetrated against us,” says Joan Meister, the Vancouver-based secretary of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. “We don’t want to have the idea of a disposable woman.” Meister also notes that phone-sex and fantasy lines may also be sending a bad message to young men. “What are we teaching these guys about their own sexual practice?” says Meister. “That it’s fast and alienated? Are they going to be fun to sleep with? I don’t think so.”

But many people agree that the growth in popularity of such pastimes as phone sex for heterosexuals and homosexuals is a result of such threats as the AIDS virus. “I think it’s a reflection of the changed attitudes about the dangers associated with more open sexuality,” said John Lowman, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. “People, with their never ending resourcefulness, create the market and the context for doing it.”

To many of the people in the business, however, the reasons why phone sex and fantasies have become popular are not important. And despite the criticisms and complaints, many of them seem to be convinced that, unless the law changes, phone-sex and fantasy services are here to stay. “As long as there are men and women, they’ll be popular,” says Goldstein. “One thing that will never go out of style is sex.”

NORA UNDERWOOD