For a few months shy of a year, I worked part-time, then full time at an adult chat line business in the United States. Much to my friends’ chagrin (those in the know), by day, I went to grad school; by late evenings and over night on others — I was having conversations with and getting random dudes off. I did so in the chipper, (so-deemed) all-American-cheerleader-type sound that I was required to employ. On top of it all, as a person with a pronounced non-American accent, I had to actively work at feigning a strong American accent alongside the requisite chat line “sound.” I took a cutlass to the Trini inflection of my words, chopped my accent out and blunted the sound on consonants like the “t” in party that was typical of the American accent. And I became an expert at orgasmic breathing over the phone and recreating the sweet squelch of wet pussy inside an ear.
The adult phone chat industry is a sub-set of the larger sex and pornography industry in the US and elsewhere, and on its own, accounts for a “4.5 billion” dollar revenue of the overall sex market that brings in “57 + billion [in] world wide business annually.” Certainly, it’s another one of those places where race, desirability and perceptions of desirability underscore many facets of the very workings of the industry, similarly, inside the adult film industry. The chat line, too, is also a place where sexual desirability is reflected in and revealed through the “products” of this industry, and the ways in which they are marketed. Because of the pervasiveness of sociopolitical, cultural and historical constructs of race, the insidious effects of racism, internalized and otherwise, and white supremacist heteropatriarchal norms, it’s no wonder that who we deem desirable or want to date becomes informed by a variety of these norms.
On the phone, you are able to engage with various individuals in a unique way: through the medium of the analog and or the caller’s mobile phone. You hear voices and nuances, you talk, flirt, share and arouse and release through language and sound. And if we can gauge anything by what some people are willing to profess via online postings and/or online personals — anonymous folks calling into an adult phone chat line are just as revealing, and potentially just as problematic in conversation.
Unsurprisingly, fantasy phone chat is rife with gross generalizations, misogyny, ageism, racial and ethnic stereotypes; in fact, problematic frames of almost every kind, to say the least. There were many times that I cringed inwardly, reflexively, while doing a call — while panting, “oh yes, big Daddy!” salaciously on a call. Most interestingly, playing the default “white girl” character and assuming that role as a black West Indian woman was a fascinating juxtaposition with calls involving men of all colors.
As per my job description, the role of the phone chat operator is to play a stereotypical (usually) heterosexual female “character.” We were effectively “fantasy girls”. A kind of dream young woman, between the ages of 18-24 (unless otherwise specified) that a (more often than not) man could pick up the phone and connect to for conversation and sexual pleasure. We were always available, always perky, ultra stereotypically feminine, submissive (unless otherwise specified), always ready to indulge and utterly capable. And the default character was always white. Always, again, unless otherwise specified. The collusion of whiteness with ultimate fantasy female presupposes that this is what the majority of male callers are looking for (especially regulars), and expect — and seemingly, they do.
Surrounded by other women callers, who were majority white (at outward glance anyway), with few women of color meant many times, I would be the only one on my shift, so the potential for role-playing outside of your race was relatively high for the woc at any given time. That fantasy chat lines presuppose that role-playing with regard to race can take place, is an assumption not just of the industry but of the callers as well. When male callers call in looking for an Asian, black or Latina woman — they are expecting certain kinds of conversation, sexual attitudes, interests, and most of all, a certain kind of sound. The potential for this to maybe not be genuine may or may not ever cross callers’ minds, especially if the sound of the voice reinforces the expectation.
Before anything even ahem, goes down, callers can potentially get irate if you don’t sound the way they envision you should sound and an unsatisfied caller means the company can potentially lose money — never a good look for the operator, or the company’s bottom line. And very darn frustrating. (Note: ideally, callers are not supposed to ever be aware that we are a character either.) We are that person unless specifically in a kind of sexual role-play as implied/instructed by that caller. So in as far as that goes, callers don’t necessarily think that what they are hearing and who they are chatting with is an empty caricature, but rather an actual woman who happens to conveniently fulfill an appropriate racial/ethnic/sexual stereotype because the company supposedly has a range of available operators).
The twilight-zone-feel of the whole thing never escaped me. That I was a black woman pretending to be white, then pretending to “be” black (as is scripted that is), then having the reproduction of my blackness translated over the phone in sexual talk and other topics, potentially questioned. Even as I was black. Of course, the black female request always expected sassiness, sexual domination, the possession of body parts of a certain magnitude, a certain kind of inflection, personality and black-woman-Americanized speech nuance — whatever that was.
The most difficult call I did as a black female request involved an older white guy who called me his “nigger bitch” repeatedly and wanted me to proclaim that I was his as well. He was very interested in a sexually dominating kind of call with a woman of my color. It was emotionally draining and I couldn’t wait for the call to be over and it seemed to drag on incessantly. Though most of my black female request calls did not include articulated racialized language and I have never been called nigger, except that one time. But deep down, before that, and certainly after, it was always an unspoken fear, curled up in the pit of my stomach, whenever the switchboard placed a white male requesting a black female. Because of the anxiety, it became one of my least favorite calls to field — any calls, in a sense, trying to be a version of myself.
Other calls producing dread and anxiety were the dominatrix calls which were curiously, always devoid of racial request. Mainly, it was a hard call for me because I am not a domineering type at all and it’s difficult for me to do effectively and really own it. Some men wanted no-holds barred domination and abuse from a domme: a stiletto grinded into their balls, name-calling, defecation on their bare chest and all that, and I was rather awful at it. Now, while black women requests assumed and anticipated a dominant female sexuality, dominatrix fetish calls were all devoid of racial specification — though I would default to white, those male callers never automatically assumed I was, nor did it seem to be either here nor there to them whether I was when they asked about me.
In the fantasy chat world, you couldn’t not be white unless specifically directed to be. Fantasy dream babes, after all, usually were. Basically, all requests of a racial and or ethnic sort, tended to be problematic and intraracial and intra-ethnic ones were fascinating in other ways. We were prohibited from speaking Spanish (not that I could) but very often, Latino men would call in to connect to a fantasy Latina and get sort of bummed out when I could not converse in Spanish (even if I knew it). “Yes, Papi” was the recommended and acceptable go-to cultural inflection.
My short training on how to be “the Asian woman” involved some extremely racist, myopic and really sad imaginings for what I should sound like and be into sexually. As always, outside of the very sketch industry requirements — this is also what the callers expected. I did not get to be a sassy, sexually autonomous or dominating Asian woman, ever. The vast majority of callers identified as white males, and if they are to be believed, engaged in a variety of industries from professional and civic men to small business owners, blue-collar workers, ex-military, service men and many others. I only spoke to maybe two self-identified women callers my entire time there. Women too, call in once in a blue moon, but they sometimes do. Black male callers, though not as populous, were always intriguing for me.
Firstly, at least with the men calling into this line — even if not identified upon call placing, I could usually always tell a black male caller once I was connected. I just could. Their intonation, their vibe; I would always know. Maddeningly, black male callers, like Latino male callers were always the group to always sort of apologetically allude to who and what they were. It was frequently voiced as an early kind of disclaimer, an apology for being who they were, or a kind of race-based careful checking. Sadly, very often because they did not know I was black, I often heard black men say to me (as I was “playing white” and they by default, assumed by my sound that I was): “I’m black. Is that okay?” And in that little uncomfortable silence where they awaited my answer, it would make my heart swell tremendously and ache a little bit for them. Of course I don’t mind.
And then I would give them a white female assurity that the color of their skin does not matter in this phone call interaction. They breathe a sigh of relief (I imagine). And on we go. Not that I ever asked about a caller’s racial make up, least of all for men callers of color. Since I usually knew or thought I knew, plus as a woc of color myself, I know the potential awkwardness of that exchange. Not unlike an online personals ad placer who has to reveal their racial identity to a responder if previously unstated. It’s a potential yikes moment for some.
Too bad they didn’t know that I couldn’t not be okay with it — that’s part of my job description. We are a kind of service industry. So even if a woman wasn’t cool with it personally, she couldn’t very well say, I want another call, I don’t do black men, even though some of those men understood and clearly internalized the potential for that happening from their daily real lives.
Since we were not allowed to inquire what led a man to call in, what numbers he called, where he saw those numbers or how much he was paying per minute, I do not know if the overwhelmingly white male clientele is reflective of any of that (though I suspect it is) or how exactly this plays out. Most of the white male callers, especially some in or around a certain age, were regulars and subscribers to the chat service. I knew because my pc screen would tell me if they were repeat callers plus the men would often say if they had bought time previously even if they had never spoken to me before. Sometimes you could simply gauge by the length of a call. Free, trial run calls usually only lasted so long. Every now and then, there were conversations that I truly enjoyed, where we delved into the realm of the nation’s political landscape, books, culture, gender talks, music or world travels. There were also the calls filled with actual verbal sensuality and with each throaty exhalation, I found that I was “acting” less and less (and one of those was with a woman).
I once had a male dom painstakingly give me a lengthy, detailed extrapolation on the emotional and mental aspects of the BDSM culture: how trust was built, what it entails, his personal reflections on these and their attendant issues; all the kinds of things that I did not intimately know previously. And he did so with an articulated care, love and respect which came through clearly in his intonation and words. I also had a few returning callers who came back just to talk to me on the days that they knew I worked. I’d feel fleetingly special, like we had built a kind of bond around a persona that wasn’t me but was, in a sense, me, in some ways.
For what it’s worth, I learnt a lot about the expanse of sexuality and sexual desire, the wide range of interests inside of that space, and the ways in which the expected sexual role of a woman is complicated and limited in there: by color, age, size, orientation, ethnicity and a host of others. Also, frighteningly, the rigidity of those roles and the ways in which large numbers of men basically subscribed to these imaginings about women and their sexual roles on a chat line, with no qualms whatsoever (and obviously, within their everyday lives as well). This was how they seemingly saw the world. I learnt more about myself too, what I was capable of — the depth of my imaginative and conversational skills — not the worst things to be able to fine tune in one’s self while paying the bills and surviving a tough job economy. I also learnt that you can never completely lose yourself in character and if you do, it’s always possible that you will find yourself later. It’s also possible for you to just simply discover another aspect of who you are, and revere and love it.
“Sexxx Business Statistics.” CrossCulturalConnections.org. Cross Cultural Conections, n.d. Web.
Image via frescostar on deviantart