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Inside the shady billion dollar phone sex industry

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In 2019, when three award-winning filmmakers asked me to host and co-write a podcast called Operator, who would explore phone sex in the 1990s, of course I said, “Yes! Yes! YES! ”As soon as I learned the basics of American Telnet, a company that made billions of dollars with adult paylines, I struggled to fly to Florida to interview all of them. What I’ve found is that the more sex work changes, the more it stays the same.

1-900 ads on the late night cable and at the end of the weekly papers were part of my early fascination with sexual pleasure. When I close my eyes I can still hear the seductive purrs of the models, see their sweaty flesh coming out of the full bodied lingerie. To a gay teenager from a small town, these professional chatterboxes seemed like a raging excitement. And they were potentially just a phone call away. Like most hormonal kids, I was drawn to anything about naked bodies; unlike my peers, I wanted more than just an intimate experience. I was obsessed with erotic performance and storytelling, art and culture, politics and activism.

These obsessions led me, when I became an adult, to pursue a career as a professional dominatrix and pornographer, and later as a podcaster, journalist and sci-fi writer covering topics such as BDSM subcultures and rights. adult entertainment work. The Operator the producers were smart enough to bring out the voice of someone with a background in both the sex industry and in covering the sex industry as a journalist. As the host of the show, I’m a 21st century sex worker exploring the industry that changed my life back in the days just before I was part of it.

The people who built and ran American Telnet (or ATN), and their relationships with each other, have this stranger stranger than fiction for them. A charismatic CEO who speaks fast, wielded impressive powers of persuasion and took enormous pleasure in his business. A young woman who has become the smiling mascot of the company, partying at porn conventions. A former Marine who ran the phone room like a mother’s lair. The nerdy tech chief who broke new ground in the professional use of voice recognition and automated phone menus: his ambivalence about using his talents to serve “horny dads” and other phone customers -sex would have a catastrophic effect on the business. There’s the family drama, self-loathing, drugs, backstabbing, police raids, and corporate power play.

Behind all this excitement and emotion lie the foundations of ATN’s success. What ATN has done, which has never been done before, is to bring all the elements of phone sex – advertising, computer programming, finance, advertising – together under the roof of a service desk. If that sounds boring to you, imagine a time when you couldn’t interact with strangers through technology all day, every day. Now imagine you dial a 1-900 number, and your call is routed to a menu where you can select your personal fancy—press one for students, press two for a trio, press three for genre game, many of the same words you see in porn tabs online to this day. From there, your call is routed to a real live girl who knows exactly what you want to hear. To you, it may seem like magic. But behind the scenes, a complex telecommunications system works in tandem with multiple departments and hundreds of employees.

And then there were the real telephone operators. We managed to track down a few operators, but for the most part we had to honor their work by writing about the nature of their absence.

“The room where the dirty talk took place was either seen as a monster show or avoided like the plague. The people who got rich from what these workers provided in that room regarded this work and the people who did it as unworthy of them.“

In some ways, ATN gave female sex workers something extraordinarily rare in the industry then and today: They had reliable hours and wages, commissions based on keeping callers online. , total anonymity and no physical contact with customers, and health insurance. Unlike most modern camera models, they did not have to promote images of themselves in a personality-based market cult. With employment status and benefits, they introduced themselves to the call center teams, sat in booths, and answered the phone. If the callers were abusive or used language prohibited by the FCC, they were simply allowed to hang up. If a job like this were available now, I would apply in the blink of an eye.

Yet turnover was high, which is part of the reason why it was so difficult to find operators to interview. ATN didn’t define their life the way it did for so many executives and other employees. And all of the ATN employees we interviewed confirmed that the operators were treated as second-class citizens by the company. Once the business really started to take off, the phone room was even moved to a different building from other departments. The room where the dirty talk took place was either seen as a monster show or avoided like the plague. The people who got rich from what these workers provided in that room regarded this work and the people who did it as unworthy of them. This stigma against sex work is as strong today as it was then, and it contributes to criminalization, alienation and violence, as well as discrimination in housing and banking.

Based on the interviews we conducted with the few operators that we were able to find, and on the basis of the training manuals that the founders had kept, I had a good idea of ​​what a shift would have been like. typical in this room. More than anything else, this is the thing that struck me: human desire has constants regardless of technology or era. The simple need to talk to someone, the fantasies of domination and submission, the crappy customers who used the anonymity of the phone to waste any fun they could get from being abusive.

Online interactive content platforms like OnlyFans, Niteflirt and MyFreeCams are the technological evolution of phone sex facilitated by ATN. In some ways, this development has put a lot more control in the hands of sex workers: the camera models and makers of custom fetish porn, and the girlfriend experience experts who are the modern operators.

Sex workers today must be entrepreneurs. It means more freedom to control our image and weed out managers, but it also means we can’t just show up and sit down and do our job. We are our own service offices. And when we run into the exact same issues that ATN has fought for – like arbitrary regulations by government, business, and anti-pornography religious crusaders – we must all deal with them on our own. I hope that in thirty years, when someone does a documentary about this in the age of adult entertainment technology, there will be many more sex workers willing to tell our stories our way.

The first episodes of the new Wondery podcast Operator are available here.