Lust Cause

Bestiality! Incest! Torture! Golden showers!
All things considered, the job just wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
"As if that were not enough, the money sucks!" gripes the ex-phone-sex operator, a woman whose daily workload resembled a verbal version of Marv Albert's datebook.

While her complaints are reminiscent of an old Woody Allen gag ("The food was lousy . . . and the portions were so small!"), the Valley woman who calls herself Madame X claims there's nothing funny about "inhumane" working conditions in the industry she describes as a "human strip mine."

With no apparent irony, Madame X compares the plight of her phone-sex sorority to that of Appalachian coal miners.

"Nobody gave a damn about them because they were underground and poor," she says. "Then, when people found out about the horrid working conditions in the mines, the laws changed."

Earning slightly more than minimum wage for a service for which customers were billed up to $5 a minute, Madame X estimates that on a good night, she generated between $2,000 to $3,000 for her former employer. Her own cut of the take? About $6.40 an hour--and all the verbal sexual abuse she could handle.

Seductively guiding callers through several dozen fantasies a night, X estimates that she's "serviced" more than 40,000 clients during her phone-sex career. Multiply that by thousands of other operators scattered around the country and it's easy to see that billions of dollars are at stake. Just how many is anyone's guess. Although phone-sex operations are legal, the Wall Street Journal has characterized the business as a "shadowy" industry dominated by perhaps fewer than a dozen companies, none eager to publicize its inner workings.

All of which infuriates Madame X, who perceives herself and other operators as crucial players in the industry.

"If Michael Jackson does his dance on the stage, you pay him," she says, fuming. "If Michael Jordan puts that damn ball through the hoop, you pay him. In this business, I'm the one who makes the payoff, so give me the money. And stop treating me like trash just because I'm in the sex industry."

Outraged about a variety of other job-related injustices--long hours, low wages, no rest-room breaks--that eventually forced her out of the business earlier this year, Madame X now hopes to do for aural sex what Norma Rae did for the textile industry. To that end, she's just mounted an ambitious one-woman crusade called SWEAT--an acronym for "Sex Workers Enlightened Attitude Training."

Operators are standing bi.

Who am I in this land of lust and lascivious liars? Retired! I do not miss it, but I am not ashamed of it, either. Personally, I think of a phone-sex operator as a sort of sensual Florence Nightingale. Like a nurse, she takes care of those intimate, often disgusting physical needs that umm shall we say arise in the middle of the night. No one gets sick, no one gets pregnant, and if company management provided the operator some support, nobody would get hurt.

excerpt from The X Trials,
an unpublished manuscript by Madame X

Eleven inches of hard plastic clutched in her hand, Madame X remains true to the instrument that led to her social activism.

Fearful that employers at a non-sex-oriented job she recently landed might take a dim view of her rabble-rousing, she insists on protecting her identity via phone interviews.

Faced with personal questions, this unlikely labor leader is clearly more comfortable with fantasy than fact.

"What difference does it make how old I am?" she asks. "How old do you want me to be? This issue isn't about me."

Over the course of many phone conversations, however, a sketchy profile emerges. A self-described "phonic femme fatale," X reveals that she's 30-something, divorced with children, has some college under her belt and has done some writing. She also suffers from a variety of problems--both health- and financial-related--that makes working out of her home not only attractive but almost mandatory.

"Single moms are often drawn to [phone sex] because they do not need a car, child care, work clothes or worry about their appearance," explains X, who fielded calls out of her East Valley "ghetto apartment." According to her, a high percentage of her co-workers reportedly have such marginal skills or suffer from such severe physical or emotional problems that employment in a normal work environment is impossible. Case in point: "If your boyfriend beats you up occasionally," says X, "you may not [go in to] work because of your injuries."

Describing most of her colleagues as "flawed gems"--women with highly creative minds but no formal job skills--X contends that many operators would probably be on welfare or disability were it not for phone sex.  

"Of course, there's always a sprinkling of women slumming for a lark, but many more are displaced professional women, even educators," she adds. "In Arizona, all the women who do this job are part of the working poor."

Involved in the phone-sex industry off and on for the past 10 years, Madame X most recently spent two and a half years working for a company that operated out of a small office at Seventh Avenue and Indian School Road.

Employees picked up their checks at the office, but actually worked out of their homes, answering calls forwarded to them by a customer-service representative. Armed with a repertoire of up to 10 distinct "characters" (a busty dominatrix, a petite submissive, a sultry lesbian and so forth), employees immediately knew what type of fantasy a customer desired as soon as the customer-service rep addressed her by a particular character's name.

Although the money still wasn't great, Madame X says employees were paid promptly and treated fairly. Productive employees who kept up certain call-length averages could earn perks like bonuses and free long-distance calls, and there was even an office Christmas party.

But the party ended late last year, when a large Beverly Hills-based phone-sex giant absorbed the Phoenix company into its system.

According to Madame X, paychecks no longer matched hours worked, bonuses were a thing of the past and employees were even docked for taking rest-room breaks.

Under the new system, operators were required to keep logs detailing lengths of all calls, but X claims that employees' figures rarely squared with lower figures generated by the company's computer. Allegedly, call-length averages were routinely rounded down in the company's favor. And former employees were reportedly penalized financially for following company policy that required them to hang up on underage callers; those calls resulted in a zero being factored into the phone-length average.

Strangely enough, in the 900-number industry, regulations forbid operators from using explicit language on calls, a costly surprise to callers expecting to hear a torrent of obscenity. (Phone-sex lines using an 800 number generally allow graphic sex talk--but expect to pay extra.) Infuriated over receiving what's known in the business as a "banana boat call" (sexual references are couched in fruity euphemisms like "cherry," "bananas" and "melons"), many 900 callers become extremely abusive.

"You have no idea," reports one of Madame X's former co-workers. "It's like, 'Come on--talk dirty to me! What's the matter, bitch?' Excuse my French, but that's what these men are calling for--hard-core sex. And I don't blame these gentlemen. You see a girl in a magazine ad with her legs spread apart, totally nude, playing with herself and what would you expect?"

Adding to the pandemonium? A computerized switchboard that eliminated customer-service reps by forwarding calls directly to operators. Picking up calls, operators had no idea which ad callers were responding to. Were they supposed to be "Clare, the village slut" ("Hear how they punished me!") or (to quote another ad) the grammatically challenged nympho who was "so sore it hurts so good, I want more"?

When the Phoenix office closed several weeks ago, all Valley employees were terminated but were given the option to continue working as independent contractors--a situation in which workers receive no benefits and must keep track of their own taxes.

Madame X likens working conditions under the new regime to what she calls "the frog-in-the-frying-pan experiment."

"It was found that if you put a frog into a hot pan, it would jump right out," she says. "But if you put that frog in a cool pan and turned up the heat slowly, you could cook it to death, and it will never even try to jump out."

Smarter than the average frog, X realized that her employment with the company wasn't panning out. In March, she jumped ship--when, after asking too many questions, she was fired for insubordination.

A couple of her cohorts, both of whom have since left the company, were slower to wise up.

The Duchess of Y, a five-year vet of the sex-yak racket, says that under original management, "You worked hard for your money, but at least you got paid what you earned. But when these jokers from California bought them out, as far as I'm concerned, they were putting their hands in your pocket and stealing from you because of the way the computers were set up."

Another former employee who used phone sex to supplement income from a straight job echoes those sentiments. Yet despite the loss of income, she's actually relieved to finally get out of the business.

"You had to do bestiality, brown showers, golden showers, infantilism," says Lady Z, a married woman in her 40s. "Believe me, I didn't even know what these things were until I got into this. This was like a whole 'nother world from what I'd been doing. I did not want anyone to know what I was doing."  

Although Madame X and her colleagues all agree that phone sex is a vocational dead end, none was able to resist the allure of what initially looked to be easy money.

"The thing that attracted me to the job was the fact that it was working from home," says the Duchess of Y. Fiftyish, with a folksy speech pattern peppered with words like "sweetie" and "hon," Y fell into the business after 20 years in real estate. Divorced, she used the money to support three teenage sons, all of whom were warned to stay out of the back bedroom when Mother was working.

Phones parked to their ears (most operators can't afford headsets), employees like X, Y and Z spent eight hours a night jumping through whatever sexual hoops were held in front of them.

Most times, they didn't have to hop too high.
"You soon find that saying 'Ooh, baby!' to anything works pretty well," says Madame X. "A man with an erect penis in his hand doesn't have enough blood to operate his brain, too."

But kinkier customers kept the women on their toes, not to mention other anatomical nether regions. Outside of pedophilia (a taboo that some operators skirt by posing as baby-voiced 18-year-olds), practically anything goes. No longer surprised by anything, Madame X reports that more than a few clients have fantasized about being in John Bobbitt's shoes.

That said, "I truly believe there is a real need for these sex lines," says X, who would like to believe that by helping people channel their energies into phone fantasy, she may be keeping a sex criminal off the street.

"Remember, there are a lot of lonely people out there. There are men who don't ever leave their homes--paraplegics, for instance--who'd have no other outlet except for these lines. Some of these callers just don't have women in their lives."

And little wonder, considering some of the weirder scenarios dreamed up by these sexual shut-ins.

"Where they come up with some of these fantasies, I have no idea," says the Duchess of Y, who once spent nearly half an hour simulating a fatal pillow fight with a caller with a unique fetish. "He wanted me to smother him," she remembers. "I kept trying to smother him all different ways, but nothing made him happy. 'Smother me more!' He really wanted to be smothered."

Lady Z, meanwhile, wouldn't have minded smothering one caller, a creep who orchestrated a brutal rape fantasy in which she was to portray a woman who was nine months pregnant.

"His big thing was that he kept wanting me to scream while he pressed on my stomach," says Z. "This went on and on--I wasn't screaming loud enough to suit him. After about 15 minutes of this, I just couldn't take it anymore. I tried to explain that what he was doing would hurt the baby."

Overheard by a supervisor who was monitoring the call, that explanation cost Lady Z a three-day suspension.

In the perfect phone-sex utopia envisioned by Madame X, Lady Z would have been rewarded, not penalized, for such candor.

"I'm here to remove the pimp mentality from pornography," she says of her SWEAT movement. "This business should belong to women. Too many guys have learned about sex by watching bad porno made by stupid people who happen to be men."

To drive the point home, she refers to one of the company's ads describing a fantasy in which a pregnant vixen "sprays milk in your face."

"Some guy wrote that," she says, with a sniff. "Any woman would know that pregnant women can't produce milk until they've given birth." Ideally, she says, phone sex of the future will incorporate useful sex education.

But like the rest of her crusade, just how that might happen is something she hasn't quite figured out. ("For hot sex chat, press 1; for lactation counseling, press 2. . . ."?)

To date, SWEAT's public visibility has been limited to a two-minute bit on Channel 15 news, with a dimly lighted X and Y hiding under floppy hats and dark glasses.

Madame X's behind-the-scenes efforts haven't fared much better. In Arizona, there are no laws regarding on-the-job breaks. If she wants to contest her wage disputes with her former employer, she'll have to file formal charges with the state labor board--something she's not ready to do. And despite her belief that the company's long-distance carrier has some complicity in exploiting phone-sex workers, one of the carrier's lawyers sent her a letter telling her otherwise. In short, unless she's talking dirty, no one's much interested in what she has to say.  

Her one note of encouragement has come from COYOTE ("Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics"), a group of San Francisco-based prostitutes who banded together in the early '70s to organize sex workers. Admitting that "it's hard to cite" her own group's advances over the past 25 years--prostitution remains unorganized and illegal--a COYOTE spokeswoman has high hopes for X's efforts. "It's very exciting, and I think she'll have lots of success," says Carol Leigh, a prostitute/filmmaker who also works under the name "Scarlot Harlot." "[Phone sex] is the most likely sex business to be organized [or] unionized"--basically, because it's a lot less stigmatized than other kinds of sex work."

"Never gonna happen," counters another observer, an L.A.-based newspaper account executive who specializes in sex-industry ads. Envisioning Madame X's difficulty in mobilizing a scattered work force comprising "students, housewives, insomniacs and old ladies," the ad man says, laughing, "What she's considering is actually quite ludicrous. These companies spend thousands and thousands of dollars in advertising. Paying workers is always the smallest part of the expense."

Faced with so much adversity, one might wonder why Madame X doesn't simply direct her energy into something more productive. Like, say, setting up a hot line to help pull women out of the phone-sex quicksand?

But to quote the guy in the circus who cleaned up after the elephants, "What? And leave show business?"

"Ultimately, what I want is for people to go beyond the [phone-sex] thing. . . . This is a human-rights issue," says the self-styled "quintessential sexpert."

"If we can solve this problem, it'll have a catalytic effect throughout culture, because it will go from the bottom to the top." Pause. "You won't have sexual abuse in the White House if you don't have it on the sex lines.

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