"We don't just sell moans; it's a fantasy"

Erotic chat-line operators explain how they create the illusion of highly charged encounters

When the phone rings, 27-year-old Virginia Rodríguez doesn't have to move an inch. Sitting on the sofa with her legs crossed, she presses the headphone button and clasps her hands over her big, pregnant belly. Her friends sip on their beers in silence, suppressing a chuckle. Virginia - or rather, Virginia's racy, much more sensual alter ego - says: "Hi, what's your name?

I'm Alicia. I've got long, dark hair, I'm 1 meter, 70 tall, I weigh 62 kilos, I wear a 115 [bra] and my nipples are as big as cherries. Of course. And what do you like to do? Would you like to eat me up? You'd start with my feet and then go up. Ah, yes? And don't forget to use your finger... Are you going to put me on all fours? Do everything I say?" After inquiring about the caller's size and mentioning various positions (the language that you're going to read in this article is a toned-down version of reality), Virginia's moans get faster, and more and more intense until she stops as if she had had an orgasm.

"Hi, I'm Alicia. I've got long dark hair, and my nipples are as big as cherries"
"I made one guy play with half the supermarket: carrots zucchinis, carrots..."

She sums up her last four days of work for her friends: "This is one of the normal calls: you tell me what you're like and I'll tell you what I'm like." It's Friday, a few minutes after nine o'clock, and she and her friends are just about to go out to dinner in Casetas, a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Zaragoza. But it's just an extra call: Virginia starts her daily shift between 1am and 5am, Sunday to Saturday, with one day off, as long as it's not late Saturday or Sunday night, peak hours for the phone sex line. Virginia, Ana, Lorena, Marta, Soledad: the women who appear in this report either work or have worked on the other side of a 803 number. They are the voices that sustain part of the 726 million minutes of calls to pay-per-minute numbers in Spain, according to the Telecommunication Market Commission (this figure also includes other services, such as tarot card readings).

Virginia doesn't blush, and nothing is beneath her dignity. She impregnates everything with a sharp sense of humor. "The other day," she says, "I made one guy play with half the supermarket. Zucchinis, carrots, cucumbers... I kept on asking him what he hand on hand." While she talks, she exhales and sighs and gets hot flushes. When she gave this interview, in September, she was expecting her third child. Virginia chose the late-night shift so she could work while her children are asleep, and sleep while they're at day care. She says that she gives herself a 20 out of 10 on imagination and special effects. But she has one simple trick that drives every caller crazy: she pinches her cheek and moves it back and forth, reproducing the sound of female genitals. One of her other most popular effects is spanking, which she simulates by slapping her hand on her forearm. If a client wants her to urinate, she pours water from one glass into another. It's that easy. And while she's on the phone, she does all kinds of things: she paints, irons, cooks, tidies up the house or does her nails.

Virginia took this job in June, just after she got separated from the father of her children. She didn't have many options: nobody was interested in hiring a pregnant mother. And she already knew the business; six years ago she had worked for a phone sex line. One day in June, she noticed an ad in the Heraldo de Aragón looking for "girls for a friendship line." Familiar with the euphemism, she called the number provided. "First they say: 'I don't know if you're aware of this, but the job is to work a phone sex number.' They don't give you any tests. They just ask: 'Do you have a landline?' And then they say, 'OK, give us your bank account number. When can you start?'"

Easy, fast, clean. There are no complications or Social Security payments. All you need is an email address and a phone number to reach the service. At the end of each month, the company (Audiotek) pays her 15 cents for each minute she works, not counting fractions. In other words, two minutes and 59 seconds is two minutes, or 30 cents. The client is charged 1.18 euros or 1.53 euros a minute, depending on whether they're calling from a landline or a cellphone. The rest goes to the operator and the service provider.

Since it's Friday and the kids are with their father this week, Virginia is going out with her friends. After dinner they have a few beers and mojitos in the neighborhood. At 1am, they head back to Virginia's house and crack open some beers while she uses her landline to dial a 900 number. From some remote location, a machine returns the call. From that moment until 6am, the phone rings 20 times, interrupting the group of friends while they play Scattergories, a game consists of coming up with names, cities, types of food, etc. that start with a certain letter. But they decide to add two new categories: synonyms of penis and vagina, which Virginia will later slip into her conversations, making her friends burst out laughing when she says, for example: "Would you eat my shisi?" (a word that was allowed; or when one of her girlfriends decides to pick up the phone and uses the word "pencil" (not allowed) to refer to the caller's genitals.

For the first call, Virginia plays her best role. "Hi, how are you? Good, but I could be better. If you help me... I was bored watching TV. It's really hot, isn't it? And you? Were you masturbating?" And she asks once again about his size and brings up the subject of oral sex. "Do you like it? Of course I want to... And do you like the tip nibbled? You want me to touch myself too? Want to hear it? [Virginia does the cheek trick]. That turns you on, doesn't it?" Then she starts to moan. But she looks at her friends and a laugh slips out. Without missing a beat, she reacts: "Are you going to give it to me hard? Yes, yes, yes..." And her concert of moans continues until she frowns and says: "He hung up!" There is applause in the living room.

A sense of humor may be the only way to endure the job, because sometimes clients are obsessed with having kinky sex. Some ask to be humiliated. Others insult or want to be insulted. "There are a lot of freaks out there," says Virginia, "You can't take it seriously." With phone sex, there are no limits. Taboos disappear. The average operator could write a book about sexual disorders and paraphilias. Most calls, says Virginia, end after two or three minutes (according to her records, her average call in July lasted two minutes 38 seconds; that month she got 615 calls and made 196 euros).

Many people dial up an 803 number thinking that the operator is really a local girl who wants to party. The first thing the customer hears is a round of introductions to the tune of: "Hi, I'm Alicia and I've got nipples like cherries" (a message that Virginia has to change every two days). When the operator picks up her phone, the first thing she hears is a computerized voice, speaking from a remote location, telling her the city that the customer is calling from. Then the same voice suggests three towns in the area so she can choose one of them keep up the deception. "They think they're talking to a girl who also called the number, just like them!" Virginia has described some of her experiences on the blog historiasdeunateleoperadoraerotica.blogspot.com. In one of her most recent entries, Mes de baja (or, Month off"), she wrote: "Soon I'll be back slapping and screaming over the phone. Lately I've been busy being a mother again."

She's an unemployed mother with children to support. If we had to make an automatic profile of your typical phone sex operator, it would be a lot like this. While looking for people to interview for this report, most of the time we found out-of-work mothers. That's the story of Marta Hot, a pseudonym that this separated mother has been using since she started chatting (and also stripping in front of a webcam) while her son was at school. We also talked to Soledad, a Valencian woman with a baby who tried (without much success) to operate her own phone sex line for a few weeks. And then there's Lissete Vega, the telephone personality of a 40-year-old Madrileña who created her own hotline in 1999, when she lost her job in the middle of a divorce. Today she runs a call center that handles various services, including a remainder of the original phone sex number. She keeps it up almost out of nostalgia, because she thinks that it's a declining business. That may be so, but the Telecommunications Market Commission (CMT) has assigned 213,000 new adult telephone numbers to operators since 2003. And the pay-per-minute sector (including other services like tarot) had a turnover of nearly 117 euros million euros in 2009.

It all starts out with a short ad in the personals. "Lissete Vega. Psychic. Professional tarot reader. Sex," says a clipping from a 2000 newspaper. Or "Lissete, the female companion."

"That's what I went by," says this businesswoman who we'll refer to Ana to maintain her anonymity. Her ads, she says, became famous, with lines like "Grandmother seeks little boy to clean cobwebs" and "Let's masturbate together." But the most successful character was always Lissete. "She was everyone's dream; an actress." Ana speaks in a cracked, voluptuous voice from her living room, taking drags off her cigarette: "With phone sex services, your job is to please the person on the other end of the line." She shares her experience with the team of sex operators who now work for her. The key, she says, is to "believe what you're doing. Don't forget that you're acting out a specific moment of your life. Moaning is necessary, sure. But if you don't believe it, the other person will never believe it, either."

She set up the service with a friend. They had no experience, and they weren't familiar with the jargon or the timing. "And I didn't know very much about sex," says Ana. The first calls were tough. "It bothered me to get insulted, that they would use certain adjectives that men usually use in their sexual fantasies." She even hung up on some of the callers. "It might seem fun to take a call or two, but think about what it's like to work a phone sex line for eight to 10 hours."

Since then, she says, she's heard it all. "The most normal ones ask you to pant for 30 seconds and you make them think that you're masturbating. Others want to tell you what they can't do at home." Some calls are totally irrational, but Ana understands: "After all, it's part of their own fantasy."

Natalia Rubio and Sagrario Celada, two young sexologists, explain that the spoken word permits a freedom that doesn't exist with physical contact. They use a metaphor to explain it: "In sexuality, there is a front window and a back room." The front window is what is socially acceptable; the part of our relationships that we allow ourselves to show. But in the back room, generally a much darker place, fear and private fantasies lurk. "Many people who dial an 803 number," she says, "don't let themselves talk about certain things with their partner, so they call to talk about what they can't do with her."

According to Ana, the woman behind Lissete Vega, we're merely trapped by a suffocating "double standard." "On the outside, we're all very traditional. Very few people dare to express their sexuality... but everyone's got fantasies. And that makes its way into the phone conversation because it gives you a privacy that other media don't. Nobody knows you."

There is no exact profile of the phone sex service user. Customers might be young or old, rich or poor, urban or rural. But when asked to describe them, almost all of the people we talked to agreed on one word: "Lonely." They are almost always men, whether it be for heterosexual or homosexual sex. In the latter case, many calls come from men who haven't come out of the closet and have no intention of doing so, according to one man who worked for Ana for a couple of years. He also got calls from women, but very few of them. According to the businesswoman, they account for less than 10 percent of the total. "Women are more romantic, more subtle. They're looking for a different kind of sex."

None of them, except Virginia, wanted to give their name or pose for the camera. Few people who work in the business want to talk about their profession. Those who do this for a living deny it, often telling only half the truth: "I'm a phone operator." Susana, for example, usually tells people that she works in "telephone information." This executive manages a team of 40 operators at Woman Extreme. On their first day at work, she tells them: "This company doesn't sell moans - we sell fantasies. Don't talk about sex. Explain how you like to be made love to." Part of the fantasy is making the client believe that the operators are accessible girls that they could go out on a date with. In their wooden cubicles, the operators hang up maps of Spain and the subway; a cheat sheet to use when in a pinch.

Susana joined the company after seeing a want ad for "telephone actresses." Since then, she's moved up the ladder. Now she trains the new girls. She helps them create personalities and gives them classes in S&M, creativity and difficult conversations. "If a client works in the stock market, the operator goes and buys a financial newspaper." The company, located on the Gran Vía in Madrid, handles close to seven million minutes of calls a year. On a shelf near the door is the book Confessions of a Dominatrix: humiliation, emasculation, bondage... all ideas to hook the client.

The phone rings. Lorena's high heels echo down the hall. She runs to her room, sits on the edge of the bed and picks up the receiver. "Yes, yes, I can year you. You told me, she stayed at the beach alone. Well, that's what you get: you know you're a spoiled cuckold. Because it's your fault, Antonio. If you don't give her what she needs, she has to look for it elsewhere. You know that we pretty women like them big. And you can't give it to her...

[as always, the size issue reappears]. That's right, we do what we want. As it should be, Antonio. But well, you like it. After all, you're a spoiled cuckold."

Lorena is a 41-year-old telephone dominatrix and also a divorced mother of two: an intriguing blend of severity and sweetness. She doesn't give her real name, and it's hard to tell where she ends and the mistress begins. After hanging up, she explains: "His wife has slept with another guy. He just calls to tell me about it. That's what he likes... Humiliation, pure and simple." She says she's found her calling. Money was tight and she was looking for a job that she could do from home while taking care of her kids. In January, she set up her own number. She makes 0.89 euros per minute. She works from home, always wearing high heels. She walks when she talks and stops to show her clients she's angry. And they ask their "mistress" if everything is alright, if they've done something or said something that has bothered her.

At first, Lorena wasn't just a mistress. She made up several characters and advertised them on the internet. There was Marta, for example, a kinky twenty-something who was quite successful. But Ginebra, her dominatrix double, ended up attracting a long list of loyal customers. Several of them make monthly deposits into her account to enjoy a kind of "flat rate." She also chats with them, showing them her feet using a webcam and directing their masturbations. They give her shoes, jewelry, even furniture. One man has even given her access to his bank account, and another has even given her a credit card for her to use. "All the want is to be submissive and follow orders. Many of them are executives with responsibilities in real life. What they want is to be freed of that; to obey."

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