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ASK A PHONE WHORE: How can you accept money for taking these terrible calls?

ASK A PHONE WHORE is a semi-regular feature, appearing whenever I get a good question. Anything you want to know about my phone work, ask away! Make sure to read through the archives here to see if I’ve already addressed your question in a previous post, or to see if I’ve written about something already and you have follow-up questions. I may set up a separate page here to solicit questions, or maybe just put a widget up, but for now I’ll be running my mail bag over on Facebook.

Q. How can you accept money for taking these terrible calls?

Yes. I'm paraphrasing slightly, but I fielded this question recently, and it was a first. Not the indignation, but the angle. The money, the transaction, seemed to be part of the problem.

PW Poster 3_sm(2)For context: the film Phone Whore, adapted from my stage play of the same name, is done. (You can see the trailer here.) I got to watch it with maybe 25 other people in a private pre-premiere screening this past weekend, and my director and I followed it up with a Q&A. That's the sort of event that might happen at a film festival, and we wanted to start getting ready for it.

So. There was a party of three sitting fairly central to the screen, and after the film I had to fight to keep the focus of the Q&A open to everyone, because that one table had so many questions, and most of them related to how that trio of viewers did not approve of how far we went in the film, in terms of portraying the kinds of calls that I get, and therefore were expressing outrage at the fact that in real life I do field those kinds of calls. The calls involving fantasies around illegal things. It felt as though they were trying to wrest an apology for me, or get me to defend my choice to take the challenging calls.

(Versus, I don't know, pass them on to other operators, or report them to the police? Yes, one of the audience members at that table said that was the right thing to do, and it was my moral responsibility.)

Thankfully, I've had a LOT of Q&A sessions to get good at this. I know when to answer and when to redirect, what kinds of clarifying questions to ask, when to get Socratic on their asses. And I think the viewer was frustrated and ended up casting around, trying to get a grip on what exactly she was objecting to. And that's what she came up with: how can I accept money for doing those calls involving acts that would be illegal if actually performed?

The answer for me is simple: it's a service, what I do. I should get paid for listening to strangers' fantasies.  Why does taking money make it a less valid or ethical option? Because you're profiting from encouraging these guys to talk about these things, I think was her response. Hard to tell. Her fluster and anxiety was rendering her a little incoherent toward the end.

The thing is—and here is my staircase wit—these guys have these fantasies already, with or without me. The only encouragement I'm giving them is that of a nonjudgmental ear. In our society, the way it is around sex and our sexual imaginations, that is an invaluable service. And yes, I asserted that service is worth money. Another member of that table then asked, very dismissively, "Would you do that for free?" The really taboo talk, he meant. And I said, yes, I already do for some people. He looked disgusted and sat back.

I'm not sure what that proved for him, but for me it underscored one thing: as long as those questions keep coming up in that way, then we still need to be having the conversations.

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