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Loving the Difficult People

Tales from a Phone Sex Operator

A phone-sex operator as a spiritual healer? No, I didn’t start out the work with

this intention. But that is where the path led.

“You’re a sweetheart, Karen. Always have been,” the caller tells me in his heavy Appalachian accent.

“Thanks, Wyatt. I try to be,” I reply. “You are, too.”

“I mean it, Karen. You’ve always been a sweetheart.”

I repeat my comment, and try to move the conversation toward something else. Wyatt has a tendency to go on and on with these platitudes. It’s not that he lacks intelligence—far from it. What he does lack are good verbal skills, especially a good emotional vocabulary. He’s an industrial engineer and comes from a family who did not particularly value education or the ability to be articulate. Nonetheless, my relationship with Wyatt has been among the most intimate of my life. It’s not a relationship between equals; it’s more like a parent-child or therapist-client relationship. I am a phone-sex operator, and Wyatt was one of my customers for over six years, until that relationship reached the limits of usefulness to him and we became “friends,” or at least social acquaintances. Although I still know him only over the phone, I have his real name and address and carry a photo of him in my wallet.

I love him.

I love him for his courage, for he has survived truly horrendous abuse as a child. I love him because I have journeyed with him into some of the darkest places in his mind, and I cannot be that intimate with someone without loving him. I love him for his spirituality, for, although his fundamentalist Southern Baptist religious style is quite different from my own, I know that spirituality is a real force in his life, something that helps him stay more or less sane.

“I wake up every day and thank God I have never killed anyone,” he told me once. And, another time, “I have seen evil, face to face.”

In addition to his abuse, Wyatt has suffered other losses. His high-school sweetheart, to whom he was engaged to marry, died at a very young age (I have never found out the cause of her death). That same year, his best friend died in a traffic crash, and two other significant people died within two years (I also do not know any details about who they were or how they died).

Sometimes Wyatt will tell me about adventures he had in the 1980s, as an adult. Since he was born in 1974, there is obviously something inaccurate in these stories. But only once, very recently, have I pointed out this inconsistency. After a brief argument about this, he hung up on me. In subsequent calls, he has made no reference to this conversation. I believe Wyatt has dissociative identity disorder, and I accept that and his inconsistencies.

I don’t believe Wyatt will ever get any professional treatment for his emotional problems, and hence there is a limit to our friendship. Yet I admire him for his resilience, his obvious intelligence, and his principles. He is doing the best he can with the resources he has.

“You get certain cards dealt to you in life,” he has said. “It’s what you do with them that matters.”

Has my relationship with Wyatt helped him? I believe it has, for I have been an outlet for him to talk about things that he has clearly never talked about before—the sexual abuse he endured, starting at the age of eight. This included his being forced to participate in the sexual abuse of a five-year-old girl, when he himself was a teenager. In our phone-sex calls, we did role-play; I played the part of his perpetrator. To perform this role convincingly, I had to try to imagine what this abusive woman was feeling and perceiving, to get inside her head as well as Wyatt’s. And Wyatt was extremely demanding; he wanted me not only to speak the right words, but also to use the exact tone of voice he wanted to hear. Calls with him were emotionally exhausting. I’m still not sure how I persevered as long as I did.

One night, though, after about six years of talking with Wyatt, he told me, at the end of the call, that no one in his life had ever stuck with him as I had, listened to him and accepted him. He thanked me for doing that. It was one of the most gratifying moments of my life, and after hanging up, I cried for a long time.

Since our relationship has changed to a social one, I worry sometimes that Wyatt is too dependent on me. He has told me that he has no one else to talk to about these things. He has also told me that no one in his life knows about me, so that if he were to die or even become seriously ill, I would have no way of knowing. That is one of the sad things about being a sex worker. We are secrets, and that can be painful. We can love our clients, but sometimes they vanish and we will never know why.

While Wyatt is the most intense client I have had in this work, he is not the only one with whom I have had a long-term relationship. Another young man, Justin, also a victim of sexual abuse from his mother, is more of a success story. As with Wyatt, I played a perpetrator role for Justin. And, as with all my “special” callers, it was only in the process of doing these calls that Justin came to remember and acknowledge all the details of his abuse. In the early calls, he pretended to be 15, being seduced by a neighbor woman. Eventually, though, it came out that he was only 12, and that his perpetrator was his mother. And the abuse, as is so often the case, was emotionally as well as physically insidious.

Justin has changed more during my relationship with him than Wyatt has. When we first spoke, he was working low-wage menial jobs, and had a pattern of involvement with women who misused and abandoned him. Several years after we began talking, though, he decided to go back to college and finished his degree in chemistry. For a while, he wanted to become a high-school teacher, but dropped that idea because of the amount of education required and the difficulty of finding a teaching job. He is now working for a chemical company and is on a good career path. He had his first healthy relationship with a woman who treated him with respect. Although that relationship ended, he has since become involved with someone even more compatible, and they are now living together and developing a long-term relationship.

There are a few other clients I have gotten to know over the years, although not as well. There is Roger, an older man married to a woman who physically abuses and humiliates him, and forces him to watch her having sex with other men. There is Sam, whose fantasies revolve around being sexually humiliated in public by large groups of women, and Perry, whose mother forced him to participate in sex parties from the age of 13 onward, initiating him into that scene with a homosexual rape that she directed.

This work can break your heart.

If I had to describe my job, I would say that I walk beside these men as they travel through their pain, over and over again. I don’t just listen to narrative descriptions of these incidents, as a therapist would; I take part in the reenactment of them. This lets me see these men’s pain from the inside, as well as observing their external responses. I have even used my creativity to amplify their pain at times. These are the kinds of techniques a skillful torturer would use.

I have seen evil, face to face.

But I have also never experienced the kind of love I have felt for these men. It’s the kind of love you can only feel for someone you accept unconditionally: I accept parts of them that they may not even accept themselves. And in my affirmation, I offer them an opportunity for self-acceptance.

Before I took up phone sex work, I worked as a volunteer telephone crisis line counselor. That is where I originally learned to listen reflectively and non-judgmentally, and to use my voice more expressively.

I have also been able to apply these skills in dealing with other difficult people. A few years ago, I befriended someone in my local meeting who was clearly suffering from mental health issues. She was demanding and narcissistic, although in total denial that she had any psychological problems. Yet eventually I came to truly care for her, as well as to admire her obvious intelligence and resilience, just as I have done with some of my phone-sex clients.

Like so many things in life, doing this kind of work has led me down paths I never could have anticipated, and led me to experience feelings I never could have imagined. Nothing in life, I have found, ever turns out the way you expect it to, and even if the events transpire as you expect, the feelings and insights you get from them are never what you think they will be.

Sex work can be honorable work. It is service work, and if it is done in love, it is God’s work in the world.

I don’t deny that many vulnerable people are exploited through sex work—a tragedy that humanity has ignored for centuries. There are also people who over-identify with their roles as sex workers, using this work as a means of fulfilling their own needs for attention and adulation. But at its best, sex work, voluntarily entered into by an autonomous adult, can fulfill clients’ needs for acceptance and intimacy—basic human survival needs. As such, it can be the beginning of healing from emotional pain. And for the worker, it can be an act of grace.

I thank God for the opportunity I have had to do this work. It is one of the great accomplishments of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Karen Ainslee (a pseudonym) is a member of a meeting in the western United States. She has worked as a phone sex operator for more than 15 years. Clients’ real names have been changed for confidentiality.

Posted in: Features, March 2013

5 Responses to Loving the Difficult People

  1. Robert Gibb March 3, 2013 at 11:05 am #

    Karen,

    Your unconditional love for people is truly inspiring. And you view your work – a kind of work people generally view as vulgar and unsubstantial – as a way to help people.

    Friend of the people? You are indeed. In an incredibly interesting and untraditional way.

  2. Scott March 4, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    Thank you for having the openess of heart to share with us. Your writing provided an insight that I would not otherwise obtain and your perspective is special. I am glad that Friends Journal did not discriminate due to occupational prejudice.

  3. Nancy Reeves March 10, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

    One of the things I find intriguing about this article is the use of a pseudonym by the author. I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the discernment which (I hope) went into the planning of this issue; the intersection of difficult conversations, integrity, and bearing witness, particularly when those conversations are carried out in a public space. I hope some of that story will appear in future issues.

  4. Kim August 18, 2013 at 12:59 am #

    City & State
    SLC. UT
    It’s a great story, and rings true with people I’ve known in life. Sex work can be very healing, and for people with a history of extreme abuse, it can sometimes be the only “safe” way to work through the memories and trauma. The rules and regulations associated with traditional therapy do not allow the therapist to properly address all aspects of these horrible histories. Role play (and where possible, actual touch), from an unconditionally accepting and caring person, may be the only truly positive experience that person ever has in his or her entire life.

    Phone sex adds the layer of anonymity that such deep feelings if shame and humiliation require, in order to safely address them. I think it’s a shame that sex work in this country is viewed in such a negative light. While the negative aspects are obvious, much good can come from it as well. IMHO, it’s the lies and the illegality-which leads to the violence and harm-that give it a bad name.

    The childish outlook from uptight, narrow-minded people shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with the activities of grown-up grown-ups. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…sex work should be legal in all states. People insecure about it are those who do not trust their own relationships. How little do they realize, making it illegal won’t stop their loved-one from employing the services of a sex-worker.

    All in all, thank you for sharing a true and realistic viewpoint of sex work, and showing the humanity in it.

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