During my years in Los Angeles in the 1980's, I owned and operated Telerotic, a gay men's "phone fantasy" service. As a struggling young actor I had begun this odd vocation to make ends meet between acting jobs and as it turns out, I had a way with words. Within a year I had opened my own company.
My job was to sound credible (in roles ranging from cocky Venice Beach bodybuilder to friendly firefighter to surfer dude), manipulate the customer toward the prime objective within the typical call duration of thirteen minutes, and convince him that our connection was mutually mind-blowing to ensure he would call again.
And they did. Over the years I spoke to thousands, maybe tens of thousands of men, some of whom requested me faithfully every week, uttering secrets they had never spoken aloud before. It was amazing insight into the realm of fantasy, loneliness and desire. It was a social anthropologist's dream.
They were usually men trapped in a life without physical connection. Some were married, true, but most of them lived in small towns and were helpless to locate male companionship. Their desires weren't so bizarre that they were forced to resort to phone sex to speak of them. Their needs were simple and almost touchingly mundane. Stroke me there. Let me tell you what I think about. Take care of me.
My interest in them was a lifeline to many of my regular customers. They would reveal loves lost or found, the pain of isolation and their dreams of having a home with the right man someday. Occasionally their patronage would end after news of a potential boyfriend, or resume when it didn't work out. Sometimes our calls ran long, as I gently led a faceless, suffering voice away from his grief and embarrassed tears.
Truly revealing myself, however, was an occupational hazard I didn't risk. I was as callous as I was ambitious, and their intimacies meant little more than new material to plumb for future calls. No way would I compromise my fantasy stud persona to admit I was actually a skinny redhead trying to make a buck in Hollywood.
When AIDS headlines increased, so did business. And at last, something jolted me from my shallow priorities.
Maybe I'd had enough of continuing the charade, of being taken into their confidence and giving them bullshit in return, of representing a bogus sexual ideal for the sake of my continued prosperity, of being an incredibly convincing lie. Maybe I could no longer reconcile the dream world my phone calls inhabited with the encroaching nightmare real life was becoming.
Maybe it was the customer who, in the midst of our graphic phone sex call, helpfully offered to get a condom from the drawer so I could put it on. AIDS had permeated this man's psyche so completely it had pierced his very fantasies. His presence of mind to protect himself - and by extension me, the phone whore on the other end of the line - was a gesture too filled with grace to comprehend. It stopped me in my tracks and broke my cynical heart.
It wasn't long before I sold the company and ended my stint as a sexual entrepreneur. For a while I entertained friends with the sexy secrets and lessons learned from the disembodied voices of strangers - perhaps as I have implied I would do here - but that exercise no longer holds my interest. Call me reformed, but it feels like betrayal.
Today what I remember most is listening to the sound of profound longing, of men chasing a glancing, counterfeit intimacy because it was all life would afford them, and hearing their desire for something familiar and their doubts about finding it. I regret my calculated exploitation of their hearts' desire, sexual and otherwise.
And I am haunted, deeply and forever, by the sound of trust in their voices.
This period of my life is covered in more detail in my book, A Place Like This.