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How Phone Sex Relieved My Anxiety

My inner good-time girl was dying, and phone sex was how I revived her.

Posted on July 26, 2021, at 10:55 a.m. ET

Amanda Lanzone for BuzzFeed News

“How big is my cock?”

I paused, panicked, and held the receiver away from my face. I stared at my computer, where a scene from Rosemary’s Baby was frozen in tableau after I’d paused the movie to answer his phone call. I wouldn’t dare give him an honest answer: I have no idea, you and I are talking on the phone, and I can’t see you or it. It was either big or small, and the wrong answer would be disastrous. I was in a penis minefield.

If I’m talking to a small penis humiliation guy, he’s going to want to hear that his genitals are minuscule, insignificant — wee little peanuts that will never satisfy a woman. If I’m talking to a big penis guy, he wants to hear that his equipment is way too much for me, that it will stretch me out forever, that it’s bigger than any I have ever had before. And if I guess wrong, it’s as wrong as it gets, because this particular genital game is hopelessly binary. To land on the opposite side of his fantasy would be a huge turnoff for him, and then I’d have to backtrack.

Maybe his screen name will help me out, I thought — it could tip off which kind of guy he is. Shit. Dave6Inches. What should I say next? Mmm, babe, you’re so statistically average?

“It’s 6 inches long,” I murmured, confident.

“And is that big or small?”

I stared into Mia Farrow’s terrified eyes and took a guess.

I started doing phone sex work during the winter of 2020. I do not take lightly the precarity of in-person sex workers during this time or the immense privilege of being able to earn money that I was not using for basic survival. Nor will I begrudge someone who instead picked up a penchant for juggling or craft cocktail mixology or developed any other new habit or hustle over the course of this bleak, miserable year and a half. This has been a churning, ugly time, and coping has looked different for everyone. As an out-of-work burlesque and nightlife showgirl, I used this foray into a nearly obsolete little corner of the internet as my coping mechanism.

My day job as a therapist has kept me busy during the pandemic, which quickly became the central organizing point of my life. My work was fundamentally about looking squarely at reality, dealing with facts and the present moment — but who would want to spend too much time doing that at a time like this? I’ve always tempered the earthy pragmatism of my day job with my work in nightlife, which is all illusion and fantasy, storytelling, seduction, and projection. But after my nightlife jobs dried up, the expansive, fantastical part of me shrank and atrophied in my bedroom, which had become my therapy office, my gym, and my burlesque production studio. I slept poorly, facing my wardrobe of fanciful, frilly costumes that hung inert and unneeded. My brain had melted due to the monotony, and my world had lost its middle ground. Everything was either tiny or massive, as I found myself fussing over which fish recipe to try or whether I could take a walk without encountering someone who might make me sick. I sought anything that I did not generate, anything to help me escape myself. My inner good-time girl was dying, and phone sex was how I revived her.

“You want me to be a super-strong fembot who can crush bowling balls like styrofoam? Fabulous!”

It’s not work that everyone will enjoy, but I was cut out for it. Between my background in sex education and my college pursuits of screenwriting and improv, I have the chops to provide instant, seamless, customized storylines and characters for callers. I reached out to a friend who had been doing phone sex work and paid her for an hourlong tour through the site she used before signing up myself. The callers were plentiful, because they were stuck at home too, bored, lonely, and seeking distraction. As long as they didn’t involve anything racist or that violated the site’s terms of service, I was enthusiastic about everyone’s fantasies because they were things my brain could play with that it didn’t create. You want me to be a super-strong fembot who can crush bowling balls like styrofoam? Fabulous! You want me to be an alien with six arms who runs experiments on an abducted human subject? Come on down! You want to pretend to be my landlord, and the rent is due? Gross in a time when the parasitic capitalist class is crushing the working poor, but sure, let’s eroticize the fear!

Stories fell out of me as the world grew increasingly grim. The COVID positivity rate rose precipitously in the winter months, and I wondered if I would ever see my parents again. Meanwhile, I conjured supple, well-oiled leather and cool, smooth steel. During another session, I handled a shrink ray and pointed it at my helpless, trembling victim. In reality, my body fell apart, my skin never looked worse, and Kristallnacht was trending on Twitter. But I was a goddess, a mistress, a bitch, a vixen, for minutes and hours at a time, which meant I didn’t need to be me. I could escape the anxious mess inside of me by disappearing into someone else’s rabbit hole. I burrowed into the purloined fantasies of the women I was not, the women I could pretend to be. I blew past my goal of earning enough money to afford a replacement for my 8-year-old laptop in my first month. I wasn’t in it for the money, though — an admission that situates me among the most privileged sex workers, but the amount attached to my direct deposit notification was proof that I had worked hard, something, anything, had happened, and time had slogged forward.

One of my regulars wanted elaborate productions, with looped sound effects ripped from YouTube and the kind of attention to detail that required me to maneuver between several open tabs of Google docs. I felt like a sexy Dr. Demento, locked away in my radio tower while orchestrating a one-woman show with buttons and levers and different voices and reams of notes. The generativity, the connectedness, and the immediacy of the response I got from my callers felt as close to applause as I had gotten in nearly a year. I couldn’t wait to log on and see which version of me might be called forth. Besides, my boyfriend and I had split a few months before the lockdown began, and a frigid walk in the park with a traumatized person from a dating app who I was too afraid to touch did not sound like the kind of attention I wanted. This wasn’t the real thing, but it was what I had access to, and I felt drawn into the idealized version of myself that my callers absorbed and reflected, allowing me to luxuriate in its warmth.

And then a caller wanted me to roleplay that I was his therapist, and I angrily stuffed myself back into the casing I had started this work in order to squeeze out of. He didn’t want a real therapist — he wanted a fantasy therapist, a soothing woman who wears thigh-high stockings and a garter belt under her suit skirt and gently asks questions like, “Do you ever think about me, you know, sexually?” To my chagrin, I was good at being the slutty Halloween costume version of my licensed profession. When we ended the call, I blocked him. It wasn’t his fault, but being forced to reassume even one facet of my real-life persona was miserable and I would not tolerate it again. The next week, a regular asked me to tell him, over and over again, that he was safe and that I loved him. One guy called to complain about mask mandates, and another called to process his friend’s suicide and the death of his beloved dog. I had tried to escape trauma-informed care work but instead found myself pressured back into it, especially during the months of crushing winter inertia when therapists nationwide had maxed-out caseloads, desperate people lingered on waitlists for mental health treatment, and reality felt especially tenuous.

“You want me to be an alien with six arms who runs experiments on an abducted human subject? Come on down!”

Of course I was losing it as well. I could maintain my sturdy, soothing professional persona at my day job, but need crawled out of me the moment I clocked out. Despite my personal convictions and professional boundaries, I fell for one of my callers, and he and I explored the pain of our predicament together. Things went from joyous to messy quickly, as we each became more of ourselves, enlarged by our feelings for one another. As a cute couple’s project, we found a way to ruin a perfectly good thing together. He and I both deserved the tidiness of our projections for one another, the kind of lust that burns hot and clean and has nothing to do with reality. That’s what people pay for, and no earthly thing can compare to that. After the relationship ended, I logged off for a while and spent the time I would typically be online taking walks in the middle of the street, counting cats sleeping in windows and reacquainting myself with the outside world.

Then COVID cases dropped in New York in the spring and summer. I got vaccinated, and so did many of my callers. I am still busy when I log in to take calls, but I feel the white-knuckled grip of desperation easing on the other end of the line. Some of my regulars have started going on dates again, and phone sex work has returned to what feels like a baseline amount of buckwild: big penis guys, small penis guys, the guy who wants me to turn into a frog.

I am limping into this next phase, the summer of reopening, the season much speculated to be a freewheeling, anything-goes fuckfest. I salute the participants of hot vax summer, but I don’t have it in me. I survived this time by transforming into everything for everyone else, and now I am returning to the world as someone who feels both lived in and unfamiliar. It will take time for me to remember what it means to occupy my body on my own terms — not as a goddess, a mistress, a bitch, or a vixen, but as a weary good-time girl living through anything but.●


Fancy Feast is a professional burlesque performer, social worker, and Miss Coney Island 2016. She is currently working on her first book, Naked at the End of the World, about the sex industry and late capitalism. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.


This story is part of a weeklong series about how we have sex now.

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