Commercially available telephone sex with women has been available at all hours of the day or night for over 25 years to anyone who pays the fee. Explicit sex on screen or interactively in chat rooms is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week through the Internet. In the 1970s, arrests of voyeurs decreased in Scandinavia when cheap, 5-minute, explicit sex videos could be bought in pornography shops (personal observation, 1981). However, obscene phone callers have not become extinct.
Police often consider obscene call complaints as trivial and a nuisance. They are not easy to trace, so very few obscene callers are actually apprehended. Phone companies report that 20% of all complaints they receive are from women reporting obscene calls from men. Women may make obscene calls or direct solicitations for “business” to men. However, men very rarely report these to the phone company or police because they tend to be amused rather than upset by such calls.
Making an obscene call is a criminal sex offense just as is public display of the genitals (exhibitionism). In fact, scatologia is considered verbal exhibitionism. Explicit sexual conversation with an unwilling listener is illegal—it is an act of public indecency that can result in arrest, a fine, or a jail sentence in the United States.1
Characteristics of an obscene caller
What kind of man makes an obscene call? The caller may be a teenager, a brain-damaged or mentally retarded person, or a very bright adult con artist. He may be a juvenile or a married father; someone with manic depression or schizophrenia; he may be intoxicated with alcohol or drugs; or an anxious, shy, lonely man afraid of rejection and unable to make a close personal relationship. The range of possible perpetrators is wide. If caught, each will require a careful psychiatric evaluation to answer the question, “What kind of man is this obscene caller?”2
What purpose is served by the obscene call? Sexual arousal is the usual goal. There is also anonymity while the caller attains something forbidden—ie, a girl or woman’s ear for his sexual thoughts. An insensitive teen prankster may think it funny to show off and laugh and huddle around a cellular phone with buddies while he makes an obscene call to a girl he knows by name, inconsiderate of her reaction. One such prank call does not qualify for a paraphilic diagnosis (302.9 telephone scatologia, obscene phone calls).3 The behavior must recur for at least 6 months; there must also be an intense preoccupation about talking on the phone about sex explicitly, while the caller becomes aroused, masturbates, and attains orgasm.
There may be comorbid exhibitionism or pedophilia. Direct inquiry is essential. The recipient’s reaction of surprise, fear, upset, and anger may provide the caller with a sense of power and masculinity. Obscene callers describe a strong or intense time-consuming, obsessive preoccupation about making the call. They know it is wrong and possibly legally dangerous. Some callers risk re-arrest for the sake of brief moments of sexual excitement. Evidently, the anticipation is arousing.
An obscene caller may be taking medications, or he may be in therapy. Yet he may feel compelled to repeat the illegal act. On each visit, therefore, the therapist must ask, “Have you made any sex calls since your last visit? When? Do you keep a list?”
Many obscene callers are under a court order to complete a year of psychotherapy. Thus, many callers are not willing patients. A caller may also not show up at therapy until shortly before his court date. Medication (such as an SSRI) can reduce his intense drive for repetition but will not cure his need to make repeat calls. At every visit, the caller should be clearly told this.
Recipients of obscene calls
Police and the scant scientific literature report that most obscene callers are troubled, immature men who are not dangerous. But how does a victim know that the perpetrator is not dangerous? There is no way to tell. The woman’s first reaction is most often, “Why me?” It may be reassuring for her to realize that the call is incidental or random.
However, if the caller uses her name or address, the recipient has reason for caution. With this indication that the call is not random and that she is not anonymous, the context has changed. If the caller is psychotic, he may be unpredictable. She will worry. Is it her ex-husband, an old boyfriend, someone from work, or a stalker on a car phone outside her home? Did the caller threaten injury to her, a family member, or her property? Was there a demand or blackmail? Should the police be called immediately?
Fortunately, the great majority of obscene calls are made to anonymous recipients. Obviously, the recipient should not give her name or make conversation. She must hang up quietly and expect an immediate repeat call. She should quietly hang up again and again. She could call the phone company’s business office to report the obscene call and request observation and tracing of the originating phone to make a detailed police report.
Volunteers at suicide hotlines are specifically trained to deal with obscene callers because while on duty they frequently receive an obscene call from a masturbator seeking a random female voice/ear. The volunteers are instructed to say, “Please get professional help” and to give their clinic’s office hours because some obscene callers are psychiatric patients who need to resume their medications.
A woman who receives recurrent obscene calls could ask a male relative or friend to record her answering machine message, so that a “random” obscene caller will not hear a woman’s voice. She could also change her phone number or use caller ID, which may solve the problem.1,3
New technology brings new problems. Each person seeks to minimize the negative impact of an unwanted obscene sexual caller on everyday life. A few individuals may benefit from brief counseling as a safe place to discuss fears which may have been triggered by an old remembered horror movie. Medication may be used temporarily to reduce anxiety and restore calm and confidence.
1. Pakhomou SM. Methodological aspects of telephone scatologia: a case study. Int J Law Psychiatry. 2006;29:176-185.
2. Price M, Kafka M, Commons ML, et al. Telephone scatologia. Comorbidity with other paraphilias and paraphilia-related disorders. Int J Law Psychiatry. 2002;25:37-49.
3. Saunders EB, Awad GA. Male adolescent sexual offenders: exhibitionism and obscene phone calls. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev. 1991;21:169-178.