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Sex, Suicide, and Homework: The Secret World of the Telephone Hotline

A brilliant documentary talks to sex workers and counselors on LGBT, suicide, and other hotlines to discover why people unburden themselves to strangers by phone.


Despite the heavy breathers, the prank-callers (the groups of kids doing homework, the abusive drunks), despite the man who would regularly call and tell me he was in a graveyard and horny and he was just taking his trousers down “right now,” my time as a volunteer for the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard was one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done. Walking with other LLGS volunteers at London’s Pride march crystallized the meaning of the day, and of that word.

Every shift at LLGS, a counseling hotline which celebrated its 40th birthday earlier this year, was three hours long. It would be you, sometimes alone, sometimes with a group of other telephone volunteers, and you would field an astonishing array of enquiries from callers, ranging from the very emotional to the very practical. If there were idiots, weirdos, and bigots who would call, they were far outnumbered by those genuinely seeking help and guidance.

There was the young man coming out to his parents—a call that went on for an hour, and involved the young man, his mother and father, and many tears—and finally some understanding. There was the woman whose girlfriend had left her, who was in tears, and who by the end of the call was—if not laughing with joy—in a better place than her awful cracked weeping of the opening minutes.

Yes, there were people who said they were about to commit suicide, and you would try to keep them on the line for as long as possible. They were desperate, and all you could do was to soothe and calm; in every call you tried to get their story, to get them talking. There is an amazing intimacy on the phone talking to a stranger; LLGS’ motto remains, rightly and admirably, “Calm words when you need them most.”

All of this came flooding back as I watched Tony Shaff’s brilliant documentary, Hotline, which sensitively and thoroughly investigates the many specialized hotlines out there, who staffs them and why they do so, and who calls them and why they do so. These are hotlines for suicide, LGBT, phone sex, psychics, the religious-minded, and teenagers. Even in this click-obsessed Internet age, it seems we need to talk.

The documentary begins, and is studded throughout, with images of landscape—snowy streets, night-time, phone lines—and disembodied voices relating their difficulties and desires: the hotline faithful. One person is at a dead-end spiritually and needs to hear the encouragement of somebody else at the end of the phone; a woman’s husband and children have lost their jobs, leading her to contemplate taking an overdose.

Advertising billboards have posters for hotlines featuring prayers, and questions like “Is life’s struggle getting to you?” and “Are you being sexually abused?” Every question—for services to buy or advice to acquire—comes with a number.

Y. Cleomili Harris (aka Ms. Cleo, formerly of the Psychic Readers Network) says she wouldn’t keep callers on the line, trying to contact loved ones “on the other side,” if she sensed they didn’t have much money.

The callers generally wanted to know, she says, “does he love me, will she love me, is he cheating?”

Brad Becker of the GLBT Hotline—75 volunteers, 9,625 calls in 2013—says they speak to callers from conservative or isolated parts of the country who have never spoken to an LGBT person before. One call that stays with Becker is the 14-year-old Midwesterner who every day walked over a bridge in the woods, and thought of jumping from it. At the end of their call, the kid told Becker he would still walk over the bridge, but from now on would not look down.

At the Homework Hotline in Nashville, Tenn. (20,129 calls in 2013), the emphasis is on helping students not only solve the problems foxing them with their studies, but making them feel good about understanding how to solve them.

The intimacy of the call is key: these are kids who cannot talk to their actual teachers, or friends or family, receive vital assistance from teachers they cannot see at the end of the phone. Hotline shows you something very moving about watching a teacher patiently explaining a math problem down the phone.

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The telephone volunteers at the Anti-Violence Project (3,441 calls in 2013) and Teenline (3,558 calls in 2013) do similar sterling, and varied, work. “Listening is therapeutic,” one volunteer says, reciting the guiding mantra we had at LLGS: We weren’t telling people what to do, we were not directive (although every volunteer knows how itchingly close you can get to being so), but we talked to callers on what they could do. The strange thing is: you never know what happens next. You are suddenly party to someone’s most private thoughts, usually in a moment of crisis, then—click, brrr—they are gone.

Alan Ross of the Samaritans in New York (120 volunteers, 65,000 calls in 2013), says the organization is specifically geared to those considering suicide—and yet the fact those people have called, Ross says, reveals “a window of opportunity to connect.”

For 911 operators (there are around 240 million 911 calls each year), there is no closure; one says they hear the immediate fury of an emergency, and then never know what happened next.

Not every advice giver works under the aegis of an organization. Jamie Blaine is a handsome crisis counselor, with a curly cumulonimbus of dark hair, we see driving towards goodness-knows-what traumas in the dead of night. “Late magnifies desperation,” he says. “I’ve always ended up with misfits, scoundrels, the depressed and drunk. These are my people.”

This echoes something Brad Becker says—that sometimes when he’s talking to someone it’s like talking to himself 20 years previously. Those who counsel on hotlines may well have gone through something traumatizing themselves, and they may have used a hotline at a critical moment seeking help. Working on one is a way of giving back. Becker says callers can sometimes think “you are their best friend or perfect boyfriend,” because you may be the first gay person they have spoken to.

The film offers some enlightening historical context: the rise of the phone in the 20th century dove-tailing with people’s new mobility; their moving away from family and friends, and the phone becoming—until the Internet’s inexorable dominance—the way we communicated with each other. If you weren’t near friends, and your pain or demons or worries became more private and internalized, who better to listen than a sympathetic stranger?

Brent Furlong, a pastor who runs Go Time Ministries for those seeking spiritual sustenance, says just because he is anti-abortion, and believes homosexuality is a sin, doesn’t mean he can’t “be around these people.” Pastor Furlong, based in Finleyville, Penn., doesn’t say what he advises “these people” beyond “directing them to God” and praying.

Tonya Jone Miller, who describes herself as an “aural courtesan,” has run the Bay City Blues sex-line for nine years. Miller says her service allows men to indulge their basest fantasies. She never sounds pissed off, or tells someone they’re disgusting, “unless that’s their fetish.” She inhabits various characters: Donna is her, five years younger; Kristin is a kinky redhead; Shelby (a steal from Steel Magnolias?) is a Southern belle, with “huge tits her husband has bought for her.”

We see another telephone sex worker, Gypsy, getting a caller hot and bothered as she sits in a parking lot, imagining sliding a hand under his shirt. She doesn’t look like a conventional sex-bomb, but she sounds like one—her soothing, calming voice the result of opera training, she says. When she tells her male customers, “‘Everything is going to be OK,’ they believe it.”

Phone sex, the women say, is not about having an orgasm, but human contact. Miller says it is more dangerous than meeting clients because it takes place in the imagination. She is flattered that men want to spend time on the phone with her, rather than their partners and was very upset when she got to know one of her callers, and—finding herself in his town—called to him to meet, only to be fended off. Miller realized he had a partner, another life, and, despite the intimacy she thought they had built, he was just another client.

One of the most extreme listeners is Jeff Ragsdale, the eponymous “Jeff, One Lonely Guy” who posted adverts on New York City lamp-posts, reading: “If anyone wants to talk about anything, call me [followed by his number].”

Ragsdale spent 17 hours on the phone the day news of his request went viral on the Internet. He has so far fielded 150,000 calls and texts. He feels bad he cannot respond to everyone, his day a boggling chaos of listening, talking, and frantic scribbling down of numbers to call back (which totaled 700 the day he is interviewed for the documentary).

It doesn’t get more intense than crying with someone on the phone, the handsome, though understandably harried, Ragsdale says. He thinks as much as he is healing his callers they are healing him. His friend Stephanie—a fan who traveled to New York to be near him, from a town which apparently half-burned down—thinks he has way over-extended himself. She is at a critical moment in the town-burning-down story when Ragsdale phone rings. When he breaks down on camera it is while telling the story of a dying man who called him from his deathbed. How Ragsdale can live with all this day-in-day-out intensity from strangers is baffling.

One communications expert wonders how listeners don’t burn themselves out, and how they protect themselves. Q, a volunteer with the GLBT hotline, says knowing you have been there for someone in a moment of their suffering provides some comfort at the end of a shift.

Pastor Furlong looks at his phone and says, “Sometimes you’ve got to just shut that thing off and let it go to voicemail.” Jamie Blaine finds “Pinball beats Xanax and Jack Daniels. “There’s treasure in the darkness, but you have to go there,” he adds. He sees himself in some of his clients: “If the circumstances were different, I’d be on the other end of the phone.”

The hardest thing to come to terms with is that ultimately you cannot make everything all right for people, Blaine says. “If someone really wants to take their own life, there is nothing you can do to stop them.”

What unites all the phone-workers is that they believe there is still value, sometimes lifesaving, in speaking by phone. Ms. Cleo says she has more misunderstandings via email than by speaking; Q from the GLBT hotline says in speech you can hear nuance and subtlety. But the online world has shattered the hotline-world—where once there were 150 LGBT helplines, there are now 50. The fight for marriage equality and legal cases has “sucked the air out of the room for other organizations,” says Brad Becker.

Yet, in all their lines of work—whether counseling or sex-work—the contributors say speaking on the phone helps their callers to profoundly connect with someone else for whatever their desire to do so. “It offers a safe place to be real, who they are, and we don’t have enough of that in the world,” says one contributor.

The documentary ends with a man speaking about his much-loved and missed dead wife. “It feels good to have somebody to talk to and understand what I am actually feeling,” he says to an unheard volunteer.

At LLGS, you certainly felt proud to be able it to offer help or counsel. You hoped it was enough, that it was adequate, though you soon learned not to Pollyanna-ishly hope that everything you said to someone would lead to miraculous change. You were doing what you could in a strange, intense, abridged amount of time.

There were calls from people confused about HIV, from tearful, worried people who had just had unsafe sex, and from people who had never had lesbian or gay sex before. Sex and sexual health advice loomed large.

Watching Hotline reminded me of talking to the older man coming out for the first time, excited and nervous, and who later called back to tell us how he was getting on. There were calls from people on highways cradling cell-phones, lost trying to find gay saunas. It’s difficult imparting condom advice when your caller is driving at high-speed, trying to find the right junction turn.

I’ll always remember the man who was, it transpired, being raped by his boyfriend and his boyfriend’s friends, but because he’d never had gay sex or met gay people, wondered, “if this was the normal thing that goes on.” There was a man who said his boyfriend was holding him hostage with a gun. He’d left the room momentarily, giving him the chance to call us. What should he do?

As Hotline shows only too well, there were so many calls, so many different crises, so many flashpoint-glimpses of people’s lives in turmoil—and many times people just wanting to speak to someone because they were lonely—that you would leave every three-hour LLGS shift slightly more amazed at humanity, at ourselves, than you were at the beginning of that shift. I walked home alone, in the dark, all the unseen voices of that evening still ringing in my ears.

Watch Hotline here, and via iTunes.