THE ESSAYS ISSUE, VOL. 1
The week of March 29, 2015

The ethical catfish

By Ayako Black

I typically get two questions when I disclose to people that I am a phone sex operator:

  1. Wow, they pay you so much money for that. Can you show me how to do it?
  2. People really still call phone sex lines?

The answer to the first question is, in the words of Kelis, “I can teach you, but I’ll have to charge.” (This is my livelihood, after all.) And yes, people really do still call phone sex lines. PSOs (phone sex operators) usually don’t make as much money as camgirls or escorts, but we do OK for ourselves.

It’s understandable that phone sex can seem a bit antiquated in the era of Tinder, Pornhub, Snapchat, and camming, especially if you’re too young to remember the 1980s heyday of phone sex. I mean, the Village People wrote a song about it, touting it as a low-risk way of getting off in the AIDS era. It’s an anachronistic technology, but there are distinct advantages to phone sex for clients: It’s relatively inexpensive, and there’s more privacy, more control, and less risk of consequences catching up with you in the long run. The total anonymity also allows for more sexual honesty and emotional vulnerability than would be possible face to face.

I’ve been working in the phone sex industry for over seven years, and I love this job. The pay is good, it provides a healthy outlet for my kinky side, and it’s really fun. Nevertheless, I do have some ethical quandaries about my work.

Urban Dictionary defines the term “catfish” as “someone who pretends to be someone they’re not [by] using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.” Catfishing is a major phenomenon in the Internet age: There’s been a documentary film, an MTV series, and a book dedicated to the topic.

If it swims like a catfish, bottom feeds like a catfish, and smells like a catfish… does it make me a catfish?

My job requires me to behave like a catfish. I pretend to be someone I’m not in order to emotionally and sexually manipulate people into giving me money. My clients have admitted to becoming emotionally attached to my phone sex persona, and they’ve begged me to meet in person. I exploit their emotional desperation with relatively little remorse, stringing them along at two dollars a minute. In any other context, I could be prosecuted for fraud.

However, as a PSO, scamming my clients into falling in love with a fake identity for financial gain is not only totally legal, it’s expected. My clients know that they’re paying for an erotic performance, but I seldom admit to clients that my photos are fake. This is the key to being a successful PSO: convincing the customer that even though they are paying you, the intimacy isn’t strictly transactional (even though it is). So if it swims like a catfish, bottom-feeds like a catfish, and smells like a catfish… does it make me a catfish?

It’s not just the catfishing that gets to me, though. It’s the very nature of my fake identity. My character, Ayako, is a decade younger than I am and looks nothing like me. In fact, we’re not even the same race: Ayako is a 24-year-old Japanese-American girl, and I am a 34-year-old white woman.

It was never my intention going into phone sex that I would pretend to be an Asian girl. When I started working as a PSO, I created phone listings for five different characters in different demographic categories, to see which would sell best. Ayako was one of them: a brainy yet sexy Japanese-American grad student, a girl who could carry an intellectual conversation as well as an erotic roleplay. I created Ayako because I speak Japanese fluently, which is an unusual and sought-after gimmick in the world of phone sex. Of the five characters I created, Ayako was the only one that really took off, and her line is the only one I bother logging into anymore.

I have Ayako’s backstory perfected: She was born in Los Angeles in 1991 to Japanese immigrant parents (a businessman and a university professor, naturally). She speaks English with a mild valley girl accent that is a sweeter and more feminine than my natural voice. It’s the voice I sometimes use in everyday life when I’m trying to get strangers to be nice to me or give me things. Ayako lived with her grandparents in Tokyo for a few years and did some bikini modeling there, which is why her photos are suspiciously professional-looking. (Some guys care about photos looking “real,” while others don’t.) She’s getting a graduate degree in the same field I studied, she lives in the same geographical region as me, and she shares my career aspirations. I try to keep my identity separate from Ayako’s as much as possible, but it just makes it easier to keep the details straight if there’s some consistency between our lives.

I admit that I get a perverse thrill out of draining the wallets of men who would probably snub me in real life.

I code switch into Ayako mode when the phone rings and only use my “real” voice with a few down-to-earth regulars with whom I feel especially comfortable. Becoming Ayako means more than masking my voice, however: It means actually becoming the girl inside my imagination. I am comfortable being Ayako because I’ve come to realize that she’s my personal outlandish sexual fantasy, a version of myself that cannot exist in the flesh. This is partly a safeguard: Bearing zero resemblance to Ayako in real life means there’s no temptation to make extra money selling photos and videos or escorting with clients in real life (highly lucrative endeavors that could have negative long-term consequences for me). It helps me keep my sex work boundaries firmly in place.

I realize the cringe-worthy white privilege inherent in assuming the persona of a oversexed Asian woman for profit. There has been a lot of discussion the media recently about cultural appropriation: the phenomenon by which pop stars like Miley Cyrus or Gwen Stefani hire people of color as “props” in their videos and performances while borrowing their music and style for profit. The issue with cultural appropriation is that while a white person might think it’s “cool” to emulate hip-hop culture or Harajuku fashion, they don’t face the actual repercussions of being a person of color in a racist society. I can pretend to be Ayako for 10 hours a week, but when I hang up the phone, I go back to the perks of being white in America. If Ayako were a real person, she’d have to deal with being sexually fetishized on the basis of her race by creepy dudes all of the time. She wouldn’t be able to hang up the phone on racism.

I realize that my work is the very definition of appropriation. It’s also the very definition of phone sex: pretending to be something you’re not for sexual gratification and feeling a little bit secretive and ashamed about it.

Is it possible that I’m getting a little bit of sexual gratification out of pretending to be Ayako as well? Yes, absolutely. There is some level where I view Ayako as more sexually “ideal” than my actual self and enjoy the attention I get pretending to be her. The ultimate irony is that I am sort of the classical phone sex ideal in real life: blond hair, blue eyes, and large breasts.

Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho recently talked about her experiences working in phone sex in an interview on the Death, Sex & Money podcast. She explained she was given a better job at the phone sex agency where she worked because her voice sounded “white” on the phone. It’s interesting that some 20 years later, it’s far more lucrative for me to pretend that I am not white. Perhaps this is a reflection of recent cultural shifts toward white men sexually fetishizing Asian women. It is a phenomenon that has indirectly affected my self-image as a white woman, leading to a fundamental belief that I internalized while living in Japan in for several years in my early 20s—that I am, and will always be, less sexually desirable than Asian women. Sometimes I worry that this lingering emotional baggage drives my performance of Ayako.

Anonymity creates a space where both my clients and I can actually be more honest and authentic with one another.

Dating in Japan can be difficult for American women. While caucasian men were fetishized and adored by Japanese women, Japanese men found me intimidating: too large and too Western. My one relationship with a Japanese man ended with him dumping me for being “too fat.” It wasn’t just my ex-boyfriend, either: My host mother, the abbot of the Buddhist temple I frequented, and my Japanese friends all helpfully reminded me on a regular basis that I should lose weight. But the truth was no amount of dieting or exercise was going to turn me into a five-foot, 100-pound Japanese woman. Four years of feeling unfuckable and disgusting in the prime of my youth left me with some complicated emotional scars.

While I didn’t create Ayako with the deliberate intention of making up for those lost years, a part of me finds it gratifying to finally get to be the desirable (if fictional) tiny Japanese woman deemed worthy of hard cocks, cash gifts, and verbal adoration. I admit that I get a perverse thrill out of draining the wallets of men who would probably snub me in real life.

This remorseless financial opportunism sometimes makes me worry that I’m drifting into sociopath territory. Has phone sex simply become a game where I deceive men for my own dark amusement? Does this mean I’m a pathological liar? Have I fallen prey to the “online disinhibition effect,” whereby hiding behind the mask of Ayako encourages me to behave in ways I might find abhorrent in real life, like a common Internet troll?

Phone sex definitely can feel like an ethical gray area at times, especially when dealing with clients who request blackmail roleplays or financial domination. But I also think that it’s important to remember that I am being paid to provide a necessary (albeit emotionally fraught) service within a consensual framework. At the end of the day, I probably have more in common with a therapist than an online scam artist: I am paid to listen to people talk about intimately private things while facing the challenge of maintaining healthy professional boundaries.

I actually believe that the lack of inhibition that comes with anonymity can actually be a positive thing in the context of my job. Anonymity creates a space where both my clients and I can actually be more honest and authentic with one another, in spite of our fake names and personas. Hundreds of strangers have entrusted me with their darkest sexual secrets over the years, secrets that could cost them their jobs or marriages. Doctors, truckers, politicians, and elderly retirees alike have confessed their love of wearing panties, foot worship, and bisexual experimentation to me. I’ve come to learn that these fantasies are actually incredibly common, but due to their taboo nature, people seldom discuss them even with their trusted spouses or lovers. My clients confess feeling abnormal and isolated in their desires, and the anonymity of phone sex gives them a safe space to explore these desires and actually feel OK about them. How often do most of us receive positive validation for the weird or embarrassing things we deeply, secretly crave by a person who is guaranteed not to judge us?

We all need reminders that life can feel thrilling in the face of mundane boredom.

There’s an amazing quote at the end of the Catfish documentary that put things in perspective for me. Vince Pierce, the husband of the film’s titular subject uses a fishing analogy to justify his wife’s deceptive behavior, coining the expression “catfish” in the process:

They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.

This anecdote effectively nails the motivation that drives catfish and their victims alike: a craving for fresh stimulus and excitement when daily life can feel routine and suffocating. We all need reminders that life can feel thrilling in the face of mundane boredom. I think the desire for excitement that drives catfishing is actually normal and healthy. It’s just that catfishing itself is not.

By Pierce’s definition, I absolutely am a catfish. I keep life interesting for my clients. It was my own craving for wacky thrills that brought me to this work in the first place and has kept me going ever since. But there is a certain honesty within my dishonesty. The transactional nature of my work creates an important distinction between fantasy and outright deception. At the end of the day, my clients are aware that they are paying a sex worker for entertainment. There are no such boundaries for victims of online catfishing.

Working as a PSO enables me perform the therapeutic function of a catfish—providing a pleasurable distraction from tedium of the mundane—while maintaining healthy boundaries about where fantasy stops and reality begins. It is just one more way that some of us are able to survive another day in the proverbial cod tank without turning into mush.

Photo via Marcel Oosterwijk/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed