Fantasy is an essential component of human sexual desire. That much was recognised by the early pioneers of psychotherapy. However, for much of the twentieth century it was our sexual behaviour rather than our sexual imaginations that occupied the attention of researchers. By revealing that men and women’s sexual experience went way beyond the missionary position, Kinsey’s groundbreaking work shocked 1950s America. But it was not until Nancy Friday’s exploration of female fantasy in The Secret Garden that what we imagined in our heads started to get as much attention as what we got up to in bed. Cameryn Moore’s “Phone Whore”, a play about a woman who plays partner in hundreds of male phone sex fantasies, adds another dimension to our understanding of sexual fantasy. This honest drama should be coming to the Edinburgh Fringe this year, and if it does, British audiences will be confronted with some disconcerting realties about the sex that goes on in our heads and how we manage it.
I saw this play recently in Montreal, Canada. While you might think it a simple, realistic one-hander (forgive the pun) about a woman who gets men off on the phone, it’s actually a series of plays within a play, with each of Moore’s invisible clients requesting and receiving a different performance. However, we never hear the client’s side of the call. The audience are at once voyeurs, eavesdroppers and participants as we imagine the other unheard half of the conversation. Phone Whore gives a twenty-first century twist to the standard joke of English Restoration drama that all whores are actors and many actors whores. But it also challenges our assumptions and fantasies about phone sex workers and why they do what they do. Moore’s stage self respects most of her clients and hates only a few, but what she discloses of her own fantasies makes her more complex than a phone tart with a heart.
What struck me as a sex therapist was what the play says about the fantasies of men, and the limits men may or may not set on them. Cameryn’s performance is based firmly on her real experience as a phone sex worker, so the fantasies she helps men play out are, if not a scientific sample, then at least a representation of what’s out there in male heads. Kinsey’s work in the 1950s shocked America by revealing that many men had at some point in their lives had a sexual experience with another man. If Moore’s callers are any sample, then many men who see themselves as straight also enjoy gay fantasies while going to some lengths to convince themselves they don’t. The inter-racial element of some of these fantasies may be a particularly American phenomenon (a remarkable number of Cameryn’s presumably white male clientele fantasise about black guys), but it’s likely that n the UK too many more men than would admit to it fantasise regularly about having some sort of sexual experience with one or more other men. Rather than call a gay phone line, which would perhaps force them to admit their wider preferences, they opt for Moore’s services.
But why are all her clients male? Since Nancy Friday’s work highlighted the variety and ubiquity of female sexual fantasy, research data has confirmed that women fantasise just as much as men do when it comes to sex. However, recent UK research suggests that men are more likely to admit their fantasies (Brett Kahr, Sex and the Psyche, 2007), while women feel greater shame about reporting them. We could draw from this the conclusion that men are more likely to try and act them out, so perhaps it is not surprising that it is men who go the extra step from having a sex fantasy in the mind to acting it out with a stranger on the phone. Perhaps there are phone sex lines for women that are equally busy as this one, but somehow I doubt it.
I share Moore’s view that it is far more honest and potentially more creative and rewarding to admit your fantasies and enjoy them for what they are. As her character says, desires are some of the most personal thoughts we can have, and if you can imagine and articulate them in a way that doesn’t endanger you or anyone else, then “you are way luckier than the other 95% of the people who are walking around with it in their heads and holding it in”.
But what if imagining something develops towards acting it out outside of a copper phone wire? Many rapists and child abusers, again almost exclusively men, began their criminal careers with fantasy that developed, through some form of behaviour, into a devastating assault on another person. The most challenging portion of Phone Whore for any audience is the telephone fantasy that involves parental incest with a child. On Moore’s own admission, this is the point where some in the audience may walk out and it is always a point of intense discussion in the Q&A that Moore has with all her audiences when the play is done. Given the tendency of the UK public to become hysterical on this issue, there will be some in this country who will question whether this is an appropriate topic for a stage play. I hope no one among the Edinburgh Fringe selectors draws that conclusion, for the strength of this play is that it encourages the discussion of taboo. Sexual fantasies can be among our greatest private pleasures, but, if unmanaged, they can undoubtedly damage the bodies and minds of innocent victims, often for life. Phone Whore makes clear that for Moore, as for all of us, there has to be a dividing line; anything goes as long as you keep it in your head. The problem is behaviour.