In an era where porn is readily available online, the idea of phone sex seems antiquated. Many, in fact, believe the industry has long since died, and unless you binge watch a lot of man-focused TV late at night, you may miss the ads.
But industry veterans say the aural sex business is doing just fine.
At Jet Doll, which launched in 1990 under the name Intertel and remains a significant company today, calls still come in regularly, 365 days per year. With an in-house staff of 120 and 1,200 contract employees (who do the majority of talking to the customers), Jet Doll is — if not as busy as ever — certainly not withering on the vine.
There are some changes, of course. In the 1990s, the 1-900 and 1-976 numbers that were associated with phone sex largely went extinct. And competing sex-oriented services have grown significantly larger.
"We have a bunch of numbers that are very popular, many of which date back to the beginning," said Bret Grainger, Jet Doll's chief marketing officer. The company claims to have some 500,000 clients — though officials won't specify the number of calls per month or the number of active clients.
While company officials declined to give precise revenue numbers, they did say the annual income of the company has not dropped considerably since the 1990s, with the exception of a period during the housing crisis.
"It's an extremely competitive business," said Holly Smith, Jet Doll's chief operating officer. After keeping the charge a constant $2 per minute for more than 30 years, the company raised it to $2.98 per minute roughly two years ago, to help it pay for online ads and the late-night commercial spots.
The demographic breakdown of users is fairly widespread, but the average caller is about 40 years old, Grainger said.
As always, the job of the actress is to keep clients on the phone for as long as possible. The length of paid phone calls at the company, Grainger noted, averages around 14 minutes. Some users pay significantly more, opting for the $5-$10 per minute rate to speak with a person in the Jet Doll offices.
Jet Doll is hardly alone in the world of phone sex. Grainger says there are between five and 10 other major companies in the field. Other adult entertainment industry sources say Network Telephone Services and NiteFlirt are two of the more familiar names.
Industry insiders, though, say the common assumptions about the state of phone sex (or, as some refer to it technically, audiotext) aren't entirely mistaken. The subset is not the industry force it used to be.
"Given the interactive nature and appeal of phone sex, live cams have undoubtedly impacted audiotext very heavily since they deliver interactivity in both audio and visual form," said Alec Helmy, founder of Xbiz, which covers porn news. "It would be safe to say audiotext is much smaller today, trumped by live cams."
Indeed, the rise of live webcam operations would seem to directly challenge phone sex. On those sites, models talk with users (who then tip the models in hopes they will strip and perform sexual acts). The key to those sites is users come to believe they have a personal relationship with the woman onscreen.
Jet Doll's Smith, though, says phone sex services haven't felt much of an impact from so-called camgirls, since the sites lack a sense of intimacy.
"The computer's fun, but you're not really connecting," she said. "When you're doing webcaming, you're sharing that girl with hundreds of other men."
The biggest change in phone sex, though, might be in the interaction between caller and operator. While some clients might enjoy imagining the actions being discussed or even what the person on the other end of the phone looks like, select phone sex operators now supplement their income by sending pictures of themselves to customers. It's a double-blind system, Smith said, with neither the actress nor client receiving any personal information about the other.
Those shots are generally delivered via email. Of course, in a field that's as … well, quaint … as phone sex in the modern world of adult entertainment, there are a few customers who prefer things done the old-fashioned way.
"A lot of guys want the pictures sent through the U.S. mail," Smith said.