Masturbationsuicide

Men Are Scamming Crisis Hotlines to Masturbate on Calls

The phenomenon of ‘sexual callers’ is common enough that hotline workers are routinely warned during the training process — but they're offered little support when it happens

Claire, a 27-year-old in Maryland, is used to difficult phone calls. For three years as an undergraduate, they volunteered for their college’s sexual assault response hotline, following in the footsteps of some older students they admired. “The hotline had a really significant, positive reputation on campus,” Claire says, largely because it was the only service for students who had experienced sexual assault that didn’t automatically report incidents to the authorities. 

They quickly discovered that the role wasn’t an easy one, though. It required them to be on the phone with traumatized individuals relaying details of sexual assault for hours at a time, on shifts that were 24 hours long. But Claire was completely unprepared for one particularly disturbing call while on duty, about a year after joining the hotline. “We were trained to speak with whoever called no matter their role in the incident, and this person told me about a sexual assault they’d been accused of,” Claire says. “The caller described his perception of the situation, in detail, and it sounded weird sometimes — it felt like he was making stuff up.” Nonetheless, Claire spoke to this man for about two hours, a length of time they say “wasn’t super-unusual because of the nature of our hotline.” 

Claire had a sinking sense that something was wrong, and was vindicated when another volunteer at the hotline told Claire that she received “functionally the same call” from this man: He was masturbating to the sound of her voice. “I hadn’t previously considered that the caller was masturbating, but looking back, I remembered how much personal stuff he tried to ask and how much I redirected him away from it,” Claire continues. “It was horrifying — it felt very violating.” 

Alice, 30, who has worked for sexual violence and LGBTQ+ crisis hotlines in Canada, had a similar experience. “I had a two-hour call with someone who turned out to be a masturbator,” she explains. “Judging by how convincing they were, they’d clearly called support lines for this purpose many, many times before.” She describes how the caller knew how to balance just enough information hinting at possible imminent self-harm to keep Alice on the line, while also asking her “extremely inappropriate personal questions” and “describing experiences of horrific graphic violence with unnecessary details.” Alice felt genuinely concerned for the welfare of this caller, but realized when she heard choppy breathing, faint slapping sounds, and finally, moaning, that he’d been masturbating without her knowledge. “I hung up immediately once I heard it, but it was so exhausting and fucked up,” she says. “This person was just convincing enough to make it very difficult for me to parse that they were stalling for sexual gratification, and it was really disturbing.”

Claire and Alice’s experiences are far from unusual among crisis hotline workers, most of whom are volunteers. The phenomenon of men — and it’s “never not men,” Claire says — feigning a crisis while masturbating on the line is common enough that hotline workers are routinely warned during the training process about this occupational hazard. However, some say the training doesn’t adequately prepare them for the experience. “They brought sexual callers up during my training, but never really gave any clear idea of what the usual traits would be as far as behavior that would tip you off,” says Emily, 25, from Michigan. “They told us to just end the call, but before hanging up, let them know that the reason we’re terminating the call is because we’re assuming they’re a sexual caller.” 

Crisis hotlines are a common frontline response for people dealing with a range of problems, including suicidality, mental illness, sexual and domestic violence and difficulties associated with being LGBTQ+. They’ve existed since Samaritans was founded in the U.K. in 1953 and proliferated in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, outnumbering suicide-prevention centers by almost 17 to 1 between 1965 and 1977. According to academics Alan Rosenbaum and James F. Calhoun, crisis hotlines became a “major therapeutic force” filling “a gap left by conventional helping services,” in part because they’re “generally less expensive in terms of establishment and operation, usually being staffed by volunteers.” Because of their low operating costs and relative efficacy, these hotlines are now present in dozens of countries around the world.

Crisis hotlines still tend to run on shoestring budgets, and Suki Miller, a program director for a sexual trauma hotline in Alaska, explains how difficult it is to run an effective service with the limited funding that’s available. “We get funding for direct services, but staff will be working on computers with 12-inch monitors, with locking cabinets that are falling apart,” she says. “Sitting with someone through evidence collection and interview questions after a sexual assault carries a lot of vicarious trauma, but none of the funders dedicate funds for staff wellbeing.” She adds that in Alaska, because of the population size, her organization doesn’t receive much VOCA funding even though “for decades we’ve had the highest rates of intimate partner violence and sexual assault.” (Above the base level of funding, grants are based on the state’s population.)  

The labor required of volunteers can be demanding. The exact working conditions vary depending on the organization, but volunteers often work long shifts of between 12 to 24 hours, frequently outside of usual business hours. The nature of the work can be emotionally trying — William, a 31-year-old with experience at an LGBTQ anti-violence hotline, describes some of the calls as “harrowing” — and certain volunteers describe feeling isolated during their shifts. Laura, for example, who volunteered during her teens at a 24-hour support line in Canada, says her hotline “was located in an apartment in a building, the location was secret, and you were always alone on your shift.” 

The additional toll caused by masturbating callers is significant. They almost always target women, who appear to comprise the bulk of these workers. Lisa, a 32-year-old in Philadelphia, estimates that the gender breakdown at the suicide hotline she volunteered for was “about 80 percent women, maybe more”; at Alice’s organizations it’s been “at least 90 percent women, femmes, trans and AFAB gender non-conforming people”; and William says his training cohort was about 85 percent women. 

Annie, a 21-year-old in the U.K., says calls from masturbating callers are “emotionally draining,” and Gemma, 29, says they strain the limited resources of hotline organizations. “There are very few of us on shift and a large number of calls we’re unable to answer due to a lack of resources, with people not able to get through because the lines are tied up,” says Gemma, who works for a rape crisis hotline. “You can feel quite resentful that the organization’s time is being used in this way when it’s designed for supporting the survivors of people like the masturbators.” 

When they discover that a caller has been masturbating on the line, volunteers describe feeling sick, violated, angry and demoralized. As Alice mentions, many volunteers of rape crisis hotlines are survivors, compounding the harm these callers cause. “Being forced to listen and to be used like that definitely brought up a lot of negative and uncomfortable memories and feelings,” says Jordan, a 27-year-old from Boston who is also a survivor. Lisa, for her part, couldn’t shake the sense that these men were around her even when she’d finished her shift. “They could be anybody: a guy on the bus, at the supermarket, someone I was interacting with without knowing it,” she says. “It made me hyper-aware of something that all women know but most of us have to push to the back of our minds to feel comfortable in the world, which is that there are a ton of creepy, predatory men out there.”

Miller says that volunteer attrition and “high staff burnout” are serious problems for crisis hotlines, and masturbating callers appear to worsen these issues. Laura says her hotline was “absolutely overrun by masturbators” and suspects they “may have played a role in volunteer retention issues.” Annie’s friend quit because of masturbating callers and hoax calls, and Lisa says sexual callers were the “number one factor in burnout” for her. “I didn’t feel burnt out by the genuine callers, for the most part, since even with difficult calls, they were often also rewarding and fostered a sense of genuine connection,” she says. “But being violated and humiliated literally every week in this kind of low-level way was horrible and built up over time.” 

Protocol for how to handle masturbating callers varies from hotline to hotline. Some workers are empowered to hang up the phone immediately, but others are told not to. “We were told we had to treat every single call like it was an emergency, which means we couldn’t hang up unless it was very, very clear that it was not,” says Jordan. “Sometimes we’d have to call in a supervisor to get permission to get off the call.” The problem, however, is that it can be difficult to differentiate a sexual caller from someone in genuine crisis, and sexual callers can be cunning, manipulative and well-practiced in gaming the system. “I had a sexual caller who finished [masturbating] while I was on the phone with him,” Emily says. “I knew the call felt weird, but he kept bringing up the fact that he was in crisis, so I didn’t feel right hanging up.” She says this made her feel “super-preyed-upon and stupid; I went into another room in the office and sobbed because it made me feel so violated.”

Why would masturbating callers target hotline workers? One possibility is that they’re afflicted by telephone scatologia literally, “dung speech” — a recognized psychosexual disorder that involves making sexually explicit obscene telephone calls to unaware strangers and which some researchers think is related to exhibitionism. The prevalence rate of telephone scatophilia is unknown, but offenders are typically “male, feel inadequate, have problems in developing relationships, experience feelings of isolation, perceive their fathers as supermen and feel that their mothers never loved them,” according to researcher J. Oliver. Other researchers say that the majority of such callers are maladjusted and suffer from some form of psychopathology.

Professor Ord Matek has isolated a specific type of obscene telephone caller who rings telephone crisis lines in order to request help from female volunteers while discussing sexually explicit details and masturbating. He reports that the most common features of such callers is low self-esteem and anger toward women. This squares with Alice’s experience, who believes there’s a certain kind of caller who targets rape crisis lines in particular. “We have such a high rate of sexual assault and abuse [among the volunteers] that ultimately, they know who they’re targeting,” she says. “It feels like the worst impulses from the most cowardly people.” Lisa also suspects that “some of them got off on the fact that it was non-consensual” but believes others were “too cheap to call a phone sex line or hire a sex worker and saw us as a reasonable alternative.” 

Masturbating callers are a longstanding problem for crisis hotlines. Even in 1977, Rosenbaum and Calhoun reported that “the masturbating caller (usually a chronic caller who tries to contact a female counselor and masturbates to the sound of her voice) [is a] major problem for most hotlines.” It’s an intractable issue for which simplistic solutions like collecting data on callers and reporting sexual callers to the authorities pose obvious inadequacies, given the ethical issues involved and the massive loss of trust and efficacy this would cause crisis hotlines. As with most complicated problems, systemic solutions are required: Masturbating callers likely need mental-health treatment from within a robust, free healthcare system, and hotline workers would benefit from more support in their roles, which in turn requires crisis support organizations to be fully and sustainably funded. Somehow, too, the widespread problem of men who harbor extreme, violent anger toward women needs to be resolved. 

But in the meantime, one relatively simple way for the problem to be ameliorated would be for more men to volunteer at crisis hotlines. “In my experience, that’s a big element of how patriarchy reproduces itself inside leftist organizing — men assuming political leadership and leaving all the care-work drudgery to women,” William tells me. “Even apart from the harassment, men need to be doing way more of this unglamorous support work in general.” 

Lisa wholeheartedly agrees. “I would strongly encourage men to volunteer [for the hotlines], which not enough do,” she says. “If you do, you’ll be taking the burden of sexual harassment off women.”

Names have been changed in this story for privacy.