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How Do Suicide Hotline Operators Deal with People Who Call In to Masturbate?

I talked to the director of a new documentary about hotline operators and the lonely people who call them to find out.
Screen grabs from the Hotline trailer

Hotline, a new ​​Kickstarter-funded documentary, profiles hotline operators of all stripes. It takes on suicide hotlines, the Psychic Friends Network, phone-sex lines, and people who telephonically pray for you, all linked together by the theme of the need humans have to connect with one another.

Still, one big criticism of the film emerged after it started getting screened for critics  like ​Jesse Singal of New York magazine, who worked as a hotline operator: It doesn't spend nearly enough time on the countless pervs who make a nuisance of themselves by calling you all day. "After you've hung up angrily on the masturbator or the slumber-party pranksters, your phone is inevitably going to ring in another minute or five, and you have to somehow return to that place of empathy and openness," Singal wrote last month.


A review at ​ delves even further into the masturbator issue, bringing up an unofficial feature of these call centers that isn't covered in the film at all:

Some services have a specific person each shift whose job it is to listen to persistent masturbators. When they call they can just ask for "Julie," or some other code name, and be passed on to the designated nuisance call monitor, who listens out for any signs that the person has something relevant they want to discuss.

Representatives of suicide hotlines didn't answer my requests for comment about this topic, so ​I got in touch with Hotline director ​Tony Shaff to find out how true this is, and find out why it wasn't in the movie.

VICE: Why'd you make a film about phone operators?
Tony Shaff: I worked—actually—for the same psychic hotline that Miss Cleo [who is featured in the film] worked for. It was intense, and it was short-lived. I only worked there for about six weeks. Then, when I moved to New York many years later, I volunteered for a suicide-prevention hotline, and I saw a lot of similar calls between those two lines. So I suppose that was the impetus for this film.

How was working for the suicide hotline?
It was very intense because you're sharing in a moment that is probably the worst moment of these peoples' lives, so I think the training helped a lot.

Did you get pranked?
The thing is, you never really know if the person on the other end of the line is being sincere, but I think that part of the operator's job is to treat every call with respect, and to not take things personally, or you could really easily burn out quick.


Why is the part about masturbators and heavy breathers in the film so short?
It isn't the focus of the documentary, but it was definitely something I wanted to explore… What I heard from hotlines that I spoke with for the film was that whenever there's a free service that's anonymous, and people know that someone is going to pick up the phone and listen to them when they call in, it's inevitable that there's going to be abuse of those services.

So what'd they say when you asked about it?​
​ The surprising thing that I heard was that even if some of the callers on the surface were looked at as being "inappropriate," or "obscene," or whatever, many of the hotlines don't just hang up on them because they see the caller as a human who needs connection and support just like everybody else.

But isn't it kind of outrageous to call a suicide hotline just to get off? 
A person who calls a crisis hotline to masturbate obviously has something else going on mentally or emotionally that can't just be ignored and hung up on. I mean, obviously some hotlines do have protocols to just hang up on the caller, and you saw that in the film. For example: ​Teen Line. The director there has a no-tolerance policy for callers and doesn't want to subject the teen volunteers to masturbators. Some hotlines aren't confidential at all, so they know exactly who's calling.

But if they don't hang up, how do the call center employees handle?
I don't know if I can speak on that, but if the operator is focusing on the person's thoughts and their feelings and steering them towards emotion rather than masturbation—I think that the operator would be able to get them to open up and talk a little bit about the pain or darkness that they're feeling.


A lot of the people are calling because they have no one else in their life that they can be intimate with, or share these dark secrets with. So they rely on a stranger to allow them to let them be whoever they are and not be judged.

So it's inappropriate, but not necessarily the wrong number to call?
On the flip side of that are the people who call phone sex hotlines not to masturbate, but just to have a conversation, and have companionship because they're isolated and lonely, you know? So I guess in some ways, you could look at the people calling the sex hotline not to masturbate as being inappropriate, too.

But some pranks and abuse are beyond the pale, right?
​ There was a TIME article that was sort of interesting about Liberia's ebola hotline—and they said that like 90 percent of the people who call are in need, but 10 percent just call to harass the operators. The director of the hotline doesn't have any tolerance for it.

I wouldn't either.
​ She actually will tell the operators to record the call and then she'll broadcast them on the radio to, like, publicly shame the people who are pranking or abusing the hotline.

Note: If you are suicidal, you can call the Samaritans at 1 (800) 273-TALK. If you are horny, call a phone sex operator instead, perhaps even ​one of t​he ones featured in Hotline

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

Hotline is available now on ​iTunes.