The History of Obscene Telephone Calls

People have been making obscene telephone calls for almost as long as the telephone has been in existence. In recent years, however, they have begun to change form, as digital communications have offered several new ways of achieving the same goals, while maintaining more anonymity. 

A recent paper in the Archives of Sexual Behavior traced the history of obscene telephone calls and the people who make them. Below, I share some the timeline and some of the key takeaways from this review:

· The telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876.

· In the 1890s, the term “verbal exhibitionism” was coined to refer specifically to men who derive arousal or pleasure from “shouting dirty words in the ear of a woman…or conversely to hear such words from the mouth of a woman.”

· By 1909 there was legislation all around the United States prohibiting “obscene language, shocking to any decent-minded male or female [phone] operator.”

· In the 1920s and 30s, academic papers began to emerge on the phenomenon of unsolicited sexual phone calls. This behavior began to be discussed as a paraphilia (i.e., an unusual sexual interest).

· In the 1960s, obscene phone calls were thought to have been commonplace in the U.S. In fact, there were more than 50,000 complaints per month being filed for obscene or threatening calls, and one study of female college students found that 74% of them had received at least one such call. 

· Congressional hearings were held on this matter and in 1968 “perverse telephoning” formally became a federal crime due to the interstate nature of the calls. 

· In the 1970s, Dr. John Money coined the term “telephone scatologia” to refer to the phenomenon of the use of obscene phone calls in order to facilitate sexual arousal and/or orgasm. However, this is just one of many terms that have been applied to this behavior over the years. Others include “telephonicophilia” (meaning “getting off on the phone”) and “coprophonia.”

· In 1980, telephone scatologia was added to the DSM-III and it has appeared in every edition since under the “paraphilias not otherwise specified” section, including the most recent version published in 2013 (the DSM-5).

With all of that said, the author of this review suggests that it’s hard to know exactly how common sexually obscene phone calls were back in the day because obscene, harassing, and annoying calls were all lumped together in reporting. Complicating factors further is that the standards for what might be considered “obscene” were very different back then. 

The author also points out that, to the extent that this phenomenon was so common, you would probably expect there to be a lot of research on it—however, it’s pretty scarce and the literature mostly consists of a few sporadic case reports. In fact, telephone scatologia was introduced to the DSM in the absence of significant supporting research, which suggests that perhaps its addition to the paraphilia category was not science-driven, but rather driven by moral panic.

In light of this, the author suggests that retaining telephone scatologia in the DSM may not be justifiable, especially when you consider that its definition barely touches the surface when it comes to all of the ways that people might harass others in the digital era. In other words, telephone scatologia’s appearance in the DSM may be more of a historical artifact than anything.  

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Reference: Janssen, D. F. (2018). “Telephone Scatologia”: Onomasiological and Historical Note. Archives of Sexual Behavior47(8), 2155-2159.

Image Source: 123RF/sofiazhuravets 

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