February 6-12, 2003

Tracy Quan

Sex and the cell phone

Why bitching about calls is like bitching about condoms

When was the last time we heard someone defending the most reviled gadget of them all? I'm talking, of course, about the ubiquitous mobile phone. Every cell phone user seems to be a part-time cell phone basher.

"These people remind me of politicians who visit hookers — all the time pretending they think we're The Scourge," says my friend Lisa, a call girl who replaced her landline with two vibrating mobiles.

Cell phone haters are a lot like those sexual Luddites who still bitch about using condoms. Even though we're two decades into an epidemic which has made condoms a normal part of everyday sex, some people will always complain about getting into bed with technology. But cell phone bashers deny that they're technophobic. Instead, they claim to be experts on etiquette. They seem to think that the outmoded etiquette of landline technology — born of its rather primitive limitations — should continue to prevail in the era of the hands-free mobile.

"There's nothing worse than having to hear the details of somebody's latest deal while you're trying to nap on the train," a crotchety corporate lawyer recently told me. This grouser, whose only personal phone is a mobile, inhabits two different centuries. Overhearing the fine print of another person's life — that's how we live today. And what's so terrible about that?

I've always been a casual eavesdropper — not a snoop, but a passive observer of other people's affairs. In a restaurant, at a party, on a sidewalk, I'm fascinated by what I can learn from overheard fragments of conversation. I love staring up at the windows of an apartment building and conjecturing about what's going on. For someone like me, cell phones are not an imposition, they're a bonus.

Cellular pseudophobes pay homage to the values of the landline even when they need their cell phones in order to live the way they really want to live. Perhaps we need to think about what cell phones mean — what they symbolize. Remember when it was fashionable to theorize about the symbolic meaning of a man's automobile? The brown station wagon was a wife, the red sports car a mistress, and I'm not sure what a white VW Beetle was. (A braless hippie chick?) The cell phone is today's sleek portable mistress, while the landline — now the station wagon of telephony — is our symbolic spouse urging us to come home.

If you want clarity and straight talk, you must go to the cell phone user who makes her living through sexual sin. Once upon a time, call girls had to sit by their phones, Penelope-like, even on quiet days when there were no calls. It was dangerous to go out "even for five minutes," according to one former call girl, "to the laundry room or the corner store. That's exactly when a client would call and hang up on your answering machine!" The 21st-century call girl doesn't suffer from cabin fever like her predecessor. Instead, she's a multitasker. "I can be on the phone, making a date with a client while I'm at the nail salon getting my toes done," says Lisa. "I get personal advice from my girlfriends during cab rides." She wonders how 20th-century hookers got by with cumbersome landlines and medieval beepers. "Didn't they go out of their minds?" Everywhere I go, it seems that the oldest profession is being revamped by communication technology.

During a recent visit to Toronto, I had drinks with a secretive escort in her 20s who advertises for new clients on the Internet. Jacqueline lives with her sister but her entire family is in the dark about her commercial sideline. She has a straight day job, and sneaks out on weekends and evenings to the homes and hotel rooms of her clients, keeping her rent low by sharing an apartment with her innocent sibling. Thanks to e-mail and a cell phone, Jacqueline has modern privacy, old-fashioned family ties, direct communication with her clients and affordable housing. A few nights later, I had dinner with Katie, a sweet-faced, perky 26-year-old who told me that on her patch of "the track" where the street girls of Toronto strut their stuff, pimps are becoming less important. As she warmed to her theme, she was streetwise yet spinsterish. "You don't need a man anymore. What for? We all have cell phones!" With instant communication at her fingertips, Katie can call one of her buddies for help or issue an urgent warning to a fellow streetwalker. For Katie and Jacqueline, complaining about cell phones would be like complaining about condoms — unthinkable. It takes a professional sinner to appreciate the virtues of the cellular.

Tracy Quan is the author of Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl. Visit her website at If you would like to respond to this Slant or have one of your own (850 words), contact Howard Altman, City Paper executive editor, 123 Chestnut St., third floor, Phila., PA, 19106 or e-mail

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Created: April 14, 2003
Last modified: April 14, 2003
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