The Jerk-Off Boys

The babysitter was perplexed: Her charge, 13-year-old Andrew, had gotten a ring stuck around his penis. “He doesn't know how to masturbate,” she whispered to the woman on the San Francisco AIDS Foundation crisis line. “Shall I do it for him?”

Mari Metcalf, the counselor who took this call, told the “babysitter” that because her predicament wasn't HIV-related, she'd be better off phoning a doctor. Metcalf often receives crank calls that have little or nothing to do with AIDS. “It's their way of getting off,” she says.

Every day, Bay Area crisis counselors deal with crank callers — people who dial crisis lines as if they were free 900-fantasy numbers. According to Ron Tauber, executive director of the East Bay's Crisis Support Services (which offers suicide prevention and grief counseling, among other assistance), the rise of the jerk-off boys (and girls) parallels the boom in pay-per-call sex lines: “People like us who are offering something for free are a target.”

Crisis-line counselors face a complex decision in determining whether a call is authentic: play along and adopt a wait-and-see attitude, or risk alienating the caller and trivializing his situation through confrontation. In a job requiring compassion, counselors become frustrated after listening to a person's story, then realizing it's a hoax. “Sometimes I want to say, 'Do you think I'm that stupid?' But then I wonder if I'm wrong,” admits one counselor.

Most crisis counselors find crank callers irritating, if not more significantly annoying. Rebecca Rolfe, executive director of San Francisco Women Against Rape, believes crank calls to rape hot lines perpetuate violence against women. “They victimize the counselors trying to provide support to other women,” Rolfe says. “What's more of a power trip than calling and jerking off to a rape crisis counselor?”

Though all crank calls differ, patterns — such as sexual explicitness — emerge, says Patricia Speier, who works in outpatient services at UCSF's Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute. The majority of legitimate callers to crisis lines need to be drawn out to tell their stories. Crank callers, on the other hand, are long-winded and sexually graphic. They usually ask to speak with women.

There is a difference between prank calls, which are isolated incidents happening only once, and crank calls, which occur repeatedly and are often placed to the same person. The Jerky Boys and a whole host of underground phone pranksters have become popular making one-time, isolated prank calls that are humorous and subsequently harmless. Prank callers are usually adolescents; crank callers are most often adults.

The AIDS Foun-dation maintains a flip chart near the phones with descriptions of “chronic callers,” identifying them by voice, the stories they commonly use and when they have called. There is the “mother fucker,” described as a gentle, emotional-sounding young man whose mother just tested HIV-positive. Ten or 15 minutes into the call he reveals he had sex with his mom.

Then there is “Donna,” the 38DD transsexual and lingerie model who wants to “show you what I got” and breathes heavily. A young gay man with a slow, droning voice calls Friday mornings to say he had sex the night before and that the condom broke.

One case still disputed among counselors at the AIDS Foundation involves a call from the summer of 1993. A new volunteer spoke to an African American teenager who claimed he was being initiated into a gang and that his girlfriend had to go through it with him by being gang-raped anally. The initiation was supposedly going on at the time of the call, and the caller asked for help getting the gang members to use condoms. “It was such a shitty call,” one counselor says. The new volunteer believed every word of it, but older, more experienced counselors were skeptical.

Metcalf says that as she has come to recognize the voices of chronic callers, she confronts them or laughs to get them off the line to make way for legitimate calls. Changing her tone of voice or suggesting she has spoken to them before normally prompts their hanging up.

People who have a genuine reason to call crisis lines, says Eve Meyer, executive director of San Francisco's Suicide Prevention hot line, “are deeply troubled. So are crank callers, only they don't feel their own problems are worth exploring, so they invent other lives and other problems for the thrill of being helped.” Crank callers typically suffer from low self-esteem and often invent alternative personas and names, Meyer explains, not so much to deceive others but to protect themselves.

Crank calling first gained status as a psychological disorder with the 1990 case of Richard Berendzen, the former president of American University in Washington, D.C., who was forced to resign after being caught making obscene calls.

An admitted pedophile, Berendzen scanned newspaper ads for babysitters. Pretending to find someone to look after his kids, he called female child-care workers to talk about children and, eventually, sex with children. Berendzen often boasted of having a four-year-old Filipino sex slave in his basement. “In some sick and confused way, I hoped someone would respond,” Berendzen writes in his 1993 confessional memoir, Come Here.

Though all crisis-line counselors concur that crank callers are annoying, they disagree about how to solve the problem.

Many lines use an 800 number and receive a monthly list of callers' phone numbers. Determining who calls repeatedly would be a simple matter of cross-referencing numbers with the times the crank calls were placed; then the crisis line could block calls from that number.

But some counselors object to this solution because it cuts off not only crank callers with a real reason to call, but also repeat callers who need crisis lines to survive. “We have many callers who are quite chronically mentally ill who use our service for some support,” says Tauber.

Even if a crisis line doesn't have an 800 number, technological advances make thwarting crank callers easier. Pacific Bell offers three new services to catch annoyance callers: call screen, call return and call trace.

Call screen allows the person receiving the call to block up to 10 numbers from dialing in. Call return is a more aggressive approach, allowing the recipient of a crank call to phone the last person who called. Both services work only in the Pacific Bell service area and not on cellular phones, pay phones that do not accept incoming calls or business telephone systems such as Centrex. And Pacific Bell will not divulge the phone number of the crank caller to the person being harassed — “that's construed to be a violation of the obscene caller's privacy,” explains Robert McAllister, a San Francisco assistant district attorney.

Call trace is offered only if call screen, call return or a simple number change won't alleviate the problem. In serious situations, after a customer has filed a police report, Pacific Bell will put an electronic tracking device on the customer's phone line for two weeks and keep a confidential file with the caller's phone number, time and date of the call and when the trace occurred. Once Pacific Bell has performed two successful traces, the information can be used in court.

Marcia Blackstock, executive director of Bay Area Women Against Rape, describes how three years ago, she caught two crank callers calling collect from a prison in Minnesota. “The calls were serious enough that we thought there was a child in danger. When we realized we were talking with a crank and he kept doing it, we involved law enforcement and the phone company.”

Blackstock recalls the process as “long and difficult” but “definitely worth it.” The callers were caught after Pacific Bell put a tracking device on the rape crisis line. Blackstock insisted they be tried in Minnesota. The result: The callers' prison status was reduced and their phone privileges retracted.

Crank calling is a misdemeanor under California law and is punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 and/or up to a year in jail. The law also calls for counseling, but because sentencing is subjective, those found guilty are rarely punished and even less likely to get treatment, according to an Oakland Municipal Court clerk familiar with these cases.

So crank calls on crisis lines are a lose-lose situation for counselors: Instead of helping those in dire straits, they have to deal with another kind of troubled callers who most likely will not be penalized for their behavior — or get the psychological help they need to change it.

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