What Colour Panties Are You Wearing?
Have dirty old men — and dirty young ones for that matter — changed their tack this millennium? Now that (somewhat scarily) pornography is accessible at absolutely any time to almost everyone for free, you may hope that the lewd phone callers of the past have just upgraded to adult porn channels. Maybe they enjoy calling live chat rooms instead so they can continue to talk dirty without recourse, ignoring the small remuneration for the women on the receiving end of their banter. After all, these women love it don’t they. Don’t they?
I wonder if there are still men out there getting their decidedly cheap thrills from asking intrusive — and often downright nasty — sexual questions down the phone to unwitting females. Does a man like this still heavy breathe to randomly dialled women and girls, causing discomfort for his own sexual pleasure? Now that internet access is available across vast parts of the globe, I wonder if the deviant landline caller still exists. Perhaps the men now demanding nudes as their introductory message and sending unwanted explicit messages to women on Tinder are actually the same old-fashioned perverts of the nineties and earlier, who’s kick of choice was to make anonymous calls to women and girls in their own homes.
Technology has changed considerably at a rapid pace over the last few decades. Thirty or forty years ago it wasn’t even possible to trace such a call to identify the perpetrator. Twenty years ago you needed to contact your telecoms operator to have a call traced, and even then it wasn’t as simple as it sounds. It wasn’t carried out for one single crude call and prosecution for harassment was nigh impossible. It simply wouldn’t be taken seriously by the police. Often judged as something that unfortunately happened, begrudgingly accepted even. Supposedly it didn’t cause too much harm. After all there are flashers and rapists out there who are far more damaging and dangerous.
Like many females, I have first-hand experience of this type of “nuisance caller” although this antiquated term doesn’t justify the hurt caused. Our landline number was in the phone book and we would occasionally receive sales calls (although certainly not as frequently as they happen today). I was twelve years old and home after school with my older sister when the phone rang.
The well-spoken man on the other end of the phone asked if he could begin a medical company’s marketing survey. Welcoming a distraction from my maths homework I happily obliged. He proceeded to ask me some basic questions and at first they seemed innocent enough. His relaxed manner of questioning slowly became a little more personal, but nothing out of the ordinary that would alarm my tween self. Innocently I thought it was all just a part of their profiling strategy.
He asked me my age. “Twelve,” I replied. And then he started the questions he had truly intended to ask. Like if I’d started my period yet. It was delivered in the same calm tone of voice he had used to ask if we were a one or two car-owner family. My body froze, I felt my back prickle with sweat and a chill at the same time. I could have put the phone down (why didn’t I put the phone down?) yet I answered him with the truth. I replied in a quiet and unsettled voice “no, not yet.” I confirmed that I was indeed just a little girl.
He sounded so professional to my child-like ears and even though I knew it wasn’t his business I didn’t know what else to do. It’s easy to realise in retrospect that this was a warning sign, I should have slammed down the phone and ignored it if it rang again. But something stopped me. Was it a fear of authority and seeming impolite? I felt trapped from the shock.
Perhaps a part of me thought it was actually a valid enquiry. Maybe they were researching tampons and sanitary towels. I may have actually contemplated this as a reality for a millisecond, to justify my stupidity in answering a question that felt wrong coming from the mouth of a grown man. Even if this was the case though, wouldn’t it have been a woman asking the questions – and wouldn’t she have asked to speak to my mum or big sister? In hindsight it feels unfair to burden a middle school child with such an array of “what ifs” but it hasn’t stopped me from doing so the few times this memory has surfaced in my thoughts.
I sobbed aloud, feeling like he was still in the room, despite never having physically entered it in the first place. I’d been assaulted in my own home without even being touched or seen.
“Okay, one last thing” he rushed in an effort to deliver his final probe. I felt dizzy as he seized the opportunity, having sensed my naivety and discomfort, which no doubt made him feel powerful. I still remember the confidence and downright glee in his voice, even though this was almost thirty years ago. If he had been walking you would have seen the cocky swing in his step develop. It was about the colour of my knickers. The man scoffed with laughter and I quickly hung up, berating myself for not having realised he was a con artist.
I’m guessing now that he probably had his dick in his hand. A flood of shame washed over me, hurt and embarrassment entwined in the waves of it, as my face turned red. I sobbed aloud, feeling like he was still in the room, despite never having physically entered it in the first place. I’d been assaulted in my own home without even being touched or seen.
When my mother came home from work an hour later she hugged and consoled me, no doubt sad and angry that she hadn’t been able to protect me from this pervert. She made me laugh through snotty tears as she called him a bastard, her swearing being even funnier because she rarely did it and it always sounded better with her Punjabi accent. Her mocking words toward him made me feel better, belittling this little sad man. She had experienced the same kind of perverted prank calls over the years and even now I can hear her raised voice from another room, questioning in a bemused voice that was meant to shame the caller “are you a dirty old man? Yes I think you are dirty old man. Bastard, you bloody!” as she slammed down the receiver. My sister and I would crack up with laughter not really knowing what he had said, as she laughed it off dismissively but with a hint of anger. Probably something worse than an enquiry as to the colour of her underpants.
Years later I took a job working in a call centre while on summer break from university. A male caller would regularly call in to the freephone information line for our major motor client. But instead of asking for a brochure or booking in a local test drive he would tell me how he liked to wear frilly dresses and pretty pink underwear in an XXL. Every few days the calls from a public call box became more confessional, mostly about his cross-dressing and fantasy about being a small girl.
I felt a little sorry for this lonely guy, although I had my suspicions that his confessions were also satisfying his need for entertainment. I was a grown up though and it was a bit of light relief from the mundane tasks of the job. These conversations didn’t upset me, in fact they helped my pathetic call stats. “I’m bored of this now. Please don’t call me again,” I said once the calls started to irritate me. He obliged.
It wasn’t a harmless or cheeky question. He was a grown man and I was a pre-pubescent child. He knew this.
As a child I was frozen in uncertainty and a lack of confidence to trust my gut to hang up. If I had a call like that now I wonder if I would quickly sense that something was off. I may never know, the opportunity doesn’t arise often. I tend not to answer calls with no caller ID displayed and if I do it’s usually someone willing to obtain me a lump sum payment for a recent but imaginary motor vehicle accident.
In 1991 when this man called and asked a twelve year-old child what colour her underwear was, it wasn’t a harmless or cheeky question. He was a grown man and I was a pre-pubescent child. He knew this. I wonder if all women my age or older had the same experience as me and if so, how they handled it.
And what has become of men like this today, who prey on the innocence of children with their lies? Are they the ones now posing as children in online chat rooms, befriending kids on social media and video games with their fake profiles, all with the intention to engage in vulgar and obscene chats? Do they hope they will be reciprocated, now they can easily disguise themselves as peers not predators?
Perhaps it is it still the shock value they are after. A similar thrill to that which the man who hides in the bushes and exposes himself to children seeks. I can’t imagine these types of men, who sought cheap thrills by making vulgar prank calls, having the confidence to attend strip clubs let alone secure sex for cash. And so they must still exist.
I am not sure how I can protect my daughter from these situations as she grows up. I won’t always be able to shield her from the distressing emotions men like these cause with their selfish behaviour. All I can do is help her control the narrative inside her head. I hope that if she has the misfortune to encounter such a person I can help to make her feel safe again, bring a smile to her face, all while letting her know it is not her fault. As my mum once did for me.