Phone sex was not what Ma Bell had in mind several years ago when she set up a 976 prefix service to allow customers to call for sports scores, horoscopes and soap opera updates.
What dominates the 976 lines in large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and New York, however, is the sound of heavy breathing and passionate moans, provided by both tapes and live phone jockeys.
The proliferation of 976 services providing sex-by-phone has spawned increasingly complex legal entanglements involving federal officials, state utility regulators and the operators of "adult services."
These battles--fought to determine what may be said over telephone lines and how to control access to sex-by-phone services--have been largely regional, although they involve First Amendment issues and federal regulations.
Last year, authorities in Utah closed a large dial-a-porn operation, and the U.S. attorney charged the operators with criminal violations of federal interstate communications laws.
In California, Pacific Bell has had pending since 1984 a suit against two companies that it says are violating the phone company's tariff regulations by providing material that is "lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent or obscene."
"It has tainted what 976 is," Maria DeMarco, a 976 product manager with Pacific Bell, said in an interview. The taint is keeping more respectable businesses from signing on with the service, she said.
In California, where 40% of Pacific Bell's 976 services are sex-related, the battles have centered on access to the system by children or other unauthorized callers, including some who have made thousands of dollars in monthly calls.
"When this came out, every kid in town was calling these numbers," said Jeanette Struckman of the California Public Utility Commission, which regulates the state's phone companies.
Bob Gnaizda, a partner in Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit public interest firm in San Francisco, complained that the 976 system "has broken the barriers that society has set up to protect our children."
His files include the case of a teen-age boy who made $5,300 worth of calls to a sex line during one month. Charges for one day were about $300.
Gnaizda's group helped push for state legislation that requires California's telephone companies to offer by year's end a service to block 976 calls if customers want to do so.
Public Advocates' interest lies in protecting consumers from misuse of the 976 system, not in protecting adults from their constitutionally guaranteed right to listen to what they want to, Gnaizda said.
"I support Carlin doing what it wants," he said, referring to Carlin Communications, whose operations in California, New York and elsewhere make it one of the biggest sex-oriented telephone service companies in the nation.
Brendan Corrigan, vice president of Carlin in New York, said the popularity of taped sex messages has waned as party lines on which callers can talk with up to eight people have become increasingly popular.
Recorded sex messages are still making money for a lot of dial-a-porn companies, said the operator of "For Women Only," a Los Angeles service geared for women.
"It's been a relatively lucrative business," said Dave, who asked that his last name not be used.
His operation consists of 24 phone lines, four to six writers who produce new scripts every day, actors and a large marketing and advertising budget, he said.
"I know I have a steady clientele" for the company's 976 line, he said.
He and Carlin's Corrigan said they limit their advertising to adult publications and want only adults to use their services.
"The parents have a good gripe," Dave said.
He admitted that his concern for the industry's self-regulation is based on self-interest. "Millions of dollars are changing hands on this," he said, "and nobody wants to see it disappear."