One of the greatest achievements of my adult life has been overcoming my fear of making phone calls. I’m 26, and until a few years ago I found them terrifying and awkward. I preferred long-winded e-mails and apologetic “Sorry I missed you” text messages over actually having to talk to somebody. Thankfully, I have now grown up, but there is still one exception, shared by almost everyone I know: phone sex.

Before Webcams, Snapchat and video calls there was good old-fashioned dirty talk on the phone. No cameras, no texting, no pictures, just sweet, nasty nothings. It’s the OG of long-distance love, but most millennials consider it a bit … naff. Nudes have been normalized — one friend has a whole gallery of them known as the Archive on her phone — and I defy anyone to say they’ve not sent a single saucy sext in their life. But phone sex? It’s of the American Pie era, the Noughties world of lad mags and page 3.

Until now. All of a sudden we are in the middle of a full-frontal phone-sex comeback, pardon the pun. Steamy scenes of turned-on men and women talking on the phone are reappearing on our screens in hit dramas such as HBO’s Succession — who could forget that exchange between Gerri and Roman in season two? — and Emily in Paris, a new rom-com series from the creator of Sex and the City, out next month on Netflix. Even Goop is dishing out tips on how to get freaky on the phone, including recommendations to buy organic lube. I was at dinner last week when a pal told me she had spent two hours late-night chatting to the guy she was seeing: “I couldn’t hang up!”

No cameras, no texting, no pictures, just sweet, nasty nothings.

With couples separated and singles told to stay at home, some Brits have spent the vast majority of 2020 feeling horny and frustrated. Sex toy sales soared by 60 percent in some parts of Europe. According to the data-analysis platform Khoros, tweets containing the words “nudes” and “coronavirus” surged by 384 percent from early March to the end of April. A meme of a fake Bible verse, “Coronavirus 3:17 — Tomorrow isn’t promised, send nudes today”, went viral on Twitter during the pandemic.

Tom Jones poses in a U.K. phone booth he had installed on his Beverly Hills estate, July 1980.

It might look like another lockdown trend, but the phone-sex renaissance has been in the works for some time. Ottilie and her boyfriend, Jack, both 26, were doing it long before the pandemic. Pre-Covid, his new job took him to Barcelona for two weeks a month. They saw each other less, and when he was back home, he was busy zooming around and catching-up with friends. The result? A pretty stagnant sex life. At first they turned to Snapchat to spice things up when he was away, but that didn’t do the trick. “There was something so detached about a photo or ten-second video with text over the top,” Ottilie says. “And then you have to think of what to say, take the right picture and type out the message.”

Luckily phone sex came to the rescue. “It happened by accident because my camera was smashed, so we just had audio, but it worked.” Invisible to her boyfriend except for the sound of her voice, inhibitions were lost. “You are utterly in the moment. It can be quite exposing because you can’t plan for it, but that’s what makes it so exciting.” Did the camera return? Not really. “We use it sometimes, but the imagination is so powerful. It knows no limits. There is something about sound that can be such a turn-on.”

All of a sudden we are in the middle of a full-frontal phone-sex comeback, pardon the pun.

Ottilie’s experiences are a big part of the return of phone sex, says Mika Simmons, host of The Happy Vagina podcast, who suggests there are two other forces at work. The first is the growing acceptance that women masturbate. “Women are being braver and bolder about self-pleasure during sex and in private, and they’re talking about it. It’s not a whisper anymore.” The second is the unrealistic pop-culture depictions of women enjoying sex. “They’re in movies, TV shows, advertising. I loved Normal People, but did Marianne ever struggle to climax?” This can all add a layer of self-consciousness when we’re getting intimate virtually that phone sex — no cameras — overcomes, Simmons says. “When there are no visuals being sent, nobody is watching. You can be yourself.”

For Gayle, 52, phone sex is nothing new. In fact, it has been a part of her life for almost 25 years. She is the operator manager of the UK’s oldest chat line, Datapro Services, and in lockdown the phones were ringing off the hook. “We’ve had a huge amount of women wanting to join to earn some extra cash,” she says. “Teachers, nurses, solicitors, you name it, they’ve all shown interest.”

To be an operator at Datapro you have to be an actress, Gayle tells me in a low, husky voice. “You need to turn on your party girl, dominatrix or submissive character within seconds of answering.”

During lockdown the number of lonely callers has increased — “A lot of girls feel like they’re doing a public service by chatting to them” — along with erratic call times as dialers working from home get interrupted. “We’ve had people’s wives and kids walk in halfway through.”

“There is something about sound that can be such a turn-on.”

Fetishes range from golden showers to feet, but the most popular have stayed the same for decades: the dominatrix and old ladies. The strangest? “We once had a man call and ask the operator to pretend to be a piece of cheese in his fridge. He hung up because the one she said was the wrong type.”

Phone sex might not be something you’ll be adding to your CV anytime soon, but there are a few things people exploring it for the first time can learn from operator veterans, Gayle says. “It’s all about the voice you choose. This is your chance to perform, so think about how you use it — the tone, the speed, the volume.”

Cidney Green is all too familiar with this. A 30-year-old (retired) American operator, she set up her own phone-sex training service five years ago after earning $150,000 a year working the lines.

Fetishes range from golden showers to feet, but the most popular have stayed the same for decades: the dominatrix and old ladies.

“I was terrible at it for a very, very long time,” she says. “I thought just moan and groan and you can make a bunch of cash.” For $95 Green will teach you how to identify caller personalities (the curious caller, the silent caller, the bored caller and the aggressive caller), keep a man on the phone (“hold off with the sex for as long as possible”) and create sound effects. “I’ll even show you how to sound like you’re farting on the phone. Trust me, people ask for it.”

You might not be ready to sign up to the course, but Green has some words of wisdom for anyone wanting to nail (sorry) their phone-sex strategy. “You need to get good at your adjectives,” she says. “There are no visuals, so if you want to turn someone on with just your words, you need to describe every sensation. The other person has to be able to imagine everything you’re saying.” And if you can do that? “Then lucky you.”

So will this fetish for phone calls stick around or is it just for the brave? “If we’re talking about young people, then 100 percent,” Green says. “The next generation are fluid in their sexuality, and they don’t have an attachment to how they do it. Phone sex is part of that movement.” And what about older, shyer callers? “Just try it. You might surprise yourself.”

Hannah Evans is a writer based in London