Terror by telephone: Normative anxieties around obscene calls in the 1960s

Melissa Villa-Nicholas


By 1967, telephone harassment complaints in the United States had hit an all-time high. Telephone companies, government officials, police, and media scrambled to make sense of and harness the surge in obscene calls. Such a phenomenon drew on the publics’ fears of an unknown and anonymous ‘pervert,’ which now had access to their private sphere through the technology of telephone calls. Previous research which had focused on obscenity laws and censorship with regards to cultural products, however neglects the gendered, sexual, and racialized implications of this historical episode of obscene calls. The discourse around obscene calls during the 1960s demonstrates that the telephone shifted from a technology of progress to a technology of ‘terror’ that delivered social anxieties around race, gender, and sexuality into the domestic sphere.


Telephone history; science and technology studies; information histories

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i5.7010

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