Ihadn't thought much about phone sex until a woman accused Bill O'Reilly of trying to talk her into it.

The plaintiff, Andrea Mackris, a TV producer who is suing O'Reilly, claims she was sexually harassed by him.

He denies it and claims he is being blackmailed.

It is not for us, the public, to make a judgment as to who is telling the truth. It is in the hands of high-priced lawyers and a jury of O'Reilly and Mackris's peers.

But if we are planning to follow the case, it's helpful to understand what phone sex is. It is usually two people making love on the phone, provided it is consensual. Sometimes it may be a conference call of more than two, but that is rare.

Nobody knows how many people engage in phone sex, and the telephone companies claim they don't keep any records.

They are just happy for the revenue. Calls of this kind can go on forever, so the price rolls up even if the calls are made at night, when rates are cheaper.

What are the upside and the downside of phone sex? The good thing is that it is safe sex, with no chance of one of the parties becoming pregnant.

The downside is when one of the parties records the calls, in case at some future date she may want to use them to prove she was being harassed.

This could be the case with Mackris. She says O'Reilly tried to talk her into phone sex but she refused and said something like, "Boy, have you got the wrong number."

She worked for the famous commentator as his producer on his Fox cable network show.

O'Reilly saw her every day, so there was no reason to speak to her on the phone unless he had something to say to her after working hours.

Some people, and I am not one, think O'Reilly is a sanctimonious buffoon. He is always preaching moral values to the multitudes and attacking those he doesn't believe have any. (Read, the ACLU.)

A civil liberties lawyer friend of mine was chortling when he called me. "O'Reilly is now in sheep dip," he said. "All of us are standing around the water cooler imagining what he really said."

I told him, "You shouldn't chortle. As the Bible says, 'Let he who has never harassed a woman throw the first stone.' "

O'Reilly is alleged to have said, when he took Mackris to dinner, that he had many women and if they didn't play ball with him he would have Fox News take care of them.

At the moment it is a "he said, she said" affair, unless there are tapes.

They can't be used in court but will be leaked to every newspaper except the ones belonging to Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox News.

Phone sex should not be confused with obscene telephone calls, which are nonconsensual. They are as sick as junk calls.

I am waiting for the trial to begin. There is a possibility that O'Reilly may settle beforehand.

I watch him every night, but since the lawsuit he seems like a different talking head. The sneer is gone, the "holier than thou" look is no longer there, and he flip-flops on his opinions.

I predict that from now on, O'Reilly's lawyers will let him make only "fair and balanced" phone calls.

(c) 2004, Tribune Media Services