December 18, 1992


People seem to glorify their appetites. There are many literary works in praise of food and sex. Someday a cow might write a tome about grass.

I was born with appetites, but I only found out about them when they were fully developed and had some direction. I know, from what I have seen of babies, that I was born hungry. I sucked automatically; no one had to teach me to do that.

One of my infant daughters was offered a pacifier, but when she found out that it didn't give milk, she spit it out and wouldn't have anything more to do with it. Another daughter had a pacifier in her mouth continuously, and we were starting to worry that it might deform her erupting teeth. Still another enjoyed her thumb. Her identical twin did quite well with nothing between the times that she ate. From that, I am fairly certain that whatever turns you on is not in the genes. That you do turn on apparently is. It is for this reason that I am very skeptical of genetic explanations of homosexuality, alcoholism etc.

By the time I was conscious of my hunger, things that stimulated and satisfied that hunger were as well ingrained in me as the association of a ringing bell was with food for Pavlov's dogs. In addition to the internal promptings of my body, there were sights and smells and sounds that made me hungry. I had no problem dealing with my hunger; I ate, and was satisfied --until that bell went off again. While I had no particular problem with my appetite for food, some other people did. There are very strange behaviors associated with an appetite for food, that go by the name of obesity, anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

My sexual appetites were not so easily dealt with. I abandoned a few infantile sexual escapades, because they just didn't work; I was not physiologically ready for sex at the age of seven. By adolescence, there were certain sights, touches, sounds and odors that produced what is termed in Boccaccio "a resurrection of the flesh". (I have to be careful not to plunge in with words that you all know, but would be shocked to see in print, so I will use the medical term "erection," even though it is usually associated with structures made of steel rather than of flesh and blood.)

I learned at a very early age that, unlike my appetite for food, my sexual appetite, which was just as real and just as compelling, could not be dealt with openly. To make matters worse, I had no control over it at all. I would get erections in the strangest places. It would happen in a subway train, so I always carried a book or newspaper to place on my lap in order to conceal my burgeoning sexuality from the public. It would happen when I danced, so while my partner and I held each other, I would scrupulously avoid any pelvic contact that would reveal my depravity.

I could make a list of things that turned me on; and so could you. While our lists might have elements in common, in all likelihood they would be different. Many men turn on to the way that a woman moves, and the movement that turns one man on will have no effect at all on another. The same applies to sights, sounds and odors. What I am saying about me, and men in general, also applies to women, who also react as individuals.

By adolescence I was aware of the rules of conduct. Unlike the international rules of baseball, rules of conduct are different in different cultures, different at different ages, and different depending on who you happen to be with at the time. The rules your parents and teachers give you are different from what your peers tell you. Girls have one set of rules, boys another. The rules are different at 15 from what they will be at 18. In short, it is as strange and unpredictable a game as you will ever play. And to complicate it, what turns you on is not likely to be the same as what turns your friend on.

Many adolescents learn to pretend that whatever turns their friends on also does the same for them. If your best buddy gets excited at a large set of breasts, you make believe that it does the same for you, even though you are excited by petit, flat-chested girls. If a male's first sexual experiences was with boys and he is with heterosexually oriented companions, he will most likely suppress that attraction for males completely. If his companions are homosexually oriented, it may become his way of life too.

Some of those differences between us are in our genes, but not too many. We are each of us different. I believe that most of those differences are learned, even though we may not remember where, when, or under what circumstances we learned them.

Next column

Return to the Psychology Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page