Delayed reaction

Ken Baker talks about how almost being a woman for more than 20 years is making him a better man now.

Published March 7, 2001 8:08PM (EST)

Most guys experience the sexual madness of puberty -- the constant woodies, the out-of-your-mind horniness -- in their teenage years, when they're supposed to. For Ken Baker, the delicious surges of lust occurred in his late 20s. And the changes swept through his body in the course of a month or so, not the several tumultuous adolescent years that most of us get to accommodate them.

The cause of the delay was a tumor of the pituitary gland, the brain organ that controls the body's hormone levels. The mass itself was benign, but it caused his pituitary to flood his body with prolactin, the substance that sparks the production of breast milk in women. At the peak of his illness, says Baker, his prolactin levels were 150 times that of a normal man and eight times that of a nursing mother. And his testosterone levels were drastically suppressed.

As a result, through most of his adolescence and young adulthood, he could get an erection, if at all, only under the most intense manual stimulation, and he avoided virtually all sexual contact. He didn't have to shave more than once a month. He was a star hockey player in high school and college -- but no matter how much he lifted weights and exercised, his body would not retain muscle mass. He developed modest-size, lactating breasts. He also began suffering severe sinus headaches as a result of the tumor, which eventually grew to be the size of a chestnut.

Baker, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., attributed his condition to psychological causes. His embarrassment and sense of shame prevented him from seeking adequate medical help until a frustrated girlfriend finally extracted a promise that he do so. Once the tumor, called a prolactinoma, was diagnosed, he began taking medication to reduce it. In June 1998, he had it surgically removed.

According to the Pituitary Tumor Network Association, tumors of the pituitary gland are not uncommon. Autopsy studies indicate that at the time of death about a quarter of the population has small pituitary tumors, and close to a third are prolactinomas. But the vast majority are nonmalignant, have little or no impact and frequently remain undetected; according to the association only 14 in 100,000 people suffer from pituitary tumors that affect their health in a significant way. It is extremely rare for one to grow as large as Baker's did and to disrupt the hormonal balance so severely. To date, Baker says, he has met no one whose condition resembled his.

Here's what Baker experienced immediately following treatment for his condition: regular hard-ons, a brief surge of adolescent acne, a transformation in his relationship with women and the ruminations on masculinity and gender identity -- and the impact of biology on both -- that permeate his first book, "Man Made: A Memoir of My Body."

Baker, a 30-year-old reporter in Us Weekly's San Francisco bureau, got married last year to a woman with whom he can, at last, sustain an active and satisfying sex life -- a normal development for most men but a small miracle to him. He recently spoke with Salon about the book he jokingly refers to as "the autobiography of my penis."

So what was it like to finally be able to be sexual?

When I had my surgery and came back from the hospital, I was weak, I couldn't move my head, they were like, "Don't sneeze, your brains will fall out." But I thought, You know, I've got to see if this thing works, because they said I'm normal. So I started masturbating, and it was the most intense, euphoric ejaculation you can ever imagine. It was just like, holy shit, this is such an amazing feeling. I felt it in my whole body and my head was filling up with blood and the power of it -- it was like a spiritual experience, a full-body experience.

I'm finding it difficult to put into words, because it transcends the ability to explain. My pituitary for the first time was able to release these hormones, and it was just doing it in such a groundbreaking way. After my prolactin level had come down, oh, my God, this thing was constantly hard. I was walking out by Baker Beach with my girlfriend one day and I just started looking at her, and there it was, a spontaneous erection. I hadn't had that since I was 13 or 14. And that was really strange.

So did you get to be the sexual animal you couldn't be all those years?

Yeah, I got to do that. Like going to Vegas, finding a girl, being with her in bed for five or six hours. I did that. I had to. That's what you do when you're 15 or 16. You've got an instrument, so you have to play it. I needed to do that, but I didn't need to do it for that long.

At first it was more intense, like being pubescent. It was less controlled. Now I know how to not get spontaneous erections. You think about math or Grandma or whatever. That's part of learning how to play this new instrument. Sometimes you play it quietly and sometimes you play it loudly.

Let's talk about something that amazes me. How could you have waited so long to get medical help?

I know, it's appalling. I was the master of denial, I was the master of rationalization. There were muted cries of help. I went to see a psychiatrist, and I went to see an old Southern doctor, but I didn't mention my penis, I mentioned my headaches and my sinuses. We're talking about being completely out of touch with my body and what it was telling me. So the question is, Why did I not listen to it?

When I was sick it was more of the pre-Viagra era, but I think men are still pretty shy about talking about sexual dysfunction, and talking about their bodies in general. Women will go to a restaurant and go together to the bathroom and say, "Oh, my nipples are swollen, my period's heavy." Guys don't do that. It's just part of being a male in our society that we don't pay that much attention to our bodies.

Let's go back for a minute to how this all started.

My doctors have figured out that the tumor was probably growing from when I was 14 or 15. I remember being 13 and being sexually alive and awakened, like wow, the first time I masturbated and ejaculated. At 15 or 16 [the feeling] started going away, and I got more reserved. I just thought it had died down. There was always a psychological, situational or environmental explanation for my symptoms that I could conjure up. For example, my dad was very much, "Women will fuck up your life, don't get them pregnant." I had a lot of feelings about not wanting to get involved with women because I needed to get out of Buffalo, I needed to get on with my life.

And puberty is such a time of biological changes, as a person who has this undiagnosed tumor secreting more and more of this female hormone, how do you know what's normal? It's not like I started getting symptoms when I was 21 or 22 and knew something different was going on here. No, it was gradual, day by day, 'til in my early to mid-20s I incorporated it into my sexual and gender identity, which was that I wasn't very sexually motivated. I thought, Maybe I'm a different kind of guy, which is what a lot of girls told me -- a little more sensitive, less aggressive.

Yet in college you were immersed in this hockey and fraternity environment. How did that affect you?

I was in this real hypermacho environment. From what I knew, your dick was as powerful a symbol of your manhood and virility as anything, and you know what? It really is. Let's face it, if your penis is disabled, you as a man, in an evolutionary sense, are handicapped. My experience really forced me to accept that if you're not fully sexualized and functional, and if you just look at us as mammals in this competition among other males for fertile eggs, you are at a disadvantage. This is a biological reality that's very harsh. It's not just a cultural thing. The reality is that if you're heterosexual, at least, a woman is not going to be as attracted to you as a mate if you can't get it up, no matter how much she might love you or be attracted to you emotionally.

I've realized that through having been an outsider in this sort of mating game, being in the Other category. The reason why I bring that up is that at the peak of my illness I remember girls saying, "Oh, I wish there were more guys like you, Ken," but they weren't that interested in me, really. And that's not because they're bad or superficial, or their libido dominates their behavior. No, they're human. Even for the most intellectual women in college, there came a time when they just wanted to get it on, and I felt so much pressure and shame because I couldn't do that.

That pretty much sounds like how I felt, how many other gay people felt, "being in the Other category."

Here's the thing. I am so familiar with the whole homophobic "faggot" and "lesbo" perspective. I grew up with that. I knew I was different and there eventually came a time when there were rumblings about me maybe being gay, that I didn't seem interested in women and I didn't take advantage of my stud-guy hockey-team thing. Then in D.C. I knew a guy and really got along with him. I felt that I really had found a brother in him. I didn't feel pressure to be Mr. Oh-look-at-that-girl, nice ass. I wasn't even thinking he was gay. He was just a guy who I was comfortable hanging out with, but I didn't have to pretend with him, for the same reason I was comfortable with women who weren't interested in me sexually, or around gay men in general. But when I realized he was gay, I thought, Oh, man, maybe I am gay. It really made me consider that. But I knew I wasn't.

The whole point is that each of us has their natural way of being, their degree of libido, the nature of their sexuality, their sexual orientation. I respect so much what the brain does to make us who we are, and nature made me heterosexual. Deep down, intellectually, I was attracted to women, but I didn't feel it in my balls, down there. So when I think about young gay men who are sort of confused about where they stand, my message is: Just listen to your body and what it's telling you. Pay attention, don't rationalize it. If I had done that I wouldn't have gotten so sick, but I was so out of touch with it.

What did it feel like to be attracted to somebody if you didn't feel it viscerally?

Let's say you love pizza, because you've eaten it before and you really like it, and someone puts it in front of you on the table. You've already eaten, so you're stuffed, and you look at it, the pepperoni, the cheese, and you know it's good, but you don't have the hunger, this primal hunger from deep within you, to eat that. You're not driven to do it, and it's like your mouth is wired shut.

I wasn't hungry, I didn't have a sexual appetite. That's the best way I can describe it. My dick didn't work, even if I really, really wanted it to, so that was very frustrating. Sometimes I felt so terrible and so useless and disabled and pathetic. But in a lot of ways, [these are] the negative things. This is so clichéd, but it's fucking true -- I am a better man for going through that experience, because now I don't take any of that stuff for granted.

How do you mean?

Well, now I'm married, I've had some sexual experiences. And I am not going to squander this bond I have with my wife, because I realize how special and fragile and delicate it all is. I'm not going to cheat on her, or take for granted the physical, emotional, spiritual love we have. I'm so lucky, because I can pull all three of those together now.

I'll be honest with you -- sometimes I like myself more when I'm less testosterone-driven, when I'm more mellow, less aggressive. A couple of times I was with my wife and I'd look at a girl. I couldn't help it, and it was obvious, and my wife is like, "Oh, my God." And at that moment I'm like, "Holy, shit, I am a guy." And that was really weird at first, and I still look and it's like I have an out-of-body experience because I think, I'm one of those guys who I used to think was a jerk.

So how have you prevented yourself from being the sex-crazed asshole that you often saw other men being? Or have you?

That's one of the points. When I got that tumor taken out, I became male as nature meant me to be, but I wasn't a man. Being male is easy. That's just your biological destiny. But a man, that's much harder. That's about being honest and loyal and strong, but weak when it's OK to be weak. It's having integrity, and that took me some time to figure out, but not too long because I had all that experience to draw on.

I realized that there's more to being a man than just doing every girl that you're mildly attracted to or have access to. In all honesty, as a guy, yeah, any woman who's attractive to you physically, you're like, "Oh, that would be nice." I'm capable of being the most promiscuous guy in the world, but it all comes down to what your value system is. The experience I had instilled different values. I'm not pretending I'm this perfect guy. I'm not writing a self-help book to get people to be like me. I'm just trying to do the best I can to be the best man I can be.

How would you have been, what kind of a person, if this had not happened to you?

I'd maybe have seven kids from four different women. I'd be living in Buffalo, sitting around eating chicken wings and watching sports, and I wouldn't have been forced to explore my intellectual side, I wouldn't have gone into journalism, using my mind because my body gave out on me. Would that really have happened? I don't know, maybe. It wasn't all bad what happened to me. I was forced to explore other sides of myself, and I became better for it.

Do you think you understand women better than you would have?

I went to this biological place that few men will ever go, and that biological place is being infused with 150 times the normal level of a female hormone that women secrete to nurture life. It's a very female experience, right? And I felt less like a male than most males and more tilted toward that female side, I guess. I had boobs, man. I had what my doctor called an estrogenizing effect -- I could pinch out a milky substance. To me, that's pretty gender-bending. Your body's sort of morphing into this nonmaleness.

I don't know if it was because of the pain and shame and frustration when I was sick, or if it was the hormone making me emotionally who I was, but I was more emotional. I was more sensitive. I cried more than other guys I knew. I think I was afforded a really unique opportunity as a man to get to know women as people, as fellow human beings and not as sex objects. I think I was allowed to be closer to women because there wasn't this sexual tension. But on the other hand I was more distanced from them because ultimately I couldn't get close to them and make love, and love. And that's the ultimate bond.

So do you ever take your orgasms for granted now?

I do take them for granted at times, and I think that's inevitable. Because I can't be walking around fully realized all the time, thinking, Oh, God, that was so great to have sex with my wife. Sometimes it is spiritual and complete. But sometimes it's just two horny people who are attracted to each other.

So part of the reason I wrote the book now -- and not, like, in 10 years to incorporate becoming a husband and father -- is that I didn't want to forget this intense experience I just went through. I knew as time went by, I would sort of forget and become a normal guy and would miss an opportunity to learn the lesson it taught me -- that this healthy body is a gift not to be taken for granted. It could go at any moment.

By David Tuller

David Tuller is a contributing writer at Salon. He is the author of "Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia."

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