Shere Hite

Shere Hite was absolutely dedicated to the female orgasm. Her research in understanding the importance of clitoral stimulation in achieving orgasm underpins a new documentary about her life and work. 

Hite, a feminist activist and academic researcher, made an invaluable contribution to the understanding of women’s sexuality in the 1970s and 80s. 

The most controversial finding of the original Hite Report debunked the “myth” that the female orgasm is achieved through penetrative intercourse.

In 2023, this is hardly revelatory. But in 1976, it was nothing short of genuinely radical. The book had an original print run of just 4,000 copies, but proved an instant international publishing sensation. 

Hite’s work had a specific cultural context. It was a product of the “second wave of feminism” that swept across north America in the late 1960s and 70s. This movement demanded that women had sexual agency, and didn’t exist to be objects of desire for men. 

Her report was based on conclusions from responses to a questionnaire filled out by thousands of women. Hite’s contribution in particular said that women’s sexual enjoyment mattered. The documentary is produced and narrated by actor Dakota Johnson.

Recent interviews with Hite’s colleagues and friends are interspersed with archival footage of Hite at feminist protests or being bullied by bigots on chat shows. 

In truth, she gave as good as she got, regularly running rings around brown-suited men getting increasingly redder while she smoked a cigarette.

The film is extremely powerful in showing the degree of genuine venom levelled at her. Aside from the accusations that Hite hated men and wanted to tear apart honest US families, the bigots attacked her for claiming her work wasn’t science. 

It couldn’t be science, they argued, because the reports dealt with sample sizes that were too small. It couldn’t be science, they argued, because the essay-style answers to her questions were too vague to draw anything credible from.

But behind these claims of dodgy methodology was a simple sexist and a sneering cynicism that Hite’s findings rested on ordinary people self-reporting their own experiences. Her second book, published some five years after the initial report, focused on the emotional and sexual lives of men. 

I thought the way Hite’s talked about isolation, pain and childhood trauma was genuinely devastating. And now, especially timely, when opportunistic bigots such as Andrew Tate look to capitalise on this same alienation that men feel under capitalism. 

The idea of “toxic masculinity” has now reached the mainstream. But some 40 years ago, Hite was pulling together ideas about how men are forced to suppress complex inner lives.

As well her work coming under attack, Hite herself was the victim of the most disgusting brand of misogynistic bullying. 

I physically winced when the documentary showed some of the behaviour she was subjected to. Nude modelling photos taken while she was a student were published later in her career in an attempt to discredit her.

In one piece of archival footage, she is asked to describe the underwear she was wearing. The “dissapearance” in the documentary’s title refers to Hite’s self-exile from the US. She found Europe a more hospitable cultural and academic landscape. 

Hite may be gone now—she died in 2020—but her work still packs a punch.  Almost half a century on it still feels absolutely radical to talk so unapologetically about the importance of women’s sexual pleasure.

The Disappearance of Shere Hite is out in cinemas on the 12 January

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