Shere Hite

The pioneer of female sexuality whose academic research promoted clitoral orgasm
A still from “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” (2023).

I met Shere Hite in a pub in Islington’s Chapel Market around 1990. It was a grim place and here was this superstar feminist who looked like she had stepped out of a Forties movie with her nipped-in waist, scarlet lipstick and extraordinary alabaster skin. She was there because she was staying at my friend Chris’s squat and we were both attending a do at the pub. Just writing this now seems strange. Why was she staying at my mate’s place? It’s like someone saying: “I’ve got that Susan Sontag crashing in my shed.”

Her book The Hite Report was on my shelf. It was on everybody’s shelf – the 1976 study of female sexuality sold 48 million copies worldwide. It is said to be the 30th best-selling book of ALL TIME. So, what was she doing in North London? My friend said she was always exercising and fussy about food, which was as odd to me as the way she walked about with an umbrella to keep the sun off her face. At that point I don’t think any of us had heard of skincare, we just covered ourselves in Hawaiian Tropic. She was ahead of her time in more ways than one.

70 per cent of respondents to The Hite Report said they did not climax through penetration alone

In fact, she was someone who seemed out of time altogether. There was something of a female Quentin Crisp about her, an alien who would style out the most insalubrious situation – like asking me if I could get the business card of the pub we were in. I was bemused by this, but looking back I realise she acted as if she were in the grandest of places, even though it was a dive where people danced on a dirty carpet.

“Equality doesn’t seem dangerous to me”

Now I see that behaviour as a survival technique. To be with Sheree (as some friends called her) was to enter Hite’s world, which had little resemblance to mundane reality. There was at her core a charismatic self-containment but it wasn’t one that mainstream America could actually deal with.

Containing Hite was, in fact, the problem. Her ground-breaking Report involved sending out countless surveys and getting replies from more than 3000 women, resulting in “a nationwide study on female sexuality”. Through these anonymous questionnaires she asked women how they had orgasms, how they masturbated, whether they preferred sex with men or women, or by themselves.

Hite funded some of her studies by modelling – even for Playboy. She was astonishingly good looking and understood the male gaze and how to work it. Yet the conclusion of her research was to refute the power of men to pleasure women through penetration alone. This was to challenge even men like Freud, whose influence was huge but whose theories were based on a handful of troubled women, mostly sent to him by men in his own circle.

Freud’s theory of female sexuality arose from the fact he needed to bring some coherent logic into his new “science”. Thus he documented two kinds of female orgasm: the clitoral, which was “childish and neurotic”, while the “mature” orgasm was vaginal. Failure to orgasm by a thrusting penis alone was “dysfunction”. This is the logic behind almost every movie sex scene you have ever seen and every orgasm ever faked, until you want to yell “make it stop.” The fact is most women need clitoral stimulation.

Kinsey had got to this understanding, acknowledging that the vaginal orgasm was about male dominance/genitalia – but then backed down by saying that, for many women, orgasm was not necessary for them to derive satisfaction from intercourse. Masters and Johnson observed couples having sex in labs, which, as Hite pointed out, meant these were unusual people to begin with. She attacked the sexologists’ insistence that enough male thrusting would provide sufficient clitoral stimulation and there was something wrong with women if it didn’t work that way.

What Hite was saying then was revolutionary; 70 per cent of her respondents said they did not climax through penetration alone. Women know how to come from masturbation and the more they know about their own pleasure, the less the “wham bam thank you ma’am” model works for them. Knowledge is power and yet Hite’s dissemination of this knowledge made the culture extremely uncomfortable. She did not look or speak like anyone else. Not only was she casually and spikily taboo-busting, she understood her own value as a brand, as an ethereal, lithe, pre-Raphaelite beauty who loved to be photographed.

A still from “The Disappearance of Shere Hite”. PHOTO: MIKE WILSON

A 2023 documentary by Nicole Newnham called The Disappearance of Shere Hite rightly sees Hite as a “forgotten pioneer”. It is part produced and narrated by Dakota Johnson, who was the female lead in 50 Shades of Grey. Here Hite is in all her glory and strangeness and disarming power. From a sad and abandoned childhood, she rose through academia until she started to pursue her own research interests, which collided with 1970s feminism. Looking like a male fantasy, Hite spoke uncompromisingly about women’s right to sexual pleasure on their own terms. She was called a man hater and, in unbearable scenes in the film, is shown pitted against entirely male TV audiences, and being openly pilloried. She would go on to commit further “sins”, such as surveying men about their sexuality and finding that they too were unhappy.

The world could not accept that women’s pleasure lay in their own hands

The backlash against her was unnerving. It became a tsunami. The Hite Report was called the Hate Report. In 1987 she committed the cardinal transgression of publishing with Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress. Her research pointed to a crisis of intimacy and of marriage itself, with many women deeply unfulfilled.

How do you disappear an acclaimed feminist? The answer is you make it impossible for her to write more books, you make her a hate figure, you send her death threats. You discredit her research as “unscientific”.

A still from “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” (2023). PHOTO: IRIS BROSCH

Hite ended up in Europe, in relationships with both men and women, and the royalties dried up. By the mid-1990s she had renounced her American citizenship. As otherworldly as she may have appeared, she had somehow to live in a world that could not accept the fact women’s pleasure lay in their own hands. Oh, how quaint that sounds in the world of upmarket dildos, ubiquitous porn and so-called “sex positivity”. But is it really all so much better now?

The film made me sad. So many of the great feminist revolutionaries ended up alone and unhappy. Kate Millett was on and off lithium. Shulamith Firestone’s body was found lying in her apartment a month after her death aged 67. Hite died of corticobasal degeneration in 2020. My daughters have never heard of her.

Hite always seemed a lone star. Her work was derided. Today we might call that gaslighting. She wrote in her diary that trying to be herself outside of the expectations prescribed for her “was hellish hard”.

It was. She was effectively cancelled for requesting a new sexual order. “Are there going to be real changes in the definition of sex between men and women?”, a journalist asked her, and “will that be dangerous?”. Hite replied coolly: “Equality doesn’t seem dangerous to me.” She meant it, this creature from another world, telling us how the world should be. But her stating of this fact was blasphemous enough for her to be cast out.

Bring her back, this exquisite white witch, this high priestess preaching that female ecstasy matters – with or without men. Her crime was listening to what women told her and believing it. Was she for real, this self-made goddess?
So real, they disappeared her.

“The Disappearance of Shere Hite”, a documentary directed by Nicole Newnham, is available on Prime Video and Apple TV

Suzanne Moore is a journalist. Her substack “Letters from Suzanne” can be found at suzannemoore.substack.com

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March 2024, People, reputations

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