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She Changed the Way Women Thought About Their Sexuality. Now She’s Finally Getting Her Due

10 minute read

It may seem like common knowledge now that a woman's sexual pleasure isn't dependent on the presence of a man. But when The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality was published in 1976, the idea was revolutionary, groundbreaking, and to some (namely, men), threatening. The book was the brainchild of Shere Hite, a trailblazing feminist who indelibly changed the way that women thought about their bodies, their sexuality, and themselves, but who largely vanished from cultural memory in recent years.

Hite's findings on female sexuality dispelled years of misconceptions about women's pleasure. The chief and most controversial among her insights: That the majority of women did not need penetrative intercourse, and thus a male partner, to achieve orgasm. With this revelation, many women felt liberated, just as many men felt imperiled. The book became an instant bestseller.

By all accounts, Hite was integral to the momentum of the sexual revolution and foundational to contemporary feminist movements—so why has she been all but absent from history? That's the question at the heart of The Disappearance of Shere Hite, a documentary that released in theaters on Nov. 17, which centers on the life and times of the researcher. Directed by Nicole Newnham, the director of 2020's Oscar-nominated Crip Camp, the film delves into Hite's radical work and fearless personal life, while reckoning with the misogynistic backlash she faced, which eventually drove her to leave the United States and to renounce her American citizenship in 1995.

Newnham, who recalls furtively reading her mother's copy of The Hite Report as a 12-year-old, relied heavily on Hite's archive at Harvard's Schlesinger Library, where she discovered an "overwhelming" wealth of material, including Hite's personal journals, which are read in the film by actor Dakota Johnson, who also executive produced the film. She also found a cohort of enthusiastic collaborators in Hite's friends and colleagues, who were eager to reframe the narrative around their friend and preserve her legacy.

"I really wanted it to be a film that explored the great work and cultural important of a really brilliant, iconoclastic thinker and researcher, who was also an artist and cultural change agent," Newnham told TIME. "People were so excited to help us kind of bring her to life for the viewer, because they saw how she had been caricatured and diminished in the media. And they really wanted people to know who she was...that's a pretty beautiful way to come to know someone."

Tracing Hite's rise from a struggling grad student to a best-selling author and, later, a controversial celebrity, the film draws on a wealth of archival footage: Shere's collaborative image-making with photographers for both modeling work and her own aesthetic pleasure, videos and images of her political organizing with the National Organization for Women, and perhaps most notably, her media appearances where she faced sexist scrutiny of her work. Newnham also included footage that puts Hite's work in broader context with the rampant misogyny that characterized the media attention in the '90s, where other women, like Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky, were also being vilified. What emerges is a nuanced portrait of a vibrant woman who was unfairly judged for being far ahead of her time. For Newnham, Hite's work was prescient and feels more urgently needed than ever.

"For Shere, women's right to pleasure was important to ensuring the success of our freedom and democracy," she said. "I'd like for people to come away with an understanding of the ways in which sex is political and that they will be inspired by the bravery and strength and creativity that it took to change something as seemingly intractable the definition of sex that was taken for granted for thousands of years. And I hope that leaves people inspired to try to do their part in the fight for women's bodily autonomy and our right to our own bodies."

Who was Shere Hite?

Shere Hite was born Shirley Diana Gregory in 1942 in Saint Joseph, Mo.; after her mother married her stepfather, he adopted Shere, giving her his surname. She was raised primarily by her grandparents and her aunt and attended college at the University of Florida at Gainesville, where she got a bachelor's and master's degree in history. In the late '60s, she entered a doctoral program at Columbia, where she paid for her tuition by doing modeling jobs, which ran the gamut from sitting for book illustrations to shoots for Playboy; she left the university because of the conservatism of the program.

Hite in a previously unseen photo by photographer Robert McGinnis, from her modeling daysRobert McGinnis, courtesy of IFC Films

Shere's modeling jobs helped her find her life's work. She had appeared in a campaign for Olivetti typewriters, but was appalled at the ad's caption: “The typewriter so smart, she doesn’t have to be." Subsequently, she joined a protest of the advertisement alongside feminists from the NOW and became an active member of the organization, befriending and working alongside leaders like Gloria Steinem and Flo Kennedy to fight for women's rights during the '60s and '70s. Following a discussion at a NOW meeting about female orgasms, Hite was shocked by the lack of data surrounding the topic and decided to conduct her own research on the topic, starting a project that would eventually become The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, which she published in 1976. The book was heralded as a beacon of the Women's Liberation movement and became an instant best-seller (it's still 30th best selling book of all time), bringing Hite both huge acclaim and notoriety.

In the years following, Hite published many other books, including reports on male sexuality, teenage sexuality, and families. The nature of Hite's work, especially around sex research and education, made her a target for scrutiny and often resulted in people not taking her research seriously. In the media, she was subject to misogynistic attacks and undue criticism. In one particularly harrowing clip in the documentary, she appears on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where an all-male audience verbally berates her; in another, she is ridiculed on the Maury Povich Show. Within the research community, Hite faced critique for her methodology and sampling practices, with some contemporaries demeaning her work.

The scrutiny directed at Hite was so intense that in 1989, she moved to Germany with her husband Friedrich H?ricke, a German concert pianist 19 years her junior; in 1995, she renounced her American citizenship and in 1996, she became a German citizen.

"After a decade of sustained attacks on myself and my work, particularly my ‘reports’ into female sexuality, I no longer felt free to carry out my research to the best of my ability in the country of my birth," she wrote of renouncing her American citizenship in a 2003 New Statesman piece.

In 1999, Hite divorced H?ricke, remarrying a man named Paul Sullivan in 2012 and relocating with him to London. For the rest of her life, Hite continued to do research, mostly focusing on sexuality, and write, including a memoir, The Hite Report on Hite: A Sexual and Political Autobiography, which was published in 2000. She died in 2020, at the age of 77; she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases ahead of her death.

What was The Hite Report and why was it so controversial?

Michael Wilson, courtesy IFC Films

The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality was a book containing the results of about 3,000 of 100,000 questionnaires that Hite wrote and distributed to women nationally between the ages of 14 to 78. In over 60 questions, Hite asked women to share their personal feelings about sex and their sexuality, from the physical logistics to the emotional aspects.

She initially distributed her surveys by hand in New York City, enlisting her then-boyfriend to use his motorcycle to travel borough to borough to pass them out. She then began advertising the surveys nationally in magazines and included mailers for them in her first book, Sexual Honesty, by Women, For Women, which she published in 1974.

Upon publication in 1976, the Hite Report, which covered everything from masturbation and sexual satisfaction to femininity and romantic relationships, was a revelation for many, helping to make it a bestseller. Chief among the insights was the knowledge that more 70% of the respondents did not climax from penetrative intercourse, but were more successful at climaxing through clitoral stimulation or masturbation—a finding that affirmed many women's private feelings but unsettled men.

"Women who read it will feel enormously reassured about their own sexuality and if enough men read it, the quality of sex in America is bound to improve," Erica Jong wrote in a 1976 review of the book in the New York Times. Playboy, meanwhile, dubbed it, "The Hate Report."

What set the book apart from previous writing and research about female sexuality from researchers like Kinsey and Freud, who focused primarily on penetrative sex, was its individualistic approach to gathering data. Women responded anonymously to write-in questions, as opposed to multiple choice queries, allowing them to provide more nuanced and complex responses.

"I think her work was precious because she was really trying to make us aware by showing the breadth and diversity of actual experience," Newnham said of why Hite's research resonated with so many women. "I don't think we tend to think of our own lives and our own experiences as being dictated by political or social constructs like that so much because we're busy living them, but she showed how much trying to live within a rigid, patriarchal definition of sexuality that's just really about intercourse and male orgasm is painful for so many people, both men and women."

While Hite's methodology allowed women to respond candidly, it also left her open to scrutiny. She was criticized for research methods, particularly her statistical reporting, because she didn't gather demographic information from all of her respondents. Hite was also criticized for her sampling methods, which were subject to both selection and nonresponse bias because her questionnaires were distributed and did not have to respond. Critiques about the validity of her work were especially hurtful to Hite, who already felt that her work was not taken seriously because of the subject matter and her gender.

"I feel I have contributed significantly to methodology," she said in a 2011 interview with The Guardian. "None of the media read the long explanation in my report of how I did the research. After all, Freud only interviewed three Viennese women."

Why did Shere Hite "disappear?"

Though Hite's influence is still felt today in our contemporary understanding of sexuality, her name isn't familiar to most in the way that other sexologists are, like Freud, Kinsey, or Masters and Johnson. Likewise, though she was actively involved in the second wave feminist movement and NOW, she's not a prominent feminist figure to the layperson. There are a number of reasons why Hite's legacy may been largely forgotten, but one of the major factors was the sexist backlash she faced to her work. Though Hite's work was revolutionary, it was constantly undermined by inflexible conventions in society and in the academic community. Hite essentially became a scapegoat for tensions and insecurities for those who were threatened by changing attitudes toward gender and sexuality, causing her to retreat from the American public eye.

The controversy of her work and the subsequent fallout led her to a self-imposed exile. In addition to moving to Germany and renouncing her American citizenship, Hite was also seemingly selective about her public appearances and interviews, dialing down her press. It all makes sense, given the way she was attacked in the media at the height of her fame. The same 2011 interview with The Guardian hints at the stress that years of scrutiny may have left on Hite and why she may have chosen to stay out of the spotlight in later years.

"Because I have sold a lot of books I think that women think that I'm fine, but I'm not fine," she said. "I hope they realize that."

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com