Depending on your age, you likely either have some feelings about Shere Hite or know nothing about her. In 1976, Hite, an independent researcher of qualitative experience, sparked a “revolution in the bedroom”, as Ms Magazine put it, with her anonymous surveys on female sexuality. Namely, as she stated often and without equivocation, that women knew how to have orgasms when and how they wanted, with or without intercourse.
The Hite Report was an immediate bestseller – it has sold over 48m copies worldwide – and turned Hite into a media fixture. She was a frank interviewer and thus a lightning rod for criticism, having committed the cardinal sin of promoting female pleasure, which many took as demoting men, and then, in subsequent books, describing how men really felt (lonely, isolated, emotionally stifled) and women’s feelings on love. Facing intense backlash and lack of support from her longtime publisher, she eventually decamped to Europe for self-imposed exile, where she remained until her death in 2020. Her books went out of circulation and her notoriety as a feminist trailblazer waned. The Hite Report is, by some estimates, the 30th bestselling book of all time, yet many young feminists have never heard of her.
Such is the conundrum underscoring The Disappearance of Shere Hite, a new documentary which, for the first time, explores Hite’s complicated legacy and interrogates her erasure from the feminist canon. Hite’s story “gives us the opportunity to see this phenomenon play out in real time, of how iconoclastic women are discredited and then forgotten”, said Nicole Newnham, the film’s director.
Newnham, the co-director of the Oscar-nominated documentary Crip Camp, first heard of The Hite Report as a young girl, when she found the book by her mother’s bedside. She remembers being struck by the women quoted from Hite’s surveys, who “responded to her in such an intimate, open fashion, with sort of idealistic hope that they could be a part of Shere’s mission to un-define sex and take it away from this kind of narrow patriarchal definition that we all are still living under, and make it something that works for people, for individuals”.
As she got older, Newnham would think back on the Hite Report with gratitude – “thank god I know this is something other women experience, because otherwise I would never know. I thought about it a lot,” she said. After reading Hite’s obituary in 2020, Newnham grew interested in the afterlife of the book and its reclusive author, who could appear both disarmingly frank and glamorously aloof. She partnered with NBC News studios, who were working on a similar project, to dig into Hite’s vast and largely unexplored archive, particularly on the work behind the bestselling book. “I really passionately wanted to know how she did that, and why she was hated for it and forgotten,” said Newnham.
The Disappearance of Shere Hite, indeed, captures a workhorse of sharp intellect and striking pre-Raphaelite beauty. A sylphic strawberry blonde, Hite initially made money to fund her graduate studies at Columbia University by working as a model for retail, erotic film and book covers and occasionally for Playboy. In journal entries brought to life by the voice of Dakota Johnson, Hite describes her ambivalence at using her body to pay the bills and, more pressingly, people’s reactions to it. Her first exposure to the women’s movement came from a protest for a sexist ad campaign for Olivetti typewriters (“a typewriter that’s so smart, she doesn’t have to be”) in which she appeared. Feminism provided Hite not only with community but a sense of purpose and an outlet for her burgeoning political consciousness – “the movement’s intellectual debates made Columbia University’s look pale and anemic,” she wrote. “Brilliant ideas were a daily occurrence.” She abandoned graduate studies for organizing and for distributing anonymous surveys on the female sexual experience.
What began as a curiosity became a massive undertaking, self-funded through gigs and loans, to capture the complexity and enormity of female pleasure. A fraction of survey responses quoted in the film reveal the excitement with which other women, even those not identified with the movement, greeted the project. The candid answers, from lonely to ecstatic, were revelatory then, and still remarkable now.
Going through Hite’s archive of surveys and personal effects, now housed at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library, “felt like terra incognita, like this thing that hadn’t been explored yet”, said Newnham. The more she and her team read, the more they shed “the calcified media perception of her that one had been left with by the time she left this country”. That she was distant and cold, without a sense of humor, obsessed with her appearance. Surveying the records of Hite’s nascent political consciousness, bittersweet observations and exhortations to hold on to herself in the maelstrom of fame “felt like the flat 2D caricature of her coming into 3D relief”, said Newnham. “It felt like getting to know a friend.”
According to friends, several of whom appear in the film, Hite was reluctant to talk about her past, and the film echoes that reticence. Only in the second half does Newnham peel back the layer to Hite’s life before New York: she was born to a teenage mother and soldier father, both of whom left in her early childhood; she was raised by her grandparents in the midwest, recalled briefly through a few photos. Hite remembered, in a later journal entry, discovering her own capacity for sexual pleasure. Newnham deliberately obscures more biographical detail, particularly of Hite’s early life. “We so badly did not want to make this a film that was about psychoanalyzing her, and thereby taking away from the import of the work itself,” she explained. We meet Hite at her desk, piled with work and her various tchotchkes; the focus is on “how she created her workspaces, how she endeavored to give herself the time to actually do the thinking and working and researching that she did”.
That researching – which, as her friends attest, consumed Hite’s time, attention and money – nevertheless attracted harsh criticism from mainstream media. The film’s collage of clips from Hite’s final public-facing years are difficult to sit through. In one interview, a panel of men dismiss her work outright, because it “doesn’t describe anyone I know”. In another, Maury Povich ambushes her with the driver of a limousine who claims she hit him; her anger and frustration, he implies, invalidates her work.
Newnham acknowledges some critiques of her methodology, which used non-compulsory anonymous responses so that, as Hite said, women would be comfortable to say only what they wanted to say. “There’s things about her methodology that could fairly be questioned against this accepted social science methodology,” said Newnham. But the tone of the criticism was “often really disturbing and upsetting … really, she was somebody who did something, who got at the truth in a different way”.
Which makes the belated recognition of Hite’s legacy all the more bittersweet. Her disappearance represents what Newnham called a “cycle of feminist progress and then backlash against that, and then the forgetting of something, and then having to reinvent the wheel all over again – it happens and we’re not really aware of it”. Her remembrance offers an opportunity to confront it. It wasn’t Shere Hite alone who celebrated female pleasure and masturbation, “but she played such an instrumental role in it”, said Newnham. “And I think that’s inspiring, to think that a change like that can happen. I hope that if we can see this cycle for what it is and how it plays out, that we can have more ammunition to try to break it.”
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