Hite’s Sex Study that Aroused Feminists
American-German sexologist Shere Hite was born on the 2nd of November 1942 in Missouri, U.S.A. In 1976, at the height of a second feminist wave in America, when she was still a young, unknown graduate student, she published The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality. The book sold some 50 million copies worldwide. Although the study was deemed as limited by the methodology Hite used to collect data, there were groundbreaking discoveries in her book which changed the direction of research on female sexuality thereon. Hite wrote that, “Our whole society’s definition of sex is sexist, oriented around male orgasm and the needs of reproduction. This definition is cultural, not biological.” The main idea of her book was the shattering of the myth, established by sexologists Masters and Johnson, that women received sufficient stimulation during basic intercourse to reach climax. A popular anecdote reveals the motivation behind Hite taking up this research:
Her conversion to feminism happened almost by chance when she was sent to take part in a TV commercial for Olivetti typewriters. “They were teasing my hair into some ridiculous beehive thing,” she recalls. “I said I thought I’d got this commercial because I could type well – and that’s when I found out.” Hite had been chosen not for her typing skills but her looks; the company’s new slogan was “the typewriter that’s so smart she doesn’t have to be”. “It made me into a feminist,” says Hite. “I read about a group of women picketing Olivetti and I joined them (…)Soon she started attending meetings of the New York chapter of the National Organisation of Women. At one of the meetings, the topic for discussion was the female orgasm…” (The Independent, 30 April 2006).
Perversely, she became the face of the Olivetti advert and also posed nude in Playboy, so Hite did indeed choose to use her image to get by – she supported herself through university by modelling. Instead of fighting the system, she staged her protest against the objectification of women through her writing. Hite’s beauty equally disarmed and alarmed her critics; the stereotypical figure of the butch feminist had now acquired the face and figure of a desirable young woman with a mind of her own and clear needs which she wasn’t afraid to express. Religious groups were appalled by her endorsement of female self-pleasure and conservative social groups accused her of contributing to the dissolution of the family unit by allowing women too much independence sexually.
“Six years earlier Germaine Greer had told women they were female eunuchs; now here was another brilliant young woman explaining why.” (The Independent 30 April 2006). Hite collected data from 3500 women, controversially, through essay questionnaires rather than multiple choice ones, which would have fed the subjects predetermined answers. These proved that women do not have a problem reaching orgasm, but, rather, that society has a problem in accepting how they reach it. 70% of Hite’s subjects admitted not achieving satisfaction through intercourse, but had no problem climaxing through self-stimulation. “Shouldn’t we just rethink the idea of what sex is and what equality is? That’s what I went around the country saying” Hite proclaimed. In The Case of the Female Orgasm (2005), Elisabeth A. Lloyd, continued this line of enquiry, criticising Masters and Johnson who diagnosed women incapable of intercourse climax as being frigid, or rather suffering from ‘sexual dysfunction’.
Hite showed that there was nothing wrong with women themselves, but the cultural assumptions about them. “I was saying that penetration didn’t do anything for women and that got some people terribly upset. Men heard (…) that they weren’t doing it right in bed, and that made some media moguls angry”, she said. Ironically, Playboy, among others, named her book ‘The Hate Report’, claiming it was “anti-male”. (Julie Bindel in The Guardian, Friday 13 May 2011). The reaction of U.S. media, including Time magazine and protest groups was so vitriolic that Hite ended up renouncing her American citizenship and moving to Europe. The claims that her research methods were unscientific angered her most. It seems that in the 1970s, the credibility of women was far from satisfactory even over a century since being labelled hysterical. “I feel I have contributed significantly to methodology. None of the media read the long explanation in my report of how I did the research,” says Hite. “After all, Freud only interviewed three Viennese women.” ( The Guardian, Friday 13 May 2011).
So, stick this in your pipe and smoke it, Dr Freud!