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Shere Hite 1942 – 2020

Shere Hite holding a copy of The Hite Report upon its publication in 1976

Shere Hite holding a copy of The Hite Report upon its publication in 1976

In 1976 a densely-written book of scientific research sparked a revolution in America’s bedrooms. The Hite Report, which sold around 50 million copies worldwide, achieved this feat simply by giving women an opportunity to speak frankly about their sexuality. The research by Shere Hite, then a 34-year-old graduate student, liberated many women’s sex lives but came at a personal price – she would eventually leave the US for Europe due to the sharp and protracted criticism her work attracted.

Hite died in Tottenham, north London, on 9th September, aged 77. Her husband Paul Sullivan said that she had been suffering from corticobasal degeneration, a rare neurological disorder that affects movement, memory and speech. It was through Sullivan that Hite was first introduced to Lola Atkins, who runs independent film company EWAV Works. The pair began a friendship that would last the rest of Hite’s life.

When Hite and Atkins decided to visit colleges in the UK to talk to young people about sexuality, Hite, then in her late 60s, was as determined as ever to be heard. “She was keen to remind people of her message of female empowerment,” says Atkins. Hite was concerned about the ‘pornification’ of female sexual identity, the fear that young women were being pressured to conform to the kind of sexual attitudes and behaviours promoted by lads’ mags and pornography. “Just like in the 1970s when she was saying women should be in control when it comes to their orgasms, in the 2010s she was saying that women should be in control when it comes to their sexual identities,” says Atkins. “She feared that young men were seeing these images and getting ideas about how women should be presenting themselves to them, in this hypersexualised way. She thought women needed greater power in the media because men were still controlling the narrative over sexuality.”

“Everything she said about female sexuality was accurate, everything she said was right”

While Hite demanded the lads’ mags ‘babes’ put their clothes back on, she was anything but a prude. The Hite Report comprised the responses of 3,000 American women to a questionnaire that sought thorough detail on topics such as masturbation and oral sex. Published at a time when open discussion of female sexuality was still seen as taboo, it was always likely to spark a backlash against its author – but it wasn’t just the frank discussion of female sexual pleasure that fuelled the critics’ ire. Hite’s findings challenged long-held male-centred assumptions about female sexuality including those of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, who believed that clitoral orgasms were “infantile” and often linked to mental illness. Hite found that the vast majority of her respondents couldn’t orgasm through penetrative sex – the only legitimate female orgasm, as far as Freud was concerned – but could easily do so through masturbation.

To many women, Hite’s findings were liberating. To many men, however, the publication of the fact that women didn’t need them to have an orgasm was somehow threatening. Playboy dubbed her book ‘The Hate Report’, saying it was anti-male, while Christian groups deemed her championing masturbation as anti-family. There were, however, valid concerns about Hite’s methodology, which would dog her throughout her career – her sample was arguably self-selecting because the type of person who chose to reply to one of her magazine adverts inviting responses was likely to be someone with strong opinions on the topic. Her work was sometimes dismissed as pseudoscience. “Her critics thought she wasn’t serious,” says Atkins. “But regardless of the validity of her data, everything she said about female sexuality was accurate, everything she said was right.” With the bestselling book came appearances on US talk shows, in which the glamorous author, with her bright red lipstick, pale skin and strawberry blonde hair uttered anatomical terms rarely heard on prime-time TV to awkward-looking male presenters. She was softly-spoken with a slight Southern lilt, and rarely seen without a cigarette in her hand.

Hite’s study of male sexuality, published five years after the original Hite Report, contained the seemingly shocking relelation that 80 percent of married men had had extramarital sex, while her third book, 1987’s Women and Love, also portrayed an America of unbridled infidelity, with 70 percent of women married longer than five years declaring that they had been unfaithful. The latter statistic caused a far greater furore than the former, and resurrected old criticisms over Hite’s methodological approach. Reports also circulated of erratic behaviour: the Washington Post alleged that she “slugged a limo driver who called her ‘dear’”. “The media did everything in their power to pull her down because her work was upsetting certain institutions,” says Atkins. “They said she was hysterical, a man-hater. When I was with her she was always calm.”

Hite was born Shirley Diana Gregory in Saint Joseph, Missouri, during the Second World War. She became known as Shere from a young age and took the surname of her stepfather, Raymond Hite, a truck driver. After her mother’s second divorce she was mostly raised by her grandparents in Florida. While working on a PhD in social history at Columbia University in the mid-1970s, a course she paid for through part-time modelling (including a topless shoot for Playboy that gave her critics ammo for years to come), she began her research on female sexuality. Her work established her as a key player in feminism’s Second Wave, which aimed to give women more than just equal voting rights: Hite wanted to extend the fight for equality to the bedroom.

Shortly after the publication of Women and Love, Hite moved to Germany with her first husband, Friedrich Höricke. In 1995 she renounced her US citizenship and became a German citizen, saying that as the “most visible feminist in the US” she had received death threats. “You don’t have to be a medic to know that years of horrific emotional and verbal abuse will take their toll on the body,” says Atkins. “She was a trooper, but I think at times in her life she really felt the pain.”

After her marriage to Höricke ended Hite moved to London and focused on a different kind of writing project. “We were working together on her biopic,” says Atkins. “She had written a script about her life. She wanted the world to know about her.” Atkins believes that Hite still craved affirmation in her later years. “All her life she’s been put down, told her work’s rubbish and not valid,” she says. “She’s never had any validation, and she was abandoned as a child.” In 2012 Atkins quietly nominated Hite for the lifetime achievement gong at the First Women Awards, and was with her friend when she won. “It was beautiful,” says Atkins. “After all these decades people could see that her work had value. There was a sense of accomplishment for her, and of peace.”

As Hite’s health declined Atkins had fewer opportunities to see her friend – the last time they met up was in 2019. Atkins is sad that they never had the chance to discuss the ‘Me Too’ movement, which she sees as a continuation of the conversation Hite started nearly 50 years ago with The Hite Report, and she regrets that Hite won’t get to see her screenplay come to fruition; she’s currently in talks about a possible TV series. She fondly remembers the time the pair travelled to Cannes film festival to gauge interest in their project. “We were thinking Gwyneth Paltrow could play her,” Atkins says.

“She was quite a social butterfly,” Atkins adds, remembering their Cannes trip. “She loved to party. She was funny, smart and always entertaining to be around. It’s been such a privilege to spend time
with her and to work with her. She really was an incredible woman.”

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