'Hite died in September 2020. Her funeral was a bit like a meeting of the Stevie Nicks Appreciation Society: lots of women with long flowing hair and cheesecloth skirts.' (Credit: The Disappearance of Shere Hite/IFC Films)

February 20, 2024   5 mins

“We need to make a film about me.” That was one of the first things Shere Hite, the feminist sex researcher, said to me when I met her in May 2011. Now, three years after she died aged 77, her wish has come true. The Disappearance Of Shere Hite, released last month, charts the fascinating life of the woman responsible for exposing the uncomfortable fact that, for women, penetrative sex rarely results in orgasm.

To truly understand how revolutionary Hite’s research and findings were in the mid-Seventies, it’s important to look at what male sexologists — back then, there was no other kind — had been saying up until then. The two most famous, Sigmund Freud and Alfred Kinsey, had both promoted the notion of the “authentic” orgasm, achievable only in the vagina — in other words, as a result of penile penetration — or as Hite put it, “the great male thrust”.

In her 1976 book, The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, Shere offered a definitive debunking of the myth that women could only achieve orgasm through heterosexual penetration — and that those that couldn’t were “frigid”. As Hite pointed out, sexologists such as William Masters and Virginia E. Johnson had conducted their research in the laboratory, whereas hers focused on women’s experiences, told in their own words. The majority of the women who participated in the research disclosed that they could easily make themselves orgasm by masturbating, and that sex with male partners was far less satisfactory.

Of course, telling men that they are rubbish in the sack was — and remains — incendiary. The backlash was severe: Playboy magazine referred to the book as “The Hate Report”. And many found it difficult to take such a glamorous woman — one who had funded her PhD by posing for that very magazine — seriously. Still, it became a phenomenon; even today, 46 years after its publication, it remains the 30th-bestselling book of all time. In The Hite Report, Shere had put her finger on the pulse of the second wave of feminism: sex and sexuality. This was what feminists kept coming back to in the Seventies, in demanding both the freedom to live without the threat and reality of sexual violence, and women’s sexual liberation and pleasure. One cartoon that did the rounds showed a young girl asking her father, “Dad, what’s a clitoris?” to which he replied: “I don’t know, love, ask your mother.”

“Telling men that they are rubbish in the sack was — and remains — incendiary”

Hite was accused of using her research to make a political point — namely, that women didn’t need men. But what she actually did was lift the lid on women’s best-kept secret: their sexual dissatisfaction within heterosexual relationships. Women had not been asked about sexual pleasure by sexologists in the past. Her findings were damning: 84% of respondents to her questionnaire were not satisfied emotionally with their relationships; 95% reported “emotional and psychological harassment” from their male partners; 98% desired more communication, and just 13% of women who’d been married more than two years described themselves as being “in love”.

Those who hated her findings — pretty much any man who heard about them — became antagonistic. She was accused by sexologists and academics of bias and flawed methodology. Hite had distributed 100,000 detailed questionnaires in brown paper envelopes to random addresses from the phone book. Around 4,500 were completed and returned to her. Some publicly and angrily claimed the data was skewed because the women most likely to have chosen to complete and return the questionnaires would probably be those who were unhappy in their relationships with men; in other words, those with an axe to grind.

But as Hite told me in 2011, “Freud only interviewed three Viennese women.” She went on television to answer her critics, only to find herself on the receiving end of vicious verbal attacks. In 1995, tired of being one of the most notorious feminists on the planet, she renounced her US citizenship and moved to Europe, eventually settling in the UK. Yet the vitriol continued, and she was regularly followed by paparazzi. Because of her uncompromising manner with male interviewers, and the fact that she had published very unpopular findings about men, she had alienated the press in the US. Although her books were translated into several languages and sold in various non-English-speaking countries, her unpopularity was such that no American publisher would print her subsequent titles.

One of the most startling findings was that 70% of women who had been married for more than five years had had at least one extra-marital affair. The Washington Post was so angry about her findings in The Hite Report that they conducted their own survey by phoning women and asking them questions. Hite’s response was caustic, as ever: “Maybe if her husband is in and she’s making dinner she may not want to answer questions about how happy or unhappy she is in her marriage.” Male journalists and commentators didn’t like the fact that Hite had made millions by dishing it out to men, but couldn’t take it when they argued back.

Having read her book, I had wanted to interview Hite for years when she contacted me via another feminist icon, Gloria Steinem, to accept my request to write a profile of her. “I want the young ones to know how important my work is,” she wrote. We arranged to meet at a café in Walthamstow, near the modest home she shared with her boyfriend Paul Sullivan. He escorted Hite to the meeting because, as she told me, “I can’t do anything on my own anymore”. When I asked what the problem was, she said she was suffering from “a condition”.

Brandishing a camera and accompanied by a sound person, Sullivan informed me that he was making a film about Hite that he hoped to sell, though no one had asked me if it was OK for them to film my interview. However, my irritation soon dissipated as the conventionally beautiful, ultra-feminine Hite began throwing around words like clitoris, orgasm, thrusting and fucking. The men in the greasy spoon didn’t know where to look.

Her openness had its limits, however. When I asked Hite whether she had ever had female lovers, she changed the subject. Twice. I have since been approached by two women, separately, who have told me about their sexual relationships with Hite. For all her chutzpah, Hite seemed vulnerable when I met her. She said she regretted not having children, and was considering having a baby via a surrogate, at the age of 68. As we left that interview, she leant forward to whisper to me, “because I have sold a lot of books, I think that women think that I’m fine, but I’m not fine. I hope they realise that.”

I was disappointed: this was not the kickass feminist I’d been looking forward to meeting. And anyone who looks into her life will find that her behaviour was often totally unreasonable. Hite was accused of punching and choking the driver of a limousine who was waiting at her Fifth Avenue apartment to take her to a coveted slot on Sally Jessy Raphael’s talk show. According to a producer, Hite was angry at the driver telling her that, because he had had to wait an hour, it was now too late to get her to the studio. He claims that she physically attacked him when he called her “dear”. Hite denied this. The next day, on another TV show with Larry King, Hite went berserk, storming off the set when the controversy was mentioned.

Her personal imperfections are stark, but her work still deserves to be remembered. The Hite Report is still relevant today; decades after its publication, the majority of women in the UK still reported being dissatisfied with their sex lives and feeling discomfort during sex. But though Hite was one of the most famous feminists on the planet, few talk about her now. As the second-wave feminist Phyllis Chesler remarked in The Disappearance Of Shere Hite, if she ever mentions Hite to young feminists today, they have no idea who she was. I hope the film — which includes fascinating archive material, including interviews with Hite and extracts from her personal journals — brings her work back into the spotlight, and helps more women to feel liberated.

Hite died in September 2020. Her funeral was a bit like a meeting of the Stevie Nicks Appreciation Society: lots of women with long flowing hair and cheesecloth skirts. Several of her old friends were there, almost all of whom told me that it had been a very long time since they had seen Hite. She had become something of a hermit. The last time I spoke with her, she had told me that she was writing a screenplay about her life. It never materialised. My interview with her turned out to be the very last one she ever gave.

Julie Bindel is an investigative journalist, author, and feminist campaigner. Her latest book is Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. She also writes on Substack.