On September 11, 2020, The New York Times published an obituary for Shere Hite, the renowned sex researcher and author, noting that her work “helped awaken women to their sexual power and advance the Second Wave of feminism.”
One of the readers of that obituary was filmmaker Nicole Newnham, and it became the spark that set her on a journey to document a woman who sold almost 50 million books worldwide but who faced such a backlash over her research that it drove her into exile. The result of that cinematic quest is the film The Disappearance of Shere Hite, which just premiered in U.S. Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival.
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For Newnham, the Oscar-nominated director of Crip Camp (co-directed with Jim LeBrecht), the new film amounted to a rediscovery of Hite. She first became acquainted with the author’s taboo-shattering work, The Hite Report, as an adolescent.
“I found it in my mom’s bedside chest where she would stick the books she didn’t necessarily want me to see when I was 12 or 13,” Newnham tells Deadline. “The Hite Report was like a portal into another world, this world of women’s real experiences across a huge spectrum of diversity.”
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What made the book so revolutionary when it hit stores in 1976 was its findings and methodology. Hite culled data from anonymous surveys of more than 3,000 women across the country – respondents from a wide range of ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. Her research upended long-held thinking that to achieve orgasm women needed penetrative intercourse; in fact, Hite found, “women… were quite capable of finding sexual pleasure on their own,” as that New York Times obit wrote. More important than intercourse, Hite discovered from the surveys, was clitoral stimulation.
“It was a bombshell when it was published,” Newnham says. Before the book’s publication, “the whole American public is sitting there thinking that if women were not having an orgasm through intercourse, there was something wrong with them. And Shere Hite is the one who finally comes out and says that’s not true… It really was such a profound thing in that it liberated people and presented a completely different, better, more inclusive type of sexual relationship for people to choose. And at the same time, it was like shooting an arrow right into the heart of the patriarchal power structure.”
The film delves into Hite’s remarkable development as a scholar. She studied at Columbia University at a time when women typically weren’t taken seriously as academics. She ignored the put downs of professors like the eminent Jacques Barzun and pressed onward. To support herself, she did fashion modelling, occasionally nude modelling, and also shot commercials. One risible TV ad she appeared in, dubbed “The Olivetti Girl,” seemed to imply young women could achieve no greater satisfaction in life than sitting behind a sleek Italian typewriter.
“We found in her writings in the Harvard archive lots of thinking and exploration about what it meant to be a model and what it meant to be putting out these kinds of images and to be objectified in that way, her anger and frustration with it,” Newnham says. “But at the same time, she also took a lot of joy and pride in her own beauty and in the expression of it. She loved representations of women from old film noir films and from pre-Raphaelite paintings. She tried to harness kind of the beauty of the past and an expression of femininity that was artistic and beautiful. And she refused to give that up.”
Actress Dakota Johnson came on board the documentary as an executive producer and also voices Hite’s private writings that are housed at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, at Harvard. Editor Eileen Meyer provided a temp voice early on before Johnson recorded the material.
Newnham says she and Meyer “realized there was something really lovely about a younger voice for Shere, a voice that was feminine and vulnerable, but strong and that led us to start thinking about Dakota Johnson. And, also, it meant a lot to us that Dakota cares a lot about women’s sexual health and about women’s rights, and does a lot of work around that, and is an outspoken feminist. But also, it’s hard to think of anyone else who can harness that sort of combination of femininity and strength that she does. And when we reached out to her, we were delighted to discover that she already knew about Shere and already was a huge fan.”
Johnson, in fact, may be an exception: most people seem to have forgotten about Shere Hite, despite her immense cultural impact. That’s partly due to the passage of time, but much more to a deliberate attempt to erase Hite that began soon after The Hite Report came out. The author’s straightforward discussion of sex outraged many conservatives; many men reacted defensively and accused Hite of saying they weren’t needed by women. She even got death threats.
Hite made what, in retrospect, might have been a mistake – appearing on television to debate all manner of people who treated her with hostility and attacked her research methods, even if they hadn’t read her books or had no clue what constituted scientific methodology. (In one absurd TV appearance with a panel of macho male actors, Gil Gerard – best known for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century – seemed to take personal offense at Hite’s 1981 work The Hite Report on Men and Male Sexuality, a book that dared to suggest men experienced feelings and loneliness).
Hite’s true “sin” was to challenge orthodoxy and to suggest that sexuality in this country couldn’t be separated from politics. There were reasons women’s sexuality had been systematically mischaracterized, and that they had been told their sexual fulfillment could only come through copulation with a male. Empowered and self-sufficient women were a threat to the existing order.
“She said a great thing in one of the interviews in the mid ‘90s that she did,” Newnham comments. “She said, ‘The reason I’ve been attacked so much is because I connect sex to politics.’ And she said, ‘If I was just saying, oh, isn’t it cozy how women orgasm? nobody would’ve really cared, but the fact that I said this is a symptom of a political situation made [me] worthy of attack.’”
Fed up with those unrelenting attacks, Hite relocated to Europe. She eventually renounced her American citizenship and later became a German citizen. She died in London at the age of 77.
The Times’ obit summarized the importance of her work this way: “However obvious her conclusions might seem today, they were seismic at the time and ‘sparked a revolution in the bedroom,’ as Ms. magazine reported. For all the women who had faked orgasm during intercourse, the Hite Report helped awaken their sexual power…”
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