BOOK REVIEW / Hite and lows of penetration: 'Women as Revolutionary Agents of Change: The Hite Reports 1972-1993' - Shere Hite: Bloomsbury, 13.99 pounds

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'IF SOCIETY separates the two genders so decisively that it impedes love,' asks Shere Hite towards the end of her latest book, 'what is an individual to do about it?' Her argument is that women must, in order to free men as well as themselves, enact nothing less than revolution through the proper understanding of their needs and capacities.

The Hite Reports have searched every cranny of the sex lives of contemporary Americans. Why did it take so long for voyeurism and sex research thus incandescently to coalesce? The solemn tone and bossy format ('What do you think about during sex? Do you fantasise? What about? Do you usually have sex with the people you want to have sex with? Do you feel that having sex is in any way political? How did you like the questionnaire?') were transcended by the fascination of the responses. All personal accounts of common experience are absorbing, and with the Hite Reports came the added commendation that they were hot stuff. Often the language used was moving, telling of things that the speaker had never before tried to articulate.

But that was the body of the magnum opus; here comes its brain, a lot more boring, if the repressive male language of late 20th-century bimbology may be used. After her extensive research, undertaken in a spirit no less than evangelistic, Hite has concluded that what is needed to achieve the Utopia she envisages is an 'undefinition' of sex: since the vaginal orgasm almost doesn't exist, why tend so unvaryingly in heterosexual intercourse towards penetration (except when conception is intended), when what will save mankind is a kind of pan-clitoral tactility?

The grand impulse behind this book is unarguably right. Many women find themselves sold out to a way of life that seems pledged to using and discarding them; many endure loneliness within a gagged marriage. Nor does the book fail to consider the men who feel emotionally askew in a world polarised by gender: Hite in this book has written something like a steely feminine equivalent to Iron John.

But though many details ring true and there is a strong ordering intelligence present, Hite's thrust is at once nave and inattentive to those millions of women in the Third World who are not free to free themselves and their menfolk through enlightened sexplay. Rigorously absent from the book, in spite of its frankness about every sexual practice, is imagination, and any account of its intimate relation to otherness, which is one of the flints of both kinds of love, eros and agape.

Among the acknowledgements to a galere that includes many clear-headed feminists appear: 'My express thanks to Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner and Kirsten Flagstad, Puccini, Mirella Freni, Licia Albanese, Sergei Rachmaninoff and George Jellinek among others, for their inspiration and companionship.' Earlier Hite agonises: 'How happy can we be, enjoying Richard Strauss's music, when we know he had such misogynistic views? Is history really ours?' It is good to know that this committed woman's instinct for pleasure is stronger even than her devotion to polemic.