Everyone knows exactly how women have changed in recent decades, but we're not so sure about men. The "new man" has been eclipsed by the new lad, men's magazines are obsessed with breasts and violence against women has, judging by the statistics, reached frightening levels. Some observers claim that antipathy between the sexes is greater than ever, and others point to confusion about gender roles, so Shere Hite's new book on men and male sexuality is timely.
It is more than two decades since she produced the first Hite report on men, based on research conducted between 1974 and 1981 - a period that now feels like ancient history. Hite is an extraordinary figure, a one-woman riposte to the caricature of feminists as dour man-haters; in the face of very personal attacks, she has remained true to her project of revealing the secrets of men's and women's sexuality, as well as maintaining an impressive degree of optimism about the future of humanity.
Perhaps surprisingly, the conclusions of her new book confirm that outlook. Hite used an updated version of her original questionnaire and while her respondents (more than 7,000) are self-selecting - a criticism that could be levelled at some pioneering sex researchers of earlier generations - their answers are revealing. Many men tell Hite they are frustrated or disappointed by their relationships with women, expressing "a huge amount of anger". Some complain they are being stereotyped in the way women used to be, while a vociferous minority long for the certainties of the past. "I think [feminism] is the worst thing that ever happened to women and their relations with men," says one respondent.
Inevitably, there are men who claim that women are "asking for it" in their dress or behaviour when Hite questions them about rape. "I have often wanted to rape a woman, and I fantasise about it a lot," admits one. Yet the same man also acknowledges he is disturbed by the impulse, which "runs counter to my sense of mutual respect, humanism, feminism etc".
There is plenty of fascinating material about the male orgasm, male beliefs about the clitoris, and why some men enjoy cunnilingus. But its heart is not so much the results of Hite's latest research as her theory about male psychosexual development, which, as the title suggests, takes issue with classic Freudian psychoanalysis.
This is not new territory for feminists, some of whom have expressed uneasiness with the apparent inevitability of male and female sexual identity as described by Freud. What Hite brings is her sense of how damaging that model is not just to women but men, who are forced, she argues, to distance themselves from their mothers (and women generally) at precisely the moment of their adolescent sexual awakening.
She believes this has long-term effects, explaining why so many women "are left to puzzle over men's erratic behaviour during love affairs or marriages, as they observe men waxing first passionate, loving and desirous, then cold and blocking, even hostile and aggressive or violent".
Most men, Hite claims, don't feel comfortable about being in love; according to her research, they even express pride about the fact that they don't marry the woman they love most passionately, congratulating themselves on a "rational" choice of partner.
Love threatens confusion and loss, as it did at puberty when most boys, Hite argues, experience severe emotional stress as they are forced to switch allegiance away from their mothers. The exceptions to this rule, Hite suggests, are boys who grow up with only their mothers, and who "are much more likely to develop stable and equal relationships with women later in life". This is controversial stuff, flying in the face of current anxieties about boys growing up with single mothers, and one of several reasons why I would have liked the book to be longer and contain more examples.
Oedipus Revisited is a slim volume, with less than 200 pages of text, for such a huge thesis, and some critics may think Hite's material could have been better organised. It should nevertheless be read by anyone who wants an alternative explanation for the misogyny that disfigures our culture. It is also unusual in offering a remedy that doesn't involve a depressing return to traditional family values.
Joan Smith's 'Moralities' is published by PenguinReuse content