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Shere Hite: Hello, boys

She dared to uncover the truth about women's sexuality. Now she's done the same for men. By Deborah Orr

Of all the stories of induction into the women's movement told by the great American feminists, Shere Hite's is my favourite. She turned up at a protest against a virulently offensive Olivetti advertisement, which showed a beautiful, leggy blonde caressing a keyboard. The copy pronounced: "The typewriter so smart she doesn't have to be."

It took a while before Hite admitted that she was the model who'd posed for the picture, and she was relieved to find that the angry women recognised her presence at their meeting to be the coup that it was. There was, after all, considerable irony in the fact that Hite was only modelling in order to put herself through a history degree at Columbia University.

Hite - who has a new book out, Oedipus Revisited: Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male Today - is mocked because she always bangs on about her exhausting lifelong struggle to be recognised as fantastically gorgeous and wonderfully brainy (troubles many people imagine they would be quite pleased to have on their plate). But when your life is changed by a moment of clarity such as this one, you can see where the issue might spring from.

It's safe to say though, that whatever course Hite's life might have taken she would have been a high achiever. The young woman at the feminist meeting had already proved herself to be a massive self-starter. Born in 1942 in Missouri to a teenage mother and a serviceman father, she had become the child of a single parent family before she'd lost her baby teeth. Her mother was not around much, since she preferred to be with her lovers, and little Shirley Gregory (her name is part of her reinvention) was brought up largely by her old-fashioned and unhappy grandparents, and an aunt.

In her autobiography, The Hite Report On Shere Hite, the writer tells a story about being with her mother one day at a swimming pool. Her mother was wearing a daring swimsuit, laced provocatively up the sides, and was being followed by salivating male admirers, who were engaging her in flirtatious conversation. Her daughter, desperate to wrestle her mother's attention back in her own direction, started boasting about how she was a big girl now, and could jump into the deep end. Words were not getting through, so the child tried action. As the water went over her head, she didn't panic, sure that her mother would pull her out any second. Instead, a lifeguard did. Her mother, and her suitors, had noticed nothing.

It would be tiresome and banal to suggest that this pattern too might have made Hite keen for her accomplishments to be strongly acknowledged, but only because it so clearly states the psychologically obvious. Maybe it would be going too far to suggest that Hite's particular interest in popularising the idea that females can control and enjoy their own sexuality might have been a way of understanding the choices her mother made. But it all makes perfect sense to me.

Not that it matters very much anyway. What does matter is that this young woman had, without much family support, without much cultural support, and without much financial support, taken control of her future. She had gone to New York. She had got herself work. She had been accepted at a prestigious university. She had made a flamboyant connection with the single most exhilarating and significant political movement of her generation. Quite good going, I think.

Global mega-success came in 1976, with the publication of what became known simply as The Hite Report (it was nicknamed The Hate Report in Playboy, for which Hite had previously posed nude). It is testament to the significance of the contents of the book that its highly controversial findings should now read like statements of the bleeding obvious. Based on the answers provided by 3,500 woman to questionnaires formulated by Hite about their sex lives, The Hite Report confirmed that women were perfectly capable of taking control of their sex lives instead of being passively recipients of the great male thrust.

It also located the locus of female orgasm as being centred in the clitoris, and amenable to specific manual or oral stimulation, more than to the incidental frictive leftovers offered by penetrative sex. Previously, both Freud and Kinsey had insisted that really sexy women had "proper vaginal orgasms", and didn't take seriously the little squirts that clitoral excitement produced. So unwelcome was this non-phallocentric fact, that studies years before by another pair of significant sexual researchers, Masters and Johnson, had been aggressively repressed because it had come up with the same conclusion.

Oddly though, the real anger against Hite came when she stepped beyond "sexology" and threw herself into investigating the emotional interactions between men and women. In 1987's Women and Love, she exposed the emotional abuse women sometimes underwent within what were supposed to be loving relationships. Her assertion that it was women who found the courage to leave bad relationships, therefore taking the role as agents for change, unleashed vitriolic attack on her in the US such as she had never before experienced.

Yet, this too makes sense. Angry, messed-up men, estranged from their families and full of bile, are still, 20 years on, ducking responsibility for their own conduct in relationships by pointing to the divorce figures and saying that it is women, not men who destroy relationships by leaving them. Because women more often initiate divorces, they say, women are responsible for family breakdown. The fury Hite unleashed by suggesting, quite logically, that such statistics proved instead that women in relationships were the ones who got the rawest deal, forced her out of the US. She is a German citizen now, like her husband of many years, though she has lived all over Europe and took up an academic post for a while in Japan.

In her latest book, Hite claims that men's inability to give women the respect and love that they need in order to thrive in a relationship comes because of the brutal fashion in which they are expected to break with their mothers. This trauma, she argues, leaves men unable to trust women. She suggests that it makes them unwilling to be emotionally vulnerable with a woman and results in them feeling proud when they reject the women they really love. This appears to be a perfectly useful and practical observation. No doubt, however, men who want to kill their fathers and fuck their mothers everywhere, will find it utterly outrageous.