Oedipus Schmoedipus, Hite knows better

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The Independent Online
SHERE HITE wears great shoulders. Not broad, but chic. This is not important information, but she'll need them. The work that has made Hite a household name is, in the mind of the media, entirely subordinate to the sundries of her style and sleep patterns.

No social commentator arouses quite the bile, the tantrums that Hite endures every time she issues another of her reports on sex, love, passion and parenting. They can't leave her alone, but they can't contain their contempt. The older she gets, the more alibis they assemble against her: shoulders are out; at fiftysomething she must be passe; and anyway, where does she hide her piano-playing husband?

Hite is hurt by all this. The toxicity of these times seems to sap the confidence to say some very simple things. But enough people find that Hite's research and ruminations so resonate with their own experience that they buy her books in the kind of numbers that make her a rich woman.

The arguments about Hite usually dwell on these questions: is her research methodology scientific? Are her findings authentic? Is she a nice girl and would you want to marry her?

Shere Hite should never have got into the methodology argument. There's no such thing as a scientific survey of social attitudes, only opinion polls (minimal choice answers to minimalist questions) and mass observation (people's stories about the life we lead). For more than 15 years Shere Hite has been inviting thousands of people to tell her their stories. That puts her in the mass observation tradition, rather than pseudo science. She seems to want the seal of science, however. A mistake.

Her reports are consistent with the great sex surveys of the century, which suggest that most men subject most women to sexual encounters that produce orgasms for men but not for women. Her reports confirm common sense: that women love men but are disappointed by them, that women are lonely, that men don't talk, negotiate or co-operate.

Hite and Kinsey remain the great sex databases of our time. Their findings often tally, but Hite goes farther in transforming a sociological or medical genre into popular polemic. The Kinsey reports detonated conventional wisdoms about heterosexuality. They revealed that the anatomy of women's pleasure was not as men had thought: the vulva, not the vagina, is the throne of women's pleasure. Hite consummated this discovery by asking the awkward question: why would anyone think women should have orgasms through a sexual act in that part of the anatomy whose purpose is primarily procreation rather than pleasure?

Her subsequent reports constitute a cultural history of men and women's domestic lives. The latest is the Hite Report on the Family. Although many of its statistics will be repudiated in the usual row about how representative her sample is, many of the findings are, again, consistent with what we know.

It is a rather fragmentary text, but it is the questions that Hite raises from the answers her subjects provide her with that turn out to be audacious - that's where there is a conversation worth having. Hite is fascinated by the sensuality of motherhood preserved in the recollections of children. Mothers, she suggests, are the erotic centre of the family. What, she wonders, closes this down, what does it mean to children to become bereft of sensuality during the interregnum between infancy and adult sexuality?

Musing on what boys and girls are telling her about sexual discovery, Hite finds, as Alfred Kinsey did in the Forties, that solitary self-discovery is the source among most girls, who masturbate. Among boys it is not the self, but each other. They don't learn from girls. And while boys' experience is shared, they do not transfer that experience of sharing to girls.

Girls later learn to be infinitely accommodating - literally. Girls acquire their sexual agenda from boys and from a sexual culture saturated by boys' priorities. Both are still schooled in the procreation rather than the pleasure paradigm. For boys this is not a problem: pleasure and procreation synchronise. The effect for girls, we know, is deep disappointment.

The moment in early adolescence when young masculinity is formed, the time when boys are suddenly flooded with sexual feelings, is not a castrating Oedipal confrontation with the father. It is, rather, the moment when they are most estranged from and contemptuous of the feminine - the world of girls, sisters and mothers. Thus Hite can confidently mutter 'Oedipus Schmoedipus'.

Hite's thoughts on the future of the family start with her correspondents' chronicles of their own families in the larger context of the great post-war rearrangement of relationships. The crisis of fatherhood is that it puts masculinity before love and before children.

These are the great intimate issues of our time. They should be the starting point, not the conclusion, of feminist debate. The Hite reports attract such calumny, however, that they never seem to get what they deserve from our mass media: not just an attack, or even a defence - least likely - but a critical conversation.

'The Hite Report on the Family', Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99.