Shere Hite: On female sexuality in the 21st century

Her famous report on female sexuality smashed taboos and scandalised the world. And 30 years on, Shere Hite still loves to provoke, as Joan Smith discovers

Sunday 30 April 2006 00:00 BST

Thirty years ago a book by an unknown American writer took the world by storm. Its author, a young graduate student, had debunked one of the great myths about female sexuality: that most women should be able to have orgasms through sexual intercourse. The idea that something was wrong with popular assumptions about sex, not women, was so radical that it propelled Shere Hite to instant fame.

Her timing could not have been better. Disappointment with the sexual revolution of the 1960s had prompted a fever of intellectual excitement among women, with one big feminist book after another on the bestseller lists. Six years earlier Germaine Greer had told women they were female eunuchs; now here was another brilliant young woman explaining why.

Ever since Freud, women had been faking orgasms during coitus and worrying that there was something wrong with them. Even talking publicly about such things was taboo and Hite struggled to find a language which wasn't medical or embarrassing for the more than 3,000 women who agreed to fill in a detailed questionnaire about their sex lives.

When she published their responses in The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, it revolutionised the way American women thought about their bodies. A year later, in 1977, the book came out in the UK and British women excitedly passed copies to their friends, spreading Hite's message that conventional sex placed unrealistic expectations on women.

The British edition also produced her first hostile review - a warning, although Hite did not know it (omega) at the time, of much worse to come. "In my idealism I thought I could connect with those who wanted to hear what I was saying," she says. "I was making the point that clitoral stimulation wasn't happening during coitus. That's why women 'have difficulty having orgasms' - they don't have difficulty when they stimulate themselves. Shouldn't we just rethink the idea of what sex is and what equality is? That's what I went around the country saying."

In the 1970s, talking about masturbation was still regarded as shocking, but it was central to Hite's argument. She wasn't attacking men but trying to educate both sexes about the biological facts behind sexual pleasure. But if her insistence on listening to women was innovative, her linking of sex and human rights - the idea that what happens during sex raises questions of equality and fairness - was revolutionary.

Her first bad review in this country opened up a line of attack that would later be taken up ferociously by the Christian right in the US, which chose to characterise her work as an attack on the family. These days, the notion that women learning how to achieve sexual pleasure might destroy relationships between men and women seems bizarre, but almost from the start Hite's work alarmed considerable numbers of people.

If they found her ideas scary, Hite herself confounded popular assumptions about feminists. She was clever, unassuming and beautiful, so much so that she was able to support herself as a graduate student at Columbia University in New York in the early 1970s through part-time modelling. Hite's beauty is disarming, possibly even terrifying, judging by the fury she arouses in her critics. Indeed it is hard to believe she is now 63, or that she came to prominence at a moment when cosmetics and attractive clothes were "anathema" to the women's movement, as she recalls in an essay in her new book, The Shere Hite Reader.

In the early years of the women's movement, feminists rejected patriarchal demands that they should make themselves as attractive as possible to men. This led to recriminations when some of the leading lights, including Hite, started asking if wearing lipstick really was incompatible with being a feminist. Perhaps the most potent symbol of this rejection of beauty was Hite's friend, the late Andrea Dworkin, a radical feminist cruelly mocked for her appearance. Dworkin's weight made her an easy target for misogynists, who have always tried to dismiss feminists as embittered man-haters, but Hite challenged such stereotypes.

She is soft-spoken, her Missouri accent toned down by years of living in Europe. When we discuss anatomy, she patiently explains the similarities between the clitoris and penis, exploding theories about irreconcilable physical differences between men and women. "You could say the penis is a vertical vulva," she tells me, "or that the vulva is like a horizontal penis."

In retrospect, it isn't really surprising that with each successive book, including The Hite Report on Men and Male Sexuality (1981) and her most radical work, Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress (1987), the attacks became more vehement and personal. When they culminated in a Time magazine cover attacking her work, Hite says she was "truly amazed". A dozen prominent American feminists, including Dworkin, Gloria Steinem and Stephen Jay Gould, rallied to her defence, arguing that the Time cover was an attack on feminism, with Hite singled out solely because she was the most visible feminist of her time.

This show of support "gave me a lot of confidence", says Hite, but she nevertheless moved to Europe at the end of the 1980s; later, after her divorce from her German husband, she moved to Paris. I get the sense that she is as much European as American these days.

Her conversion to feminism happened almost by chance when she was sent to take part in a TV commercial for Olivetti typewriters. "They were teasing my hair into some ridiculous beehive thing," she recalls. "I said I thought I'd got this commercial because I could type well - and that's when I found out." Hite had been chosen not for her typing skills but her looks; the company's new slogan was "the typewriter that's so smart she doesn't have to be".

"It made me into a feminist," says Hite. "I read about a group of women picketing Olivetti and I joined them." Soon she started attending meetings of the New York chapter of the National Organisation of Women, founded by Betty Friedan, author of another groundbreaking feminist book, The Feminine Mystique. At one of the meetings, the topic for discussion was the female orgasm: did all women have them or none, and did it take place in the vagina or the clitoris?

"There was a lot of silence," Hite remembers, and someone suggested she look into the subject. That's when she discovered how little research had been done and the idea for The Hite Report was born. Later, when the book was finished, she realised it said a lot about men and asked herself whether they too were victims of cultural assumptions. "Are men's human rights being ignored by telling them they have to get an erection every time?" she wanted to know. Such questions prompted The Hite Report on Men, which was republished in an updated form last year.

Hite continues to worry about the pressure on men to perform, arguing that recent medical inventions such as Viagra actually compound the problem. She still uses the questionnaire format she invented for the very first Hite Report, even though it has been criticised as unscientific; this seems a little unfair when the pioneer in the field, Alfred Kinsey, actually based some of his general conclusions about male sexuality on interviews with inmates of American prisons.

Like any clever, successful woman, Hite attracts envy and her looks may at times have been as much a hindrance as a help. In the end, though, she is controversial because of her ideas, which show no sign of drying up. On the contrary, she is once again challenging received opinion, arguing that far from being marginalised since 9/11, questions about the female body and sexuality are central to understanding the world's problems. She believes that religious extremism in the East and West can be seen in large part as a protest against the growing power of women.

"Wearing a garment to cover yourself completely is an attempt to prove you are pure sexually," she says. "But women who put themselves in this position can never be pure enough - you are constantly on trial."

Reactionary attitudes to women's bodies are one of many signals, she argues, that we need a new system of values, based on secular human rights. Three decades on, this feminist icon is as fearless and original as ever.

'The Shere Hite Reader: New and Selected Writings on Sex, Globalization, and Private Life' is published by Seven Stories Press

Pleasure principles how has sex changed since the Hite Report?

Sam Roddick: Co-owner of the sex shop Coco de Mer

"The Hite Report is one of the most important books in history. Never before had female sexuality (in the West) been so clearly documented. For generations, right back to the 17th century, there have been manuals and books on sexual etiquette, but never true documentation on people's actual experiences and fantasies. We are constantly mistaken in thinking that we have reached a state of near sexual liberation - even today not much has changed. There is a lot of fear around what we are supposed to be and feel compared to what we desire and experience."

Rowan Pelling, Former editor of the 'Erotic Review'

"Hite's report had a huge impact. I don't think she is given enough credit. Before it, the whole terminology and construction of women's sexuality was to a large degree a fiction conceived by men about nice girls and nasty girls, frigid women and nymphomaniacs. The report started constructing a view of female sexuality based on our physiognomy and language. But there's still some way to go. The conversations I've had with women over the years show we are still under pressure to fake orgasm. For both sides sex is quite target-based, like everything else in society - we think we've got to hit that target."

Beatrix Campbell: Writer and broadcaster

"It was a revolutionary work. She absolutely challenged the way in which questions about women's sexuality had been asked throughout the 20th century. She said we've been asking the wrong questions. The question should have been: Why would anybody think that women would be having orgasms when it was obvious that millions weren't?

Mine, and earlier generations of women, were diagnosed frigid, so women's disappointment was pathologised and made into a disease."

Susie Orbach: Psychoanalyst

"There was a moment when work like Shere Hite's really opened up the possibility of women claiming their own sexuality. There was tremendous interest in women exploring their own bodies, literally with speculums, and fighting for the right to sexual pleasure. And then sexuality became more of a commodity. Women these days look gorgeous and are sexually active but they are not necessarily getting a lot of sexual pleasure. There's a way in which culture is still very ambivalent towards girls' and womens' sexuality."

'The Impossibility of Sex', by Susie Orbach, is published by Karnac Books

Makosi Musambasi: 'Big Brother' contestant

"In Big Brother I felt that in order to sell myself on TV and have a certain status in celeb-ville, I had to behave in an overtly sexual way; if you see all the stories in the tabloids they are all about sex. But I felt like a harlot after I had sex with Anthony in the Big Brother pool and wondered why I should feel pressured to use my sexuality in this way. One of the reasons that people were so shocked is because it was a black nurse with a white guy. Black female sexuality is not accepted by the mainstream over here. There are no black girls on Page Three. The African woman in the past was the woman with a hungry baby on her back, but I'm out there to prove that we are sexual beings too. It's OK to be African and to love sex."

Shazia Mirza: Comedian

"I can tell you all about my sexuality in 30 seconds - there's nothing to tell. Although I'm not religious, I still have cultural roots; an Asian family is typically very strict. If I'd brought that report home my dad would have hit me with it. I've had a sheltered life, where you don't discuss sex otherwise you die. It doesn't exist - probably because my parents only did it once a year, so it was something that was never talked about. It's why I like looking at all the men's magazines in Tesco. These days it looks like everyone is doing it and having a really good time. It looks like fun but I'm not sure if it is really."

Shazia Mirza's new show 'Fun' will be at the Soho Theatre, 8-10 June

Helen Daly, Deputy editor, 'Cosmopolitan' magazine

"Women are far more open and confident about sex now than ever before - whether that's as part of a long-term relationship, a one-night stand or with a no-strings 'bed buddy'. Where men and women differ, however, is in their attitudes towards no-strings sex. In a survey Cosmopolitan did last year, while 64 per cent of the 5,000 women we surveyed said they thought it was possible to have no-strings sex, over half of them have lied to their friends about a one-night stand, and three-quarters regretted having one. However, 44 per cent of men said they actually prefer no-strings sex, compared to 17 per cent of women. We've come a long way towards female empowerment in the bedroom, but our greater emotional engagement can still make sexual relationships a conundrum for us." (omega)

Catharine MacKinnon: Feminist author

"Shere Hite's report was groundbreaking. By making women feel more comfortable and less alone in their sexual experiences, she helped prepare a public conversation on what women don't get out of sex - a conversation that is still going on. The work is sometimes questioned because it makes some people uncomfortable, but others feel supported by it. It's hard to imagine the subsequent research, and many political and legal developments, without The Hite Report. That's what groundbreaking means."

Natasha Walter: Writer

"It's difficult for us to know what's going on in the bedroom and what women are really doing in their private sexual lives because it's so often a case of what women are prepared to say rather than what they are actually up to. It's absolutely the case that women have become much more confident in talking about their sexual lives. And we're talking about pleasure and pain - the way that women have come forward talking about rape and domestic violence and abuse is so positive. But I do share a lot of people's concerns about the way pornography has become mainstream and the way there is a pressure for women to be sexy all the time. It's a hard line to tread, but overall there has been a positive development, with women feeling that they can speak up about their sexual lives without being told they are shameless, or a slut."

Sophie Anderton: Model

"When I first started modelling, female sexuality was something that was still behind closed doors. But with the dawn of 'girl power', women have become far more sexually aggressive; they're not willing to settle for second best. My Wonderbra advertising campaign was groundbreaking at the time because see-through underwear on 20ft-high billboards had never been done before, whereas now there is a whole new breed of celebrity who is willing to sit with her boobs out and her legs wide open just to get press. "

Tracey Cox: Relationship expert

"It's disappointing that one of Hite's main messages - that 70 per cent of women don't have orgasms through penetration - is not completely accepted today. Plenty of women don't feel comfortable admitting it, even to themselves, for fear their partners will love them less. But women are far more experimental now. Bi-curiosity - sleeping with another woman just to find out what it's like - is increasingly common and it's dawning on people that a female's sexual system is more complicated than a man's; what works for him won't necessarily work for her."

Caroline Coon: Artist and head of Cunst Art

"Thirty years ago, women had no right to ask for pleasure. Pleasure, and the care and love innate to pleasure, are Hite's true subject. Her work points to how problematic it is when men use the shortcut of violent pornography for sexual arousal rather than accepting that giving and receiving deep sexual pleasure is a skill to be learned. Hite is hugely important for what she says about how humans could treat each other better were it not for macho brutality. She has made an enlightened difference to all our lives."

Julie Burchill: Writer

"Whenever I hear her name I just want to laugh. I know she's meant to be a feminist and is a learned person, but even her name sounds made up - she sounds like a pole dancer. I would say, on balance, the Carry On films have had more effect on me, especially Barbara Windsor, she's my feminist icon. Women's sexuality has got more slaggy over the past 30 years - in a good way."

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