Writer and social scientist Shere Hite’s books on sex were publishing phenomena in the 1970s and 80s. Like Alex Comfort’s bestselling erotic “cookbook” The Joy of Sex, her monographs seemed ubiquitous in those days, especially in master bedrooms where readers could use them as informative, topical works of popular social science which just happened to double as erotic bedside reading. The books on male and female sexuality tessellate together thousands of micro stories, observations and admissions written by the many respondents who filled out her questionnaires anonymously. That meant that in those pages, readers found reassurance that there were others who felt and experienced sex in the same way that they did, and that being “different” was quite normal. Arguably nobody did more than Hite, for example, to dismantle the myth, promulgated by Sigmund Freud among others, that “clitoral orgasms” were somehow inferior to “vaginal” ones. Clitorises around the world should rise up to salute her in gratitude.
Yet, as director Nicole Newnham’s new documentary points out, Hite is surprisingly not the household name these days you would expect given that her first major work, The Hite Report on Female Sexuality (1976), remains one of the bestselling non-fiction books of all time. The Disappearance of Shere Hite ponders this paradox, and while somewhat vexingly it doesn’t fully explain why or to what extent Hite “disappeared” from public view in the decades before her death in 2020, it draws a vivid portrait of a complex, fascinating woman.
The Disappearance of Shere Hite
The Bottom Line
A smart tribute to a fascinating woman.
Born into a humble Midwestern family, she ended up married to a German concert pianist and living a glamorous itinerant lifestyle in Europe. A sometime model who was also a staunch feminist, a shy character who could be a fierce debater, an industrious researcher but with a fabulous bohemian dress sense, Hite truly contained multitudes.
After its premiere at Sundance, the film is certain to be programmed at many subsequent festivals, as was Newnham’s previous, Academy Award-nominated feature. Crip Camp, which she co-directed with James LeBrecht. In terms of publicity, it won’t hurt that one of the film’s executive producers is actor Dakota Johnson, who also voices the extracts from Hite’s writing heard in the film. Surely, it’s only a matter of time before someone starts raising finance for a biopic.
As with Crip Campher feature on the rise of the disability-rights movement as seen through the eyes of alumni of one specific summer camp for disabled kids, Newnham finds in Hite’s personal story a microcosm of the rise of second- and third-wave feminism in the mid -20th century. The narrative starts with Hite’s arrival in New York to work on her doctorate in social history and immediately encountering misogynist, class-based prejudice. Seeing the high standard of her work, some professors refused to believe it was composed by a woman with a degree from the University of Florida. In need of money like any graduate student, she turned to modeling and was cast in commercial photoshoots as well as hired to model for illustrators. It turns out both the leggy women in a poster commissioned for James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever were modeled on Hite, who also did nude photoshoots for Playboy and other men’s magazines.
The fact that Hite was so comfortable in her own skin and willing to own and celebrate her natural sensuality put her on the vanguard of the sexual revolution. It all starts to seem of a piece with her enjoyment of lovers of both sexes (some interviewed here) in her private life. Meanwhile, with the first Hit Reportshe wasn’t afraid to contradict the orthodoxies of the time with her research pointing to the fact that many women masturbated frequently and found it difficult to orgasm from regular heterosexual penetrative sex.
The scrupulous archive research by Newnham and her team churns up footage of Hite parrying with (almost always male) critics of her findings, who refused to believe their own wives, mothers and daughters could be so wanton. Later, the confrontations become more testy and fractious, which partly explains why Hite “disappeared.” A quick search engine query turns up that she had a degenerative neurological disease towards the end of her life, which might provide a partial answer for her withdrawal from public life.
But that would have been a depressing note to end on, and done nothing for the image the film seeks to build up for Hite as a feminist heroine, practically martyred for telling the truth. It’s a shame the doc hedges towards hagiography in the last act, with almost no space given over to an assessment of what might have been problematic about her research — questions that could be raised without diluting the significance of the work overall. But maybe they’ll get around to those issues in the biopic.
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