Then & Now: Shere Hite, sexologist

 

IN 1976, A YOUNG grad student from Missouri dropped a bombshell into the bedrooms of the world, and blew apart our preconceptions about women’s sexuality. The Hite Report on Female Sexualitychallenged the sexual status quo and defied male dominance. It became a worldwide publishing sensation, and turned its author into a hate figure among some men.

Feminist and sexologist Shirley Diana Gregory – better known as Shere Hite – grew up in America’s bible belt, but her research into sexuality scandalised the whole country. In her report, she posited a radical and utterly far-out theory: that women didn’t need men to give them an orgasm. From the time of Freud, it was widely accepted that women could only climax through penetrative sex – “the great male thrust” – and if they couldn’t, there must be something wrong with them. For frustrated women faking orgasm, the report was a godsend, alerting women to their own sexual power, and informing men of the existence of the clitoris.

But rather than welcoming Hite’s book, a serious academic study based on interviews with more than 3,000 women, the American male population saw it as an attack on their virility. Hite was cast as the witch queen of feminism, out to steal men’s mojo and turn women into onanistic she-devils. Playboymagazine dubbed it the “Hate Report”, but those who dismissed Hite as a Birkenstock-wearing militant man-hater were in for another shock when they discovered that Hite was actually a bit of a looker, and had posed naked in Playboywhile studying at Columbia University. She had also posed provocatively in a typewriter ad to earn money for her college fees, but when she read the ad’s strapline, “The typewriter is so smart she doesn’t have to be”, she joined a feminist protest against the very ad she had appeared in.

The report went on to sell more than 50 million copies. Hite followed it up with a book on male sexuality, in which she addressed the enormous pressure to perform that modern society puts on men. She believes performance-enhancing drugs such as Viagra only compound the problem. But this olive branch proffered to insecure males didn’t slow down the hate campaign that was building momentum, and culminated in a Timemagazine hatchet-job that prompted several prominent feminists to rush to her defence. Hite married a German pianist, Friedrich Horicke, 19 years her junior, in 1985, and in 1995 she renounced her US citizenship and took up citizenship of her husband’s home country. The marriage lasted 15 years, but Hite’s love affair with Europe – the place she feels her ideas were more accepted – continues. She has lived in Berlin and Paris, and now lives in London.

As she approaches 70, Hite is still unafraid of stirring up controversy. In 2006, she published the Shere Hite Reader: New and Selected Writings on Sex, Globalisation and Private Life. She still lectures on sex and sexuality, and is currently writing a screenplay of her own life. Her mother was 16 when Hite was born, and she was raised by her grandparents, taking her stepfather Raymond Hite’s surname when she was older. She has no children, but wouldn’t rule it out yet, she recently told the Guardian, saying that older mothers were unfairly stigmatised.