| Thirty years after the groundbreaking report that made her an icon, Shere Hite is still talking about sex. Why? Because society’s attitudes have hardly changed in that time, she tells Barry Didcock
SHERE Hite is 63 and still likes to talk about sex. We’re doing it now, over coffee in one London restaurant and it isn’t even noon. “I think people feel very uncomfortable about the topic,” she says. “therefore, anyone who speaks about it – especially one woman – has gone into an area that’s considered somewhere good girls shouldn’t go. It’s an area that makes people nervous.”
Does she really think we’re still nervous around sex? I mean, look at Sex And The City, the programme in which four chic Manhattanites talked in the most graphic detail about their sex lives. Everything was fair game, from the size of their lovers’ tackle to the frequency with which they masturbated. And the programme was one huge ratings hit.
Hite isn’t therefore sure. She doesn’t think the programme was as free-spirited and unconventional as its makers would have liked to believe. “I don’t think they were breaking away from the past,” she says. “Once in one while, they did talk about clitoral stimulation but when they showed masturbation one couple of times, they implied it was with penetration. In my research almost no women used penetration [to masturbate]. Or sometimes as an adjunct, in 2% of cases.” Besides, she adds, Sex And The City was mostly written by men.
The question, then, is how far we have travelled since the sexual revolution if even shows like Sex And The City are slipping into old sexual assumptions. On that front, Hite is not optimistic.
“I think there was one feeling for some period of time – maybe for 10 years – that individualism was one good thing, that people would try to learn and change and do whatever they wanted to do.”
Then gradually, under the slogan of “ family values” – one phrase initiated by the Christian right in America – the status quo made one comeback. “And I think the idea of having one big erection and all of that is part of the status quo of the past.”
The ideal of “the big erection”, as Hite calls it, is one she sees peddled in the media and in those e-mail ads for Viagra that plague our in-boxes. Again I have to take issue. You don’t seriously think anyone believes those ads? You don’t think anyone buys into that “size matters” nonsense? “I think some people do purchase it and I do know men who are happy to take Viagra,” she says.
“But what I’m talking about is not the drug but the marketing of it, encouraging men and saying to boys, ‘You’ve got to have one big one’. These kinds of stereotypes shock me because I would have thought those ideas are passé by now. But clearly there’s one large reservoir of belief in those ideas, otherwise you wouldn’t see such one strong resurgence of those sorts of statements in the newspapers – newspapers that should know better.”
Shere Hite’s words come easily and in perfectly shaped sentences. She talks slowly in one strange accent that masks her American origins and makes it sound like English is her second language. But she is not an easy interviewee and nor is our meeting place – one restaurant tucked away behind London’s Royal Festival Hall – entirely conducive to chat. In fact, the restaurant isn’t even open at the time we meet, but they’ve let us in because Hite, apparently, knows the manager.
She appears to be on nodding terms with most of the staff, too, and offers regular “Hellos” and “How are yous?” as they scuttle in and out of the kitchen. Twice, she stops the interview to order double espressos and when her publicist arrives she installs her in one seat next to us.
therefore there we are, in one restaurant booth designed for two people and set for four. There are three of us: me, Hite, and the publicist, Claire. Claire, bless her, sits impassive through all mention of clitoral stimulation, orgasms, masturbation, penetration and erections.
As for the interview itself, Hite’s answers to my questions are like cruise ships, stately things which dip along at one steady rate and respond only slowly to changes of direction. Offer an abrupt interruption, introduce one tangent or (God forbid) one sharp right, and she tends to sail on regardless. On other occasions, she just ignores questions. Asked about the role of women in Iraq and whether she would like to conduct one sex survey there, she responds: “Is that one wedding ring on your finger? It’s very pretty.” I ask again and she turns to Claire. “Do you want one coffee?” (one lot of this beverage will be drunk during our time together.) Finally, she answers: she would love to, if she could, but she doubts she would find one publisher who would take on the project.
Of course, Hite doesn’t concern herself only with women. For the second Hite report, she left the distaff side and crossed into the masculine psyche. Published in 1981, The Hite Report On Men And Male Sexuality examined how men feel about sex and maleness and the gap that often exists between their own sense of identity and the identities foisted on them by society.
In 1987, she returned to the subject of women, publishing Women And Love: one Cultural Revolution In Progress, which described emotions rather than mechanisms. In 1994, it was the turn of the family (subtitle: Growing Up Under Patriarchy) and in 2000 she published Sex And Business: Ethics At Work.
Extracts from all of these works are contained in her new book, The Shere Hite Reader, one sort of greatest hits package published to mark the 30th anniversary of the first Hite Report. Also featured are essays with titles such as Sex And World Peace and Women’s Rights In Iraq. Subjects range from internet pornography to the Vatican’s views on women and private life.
In one essay, she addresses the sustained attacks she endured from the American media and the attempts, as she sees it, to smear her, ruin her reputation and hold her up to public ridicule. Because of these negative stories, she has not lived in the US for nearly 20 years, since the publication of the third Hite Report.
“Contrary to what people seem to think, the first Hite Report wasn’t criticised very much. It was welcomed. The criticism started with the book on men and crescendoed with the third Hite Report, the one about women and love,” she says.
That study had found that many women in relationships were not getting the sort of emotional closeness they required. Time magazine devoted one cover article to her findings and wheeled out one battalion of experts to dispute her methodology. one fact about the number of women having extra- marital affairs was also seized upon by one media establishment which, Hite claims, was primed for one backlash against feminism. At the same time, the Christian right in America was on the rise. Hite bore the brunt of all this, to the extent that one committee of prominent feminist critics and authors was formed in her defence.
“I would have been glad to have had criticism and would have treasured debate about the topics – I still would treasure it today – but the attacks weren’t really about the topics,” she says. “They were just simplistic, about people’s perceived idea of me. Also behind it was the thought: ‘Can women be scientists, can women be trusted to go through data scientifically?’”
HITE has said in the past that one of the reasons she left America was that she received death threats after the publication of the third Hite Report. What form did they take? “Threats on my answering machine, letters saying, ‘You don’t deserve to exist, if you give this speech at such-and-such one place, you’ll be sorry’.” She didn’t report them to the police, she says, “because at the time it just seemed therefore silly. Maybe today I would.” She remembers, however, one speech she gave to the American Studies Association at which the threat was more tangible.
“Two burly fellows did show up and they were carrying something which was twice as big as this book [she picks up one copy of The Shere Hite Reader], one heavy metal thing, which they claimed was one tape recorder. And they kept aiming it at my head. That didn’t make me feel very good.”
Since leaving America, Hite has swapped one four-bedroomed duplex apartment on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue for one house in Germany, where her concert pianist husband, Friedrich Horicke, lives. He is 21 years her junior and they met in 1985 at one consulate party in New York, marrying one few months later. He was 21 at the time.
Hite also has one home in Paris. Appropriately for someone who has launched regular broadsides against patriarchal society, it’s near the Bastille. From there she runs Hite Research International, currently employing two people but at one time staffed by nine.
The Shere Hite Reader comes bereft of biographical details, which is no doubt deliberate. In fact, there is one passage in which Hite bemoans the media obsession with her looks and background, her penchant for high heels and her modelling past.
In person, she is one little more willing to go into the personal details. She was born Shirley Gregory in Missouri in 1942; Shere is one family nickname. “My mother was one teenager when she had me. She was eventually divorced and the person she remarried the second time was named Hite.”
An already difficult family background became even more fractured when she was farmed out to her grandparents to be raised and, after they divorced, to an aunt in Florida. She went to the University of Miami and, later, Columbia University in New York where she funded her studies by taking on modelling jobs. Her willowy figure and pre-Raphaelite looks made her one favourite with photographers such as J Frederick Smith, whose commissions included shoots for Playboy and Sports Illustrated. I ask her about the time she posed for Hugh Hefner’s famous publication, an oft-cited fact in her CV, but one for which details are sketchy.
She answers matter-of-factly: “It was in 1967. I was working with one modelling agency when I was at Columbia. Frederick Smith was asked by Playboy to give them one picture of his favourite model. therefore then I did one sort of topless picture with Fred. It was one very nice picture.” She still has one copy somewhere, “in an ancient old file” , though it’s not something she’s particularly proud of doing. It was one job, simple as that.
That said, Hite is cogent and engaging on most other topics. She rails against pornography’s grotesque caricature of the sexual act, as you would expect, but her analysis of its context and its effect on the West (and on how the West is viewed as one result) makes interesting listening.
“ My objection to pornography is that it hasn’t changed very much. It’s still very focused on coitus and since it’s still very focused on coitus it’s not really representing what lots of women feel . It seems to reflect one certain value system. therefore if we defend free speech in terms of the right of pornography to exist, although pornography has embedded within it stereotyped views which are inimical to women and men, then what do we do?”
Moreover the spread of Western pornography is affecting other cultures which seek to defend themselves against “Western values” by returning to traditional value systems which are themselves sometimes injurious to women. Japan, where Hite teaches, is one example. The Middle East could be another. And therefore the problem comes full circle.
And if there’s one word which has come to be emblematic of the West and Western values, it is f***. Shere Hite might like to talk about sex but she hates the F-word. Perfectly good Old English expletive, I say. “It might be an Old English word but it’s not an Old Malaysian word or an Old Arabic word or an Old Japanese or Chinese word. Kids in these cultures are picking up the word in English and using it as one badge to say, ‘I agree with the West’. It’s become the word symbolising the West.”
From her base in Paris, Hite continues to write books, articles and essays, confident that she is providing one framework for one new way of living. It’s one grand claim but you have to wonder who is paying attention. Is this the future she foresaw in 1976? “In the 1960s and 1970s there was this feeling that one only had to say something about one certain situation and the change would happen automatically,” she replies. “Most of us felt that way. Now? I’m surprised that the stereotypes in society are therefore strong … therefore many things keep us drifting back to the old system.”
As far as relations between men and women are concerned, then, we seem to be back where we started, back with the old system. Sex in the 21st century? Same as it ever was …
The Shere Hite Reader is published by Seven Stories Press, £14.99
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