THE STORY – Shere Hite’s 1976 bestselling book,” The Hite Report,” liberated the female orgasm by revealing the most private experiences of thousands of anonymous survey respondents. Her findings rocked the American establishment and presaged current conversations about gender, sexuality, and bodily autonomy. So, how did Shere Hite disappear?
THE CAST – Dakota Johnson & Shere Hite
THE TEAM – Nicole Newnham (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 117 Minutes
Author Shere Hite was the talk of the nation with her controversial and eye-opening 1976 book “The Hite Report on Female Sexuality.” With the help of thousands of anonymous survey questionnaires, the book revealed what women like and don’t like about sex and started necessary conversations about female masturbation and orgasms – all subjects that men pontificated about without knowing the first thing about them. The book was a hit and bullet on Hite’s back, but it’s one of the many reasons speaking about these taboo topics is so commonplace now.
After she released her first book, followed by one on men’s sexuality and another about what women think about love, her detractors could not stop talking about her, and her supporters couldn’t either. So, why is Hite’s name never mentioned today, akin to Gloria Steinem or Germaine Greer? Director Nicole Newnham is making sure that changes with her latest documentary, “The Disappearance Of Shere Hite,” which shines an important spotlight on this feminist figure who has been lost over time. With the use of archival footage, old interviews, personal letters/diary entries narrated by Dakota Johnson, and talking head interviews with Hite’s close friends, Newnham paints an extraordinary image of a woman who started a sexual revolution.
In archive footage, Hite always seemed comfortable and confident with her curly strawberry-blond hair and milky white skin, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have to fight along the way. While in New York studying for her doctorate, a professor did not believe she could have written her thesis, one of many encounters she’d have with misogyny. In need of cash, she turned to modeling (including nude photoshoots), which she said gave her the “most independence with the least personal involvement.” Her influence in the world started early when the sexy women on the James Bond “Diamonds Are Forever” poster were modeled after her.
When Hite found her way to a National Organization for Women rally, she found the world she was meant to be in. Through her work with the organization, which focused on women’s, LGBTQ+, and sex workers’ rights, she came up with the idea to send out a national survey on female sexuality. The responses that she received were astonishing. Women all around the country expressed how they desired to “act freely” in their lives, how penetrative intercourse did not satisfy many of them, and how many thought they were “different” from other women. “The Hite Report” was revolutionary in the way that it gave women a voice to talk about sex and intimacy, a space that was dominated by men who thought the female orgasm didn’t exist or that it paled in comparison to the male orgasm. We can thank Hite’s book for sharing valuable information, debunking long-held myths, and, in a way, letting women know it’s OK to talk about their bodies and engage in acts of self-pleasure.
But the highs of fame came with steep lows. The media often scrutinized Hite and her reporting and tried to get her with “gotcha” questions, and conservatives were up in arms about her work. When she published “The Hite Report on Male Sexuality,” men were in an uproar over her findings. Anonymous men quoted in the book said they were told to suppress their feelings from a young age, and they felt rejected and alone in the world. Hite had to battle toxic masculinity from men who didn’t even bother to read the book, as seen in an Oprah show segment where a room full of them barraged insults at her and endured snarky comments from those who could not fathom the idea that any man would ever have such vulnerable feelings.
The interviews are infuriating to watch – if you’re going to argue with someone over their work, at least bother to open up the book and read it – but they don’t come as a surprise. Fifty years ago, open conversations about what it meant to be a man weren’t happening, and most only had one image in mind when it came to masculinity. Men weren’t ready to talk about it, so they chose to discredit her work. It makes you wonder where society would be if men had read her findings with an open mind back then. Would our grandfathers and fathers be more vulnerable with us? Would there be a healthier image of masculinity versus the toxic masculinity that so many continue to perpetuate? Would Hite be a beloved household name?
But because that all didn’t happen, and opponents and the media continued to go after her, Hite renounced her U.S. citizenship in 1995 to live in Germany with her husband. She continued to write books and do occasional interviews, but the usual bite and vibrancy she displayed had lost its way over time. Her “disappearance” clearly started long before she left the public eye for good, but Newnham does an excellent job of making sure she’s not entirely forgotten. Talking head interviews from Hite’s friends supplement all the fascinating material and give us even more personal insights into her relationships, such as a surprise interview with Gene Simmons of KISS and what her work meant to all of them.
The missing piece in the film is how it all ties together in the present. There’s no discussion about how Hite’s work is received today other than a mention that it’s still one of the bestselling nonfiction books of all time. There’s also no discussion about modern-day feminism and how Hite might continue to shape the movement decades later. The documentary shows how she spoke out against anti-gay movements in the 1970s and 1980s and how her work extended beyond women’s sexuality. A similar examination could have taken place, considering how many states are passing anti-trans bills and laws across the nation.
Despite some misses, “The Disappearance Of Shere Hite” should be considered required viewing as it sheds light on an important figure in feminism. Her name may have been lost over the years, but Newnham’s film is on a mission to stop that from happening again.