BEHAVIOR

Tapping a mine of female discontent

MARY McIVER October 19 1987
BEHAVIOR

Tapping a mine of female discontent

MARY McIVER October 19 1987

Tapping a mine of female discontent

BEHAVIOR

Women have seen the enemy— and it is men, according to the authors of several recently published books about romantic relationships. Indeed, many of the titles reflect that theme: Men Who Hate Women & the Women Who Love Them, Haw to Love a Difficult Man; No Good Men. The latest work on the subject, The Hite Report, Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress, by New Yorker Shere Hite, is loftier in title and tone but its message is familiar. The result of a written questionnaire that invited American women across the country to answer at length questions about love, sex and marriage, it asks the key question:

“Are you happy with the relationship?” The reply, from an overwhelming majority of respondents: “No.” The controversial study, retailing at $36.75 per copy, is expected to reach Canadian bookstores before the end of October.

Hite, 44, is an ex-model and the author of two previous studies on love and sex. Her publisher bills her latest book as the “first major report on women since the assimilation of the women’s movement into our culture.” At 922 pages, comprised mostly of detailed first-person accounts, it is certainly the longest—a sustained and bitter cry from the heart. Among Hite’s observations: 84 per cent of her respondents are “not satisfied emotionally’’ with their love relationships and 98 per cent want to make “basic changes” in those relationships. Of the respondents married for more than five years, fully 70 per cent reported that they engaged in extramarital affairs.

But some critics charge that the book reflects an anti-male bias on Hite’s part. Helen Gurley Brown, the New York-based editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, said that, although she does not fault Hite’s research methods, “the report is so man-hating, so man-denigrating, and that’s so easy to do. I’m sure her statistics are valid. But what are we going to do, dump on all the men in the world?” And some social experts say that Hite’s conclusions are misleading because the report is not a scientific poll and the number of people who re-

sponded to her questionnaire—4.5 per cent—was low. They also speculated that the malcontents would be more likely to reply than people happy with their relationships. Said Pamela Blake, a marriage counsellor at the Clarke In-

stitute of Psychiatry in Toronto: “What about the other 95,000 women? The book has probably extracted a population with particular characteristics who may have needed a forum to express their feelings.” Still, in view of the anger that crackles on most of its pages, it is apparent that Hite’s book has tapped a rich mine of discontent.

Women and Love is Hite’s third major book in 11 years, rounding out a trilogy composed of The Hite Report: A

Nationwide Study on Female Sexuality (1976) and The Hite Report on Male Sexuality (1981). For her latest study, Hite mailed out 100,000 questionnaires to counselling centres, church and political groups and women’s rights organizations across the United States, beginning in 1980. She chose groups rather than individuals, she said, to help ensure anonymity. She received 4,500 replies— too few to reflect a trend, say some polling and survey experts.

But Hite, who spent seven years analysing the responses, defends her approach by saying that standard random sampling methods would not have worked for essay-type questions—and that she chose the latter format because multiple choice “would have implied preconceived categories of response.” She said that she wanted to give women the opportunity to talk in their own voices. “The goal of this study,” said Hite, “was to hear women’s reflections on the nature of love, and to learn how they see love relationships now in relation to the whole spectrum of their lives.”

Those reflections include many complaints about sex. Most of the women in Hite’s survey say that although they regard physical affection as an integral part of a close, loving relationship, the problem is that men do not—that most engage in sex either with cold detachment or to fulfil an urgent physical need. The 2,295 single women who responded seemed particularly disillusioned. Many said that although they would like an intimate, committed relationship, they are embarrassed to express their feelings because most men—even in the age of AIDS—are focused solely on getting them into bed. Said one: “I would be happier in a relationship but it is very difficult for me to meet someone I like and am attracted to and have respect for, who won’t pressure me.”

As a result, although some of the single women reported that they liked casual sex (13 per cent), many others said that they were virgins (11 per cent), and 33 per cent said that they had opted for temporary celibacy. Said one respondent: “I daydream of having someone to snuggle up to, then the daydreams dissolve into imagined quarrels, misunder-

standings and hurt feelings.”

More surprising, perhaps, is that most of the married women who responded are also discontented with their sex lives. Indeed, seven out of 10 women married for more than five years reported that they have extramarital affairs—more, they said, for emotional closeness than for sex, but also because sex with their husbands is boring. Said one: “Sex with my husband is usually intercourse with some foreplay. I would like him to handle me and talk to me, but he doesn’t. I have to remind him to remove his glasses.”

But sexual problems are merely symptomatic of the major obstacle that women told Hite they face: the refusal of men to respond to their emotional needs—or even listen to the expression of those needs. While men expect their wives and lovers to nurture them tenderly, they feel no compulsion to reciprocate—nor, many women told Hite, do they know how. Eighty-three per cent of respondents said that they did not believe that most men understand the basic issues involved in making intimate relationships work—the need for open communication, for one. Ninety-eight per cent of the women surveyed said that they would like more “verbal closeness.” Declared one: “Our biggest problem is not being able to talk. He talks at me.” As a result, says Hite, many women are questioning whether they should devote so much time and energy to relationships. She writes: “Most women are not in love relationships they consider to be anywhere near what they would like. Woman after woman says she is putting enormous amounts of energy into trying to make her relationship work—but that the man doesn’t seem to be putting in the same effort. This makes women even more alienated, frustrated, and often angry.”

Many of the current best-sellers have concluded that women still have to shoulder the responsibility for making relationships work, that a man will not change and that a woman can only hope that he will alter his behavior toward her. But Hite questions this attitude and takes the issue a step further. She writes: “As the song from My Fair Lady says, ‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ So we might ask— ‘Why can’t a man be more like a woman?’ ” For her part, Helen Gurley Brown said that she thinks men are improving. Said Brown: “They’re much more aware of what women need these days.” And in a comment that succinctly summarized her views on the subject—and perhaps the whole issue—she added: “So we have problems with men. I don’t think it’s terminal.”

— MARY McIVER

LARRY BLACK

McIVER with LARRY NORA UNDERWOOD