Interview

With Shere Hite, author of the newest best seller on female sexuality

January 24 1977

Interview

With Shere Hite, author of the newest best seller on female sexuality

January 24 1977

Interview

With Shere Hite, author of the newest best seller on female sexuality

Since the Sixties, the spate of theories, declarations and supposed revelations about the nature of human sexuality might have been supposed to have all but exhausted the subject. Not in the view of Shere Hite, the 34-year-old, New Yorkbased sex researcher who is the latest to take the field. Her book, The Hite Report (Collier-Macmillan, $13.95), is based on thousands of replies to a questionnaire she began circulating in 1972 to determine the precise quality of American female sex life. The report, which has become a solid best seller, is largely made up of the unusually frank, and often disturbing, sexual confessions that her survey elicited. Hite’s own conclusions from the survey are categorical and controversial. Hite, a tall, willowy and somewhat ethereal-looking blond, talked to Toronto journalist Joanna Hudson.

Maclean’s: Let's talk about your background. You were once a model, weren’t you?

Hite: I was a secretary and a waitress too, but reporters don't seem to think that that’s kinky enough to mention.

Maclean’s: You’ve done several things, obviously.

Hite: Well, I’m 34. and when you reach a certain age you’ve probably done a lot of things. I was at Columbia University studying cultural history. I had my master’s and I was working on my PhD. I got interested in cultural history because I was interested in social change. I thought it was very irrational, the way society is. and it seemed to me that by understanding how it got that way 1 would be able to help. But when it came time for my dissertation. I had a big disagreement [with the university] over what I should be doing. So I left and started working as a model, as a secretary and waitress. Meanwhile. I got involved in the Women's Movement in New York and there was this really inspiring atmosphere. Everything seemed possible in 1971. I mean there was so much encouragement; everybody was questioning everything. I was on a committee on the image of women in the media, and we’d talk about a lot of things. We’d talk about ir Masters and Johnson’s second book, which E had just been out a short time,andwe’d say I “Well, is that your experience?” or “How y did you feel about it?” And the general £ consensus was that we really couldn't talk I about sex in enough detail to help each g other. So, I started putting together ques| tionnaires to pass around locally, just to get ï more information. I didn’t think about

doing a book until I started getting the answers back. They were so powerful and really unlike anything I had ever seen before. I just seemed to have tapped into something no one had ever explored before. By that time I realized that it wasn’t going to be a pamphlet—it was huge—so then I started thinking of doing a book. One thing led to another. A lot of national magazines picked up on the survey and wrote about it, and their readers sent in for

MOST WOMEN ENJOY INTERCOURSE BUT ONLY 30% ACHIEVE ORGASM DURING INTERCOURSE

the questionnaire. For instance, I got 253 answers from Oui magazine readers, and similar numbers from Mademoiselle, Ms., Brides, and The Village Voice. And a lot of small magazines. Eventually, we sent out 100.000 questionnaires and got back 3,019 replies, which is about an average rate of return on this kind of distribution. They were essay questions, not just check the blanks. Em even glad for the women who didn’t answer, because just reading it, I’m sure, made them think a lot. I know women who answered half of it and never finished. Maclean’s: Do you feel you got a good cross section?

Hite: Y es, but I didn’t set out to do a Kinsey report, and it’s not a survey. I think the title of my book, which is not my title—it's the publisher’s—misleads people somewhat. They assume it’s a scientific study and it

isn’t. My title was supposed to be Diana Rising. They [the publishers] said that sounded too much like a horoscope. And I think they thought it wouldn’t sell—which was crazy. They wanted to call it As We Like It. We ended up with The Hite Report.

Maclean’s: What surprised you about the findings?

Hite: The honesty and the emotional quality, the very loving quality knocked me out. I mean there was a kind of urgency in speaking and so much sharing and giving. People sometimes say, oh well, the women who answered must have been armchair sociologists, ones with womanly problems, who had a special motivation for answering. But I don’tfeel thatwayatall. In 1972, 1973 there was such a surge for women. There was a section at the start of the questionnaire that asked “Why did you answer this questionnaire?” There were so many reasons given: there wasn’t any formal involvement in the Women’s Movement, just a general wanting to help. One woman said that she wanted to share; she had so much to make up for in terms of truth-telling to her daughter that she just wanted to do the questionnaire and pass it on that way.

Maclean’s: Did any of the answers disappoint you? I mean, did you ever look at some of the replies and think “Oh, you stupid woman, don’t you know now that it doesn’t have to be that way?”

Hite: After the 1000th one—and that’s no exaggeration—I just thought I didn’t want to wait to finish the book. I wanted to write them back and say, “Oh please, don't waste another minute thinking about it. It can be so easy.”

Maclean’s: I know there is no average but, if you absolutely had to, could you describe the average North American woman’s sex life? What were the most frequently mentioned things? Obviously, lack of orgasm during intercourse is a common complaint. Hite: It’s much too vast and complex a question to answer just like that. I can talk about it, but I can’t answer it quite in that way. Only 30% of women did have orgasm through intercourse. One interpretation of that might be that everybody can learn how, and that would be a desirable goal. But that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that the point is to adapt your body to adequate stimulation, and for some women it [orgasm through intercourse] is more difficult than for others. But then why should intercourse always be included in our definition of physical relations? It should be just one choice out of many. Anyway, there

was that and the fact that most women enjoy intercourse a lot. Why do they enjoy intercourse? Women like the closeness. In our society, the only way to get close to another person is to have sex.

Maclean’s: Because we’re really not allowed to touch ?

Hite: Yeah. You get a peck on the cheek when you meet somebody, but you can’t sit cuddled up watching TV unless you have some sort of relationship with that person. And that’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it. So, I’m trying to think of large-term trends. Almost everybody was feeling guilty about masturbation. The majority did it, but the majority felt bad about it.

Maclean’s: I was surprised to see the majority masturbated— 82%, in fact.

Hite: In the Kinsey report, the majority did too. Less than mine, but still a majority. I think the difference is that in 20 years there’s been so much discussion about it that it’s becoming okay to admit it. Maclean’s: I bet that would be a shock to men. I bet they’d think “Oh no, not my wife! Why should she masturbate?”

Hite: Right. She needs me to have orgasm. Satisfaction as they [men] call it. Whatever satisfaction is. The other main thing was that the majority of women had been brought up to be good girls. They have been brought up in households that say sex is bad or that don’t even talk about sex. So, to the overwhelming majority, sex is defined as “foreplay”—what a horrible word—followed by penetration—horrible word—followed by intercourse, ending with a male orgasm, not female. No matter how much we extend “foreplay,” it’s still “foreplay.” In the overwhelming majority, that’s the pattern of sex. But no one ever documented anything about how women masturbate.

Maclean’s: Did a large number of women feel guilt after masturbation? A sort of emptiness?

Hite: Well, they varied. Some justified it to themselves as a substitute and thought, well, you know, that’s okay if it’s a substitute. But everybody thought it would be better if somebody else was doing it to you. If you had to do it to yourself, it meant that you were not loved.

Maclean’s: The women made harsh judgments on themselves, did they?

Hite: Y es, but the thing is that most women simply don’t get aroused during intercourse. They need clitoral stimulation. I’m sure that’s true for the majority of women. I get about 500 letters a week agreeing with me on that.

Maclean’s: What is the main difference between your report and the Masters and Johnson study, or Kinsey’s?

Hite: Aside from style, which is quite a lot of difference already, the importance they put on orgasm during intercourse is my basic disagreement. They assumed that orgasm during intercourse is the basic. Therefore, they carefully chose only women with a previous history of orgasm

during intercourse for their original study. Maclean’s: You’re saying they stacked the deck?

Hite: Right. And they generalized about everybody else, saying that if you don’t come during intercourse, then you have an inadequacy, a dysfunction. Also, in my book, I give quotes, which is more than you can say for other researchers. The standard format is just cold statistics, and you have to take the author’s word for them. My conclusions come at the end, and they’re separated quite clearly from the quotes. Maclean’s: By that point, the reader has made his or her own.conclusions to a large degree.

Hite: Right, exactly. Anyway, my conclusions are based simply on the idea that

HOW CAN WOMEN TELL MEN THEY DON’T WANT

INTERCOURSE-THEY WANT EVERYTHING BUT?

women should have equal rights. And if anyone thinks that they shouldn’t, then they have obviously come to other conclusions.

Maclean’s: Why in 1976 is it still so hard? Why can’t women tell men what they want? Hite: Well, except for a few esoteric pamphlets in the Women’s Movement, no one has really come out against intercourse as the norm. So how can most women tell men they don’t want intercourse, they want everything but? In 1976, women still are feeling something different than what they’ve been told they should be feeling. The sexual revolution was so shallow. It told women “yeah, get out there and be groovy, get out there and have a lot of sex— as it’s defined—enjoy intercourse a lot, have orgasms during intercourse, maybe get clitoral stimulation if you have to.”

Right. But that never made any woman feel really free. Women are in a tricky position. The idea that the sexual revolution in the 1960s “gave” women freedom is really not true. Most of the women in the study still were glad we can talk about sex now, that it isn’t considered dirty anymore. But they wanted more honesty. They hate the vulgarization of sex that has gone on in the media, and the pressure always to say yes and have a lot of sex to prove you are a groovy, healthy, with-it, real woman. The Women’s Movement contributed the most to women feeling that they had a right to control their own bodies. But the information was not seen widely enough. One of the few books on female sexuality distributed widely was Free And Female by Barbara Seaman, which does not challenge the myth of the vaginal orgasm, which I do. The majority of the 103 women she studied did have orgasm regularly, but she didn’t go into any detail about how they did it— which is the whole key. She didn’t put any emphasis on knowing our own bodies ... It was more along the lines of men being more sensitive to us. But the idea that all men can become sensitive, that they’ll “give” the woman clitoral stimulation to orgasm is pretty silly. Why, in 1976, can’t a woman touch herself and make her own orgasm? The reason is that the man is supposed to be in charge. During intercourse, he moves in ways to stimulate himself to orgasm, but he’s supposed to give her orgasm at the same time. But she knows how, so how come she can’t help? How come she can’t do it if she wants to? Maybe it’s good to have him do it sometimes, but, why can’t we do it ourselves sometimes?

Maclean’s: But surely you give to each other. In the context of heterosexual lovemaking, how does a man have his orgasm? I mean, the woman helps him to achieve orgasm just as he helps her.

Hite: Yes. but he’s not in your control as you are in his during manual stimulation by him. Also if you’ve ever stimulated a man manually, I think that in most cases you find that the end, just before orgasm, he’ll often end up helping you—because you can’t quite get it right, it’s not quite the right pressure, not quite the right rhythm. Maclean’s: But you can’t feel inside his body to see what it feels like.

Hite: Right, and it’s the same problem, vice versa. Intercourse is designed perfectly to give a man orgasm. He’s got a lot to say about what’s going on there, and who’s getting pleasure. I just hope that soon women will be able to do what they want, make the kind of sex they want and not the sex they don’t want. Men should realize that they should slow down and make a space for this. I mean, why do we have to ask them to do this and do that all the time? Why? Maclean’s: But why should we? Men say, “What do you want?” You tell them and you’re both happy. What’s so wrong with that?

Hite: Yeah, but you see, he’s still the doer. Do I feel free to do it to myself when he’s

there? If you can answer yes to that and actually do it once or twice, okay, then I think you’ll finally have proven control over your own sexuality. You see, it’s hard to talk about these new things. We put new ideas like this into a negative cast. Men reacted like that at first when women wanted equal pay. They thought it was very negative, very aggressive, hostile toward men. But it wasn’t hostility toward men. It was just that women want the right of choice. Maclean’s: But, let’s hope that we don’t create new norms for people to fall short of that if you can’t do it to yourself in bed with a man then you ’re a very weak-minded woman

Hite: I’m not saying that you have to do one thing or the other all the time. I just think that the goal we should strive for is the right to be able to choose.

Maclean’s: You have suggested that sexual practices are culturally defined, not biologically based. One would have thought that sex was biological; men have penises, women have vaginas . . .

Hite: Only for the last 3,000 years has heterosexual sex been glorified. Before that, male-female copulation wasn’t the main form of touching, the common form of physical relations.

Maclean’s: Are you saying that ancient peoples only didit to have children, to propagate the race?

Hite: We don’t know exactly. There are a number of people working in this area. We do know that sexuality wasn’t what we now know as sex. Today we talk about sex as if it were a biological drive. “Drive” is a word that comes from nowhere: nobody’s ever shown that humans have a drive for anything. Certainly not for men to mount and thrust. Even Kinsey, a biologist, pointed out over and over again that animals spend a very small part of their physical relations on copulation. And it isn’t that they play around for a long time and then have copulation. It’s that they play around and never get around to copulation. They nuzzle each other, and just affectionately rub around. So, there’s nothing, there’s no reason, in any way, to say that intercourse is an instinctive norm. It was the early Jewish codes that specifically made everything except heterosexual intercourse against the law. The Jews wanted to bind everybody into the social order, to have more children, to consolidate more territory, become a stronger tribe and beat the other tribes. It became a patriarchal society and it glorified intercourse. And that’s how it’s been for 3,000 years. But 3,000 years isn’t that long really.

Maclean’s: A lot of reviewers have emphasized the part in your book where you tell women to withhold sex if the man won’t go along with what they want.

Hite: There’s one paragraph. They pick up on these out-of-context paragraphs. It’s all in this section about how women are so tired of the mechanical preoccupation with the traditional sexual pattern. Well, suppose men won’t cooperate or even lis-

ten to what you want? What if they still try to follow the same old mechanical patterns of sexual relations? Then there’s no reason why women must help men during intercourse. The fact is that we usually do cooperate quite extensively during intercourse in order for the man to be able to orgasm. We move to the rhythm, we keep our legs apart, our bodies in position so it makes penetration and thrusting possible. And we never stop intercourse in midstream unless the man has had his orgasm. But we don’t have to cooperate in these ways, if the man doesn’t cooperate with us. It’s a way of making a point. In other words, if you’ve discussed with him all these things, if you’ve tried over a period of time and haven’t got anywhere, there’s no reason

WHY, IN 1976, CAN’T A WOMAN TOUCH HERSELF AND MAKE HER OWN ORGASM?

why you should continue to be exploited. So you just start saying no. So that’s one short section out of a book of 431 pages. You see how political sex is. Anytime you say, “Okay, I’m not going to cooperate with your pleasure”.. . and look how long men have not been cooperating with the pleasure of a lot of women in the book. Maclean’s: Aren’t women who say no going to have to be prepared for a backlash? A lot of men may not understand what they’re doing.

Hite: Oh, I don’t know about that. A lot of men are really exceptional. That’s one of the things that makes me so optimistic. I’ve got so many letters from men who agree with me, and who like the book, who say: “Yeah, I learned this gradually myself, but I’m glad to see it in print.” One man said: “My wife has been telling me this for years,

but I didn’t believe it and I’m really ashamed. Thanks for the book.” Maclean’s: Your next project is going to be a book on male sexuality. What kind of a book will it be?

Hite: I’m interested in investigating how much of what goes on is just role playing, and how much of what goes on is what men really feel. It’s hard for both men and women to separate the two. That was the essential question in the women’s questionnaire and it will remain the essential question in the men’s. I’ll be looking at male masturbation and the necessity of intercourse in male sexual pleasure. Maclean’s: What are your hopes and expectations for sex in your society 100 years from now? Do you think, for instance, that homosexuality will be increasingly accepted in an overpopulated world?

Hite: What I hope is that there won’t be the dichotomy between being either a lover or nothing. I hope there will be shades of loving in between, so that sex won’t be such a cut and dried thing. At the same time, I don’t want that to sound like some leftover ideal from the 1960s: everyone going around loving and touching everyone else. No. I just think it’s unfortunate that now when you feel close to a friend, you’re not able to express that physically in a close embrace. Now touching is always sexually connoted. I would hope that all the old definitions will be thought through again because, really, our physical relations are not at all integrated into our life as it is. I think society will change because so many people seem to want sexual redefinition. Maclean’s: Well, there’s one obvious thing that people wonder about you: how is your sex life, Shere Hite?

Hite: How’s my sex life? I don’t think I have any. I'm just running around doing this kind of stuff.

Maclean’s: What about your family? Were they nonplussed by your book?

Hite: Well, I didn’t live with my mother and father, but I lived with my grandfather and I’ve lived with my aunt and uncle. My grandmother said if I believed in Jesus I wouldn’t need to do all this. Well, you know, maybe she’s right. My aunt sort of likes the book. We’ve had a couple of conversations and she’s finally told me she does have orgasm. So that was a real step forward, since we’ve never talked about it before.

Maclean’s: Did the book help you personally with any sexual or personal misgivings you had?

Hite: I felt that I grew tremendously. It was great seeing so many details of so many women's lives at different ages. It's really a feeling of community, a feeling of fitting into the community struggle, a feeling of there being a women’s culture, a real culture. There was also the feeling that I was having a lifetime of experience packed into a few years. I felt like I was a friend to a lot of those people. I didn’t know their names or anything, but I learned a lot from all those women. O