Part VI of Wolverette #2’s print issue: “SHERE HITE”

Posted: September 27, 2009 in Past issues

SHERE HITE

Shere Hite, born in 1942, feminist and sex scientist, is famous for her so called „Hite Reports“. In the seventies she dared to do research on female sexuality from a feminist stance and guess what? The results were not the ones conservative seventies world expected. She found out that women masturbate more often than what had been thought back then, that they have more sex outside marriage than had been suspected. This and other conclusions that didn’t go well with the moral ideals set free a storm of criticism – of course!

An outcry from Europe to the Bible Belt resulted from the things that were obviously true but that a lot of people didn’t want to read.

Soon the attacks became more specific: they found fault with her research method. Hite had focused on how people as individuals see their own sexual experience and what it means to them. Therefore she used anonymous questionnaires to frame her work.

Because of this she was blamed to generalize, to use the outcome of her questionnaires for proving a point she had already aimed to prove; the New York Times even called her work „sociological science fiction“.

Now it is true that this kind of research method is somewhat biased: a hardcore christian US housewife in the 1970ies most likely would’ve never even thought about answering questions regarding her sex life, especially to a feminist. Therefore she and her experience wouldn’t show up at all. Plus, using this method it is just not possible to cover all sorts of women, all sorts of experiences. And since the questions were answered anonymously it is possible that the interviewees were just telling lies. Hite herself doubts this: „I felt if it were face-to-face, then they would feel intimidated and wouldn’t want to speak up and answer these questions, and it would be uncomfortable. I think this is especially true for women because women had never spoken up about sex at that time. Most of the answers I received were 14 and 15 pages long, usually handwritten. Can you imagine at that time how hard it was? I still have them. They would say things like they waited and stayed up late after they put their whole family to bed and they were answering on the kitchen table and things like that, so I didn’t feel inclined to disbelieve them.“ I think she has a good point. But who knows? Maybe it were lies to some degree.

But does that mean the Hite Reports were maybe interesting and revolutionary but pointless? I don’t think so.

First, the interviewed women were real. They existed. They had to tell something that had been silenced for way too long: the fact that they indeed have a sexuality, an individual sexuality that did not go hand in hand with what society expected it to be. Facts like the one that 70% of the asked women who weren’t able to cum during intercourse could easily get an orgasm by masturbation. Back then, this was still seen as a kind of sexual dysfunction since a clitoral orgasm was considered inferiour to a vaginal one. Results that didn’t satisfy the phallocentric ego just couldn’t count. And writing them down as truths in a scientific study meant breaking a major taboo.

Well, Shere Hite did it anyway. And without her explicit and detailled feminist studies about female sexuality it would for example be unthinkable to air TV shows like Sex & the City nowadays.

Is this the only achievement of her? Voicing facts about womens‘ sexuality that the public wished not to hear? Well, in my eyes this is certainly an achievement and an important one on top of it.

But to say that her statistics and therefore her conclusions are worthless is just wrong in my eyes. Who says that you need 100% balanced statistics to deduce things that are true, of importance and noteworthy? Let’s take Sigmund Freud for example. The „God of psychoanalysis“. Now as a feminist I’m not exactly a great fan of Freud and his work but I can’t deny that we owe him some major finds on the field of sexual psychology. He might have been a sexist patriarch but quite some of his stuff is precious nevertheless. And his teachings are still widely accepted. Now were Freud’s empirical studies based on better research methods than Hite’s? Not exactly. Actually most of his detections about the female psyche and sexuality derive from what he concluded out of his session with two ladies from Vienna’s upper-class. Doesn’t seem much balanced to me… But is this a reason to declare his theories total bullshit? Definitely not. Yes, there are sure some good reasons to doubt some of his conclusions. But nevertheless he was right in quite some things despite his lack of probability samples. Just that Freud isn’t criticed for his research methods. Shere Hite is.

Anyway, Hite herself answers the question about her research method: „Now I can answer more simply and say the findings have stood the test of time. Therefore, that’s the biggest test in science. The goal was to design a questionnaire of any type — whether you were studying snails or people — that would prove to be true later. And so this is later.“

As stupid and generalizing the criticism of her statistics may have been, it wasn’t the worst.

She got hunted like a witch: the scientist got harshly insulted, physically attacked and even received death threats. Because of this she decided to give up her US citizenship and become German instead since she felt her work got more appretiation in Germany and her husband, Friedrich Höricke, was German anyways: „I renounced my US citizenship in 1995. After a decade of sustained attacks on myself and my work, particularly my ‚reports’ into female sexuality, I no longer felt free to carry out my research to the best of my ability in the country of my birth. The attacks included death threats delivered in my mail and left on my telephone answering machine.“

But why? Why would someone do this to a women if they think her work is all bollocks anyway? The answer to that is easy and difficult at the same time. Maybe they did fear that what the Hite Report was telling is true. Perhaps her results were too world-shattering for some to bear. Maybe the explicit language of the women quoted in her book(s) were reason enough for some to punish her, the author, the responsible person for this piece of work. I don’t know. All these reasons seem incredibly stupid to me but sadly I don’t consider them unlikely.

Hite tells us about another assumption: „ A statement issued by 12 prominent American feminists, including Gloria Steinem, Barbara Ehrenreich and Phyllis Chesler, described the media assaults on me as part of a ‚conservative backlash … not so much directed at a single woman … as … against the rights of women everywhere’.“

Typical sexist behaviour, if I may say it that way: holding one woman responsible for everything that one hates about all women. The idea that women have a vivid sexuality of their own, a sexuality that obviously does not follow the rules, that does not meet the common expectations of the (male) public, a sexuality that is not necessarily dependent on men at all – quite some shocker for the  society of the 70ies that was even more patriarchalic than the hippies made us believe. But could she have had a better timing? Flower Power and Free Love, the women’s movement in bloom and wham! there’s a woman scientist who dares to take this seriously and shocks the world with a true wake up call. Because sex may have been a topic discussed – but only in limits, please! Female masturbation? Boo! How dare you talk about that? And did it change much? Honestly, I know more about my guy friends’ morning boners, jerking off sessions, orgasm problems and sexual preferrences than of my girlfriends’ masturbation techniques. Isn’t it a shame? I mean guys talk about masturbation a lot, maybe not always in front of a girl, but they do. Some young boys even masturbate together to the poster of the january playmate. But girls? Mostly still pretending they don’t play with themselves, maybe they don’t openly deny it but they behave as if it doesn’t take place. And if they do talk about it, it’s incredibly tame and full of mysterious hints. Hite has noticed this, too: „I think people feel very uncomfortable about the topic, ” she says. “So, anyone who speaks about it – especially a woman – has gone into an area that’s considered somewhere good girls shouldn’t go. It’s an area that makes people nervous.”

Now I’m not the person who feels desperate only cause not knowing all the intimate details of her girlfriends’ sex life. But the gap is astounding and I do think women could learn from each other if they just weren’t too shy talking explicitly about sex: if a female friend hadn’t told me that sometimes it helps the orgasm to put a pillow under your ass, I would’ve missed quite some fun times.

Still, we cannot deny that our society is has become more open about female sexuality. And personally I think we have to thank women like Shere  Hite for taking a stand and being one of the first dropping this explicit bomb and starting the discussion. For example, nowadays the idea that women exploring their sexuality and voicing their preferrences destroys relationships and families seems utterly wild. When Hite published her book(s) it was a widespread reaction. Although there is still much work to do, much has changed and it wouldn’t have if one had stayed silent.

Writer and broadcaster Beatrix Campbell says: „It was a revolutionary work. She absolutely challenged the way in which questions about women’s sexuality had been asked throughout the 20th century. She said we’ve been asking the wrong questions. The question should have been: Why would anybody think that women would be having orgasms when it was obvious that millions weren’t? Mine, and earlier generations of women, were diagnosed frigid, so women’s disappointment was pathologised and made into a disease.”

Gee, we can surely be glad that things have changed. Which doesn’t mean everything is puppies and rainbows now: “There was a moment when work like Shere Hite’s really opened up the possibility of women claiming their own sexuality. There was tremendous interest in women exploring their own bodies, literally with speculums, and fighting for the right to sexual pleasure. And then sexuality became more of a commodity. Women these days look gorgeous and are sexually active but they are not necessarily getting a lot of sexual pleasure. There’s a way in which culture is still very ambivalent towards girls’ and womens’ sexuality.”, says Susie Orbach, psychiatrist. That’s true. One of the mean little effects is that nowadays we often feel the pressure to be sexually satisfied from a different angle. Cause aren’t we all so super emancipated and open compared to the prude 1970ies? We can talk about sex, we know about the clitoral orgasm and its secret, instead of using a speculum we can easily consult the internet about female anatomy and we already demand equality in the bedroom! Hah! But this oh so liberated atmosphere often doesn’t really take place and with all the possibilities we have now, a sexually unsatisfied women all too often feels like a loser, as if it was her own fault not „correcting“ her pleasure by using the various opportunities available: it’s your own fault, baby! So what’s the problem?

Back then the problem was that true female sexuality took place behind closed doors. Women thought whatever bad experiences she made were normal, a part of the game. Or felt pervert or disfunctioning when her sexuality didn’t fit the cliché. Shere Hite pulled the doors open and showed them: you are not alone. Others masturbate, too. There are other sex techniques, other possibilities you might not have tried. You are perfectly normal! She gave women a comparison, which was absolutely necessary.

This chance to compare was so liberating and useful that it became standard. Hooray!

But this standard got a twist that ain’t healthy. Nowadays sexual comparison is everywhere, it’s pretty much public. But public doesn’t like real women, public likes bodies and statements that suit the beauty standards, public defines what is considered sexy, not the average woman’s reality! The comparisons we have aren’t as real anymore. It’s porn, Playboy magazine, women’s magazines sponsored by make-up companies and whatnot. Yes, we now have the ability to compare our sexual selves – but to what? To an unhealthy fantasy ideal that doesn’t exist in real life. Huge flawless tits compared to our small/saggy/uneven ones, the loudest and wildest orgasm screams ever heard compared to our relatively tame sighs of joy, perfectly shaped labias with not a glimpse of hair growth compared to our jungle pussies and so on. Bump. Trapped again.

And it’s not only a womens’ problem, it’s starting to give men troubles, too, as Shere Hite observes: “[..] what I’m talking about is not the drug [Viagra] but the marketing of it, encouraging men and saying to boys, ‘You’ve got to have a big one’. These kinds of stereotypes shock me because I would have thought those ideas are passe by now. But clearly there’s a large reservoir of belief in those ideas, otherwise you wouldn’t see such a strong resurgence of those sorts of statements in the newspapers newspapers that should know better.”

Obviously it is impossible to change the (sexual) world in a short period of time and rely on the work already done: “In the 1960s and 1970s there was this feeling that one only had to say something about a certain situation and the change would happen automatically, ” Hite says. “Most of us felt that way. Now? I’m surprised that the stereotypes in society are so strong – So many things keep us drifting back to the old system.”

A reason to give up? Surely not you can bet! I say, let’s go back to the roots! Shere Hite’s books are incredibly interesting to read, not outdated at all and personally I think it’d be a good idea if nowadays’ women rediscovered her work, adding their new gained modern experiences to the old but still important questions.

It’s time to bring reality back to our images of sex and sexuality by acknowledging and valueing our very own experiences and forget about what the porn and beauty industry, the womens’ magazines, advertisings and other self-declared authorities have taught us. Let’s have a close look at who we are as a person, as a sexual being. Let’s examine our bodies and let them teach us what is good for us. Look at your vagina and be sure: This IS what a pussy does look like. It’s not gross just because it doesn’t look like Dolly Buster’s cooter. Your breasts? Look like boobs do. Even if they don’t resemble Pamela Anderson’s. Your body tells you that you get turned on by cocks smeared with body fluids, body hair or a soft big beer belly? So be it, don’t let anyone tell you you’re gross or perv because of that. Get to know yourself!

And share it. Share it with your partner(s) or with friends, with whoever you feel the urge to talk about this, to whatever degree is comfortable for you.

The Hite report was anonymous and in written form, in a society in which sex talk was a big no-no for women.

Today, sex talk is nothing revolutionary in general, so why not use this chance and perform our very own, very personal, realistic, individual Hite report again, this time not only in written language but also orally and not anonymous? Being sexual is not a shame for women anymore so let’s tear down the limits of  what our sexuality has to be like, look like, feel like. Rome wasn’t built in a day (and the ancient Romans were said to be quite sexually active, ladies!), so let’s start now. What have we got to lose but bad sex?

Quotes taken from USA today, New Statesman, The Independent and The Sunday Herald

(picture from Sara Stadler)

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