Nicole Newnham's new documentary is an urgent, well-constructed and desperately relevant film about a feminist sociologist and publishing sensation cut down by the patriarchy.
Shere Hite was a beautiful, intelligent, curious and sex-positive woman. She supported herself through college at Columbia and then in her sociological research by modelling, some of which was nude. She saw nothing wrong with this. She became famous for publishing The Hite Report in 1976 - summarising the results of a survey of 3000 American women. The most shocking of its revelations was that the best way to satisfy a woman sexually was through clitoral stimulation, and that conventional vaginal intercourse was a poor way to achieve this. As a result, most women's best sexual experiences were through masturbation.
The severity and savagery of the masculine backlash was comprehensive. The publishers tried to sabotage the book by restricting sales and the first print run. They refused to run any publicity. But they couldn't stop the juggernaut of interest. Apparently it's the thirtieth best selling book of all time, even though few today have heard of it. But the accompanying PR interviews, many of which are excerpted here, show the toll it took on Hite. She was pilloried on TV shows and accused of making men irrelevant. Men tried to discredit her based on her nude modelling and the sample biases in her research (you try getting a representative sample of women to answer a sex survey!). Publishers would not give her a contract for her ongoing research and she ended up giving up her US citizenship and forging a new life in Europe.
Perhaps this cancellation and suppression is ongoing. People today all know about the Kinsey report on men, but how many now about the Hite report on women? Why - after immense critical acclaim at the Sundance film festival, did this film not get wider distribution, despite a star as big as Dakota Johnson voicing the words of Shere Hite? Why does the world not care when Shere Hite was speaking to exactly the repression of female sexuality that we now see rearing its head in the United States? All of these factors speak to the continuing importance of Hite's work. This film is a worthy argument along those lines.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE is rated R and has a running time of 118 minutes. It played Sundance 2023 and was released in the USA last November. It was released in the UK this week.