The Hite Report

May 29, 2020 6 min read

In the heart of the 1970s, as the sexual revolution was still unfurling, Shere Hite conducted a groundbreaking study into female sexuality.

At the time, “The Great Male Thrust” was deemed the only proper way for a female to reach an orgasm. Since Freud had decided clitoral orgasms were infantile, a woman was meant them and mature into nice, adult vaginal ones. Failure to do so meant she was frigid and must suffer from neurosis. So, women "flocked to psychiatrists looking for the hidden and terrible repression that had kept them from their vaginal destiny." Anna Koedt writes in her 1970 essay, The Myth Of The Vaginal Orgasm.

When the Hite Report was unleashed in 1976, it was the first study of its kind by a woman about women. Not telling them about their pleasure, but asking them. Hite's research showed that in fact, clitoral orgasms weren't abnormal at all: 70 percent of women weren't able to orgasm from penetration alone but most could reach orgasm from masturbation. Nobody even had to tell them how to do it! 

Shere Hite and The Feminists

Hite was born in America’s Bible Belt, the only daughter of a teen mum and raised by her grandmother. She developed an interest in social history and managed to pay her way through studying it by nude modelling. She was spurred to feminist activism after posing for a typewriter advert. On seeing the tagline “The typewriter is so smart she doesn't have to be" she joined a protest against the very campaign she’d been the face of.

"It made me into a feminist," Hite tells The Independent. Aligning with other feminists of the era including Koedt, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer and Martha Shelley who claimed the "idea of vaginal pleasure was a sinister patriarchal plot" Naomi Wolf explains in Vagina: A New Biography. That might sound extreme but calling the vaginal orgasm the only proper way to come made women dependent on heterosexual men and denied their own needs. 

The feminists were backed with research from sexologists, Masters & Johnson who tackled the task of observing 10 000 orgasms and found the vagina was not so important after all and really quite insensitive. Also, orgasms looked the same physiologically no matter where they came from.

So where does Hite come into the debate? A 1976 NY Times article explains the work of sexologists was "inscrutable" to read and that feminist authors "were so busy promulgating new feminist utopias that they, too, were telling women rather than asking them". Hite asked them. Selling over 50 million copies, word of the clitoris finally spread to the masses.

The Report 

The Hite Report was a survey of over 60 in-depth questions conducted in America on women between 14-78 years old. The questions ranged from “Do you think that sex is in any way political?” to “What does your body look like during orgasm? 

Excerpt: What does climax feel like? 

“pulsating white lines of intense pleasure”

“Like riding a Tilt-a-Whirl”

“a rapid sky-rocket like burst”

“a balloon filling up then exploding”

For me, The Hite Report is a precious social document. Not a series of dry statistics but an anthology of intimate first-hand accounts. It’s also littered with sexual frustration. The chapter entitled “Be a Good Girl” asks women how they were raised to think about sex. Most had been told that only bad girls have sexual urges. It was a common myth passed down from parent to daughter at the time, that masturbation leads to madness.

Among many nuanced descriptions of sexual practice, the chapter on “Leg Position” during masturbation really struck me. Some women only reach orgasm with legs together, some only with legs apart, some only with knees up. Much like there is no one type of body, there can never be a one-size-fits-all approach to pleasure. 

Excerpt: How do you masturbate? 

“My best Quickie one-minute special is standing up with my vibrator, on my toes, totally tensed, dropping my pants to mid-thigh and pulling my top up to uncover my breasts”

Excerpt: What does arousal feel like? 

“To wake up from the fogginess of daily existence” 

“Gorgeous pleasure, like baths and sun.”

“My vulva feels still and hot and sexy – my skin feels funny.”

The Scandal

The media panned it for being inherently “anti-male” and unscientific. Playboy, (who she previously modelled for) dubbed it “The Hate Report".

Of the 100 000 people sent the survey only 4.5% answered. Since the report found respondents were largely frustrated with their relationships, critics concluded that the one's that answered must have been the unhappy ones. This completely denies Hite's accomplishment in gathering so much personal data, which rivals contemporary studies in scope. But the focus on stats misses the point, "The book is an intricate philosophical discussion by thousands of women who are discussing their emotional lives...I guess it would be expecting too much to get the press to talk about ideological issues" Hite tells The Washington Post. You can try asking but you can't always get people to listen.

Has Shere Hite finally got her message out? Hite gets a lot less airtime than Freud, Masters & Johnson or Kinsey. I’d never heard of her before the book was gifted to me from a flea market. The report itself doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page! Which begs the question: Is that just because she’s a woman? Or has she been painted out of history for challenging male virility?

It does seem like the challenge to male domination presented by here work was a big motivator in devaluing it. Though Hite herself has actually shown interest in the sexual lives of various genders and sexualities. The report even led her to question how the culture is impacting men too, "are men's human rights being ignored by telling them they have to get an erection every time?" She published The Hite Report On Men and Male Sexuality in 1981 and went on to create more controversy with her work, covering topics like female affairs. The attacks she faced finally pushed her to seek more liberal views in Europe. 

At 77 years old, she still lectures on sex and sexuality and is collecting data. You can fill in an updated version of the questionnaire on her website. She's currently living in London and writing a screenplay about her life. Hopefully, she gets the recognition she deserves for shedding light on what we now call the pleasure gap

Ffion Harman
« Ffion Harman is the founder of Fine Bone ltd. FineBone makes ethical porcelain pleasure tools for womxn. It’s an online sexual wellness shop which launched its first product “Prudence”, a ceramic massager this 2020. Ffion believes in the power of creative masturbation as a way to explore oneself and make sense of the world. When she’s not dispatching dildos you’ll find her realising elaborate sexual fantasies and/or writing about it.” » All posts →