The Disappearance Of Shere Hite


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Disappearance of Shere Hite
"This meticulously constructed film will leave you reflecting on the scale of that loss." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

“Equality doesn’t seem dangerous to me,” says Shere Hite in an archive clip at the start of this film, with a shy smile. She seems to believe it – to have no idea of the magnitude of what she has done, or of what awaits her. A babe in the woods, and simultaneously one of the shrewdest, most daring academic voices of her age.

If you were alive in the Seventies or Eighties and had even a passing interest in feminism, you could not help but be aware of Hite’s work – at least of her first book, the groundbreaking Hite Report, which, for the first time in Western society, opened up a conversation about what women wanted out of sex and how that compared with what they were actually getting. Nicole Newnham’s documentary begins before that, when she was just a student at Columbia University, noticed mostly for her flamboyant sense of style, perpetually at odds with professors whose sexism she seemed to be unprepared for, and was wounded by, to the point where she abandoned her course. In the context of the rest of what Newnham presents here, it seems like an early indication of the mismatch between her natural tendency to make an impression and her very ordinary, very human vulnerability when things got unpleasant as a result.

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There are a number of interviewees who remember her from this time, including the photographer who helped her to scrape a living as a model. Her work included posing for paperback book covers and the poster for Diamonds Are Forever, as well as a Playboy shoot which would come back to haunt her. It was through her work on a typewriter advert that she came into contact with feminist protestors, and thus became engaged with the women’s movement which would inspire her later work.

Seeing some of the material produced during this stage of her life, as well as casual footage captured by friends, one cannot help but be struck be her appearance: her elfin face, her wide smile, her mop of strawberry blond curls. Though much is said about this – and about how it disadvantaged her when it came to getting taken seriously as an academic – nobody mentions her remarkable resemblance to the biblical Eve depicted in William Blake’s Eve Tempted By The Serpent, a figure with whom she seems to have much in common, reaching as she does for forbidden knowledge and, in the process, leaving man behind. She seems a figure apart from the ordinary, though we also learn about her day to day life, the dingy basement flat which she shared with her little dog, Rusty, and made beautiful inside; her fondness for watching old films downtown; her various close friendships and some of her love affairs, her openness about being bisexual, which was a rare thing to express at the time.

Getting across the nature of society at the time, and how much it differed from today’s in spite of current fears about regression, is a difficult thing to do. Newnham tackles it contextually, building in brief references and explanations alongside the main material of the time. There is a lot to be said about Hite herself and with the film running to nearly two hours it would not have been realistic to extend it further, but it is essential that viewers of all ages understand just how hostile the society of the time was towards women, in order for the rest to make sense.

One is reminded, at times, of the phenomenon of Medieval anchoresses, who were walled off inside tiny cells built into the foundations of churches so that they could present no sexual temptation to anyone, thereby making it acceptable for them to wield quite a measure of political power. Hite’s combination of (accidental yet considerable) power and willingness to address sex – not to mention her beauty and her personal expressions of sexuality – were just too much for many men of the time to tolerate. Watching them rail against her on all manner of television programmes, often accusing her of bad science whilst showing little by way of scientific literacy themselves, remains a disturbing experience. It’s like seeing a gang of the worst Twitter trolls – minus the actual swastikas and violence – turning on a lone woman in the flesh. Hite hoped, at first, that it would pass, but she was a pioneer – and that meant that she was pretty much their only target.

When using this footage it would be all too easy to create a film which led most viewers to instinctively side with the beleaguered woman on all points. Newnham has the good sense to step back from that and give the more grounded criticisms of Hite’s work an airing, whilst also allowing her – by way of further archive footage – to defend them. No matter how this discussion is framed, it fundamentally comes down to numbers. Were Hite’s statistics skewed? Quite possibly – but the point, which none of her critics addresses, is that even if they are, there remains a clear and concerning gap between how many women experience sex and how the men of that era believed they did – or should – resulting in a great deal of unhappiness all round. History has tended to bear out her conclusions, so that younger viewers will be puzzled as to why some of what she said could ever have been thought remarkable.

For a little while, Hite enjoyed a wealthy, fabulous life as a result of her success. There’s a surprise celebrity interviewee filling in some of the details of that period. Ultimately, however, the criticism was too much, and that’s where the film’s title comes in. Long before the dawn of so-called ‘cancel culture’, with its parade of supposedly ruined celebrities airing their grievances in newspaper columns and on talk shows, Hite was hounded out of public life. Her story serves as a reminder of exactly who that kind of bullying really tends to hurt – of the price of speaking up as an outsider.

This meticulously constructed film will leave you reflecting on the scale of that loss, even before you reflect on the chilling effect it likely had on other talented women. It is, ultimately, a tragic tale – and yet Hite’s tremendous legacy is not to be doubted. Newnham invites viewers to celebrate what she achieved, with its largely unspoken effect on the private lives of millions. She may have been broken but her ideas survived. Newnham illustrates the human cost.

Reviewed on: 15 Nov 2023
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Shere Hite’s 1976 bestselling book, The Hite Report, liberated the female orgasm by revealing the most private experiences of thousands of anonymous survey respondents. Her findings rocked the American establishment and presaged current conversations about gender, sexuality, and bodily autonomy. So how did Shere Hite disappear?

Director: Nicole Newnham

Year: 2023

Runtime: 116 minutes

Country: US

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