The Hite Report (1976): A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality
Shere Hite is one of the most influential and controversial figures in sociology scholarship of the last half century. It won’t be an exaggeration to suggest that she is one of the most quoted authors in feminist scholarship; and her most famous work The Hite Report is even popular among lay readers. The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality was published in 1976. This was followed by The Hite Report on Male Sexuality in 1981 and The Hite Report on the Family in 1994. She is seen as an inspiration and role model for many feminist activists and writers for offering them radical new insights into female sexuality in western society. It is for the same reason that she is ostracized and attacked by conservative sections of western society, especially within the United States. Yet, there is no doubt that her contribution is quite significant in the context of the growth of sociology as a field.
A prominent feature of the report is its sprawling style of documenting, which some have criticized for being disorganized, lacking in rigor and being repetitious. Yet, all of these charges can be proved incorrect upon closer scrutiny. Admittedly, her methodology was not as sophisticated
To illustrate why the report appears repetitious at places, let us consider one of the questions in the questionnaire circulated to women participants: “Do you enjoy masturbating?” Hite’s objective is not to get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, but to rather qualitatively assess the act of female masturbation. According to the findings of the report, “Most women said they enjoyed masturbation physically (after all, it did lead to orgasm), but usually not psychologically…Psychologically, they felt lonely, guilty, unwanted, selfish, silly, and generally bad. Other words that were frequently used included uncomfortable, adrift, uneasy, pathetic, ashamed, empty, cheap, dirty, self-centered, silly, disgusted and self-conscious.” (The Hite Report, 1976, p.53) Some of the adjectives in this list might come across as repetitious, but they do bring out subtle differences in how women perceive and experience masturbation. Moreover, the surprising findings of the report serves as a justification for the excess detail presented therein:
“What she found, from the 3,500 women who replied, was that most women were not able to have orgasms through intercourse alone. What she deduced was that the definition of ‘sex’ as intercourse was ‘sexist’ because it was orientated around reproduction and men’s pleasure rather than women’s. She said intercourse should not be considered ‘the’ sex act, but just one way of making love out of many. This was 24 years ago and such has been the impact of her research that it seems a bit trite and obvious now.” (Ind, 2000, p.15)
Considering how radical these revelations are about female sexuality, it is understandable why Hite has repeated information in her report. She was trying to cover all angles by presenting questions with subtle variations. This method would ensure that the intended (as against apparent or stated) answers of the participants would be accurately recorded. There are those who criticize her sample size as being limited or selective. Their assertion is that only “weird women” would reply to an anonymous questionnaire on the topic of sex. Most of these critics belong to the media, yet the laurels Hite had won in leading universities in the country stand testament to the validity of her methods. It also underscores the relevance and veracity of the inferences arrived by her research. (Mckee, 1998, p.40)
Hite’s work is truly comprehensive in covering sexuality of women she also includes same-sex relationships. This includes not just lesbian relationships, but also mother-daughter and sister relationships. The detailed nature of her work is justified by the fact that it delves into all facets of women’s sexuality including same-gender relationships. For example, “from warring sisters, to mothers jealous of their daughters, to female work colleagues at war, The Hite Report on Women Loving Women reveals why women’s relationships with each other so often end in acrimony.” (Hite, 2007, p.70)
In the same vein, her research also includes the subject of sexuality in mature women. Her findings in this area were groundbreaking at the time of their publication. It was previously believed that lithe young women in their 20s are the ones who are having all the fun. According to Hite’s survey,
“it’s women in their 40s who are having the best sex of their lives…But it’s hardly to do with ‘the railing at the inevitability of death’ and ‘losing our looks’, as psychologists have claimed. It has more to do with pent-up lust and unexpressed emotions; of words unsaid, and the kind of grown-up sex that probably doesn’t happen at home with a partner. It’s like suddenly seeing the light…Older women have always known this, but keep pretty quiet about it because of the mud that is hurled at them if they speak out. A quick glance at the history of female sexuality reveals the roots of this potent taboo….” (The Hite Report, 1976, p.86)
To the question ‘How does age affect female sexuality?’, a broad range of answers were received from the participants. Some of the responses began like these “I feel that I could give two sets of answers to these questions…, I would also like to have seen questions asked on ethics – what moral imperatives have we laid on ourselves…, At fifty, I have come not to look or hope for an ideal. I think I have poor judgment in men, and besides, no man has seriously approached me in years…, I am sure I have loved. I am not sure they were healthy relationships…, etc” (The Hite Report, 1976, p.405) We can see that some of these answers overlap at places. In other words, just as there is divergence in responses there is also consensus on some aspects. To learn what these common experiences are, the author had to accommodate a broad sample size at the cost of making the report repetitious and detailed at places.