ON ONE OF the afternoons I gave to Shere Hite's stories about male sexuality the Canadian Air Force "Snowbirds" were tearing up the sky at an air show down the road from my house. And an odd critial insight hit as I walked out in the yard to see them streak down the Ohio River valley. The robust daring of these four men riding their silver bullets seemed a good deal more relevant to the future than what Shere Hite was constructing from her mountain of questionaires.

Not that what she tells us isn't at least intriguing and possibly useful. But rather that our appetites -- at least mine -- for more details on genital preference and practice have been stated by the likes of Alex Comfort, Masters and Johnson, and Gay Talese. What fiction hasn't been able to do, the fact-finders are well on the road to achieving. To paraphrase W. H. Auden's comment on pornography, they're robbing the imagination.

Since whatever you think about The Hite Report on Male Sexuality hangs on how much of it you believe, we should consider Hite's method:

Over a period of five years, partly in support of her Hite Report on Female Sexuality and partly because she was thinking of a sequel, Shere Hite distributed 119,000 13-page questionaires covering 168 topics to men throughout the United States and in unspecified foreign countries. She got back 7,239 responses from men whose ages ranged from 13 to 97. Her respondents seem to follow the profile of the U.S. male population in terms of age, religion, race, marital status and place of residence. Her men were better educated, however. She doesn't report on income level; she doesn't think it's important.

It's worth noting that to get her sample Shere Hite also published her questionnaire in its entirety in Sexology magazine, Penthouse, and Houston Breakthrough, a feminist newspaper. She also asked for and got her participants by means of notes in her two previous books, Sexual Honesty and the earlier Report. Around 30 percent of her respondents come from these sources. The balance came by "mailing large numbers of questionnaires to groups across the country . . . university groups, church groups, and men's discussion groups."

The men who answered questions like these --

64. How often do you masturbate? How do you feel about it? Are you pleased? ashamed? satisfied? Are you secretive or open about it?

70. Do you like the way your genitals look [and Hite continues as if conducting a gastronomical survey]?

134. Who usually orgasms first? You or the woman? During which activity? Do you orgasm when you want to? If not, why? -- with essays on their sexual pleasures and disappointments were high sexual rollers. Hite's selection process made sure she would get big-bang responses. r

Furthermore, her respondents were set up. Question No 96 asks, "How old were you when you had your first gay experience? . . . and No. 119 wants to know, "Do you enjoy cunniglingus with a woman?"

There's no way to argue successfully that the reported sexual behavior of Shere Hite's essay writers is a valid representation of the U.S. male population as a whole. She doesn't even ask them whether they are reporting on first or second marriages.

Hite seems to want authority both ways -- statistically as well as by her "innovation in social science methodology," which I think means intuition. In her 94 pages of appendices, much of which is numbers, she argues that "not being statistically representative is not the same as being non-scientific." Then she goes on to give us statistical responses to her questions, quantifying as she often does in the book to prove she is indeed representative.

Yet Hite's preface suggests the numbers in her book are about as intellectually provocative as the plumbing in my basement:

"This book . . . is not built around comparisons . . . for the simple reason that differences in behavior and attitude . . . seemed to involve more individual character strengths: certain individual men from every age, occupation, and background group seemed to be changing, or to be engaged in thinking more deeply about their lives, than other men in the same group . . . To have built this book around comparisons . . . would have run counter to one of its main purposes: to create a forum in which men can express their views, and in which individual readers can find views they both agree and disagree with -- in addition to stimulating a discussion of the meaning of 'male sexuality' and 'masculinity.'"

What this means is that quantity (objectivity) counts for less than quality (subjectivity) with Shere Hite. This is why her numbers are in the back of the book. It also means that Shere Hite is giving herself permission to turn her thousands of replies into some of the raciests yarns outside Playboy and Penthouse. The book is composed of scores of narratives (running 100 to 2,000 words) supposedly written by her participants. This is what she said she did with the words she received: "As men's replies came in the form of separate responses to many questions, at times one's various responses to different questions had to be pieced together, to present the totality of his statements on a given subject."

If this is all Hite has done, then something even more startling than a boom in cunnilingus is happening among American males. They're all writing exposition like graduates of the Iowa Writers Workshop. And some are skilled enough to compete with W. C. Fields:

"I am thirty-nine, a WASP, I and my wife are respected people in the community. We have been married, happily, for thirteen years. I got married to enjoy my wife, her compatibility, friendship, love, and to have a nice family, which I believe I have. I love my wife deeply and I believe she loves me the same, as we should, according to the Bible. We both believe in extramarital affairs and have them."

No, the professional's voice is everywhere to be heard in The Hite Report on Male Sexuality. Throughout it speaks with the same accent and language skill. Shere Hite believes that "orgasm" is a verb. So do most of her anonymous storytellers. In the huge chapter called "Thirty Men Speak About Their Lives" almost every narrator begins about the same way: "I'm twenty, so I've been single for twenty years. I guess I like it" or "When I was about twelve, for a reason that quite escapes me, most of my fantasies involved anal penetration" or "I am thirty-one years old, 6'4", 190 lbs., brown hair, blue eyes -- married at nineteen for twelve years, and deserted my wife and two kids two years ago in Ohio." The hand of the ghostwriter prevails.

Of course, there's a fascination to Hite's stories of yearning and finding, love and lust, solitude and defeat. It's the fascination of reading my blond neighbor's old love letters or watching a nervous breakdown. It's the fascination of the forbidden, which Andre Malraux said is the requisite of the erotic. And the violation of the forbidden makes books like this one marketable commodities.

Every undertaking acquires high motives en route to completion. Shere Hite wants to break cultural stereotypes, and out of the layers of her stories the dissolving fluids emerge: The vast majority of men (72 percent) have sex outside marriage, feel no guilt, and do it to hold their marriages together. Ninety-nine percent of Hite's men masturbate and about a third find it more satisfying than intercourse. Almost none of her men had close relationships with their fathers. The great majority believed they could form closer friendships with women than with men, and going to bed with a woman clinches the bond; sex means more than only sex.

The near universal complaint of her men (97 percent) was that they didn't have intercourse often enough, although more than half had it two to three times a week. Men engage in oral and anal sex to please their woman almost as often as to please themselves, and there are large percentages, according to Hite, of just about every combination of orifice-and-genital contact you can think of. Men are lonely, unhappy creatures and sex makes them feel better for a while.

Shere Hite's book is a mass of barely digested material. Some chapters have conclusions. Others don't. She raises unanswerable sophomoric questions like "If men have not been so happy sexually, why don't they change?" and "What will the future bring?" and "What do we want to create from here on?" Her syntax goes wild. She writes in cliches. There is a "battle" between the sexes. "There is an essential and unequal difference between men's and women's lives."

Whether Shere Hite began with or ended with her generalizations is impossible to tell. There are three or four: Men like marriage. Men also want more sexual experience with women, but find themselves in adversary relationships with them, probably for cultural reasons. Men have trouble distinguishing between "their own feelings and this massively reinforced [masculine] ideology that pervades the culture." Sexual behavior is near the source of personality. "To discuss sex is to discuss . . . what kind of society we believe in."

While Shere Hite probably supports most of these observations with her survey, what the voices of her book really tell us is that sex in America is burning the mind. We still are not free. But we talk a lot.