"Sometimes," says Shere Hite, a bit archly, "I feel like hitting reporters over the head with my master's thesis."
Never mind that close to 2 million copies of her study of female sexuality, "The Hite Report," are in print. Never mind that it has been written about in every magazine from the New Statesman and Paris Match to Modern romance, that it's being translated into 10 languages, including Portugese, Hebrew, Dutch and Japanese. Never mind even that it received perhaps the ultimate in acceptance when "Otto Preminger told Arthur Godfrey on 'The Merv Griffith Show' that he ought to read it." Shere Hite is still converned, still very concerned in fact, that she be taken seriously.
Sitting in her Watergate Hotel room the day before appearing at the National Town Meeting, Shere Hite suddenly pauses in mid-thought and tells a photographer, "Please don't wait until I smile to take a picturt. My work is very serious. I don't want some silly looking picture." The photographer attempts to reassure her, mentioning other people he's photographed in amiable poses. "They're men," she replies, half-amused. "They can smile."
It is possible to be very wrong about Shere Hite, to see her on TV with the little words "Sex Expert" under her name and think of her as unbending, humorless. She is neither, but getting where she is - at 34 - has been a struggle, not to say a strain, and the marks of it are definitely there.
She is established now in the way she prefers to see herself, as "a queit researcher." She has a contract for a book on male sexuality, due out in 1979, for which she has already received 2,500 questionaire replies from men age 13 to 92. After that comes a book on love, "on what love is, to put it simply," all of which should occupy her for the next 10 years of her life, which is as far ahead as she cares to look at the moment.
Yet when she talks about what her success has meant, she talks with surprising feeling about how "now I can eat regularly and I know I'll be able to eat regularly for a number of years.
And I don't have that horrible lurking feeling whenever I go out of my apartment, the fear that I'll run into my landlord."
It all started, quirkily enough, as a result of some modeling Hite did in 1971, after temporarily abondoning both Columbia University and her doctorate program in the history of ideas.
"i was in a commercial - I did it while throwing up - about 'The Olivetti Woman,' which was about how this typewriter was so smart the girl who used it didn't have to be smart at all. I'd been interested in the woman's movement before, but I thought as a model they'd scoff at me. But when NOW picketed that commercial, I went to see them."
Discussions with her women's group about how nothing they had read about female sexuality made them say "Yes, that's us" led to a preliminary questionnaire which led to responses that were so "electrifying" that she persevered until "The Hite Report," with its from-the-heart replies from 3,000 women, became a reality. And once everyone found out how terribly frank these replies were, dealing with the whole gamut from sexual ecstasy to despair, a best-selling reality as well.
Except it wasn't that easy. Money became an enormous problem and Hite was $35,000 in debt with no assurance she would ever be able to pay it off. "Going three or four years with that kind of debt makes you nervous," she says, still nervous thinking about it. She at some point posed for photographs that were recently resuscitated by Playboy and Hustler and about which she refuses to comment. She borrowed money on her credit card and from banks. A doorman of a neighborhood building she'd talked to at night while walking her dog ended up giving her a good chunk of his life savings, and one friend even "put on his best suit, went down to the bank to ask for money, and when they seemed a little reluctant, said, 'I'm getting married, you have to give me this loan.'" They did.
So it turns out that the best way to look at Shere Hite has not that much to do with clinical typres like Masters and Johnson. Think of lonely garrets, of people out to change the world, of Karl Marx, even. Think of Shere Hite as a searcher after perfection, a Utopian.
This is why letter written in response to her book, to her key finding that intercourse is an ineffective way for women to achieve orgasm, have been so important to her. "I've got drawers full of these great letters, thousands of them, saying 'Oh yes, I'm gonna explain it to him, we're gonna change', she says. "I just felt gratified, I don't know what the word would be. It's important to ask these questions, to get people thinking about society.
"Because we can change. The idea that 'It's always been that way, human nature is rotten, blah, blah, blah,' well I don't think that's really true.Utopians are what conservative historians call people who believe in social change. They say 'They tried it in Russia, see what happened, so get out your flags, this is the best country in the world, you can do anything in want, except you can't fornicate in certain ways."
Viewing things from this angle, Hite shrugs off the critism that her methodology, hre ways of choosing the women who responded to her questionaire, may be suspect.
"People thought it was going to be another Kinsey report, but I never intended it to be a survey, poor Kinsey had a whole book written about him, about how his wasn't a valid survey, and he died an early death from all those attacks. I don't think that's the point. The idea was to ask a lot of women how they felt and see what they had to say. Everyone should draw their own conclusions; I drew mine."
"It's much harder for what a woman does to be taken seriously, expectations, assumptions are different. When people say 'It's not scientific, what they really mean is 'You're not a man, you're not wearing a white coat. It's just women talking, that's nowhere, that's not scientific, not Important with a capital I.'"
Yet despite all this, despite her survey's findings about faked sexual responses and years of marital unhappiness, Hite, ever Utopian, considers her book not only depressing but even "joyous." And though it has been criticized as a mechanistic view of sex, she points out that the women she talked to "were crying to the hills against mechanical sex.
"I thought it was very positive" all those women having negative experiencesand still loving all thoe men."