Author Shere Hite wrote a bestselling book in 1976 entitled “The Hite Report.” Her G-Spot research rocked America and provided an entry point for conversations about gender, sexuality, bodily autonomy and female empowerment. The biggest revelation of “The Hite Report” concerned the need for clitoral stimulation for most women to achieve orgasm, with or without penetration. Men seemed to take it as a warning that they might become obsolete, since women could bring themselves to orgasm through masturbation alone.
She followed her book about female sexuality with a book on male sexuality. This one was not as well-received, especially by the men of America. Additionally, in a continuing series of “I don’t get no respect” Rodney Dangerfield moments, Hite had to sue her publisher (McMillan) to be paid her $250,000 salary.
Once her history of modeling and a “Playboy” gig came to light, her credentials as a graduate student at Columbia were discounted and her investigative methods were criticized. The women’s movement was in full swing; the backlash was ferocious. (I remember wearing my ERA bracelet, but the Phyllis Schaflys and the Anita Bryants managed to deep-six the ERA.) Hite said that her original impetus for writing the book was inspired by her own study of the Enlightenment as a graduate student at Columbia. She added that she hoped to take on male institutions and try to make a cultural change
Although Hite’s news conference (exactly 47 years ago on 9/30/76) announcing her first book led to “The Hite Report” becoming the 30th best-selling book of all time, with 20 million copies sold in 36 countries and translated into 19 languages, over time she would be marginalized by the literary establishment and, ultimately, flee the country to live in Paris, London, and Germany with her German husband.
Then, she disappeared, says documentary filmmaker Nicole Newnham in this 116 minute film which screened at the 52nd Nashville Film Festival on Saturday, September 30, 2023. Among other executive producers, the name Dakota Johnson stands out, Johnson re-recorded Ms. Hite’s words. Ms, Newnham attributed Johnson’s involvement to two factors: (1) Dakota Johnson was a longtime Shere Hite fan and (2) Ms. Newnham’s manager knew Dakota Johnson’s agent. Even the NBC News involvement was a moment of serendippity, as Newnham—fresh from an Oscar nomination in 2021 for “Crip Camp”—had a conversation with NBC executives that led to her involvement, joining others already working on the project.
The film screened on the third day of the Nashville Film Festival. I remembered Hite as presenting as a bit of a kook during her ubiquitous 70s and 80s television appearances, but you can judge for yourself by watching the interview with David Hasselhoff on Mike Douglas’s talk show after the publication of her 1982 book “On Male Sexuality.” Flamboyant was the term chosen by one old friend.
Hite’s books on human sexuality were groundbreaking. The original Hite Report was unavailable for decades, until a reprint issued in 2003 (with an introduction by Hite herself.) Amazon described the original book this way: “One hundred thousand women, ages fourteen to seventy-eight, were asked what they do and don’t like about sex; how orgasm really feels, with and without intercourse; how it feels not to have an orgasm during sex; the importance of clitoral stimulation and masturbation; and to name the greatest pleasures and frustrations of their sexual lives, among many other questions.
The Hite Report declares that orgasm is easy and strong for women, given the right stimulation; that most women have orgasm most easily during masturbation or clitoral stimulation by hand; that sex as we define it is a cultural institution, not a biological one; and that attitudes must change to include the stimulation women desire.” The documentary goes on to point out that there was not even a word for clitoral stimulation for decades, as information was suppressed for generations. As the documentary states, “We (females) have been adjusting our bodies to male sexuality for centuries.”
Several films here at the festival (including “Another Body,” which I took in last night) suggest that attitudes towards gender are changing, but there is much evidence that barriers are still omnipresent. One needs only reference the recent Supreme Court decision rolling back abortion rights or Tommy Tuberville’s opposition to approving military appointments, primarily because the military paid for its members to travel to states that provide either abortion, or, in many cases, states that provide fertility treatments and gender reassignment surgery. I’m a resident of Illinois; it’s safe to say that Chicago is far more a mecca for such visits than Nashville or Austin (Tx.)
While Director Newnham in her interview (above) suggests that “the times, they are a-changing,” real-life blowback suggests that old habits die hard. The blowback eventually caused Hite to leave the country with her German husband and to renounce her United States citizenship in 1995. She died in 2020 at the age of 77, virtually unknown to today’s generation of women. Her flamboyant mannerisms and dress and openness about sexuality made her a marked woman. The criticism, said several personal friends, got to her. Criticism and male opposition to statements in her second book mounted and her later writing was not even bid on by the big publishers in the United States. If you are a writer and cannot publish in the United States and are “doxed” publicly because of your openness to liberal sexual beliefs in a time when the Reverend Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham and Anita Bryant are the public’s favorites, Europe becomes a haven, just as it was for Jackie Kennedy after the assassination of JFK, when she married Aristotle Onassis, partially to keep her family safe.
When even a 50-year law of the land can be undone by a minority that wants things to go back “the way they were,” it is difficult to endorse the thought that we are moving forward and making progress in our attitudes towards sexuality. This film is timely for bringing the entire subject out in the open, but are we moving forward or are we going backwards? It reminds me of the bad joke about not needing a Time Machine; we can just buy a ticket to Florida or Texas. (Kudos to the Nashville Film Festival for allowing films with viewpoints that some consider radical to screen, so that informed individuals can make up their own minds.)
Cinematographer for the nearly two-hour documentary was Rose Bush (another name that leaped out at me). Watching the trailer (above) I became aware that Rose Bush, the cinematographer, is a trans woman. I went to college with a woman named Rose Bush who actually had a brother (wait for it) named Thorn. No, that is not a joke. It’s the truth. Initially, I wondered if the Rose Bush from the University of Iowa had gone into filmmaking. Then I wondered why the transgender Rose Bush chose that name. (But, then, I always wondered why the parents of Rose and Thorn went that route, too.)
Director Newnham was nominated for an Oscar in 2021 for her documentary “Crip Camp.” She mentions bringing in top-notch filmmakers to help her project and connecting, fortuitously, with NBC, which was planning a project on Ms. Hite after her obituary set off interest in the nearly-forgotten researcher, who was ubiquitous on talk shows of the day. (See example below).
Director Newnham talks about “growing up in the seventies” and how it gave her a perspective on Sherri Hite that younger filmmakers—never having heard of the woman—didn’t have. Editors who worked on the project were in their thirties, fifties and seventies, so all generations of women were represented. Since I’ve been reviewing since 1970 and grew up in the decades prior to the seventies, I’ve lived through an even broader stretch of history. It is helpful for me to help gain perspective, both on film(s) I review and on life. Maturity made the Opening Night Film about Gloria Gaynor’s resurgence as a performing artist at the age of 80 particularly meaningful, having lived through the disco era.
Director Nicole Newnham, in a Q&A following the film, said that she has projects upcoming on other women who disappeared (one from the Renaissance) and that her previous films were not so obviously feminist. She considers “The Disappearance of Sheri Hite” as an artistic turning point for her future work. “I think I’ve always had it in me, but I’m glad to have it back.” She shared with the audience that Ms. Hite, who died of a degenerative nerve disease in 2020 after several years of poor health, left copious notes that the filmmakers followed.
“She had listed those she wanted to play her, if a movie were ever done about her life and she had lists of her favorite songs and her own personal color palate (aqua and rose). Although the filmmakers were never able to meet the woman herself, she shared that, “We were obsessed with it. We just loved it. We loved her.” She cited the fashion sense of the former model and her message for women, which was, “Each individual should be able to decide how to share their body with another person.”
This documentary was a tremendous accomplishment, with a truly outstanding soundtrack, composed of songs that were Sheri Hite’s personal favorites, like Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto or his No. 2 Op18 or Chopin. The music used to enhance the film’s various moments was particularly effective, with kudos to Music Editor Porsteinn Evford and additional music, scoring and score production by Paul Koch.
The entire 2 hour film was informative, educational, and thought-provoking, I hope to receive answers to some specific questions from Nicole Newnham, once formulated, which will appear here in a future article.