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‘The Disappearance of Shere Hite’ review: A vivid portrait of a female orgasm pioneer

The books about sex by author and social scientist Shere Hite were publishing phenomena in the 1970s and 1980s. Like Alex Comfort’s bestselling erotic “cookbook”. The joy of sex, her monographs seemed ubiquitous at the time, especially in master bedrooms where readers could use them as informative, topical works of popular social science that also happened to double as bedside erotic reading. The books on male and female sexuality contain thousands of micro-stories, observations and confessions written by the many respondents who anonymously completed her questionnaires. That meant readers in those pages found reassurance that there were others out there who felt and experienced sex the same way they did, and that being “different” was perfectly normal. Arguably no one did more than, say, Hite to dismantle the myth, propounded by Sigmund Freud, among others, that “clitoral orgasms” were somehow inferior to “vaginal” ones. Clitoris all over the world should rise to greet her in gratitude.

But, as director Nicole Newnham’s new documentary points out, today Hite is surprisingly not the household name you might expect given her first major work, The hit Report on female sexuality (1976), remains one of the best-selling non-fiction books of all time. The disappearance of Shere Hite ponders this paradox, and while somewhat annoyingly it doesn’t fully explain why or to what extent Hite “disappeared” from public view in the decades before her death in 2020, it paints a vivid portrait of a complex, fascinating woman.

The disappearance of Shere Hite

It comes down to

A clever tribute to a fascinating woman.

Born into a simple Midwestern family, she eventually married a German concert pianist and led a glamorous itinerant lifestyle in Europe. A once model who was also a staunch feminist, a shy character who could be a fierce debater, a diligent researcher but with a fantastic bohemian dress sense, Hite really contained crowds.

After its premiere at Sundance, the film is sure to be programmed at many subsequent festivals, just like Newnham’s previous Academy Award-nominated feature. Crip Camp, which she co-directed with James LeBrecht. In terms of publicity, it doesn’t hurt that one of the film’s executive producers is actor Dakota Johnson, who also performs the excerpts of Hite’s writing heard in the film. It’s certainly only a matter of time before someone starts raising money for a biopic.

Like with Crip Campher feature on the rise of the disability rights movement, seen through the eyes of alumni of a specific summer camp for disabled children, Newnham finds in Hite’s personal story a microcosm of the rise of second and third wave feminism in the mid-20se century. The story begins with Hite’s arrival in New York to work on her doctorate in social history and immediately encounters misogynistic, class-based prejudice. Some professors saw the high standard of her work and refused to believe it was composed by a woman with a degree from the University of Florida. Needing money, like any graduate student, she turned to modeling and was cast for commercial photo shoots and hired to model for illustrators. They both appear to be leggy women in a poster made for the James Bond movie Diamonds are forever were modeled after Hite, who also did nude photo shoots Playboy and other men’s magazines.

The fact that Hite was so comfortable in her own skin and willing to acknowledge and celebrate her natural sensuality put her at the forefront of the sexual revolution. It’s all starting to seem like a stretch with her having fun in her private life with lovers of both sexes (some interviewed here). Meanwhile with the first Hit reportshe wasn’t afraid to contradict the orthodoxy of the time with her research pointing to the fact that many women masturbated frequently and found it difficult to orgasm from regular heterosexual penetrative sex.

The painstaking archival research by Newnham and her team yields footage of Hite parrying with (almost always male) critics of her findings, who refused to believe their own wives, mothers and daughters could be so rowdy. Later on, the confrontations get trickier and trickier, which partially explains why Hite ‘disappeared’. A quick search on a search engine reveals that she had a degenerative neurological disease near the end of her life, which may provide a partial answer to her withdrawal from public life.

But that would have been a depressing note to end on, and would have done nothing to diminish the image the film tries to build for Hite as a feminist heroine, practically tortured for telling the truth. It’s a shame that the doc deviates from hagiography in the last act, leaving almost no room for an assessment of what might be problematic about her research – questions that can be raised without diluting the meaning of the work in general . But maybe they’ll get to those issues in the biopic.

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