“All too many men still seem to believe, in a rather naive and egocentric way, that what feels good to them is automatically what feels good to women.”
Such terse pronouncements made Shere Hite – a sex researcher who died this week at the age of 77 – both a feminist hero and a controversial figure in 1970s America.
Her pioneering work The Hite Report upended prevailing notions about female sexuality.
The book, which came out in 1976, laid out the views of 3,500 women on sexuality and the female orgasm. It challenged many male assumptions, and was derided by some, including Playboy, which dubbed it the “Hate Report”.
She endured intense and lasting criticism in the US, and eventually renounced her American citizenship in 1995.
Born Shirley Gregory in the conservative heartland US state of Missouri, she once worked as a model in New York.
To pay for her degree at Columbia University she appeared in a typewriter advert that capitalised on her blonde hair and attractive looks with the caption: “The typewriter that’s so smart that she doesn’t have to be.”
Her anger over its sexism inspired her to join protests against it.
At one meeting of the National Organization for Women, Hite said the topic of whether all women had orgasms came up. There was silence until someone suggested she look into the topic.
The Hite Report: A National Study of Female Sexuality became a huge international bestseller, totalling 50 million copies worldwide.
Thousands of contributors set out the pleasures and frustrations of their sexual lives in the work. More than 70% of the women interviewed said they could not reach orgasm through penetrative sex with men alone, and needed clitoral stimulus to reach climax.
“I was the only sex researcher at the time who was feminist,”she told the Guardian in 2011. “I tried to extend the idea of sexual activity to female orgasm and masturbation.”
Feminist writer Julie Bindel said that Shere Hite’s “groundbreaking” work “put women’s sexual pleasure first and foremost for the first time ever”.
“In many ways she began the real sexual revolution for women,” she told the Guardian.
But the work generated a huge backlash. Some accused her of hating men, while others said she was helping break apart families at a time of rising divorce rates.
The controversy around the Hite Report and her later works – for which she received death threats – caused her to leave the US and move to Europe, spending time in Germany and the UK. She renounced her US citizenship in 1995.
“After a decade of sustained attacks on myself and my work, particularly my ‘reports’ into female sexuality, I no longer felt free to carry out my research to the best of my ability in the country of my birth,”she wrote in the New Statesman in 2003.
Her husband, Paul Sullivan, told the Washington Post that she had the rare neurological disorder corticobasal degeneration. She died at her home in north London on Wednesday.
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