Shere Hite Dies; Her Work Lives

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          Shere Hite, one of history’s most influential sexologists, died this week at age 77.

          Hite published her books of interviews in 1976 (on female sexuality) and 1981 (on male sexuality). The bombshell results of her interviews with some 10,000 Americans included:

* Most women don’t orgasm from intercourse alone.
* The clitoris is the primary sexual organ for a majority of women.
* Many men and women have their most satisfying orgasms from masturbation or oral sex, rather than intercourse.
* Many women’s sexual desire is limited by their frustration with how they are treated in their primary relationship.

          All of these were big news at the time. In the 1960s, Masters & Johnson had launched the field of sex therapy with a relentless focus on intercourse, and so Hite’s challenging insights were extremely valuable. They enabled people to talk about sex as it really was, rather than feeling incompetent that they couldn’t create “ideal sex.” Her straightforward points really were the keys to women’s satisfaction that the world had been fitfully pursuing since, well, forever. 

          As women’s groups across the country talked about the long-lost clitoris, and accurate drawings of women’s vulvas circulated, Hite became a worldwide celebrity—and the target of vicious campaigns to discredit her, from Newsweek to the Washington Post to Playboy, not to mention the anti-feminist Right.

          Somehow her messages about female sexual pleasure, including her disclosure that many women masturbated, were twisted by the press (and Reagan-era Moral Majority women) into an anti-male screed. As a rookie sexologist, I watched this happen, baffled. This is such great information, I remember thinking. Oral sex, fingers, and vibrators didn’t just liberate women from sexual pressure and frustration—they liberated men, too.  

          And they still do. I’ve trained tens of thousands of marriage counselors since the two Hite Reports were published, and facts about the clitoris, female orgasm, what isn’t a sexual dysfunction, and no-you-can’t-get-addicted-to-a-vibrator are still big news to many of them. That’s true for their patients, just as it’s true for mine. That’s why I train my students, when faced with a woman or couple dismayed that she’s “non-orgasmic,” to ask “from what activities are you expecting to orgasm?” 

           And so obituaries stating that Hite challenged what men thought about female sexuality are incomplete. Hite also challenged what women thought about female sexuality, too.

          Hite influenced every sex therapist of my generation. This includes Lonnie Barbach’s work on “pre-orgasmic” women, Bernie Zilbergeld’s work de-emphasizing erection, and other giants who created today’s field of sex therapy, such as Sandra Leiblum, Michael Perelman, Stan Althof, Julia Heiman, and Leonore Tiefer.

          This was 30 and 40 years ago. Some things have changed: many women now shave or wax their pubic hair, making oral sex (and masturbation) easier. You can now buy vibrators in Wal-Mart and through Amazon, whereas back then you couldn’t even advertise them in magazines (not even Ms.). Most women and men now believe that women deserve to have orgasms.

          But plenty has not changed. The clitoris rarely appears in school sex education. For couples who have sex only in the dark, its location—and even its existence—can be a mystery. I still get couples wanting therapy for the woman’s “orgasm problem”—which often turns out to be an over-reliance on intercourse, combined with lack of attention to the clitoris and insufficient communication. As my colleague Lonnie Barbach used to say, “The most important sentence in English may be ‘a quarter of an inch to the left, please.’”

          Unfortunately, what also has not changed is that sexual information that contradicts political agendas is often attacked—along with its messenger. Accurate school sex education reduces sexual problems—but local citizens and governments refuse to allow it. Pornography doesn’t increase crime, divorce, or sexual dysfunction, but activists continue to spread lies about it, and quack “porn addiction” treatment programs are increasing. And when scientists carefully document the facts about transgender lives—how transitioning doesn’t always increase life satisfaction, and how there’s a clear pattern of social contagion driving it among young women (as with cutting and bulimia)—those scientists are attacked, de-platformed, and told their data are “hurtful.”

          In 1995 the pressure on Hite in America was so intense, and so personal, that she renounced her U.S. citizenship and spent the rest of her life in Europe. If Hite were doing her groundbreaking work today, frightened people would use Facebook and Twitter to damage her and destroy her work.

          In 1999 I spent an afternoon walking with Hite, who endorsed my third book: “The best guide for thinking for yourself about sex,” she wrote for the cover. I was thrilled. (The book, unfortunately, disappeared as quickly as snow flurries in late-spring sunshine.) I thanked her for changing so many, many lives, and sympathized about the way she’d been misunderstood and reviled. She was stoic about it—maybe numb by then. I never spoke with or saw her again.

          You and I are better off for her persistence, and her willingness to endure years of emotional abuse in defense of her data.  

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