Shere Hite became an international sensation with 1976’s The Hite Report on Female Sexuality, a tome based on over 3,000 questionnaires filled out by anonymous women about their sexual lives—with a particular concentration on their feelings, experiences, and habits regarding orgasms. It was an attempt to comprehend a subject that had long been taboo, and it caused a firestorm, leading to enormous sales and media attention, celebrity and censure for Hite, and subsequent books that led to a fierce backlash that drove the author out of the U.S.
Consequently, The Disappearance of Shere Hite is the story of a trailblazer who sought to confront forbidden topics and, for doing so, was herself suppressed—a fact that’s underscored by her relative obscurity today, and which Crip Camp director Nicole Newnham’s documentary seeks to rectify.
Executive produced and narrated by Dakota Johnson, The Disappearance of Shere Hite (debuting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival) is a stab at both restoring Hite’s influential feminist legacy and, in the process, continuing her work by promoting open and honest dialogue about private things that supposedly must not be acknowledged aloud. In a clip from a 2006 episode of The Colbert Report, the comedian remarks that the word “vagina” will have to be bleeped from the broadcast, and it’s a humorous joke that strikes at the heart of Hite’s research. The Hite Report was a controversial hit because it frankly grappled with female anatomy and sexuality, compiling answers from a wide range of diverse female respondents to paint a picture of how women felt about their bodies, pleasure, and satisfaction.
Preceding books from the research team of Masters and Johnson had already made the case that women had orgasms primarily through clitoral stimulation. The big takeaway from The Hite Report, however, was that—contrary to Masters and Johnson’s findings—most of that stimulation took place not through intercourse but, rather, through masturbation and oral sex. Even amid the 1970s feminist movement, this was refreshingly heady stuff to be talking about in public, and it turned Hite into a nationally known figure. The Disappearance of Shere Hite is awash in clips of its subject speaking with Merv Griffin, Tom Snyder, and countless other reporters about her conclusions. What comes through is her fearless candidness and, also, the way in which she projected it in order to normalize basic facets of human life that had been deemed unmentionable by the status quo.
The Disappearance of Shere Hite asserts that Hite’s persona wasn’t a performance; from her early days struggling to make ends meet as a NYC model while studying for her PhD in social history at Columbia University (an institution she left because it was too stuffy for her liking), she’d been a free spirit who sought to have serious intellectual conversations about matters of great cultural, political, and emotional importance. Ultimately, she found that by immersing herself in the emergent women’s movement, where she got the idea to create a questionnaire about female views on sex. Printing them on her own via a mimeograph, she spent five years compiling her evidence, all while collecting a coterie of friends and lovers who lent her money that she gratefully paid back once she hit it big. Many of them appear in Newnham’s documentary, and the effusive love, admiration, and praise they have for her is palpable.
With a mane of fiery strawberry blonde hair and a fondness for glamorous clothes and ornate decorative objects—her post-success NYC apartment resembled, as neighbor Gene Simmons remarks, a baroque palazzo—Hite cut a dashing figure that she wasn’t afraid to show off, and her physical beauty was matched by her self-assurance. She was a bohemian with an academic’s thirst for knowledge and understanding (which she hoped would better society). Following her initial best-seller, she embarked on a follow-up, The Hite Report on Men and Male Sexuality, and it was at this point in her career that things began to take a turn. The book’s bombshell was that more than 70 percent of married men have affairs, and moreover, that—as Alfred A. Knopf publisher Bob Gottlieb remembers—many of them were deeply lonely, scared, and unfulfilled.
Suffice it to say, men did not take kindly to being told how they felt and what they thought, especially from the poised, striking Hite. Criticism mounted, often centered on Hite’s methodology and punctuated by condescending jabs about her Playboy-modeling past. The situation only got worse with 1987’s Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress, which revealed that 75 percent of women were committing adultery. Faced with denunciations from men and a rising moral-majority right-wing, Hite was put on the constant defensive, and as is depicted in The Disappearance of Shere Hite, that climaxed with public meltdowns on TV (including with Maury Povich on A Current Affair) that rendered her a volatile, hysterical-woman joke who could be easily dismissed.
Director Newnham’s film is an effort to repair Hite’s status as a pioneer for tolerance and sincere discussion, using a wealth of archival clips and interviews with friends and colleagues who remember her as a uniquely vibrant and flamboyant individual who mesmerized and intrigued everyone who entered her orbit. With Johnson reading numerous passages from Hite’s writing (some of which simultaneously appear on screen), The Disappearance of Shere Hite assumes a rather standard non-fiction form. Still, its alternately sharp and dreamy pacing captures the duality of Hite, who could be both formidably forceful and entrancingly ethereal.
Though there are times when the material could be tighter, Newnham’s latest film is a compelling celebration of the revolutionary Hite, who passed away in 2020 from illness after years living abroad with her husband, German concert pianist Friedrich Höricke. Despite the wild success of The Hite Report—which Newsweek claims is the 30th best-selling book of all time—her final works weren’t even published in the United States, and her reputation has largely vanished. In that regard, The Disappearance of Shere Hite is also a corrective, returning her to the spotlight and following in her footsteps by engaging in plainspoken conversations about the vagina, the clitoris, and the many ways in which they provide gratification.