The Reappearance of Shere Hite — Documentary Film Review

Shere Hite in Nicole New nham’s THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE. Courtesy of NBC News Studios. An IFC Films release
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I don’t know, or much care, if the producers of the new documentary, “The Disappearance of Shere Hite,” had hoped to attract an audience through the title’s misleading implication that it’s one of those wildly popular true-crime documentaries that infest Netflix and other streaming services.  But I would imagine that a great many people would assume this to be the case, being unaware of Hite’s actual fame as a sex researcher and author of the influential Hite Report, or that she died a natural death at the relatively advanced age of 77 in her adopted continent, Europe.

Shere Hite in Nicole Newnham ’s THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE Courtesy of Iris Bosch . An IFC Films release

The title actually refers to Hite’s near-total disappearance from the cultural conversation since her heyday in the 1970s, when she played a pioneering role in the then-nascent modern feminist movement, in particular with her research-based revelations about the female orgasm and women’s unhappiness with men and married life.

Hite was pretty, though not really movie-star gorgeous, but she was incredibly photogenic, and she worked frequently as a model to support herself — including an appearance as a Bond girl on the movie poster for Diamonds are Forever.  She was also extremely hard working, confident and fearless, and yet appealingly soft-spoken and even-tempered, at least in her early interviews.  All of these qualities helped propel her to exalted cultural status and her book, The Hite Report, to the pinnacle of sales success; that book alone sold approximately 50 million copies.  She also published about a dozen other books, many of which were also widely discussed, especially a companion volume on male sexuality.

A still from The Disappearance of Shere Hite by Nicole Newnham, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Mike Wilson

The real secret to Hite’s success was actually fairly simple: She stated something very obvious that many people already knew, but few if any were willing to talk about openly — that most women are unable to achieve orgasm through vaginal intercourse alone.  To discover a book that told women that other women were a lot like them was undoubtedly hugely revelatory at a time when sex was talked about less openly than it is today, and at a time when many women had been long struggling with the the lonely feeling that “it’s only me; there must be something wrong with me” when they failed to reach orgasm during intercourse, or were ashamed to masturbate, or felt empty and neglected in their marriages.

Hite also stated the obvious about men — that they too, just like women, have feelings.  That’s a message that many today, men and women alike, have trouble accepting.  (Among Hite’s other books was The Hite Report on Male Sexuality, which also was a big seller, but never achieved the cultural influence or notoriety of its distaff counterpart.)

Shere Hite in Nicole Newnham’s THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE. Courtesy of Mike Wilson. An IFC Films release

The Disappearance of Shere Hite, ably directed by Nicole Newnham, takes advantage of what appears to have been veritable mountains of archival footage.  The amount and quality of the visual documentation is extremely impressive, but not surprising considering that Hite was not only a successful model but a ubiquitous media personality.  

In addition to Newnham, plaudits are due to editor Eileen Meyer, who assembled the vast amount of visuals into a sleek and engaging two-hour movie.  Dakota Johnson, who provides the narration — including reading Hite’s own words — was an ideal choice; her gentle-sounding voice is a good match for Hite’s own.  

Hite’s equable demeanor was sorely tested over the years by attacks from critics of all types.  Some assailed her research methodology, since she relied on qualitative research in the form of extensive written surveys, rather than quantitatively based telephone surveys.  The requirement to fill out extensive handwritten surveys guaranteed that her return rate would be low, but as she points out to interlocutors several times in the documentary, not many women would be willing to talk about their sex lives and their inability to orgasm on the phone in the kitchen while their husbands waited for dinner in the living room.   Sampling bias was another point of controversy; as some critics reasonably noted, her surveys were bound to be skewed towards those women who were sexually frustrated, because sexually contented women wouldn’t be particularly motivated to fill out a multi-page survey. 

Hite’s own sex life appeared, at least on the basis of this documentary, to be relatively conventional, and she seems to have been mostly spared attacks of a personal nature.  Indeed, she seemed well-liked, as the testimony of old friends and boyfriends in the documentary appear to attest.  

Still, the incessant critiques of her putatively “unscientific” approach to research seemed to have taken a toll.  As one of the interview subjects notes, “(Hite) wanted to get her message across.  She wanted press, but she wanted to control it, which is the old conundrum.  It’s what everyone wants and is almost impossible to achieve.”   

Shere Hite in Nicole Newnham’s THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE. Courtesy of Irish Brosch. An IFC Films release

Thus, later in her career, nettled by aggressive questioning, she stalked out on several interviews (this footage is seen in the documentary).  In these and other interviews, you can see in Hite’s eyes how much the negative and sometimes clueless tone of certain lines of questioning hurt her, but one can’t help but feel that she was a bit naive.  One doesn’t sell 50 million books on any subject without courting at least some criticism and controversy — just ask J.K. Rowling — much less one on the delicate topic of human sexuality, much less one that states rather baldly something that very few men wanted to hear, that traditional intercourse wasn’t getting the job done for most women.

One wonders how well a modern-day Hite would have handled the 24/7 battle zone of social media and the far more fraught feminism of the 21st century, its split into warring camps, its awkward engagement with the faddish doctrine of inter-sectionalism, and its concomitant abandonment of what once were firmly held and clearly articulated principles such as “believe all women.”  Be that as it may, Hite eventually renounced her U.S. citizenship and moved to Europe with her second husband, stating that she found European society more open-minded and accepting.  

This, then, was her “disappearance” — merely a disengagement with American society and with large-scale publicity campaigns.  There was, as it turns out, nothing particularly tragic about her life before her final illness; she was in fact astoundingly successful.  Just like nearly all successful people, however, she eventually faded from the scene.  Not however, without having helped countless women (and men, too) embrace their sexuality and their feelings.  Many of her books, all these years on, are still in print.  And now we have this very fine and engaging documentary to bring Shere Hite’s life and work to a new generation, one that plausibly has its own share of sexual confusions. 

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