“I’M NOT TRYING to give her sole credit for the discovery of the clitoris, but she really changed the public dialogue in a way that was profound,” says Oscar-nominated producer and director Nicole Newnham of Shere Hite, the subject of her new documentary. “The way she looked and dressed and acted was as revolutionary, and as important in some ways, as the work she did.”
In 1976, the former Columbia graduate school student published The Hite Report, a qualitative survey of more than 3,000 American women with questions such as “Do you think that sex is in any way political?” and “Do you ever fake orgasms?” In The New York Times, Erica Jong wrote that Hite laid out “how sex really is right now.” Her work, which promoted more fluid conceptions of gender, vaulted Hite into the public eye—Oprah, Maury Povich, the nightly news—often opposite famous (and skeptical) men. A young David Hasselhoff dissolves in stutters as Hite, all apricot curls and black lace, smokes coolly beside him. Yet “there’s a disappearance of feminist knowledge, systematically,” says Hite’s peer, National Women’s Health Network cofounder Phyllis Chesler, in the film. By her death in 2020, Hite had largely faded from the American consciousness.
The Disappearance of Shere Hite (opening in select theaters November 17th), in which executive producer Dakota Johnson gives voice to her writings, summons her back. In Hite’s days as a conflicted model, her Modigliani features glow in Playboy and reference shots for the 1971 Diamonds Are Forever poster. After The Hite Report she bought an Upper East Side apartment, where she hosted gatherings attended by Gloria Steinem, Donna Summer, Flo Kennedy, and Gene Simmons. She preferred Rachmaninoff to the Rolling Stones and printed surveys in ink that matched her vermillion nails.
America, though, was not quite ready for Hite, who eventually decamped to Europe (where photographers embraced her multigenre maximalism) following backlash to the 1981 The Hite Report on Male Sexuality, which its editor, Robert Gottlieb, called one of the saddest reads of his life. The Disappearance shows a Harvard lecture attendee prodding Hite about old nude photos, and on Oprah, an audience of men excoriate an embittered Hite for her methods. (After, she went to Oprah’s favorite thrift shop as consolation.) “What really scares peo- ple,” reads a Guardian review of her 2000 autobiography, The Hite Report on Shere Hite, “is the fact that she is a beautiful, clever, sexy, self-made woman.”
Are we ready now? “Ideas that were so radical and scared people so much about Shere’s work have become internalized by younger people, especially,” Newnham says. Fall fashion embodies Hite’s range, from Miu Miu’s staid glasses plus underwear as pants to Rokh’s deconstructed office garb. Ongoing assaults on bodily autonomy may demand a louche counterpoint.
In one scene from the film, Hite lounges on her pink brocade couch and kicks off her heels as Johnson’s velvety narration plays over “directions” Hite once wrote against becoming “a stereotyped creation of your society.” They include “Don’t laugh at any of your desires…. Rely on your own financial resources…. Enjoy yourself. A lot.”