The Hite Report (1976): A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality

Shere Hite is one of the most influential and controversial figures in sociology scholarship of the last half century. It won’t be an exaggeration to suggest that she is one of the most quoted authors in feminist scholarship; and her most famous work The Hite Report is even popular among lay readers. The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality was published in 1976. This was followed by The Hite Report on Male Sexuality in 1981 and The Hite Report on the Family in 1994. She is seen as an inspiration and role model for many feminist activists and writers for offering them radical new insights into female sexuality in western society. It is for the same reason that she is ostracized and attacked by conservative sections of western society, especially within the United States. Yet, there is no doubt that her contribution is quite significant in the context of the growth of sociology as a field.

A prominent feature of the report is its sprawling style of documenting, which some have criticized for being disorganized, lacking in rigor and being repetitious. Yet, all of these charges can be proved incorrect upon closer scrutiny. Admittedly, her methodology was not as sophisticated as far as modern research methods go. Yet, she tried to make it as comprehensive as possible, by presenting subjects (women) with a detailed questionnaire asking them how they had orgasms. She distributed the questionnaire through post to all places within New York City at first. Later she sent out questionnaires to all across the country. On the whole, she followed an elaborate procedure starting from the first stage of conception and compilation of the questionnaire. This comprehensiveness is also evident in her endeavor to circulate the questionnaire to tens of thousands of subjects all across the country, as well as in the systematic compilation and study of responses she received via post. (Mckee, 1998, p.40)

To illustrate why the report appears repetitious at places, let us consider one of the questions in the questionnaire circulated to women participants: “Do you enjoy masturbating?” Hite’s objective is not to get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, but to rather qualitatively assess the act of female masturbation. According to the findings of the report, “Most women said they enjoyed masturbation physically (after all, it did lead to orgasm), but usually not psychologically…Psychologically, they felt lonely, guilty, unwanted, selfish, silly, and generally bad. Other words that were frequently used included uncomfortable, adrift, uneasy, pathetic, ashamed, empty, cheap, dirty, self-centered, silly, disgusted and self-conscious.” (The Hite Report, 1976, p.53) Some of the adjectives in this list might come across as repetitious, but they do bring out subtle differences in how women perceive and experience masturbation. Moreover, the surprising findings of the report serves as a justification for the excess detail presented therein:

“What she found, from the 3,500 women who replied, was that most women were not able to have orgasms through intercourse alone. What she deduced was that the definition of ‘sex’ as intercourse was ‘sexist’ because it was orientated around reproduction and men’s pleasure rather than women’s. She said intercourse should not be considered ‘the’ sex act, but just one way of making love out of many. This was 24 years ago and such has been the impact of her research that it seems a bit trite and obvious now.” (Ind, 2000, p.15)

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