Shere Hite's 1976 book uncovered the secrets of the female orgasm — then she disappeared
A new documentary tells the story of the groundbreaking feminist sex researcher
This interview is part of CBC Arts's coverage of the 2023 Hot Docs Festival.
In September 2020, astute readers of The New York Times would have come across the obituary of Shere Hite, the feminist sex researcher.
For two readers in particular, the obit sparked questions. One was director Nicole Newnham, who remembers discovering and devouring her mother's copy of The Hite Report — Hite's scandalous 1976 book about the female orgasm. The other was the director of development at NBC's documentary division, Erica Fink, who had never heard of Hite or her book.
Newnham tells CBC Arts that she had long been curious about Hite's disappearance from public life, while Fink had the opposite reaction — wanting to know, "How did Shere Hite get kept from me?"
They both thought that Hite's life would make a good documentary, with Newnham assuming that Hollywood would jump on this opportunity. But none did. So when Fink and her team approached Newnham to make a documentary about Hite, she immediately said yes.
The result is The Disappearance of Shere Hite, which made its international premiere at the 30th annual Hot Docs Festival in Toronto.
Hite was both hated and revered from the minute The Hite Report hit the shelves. The book analyzed 6,000 surveys from American women about their sex lives and discovered that most of them orgasmed from clitoral stimulation rather than vaginal penetration. Its female fans loved the book and were relieved to hear that they weren't broken for disliking penetrative sex. The book was so popular that it became the 30th-bestselling book of all time.
Many men, however, felt that The Hite Report was telling them that they were useless. This feeling extended to the predominantly male media in the 70s and 80s, who constantly attacked Hite about her books published during this time about female sexuality, marriage and men's emotions.
This public vilification motivated Hite to move to Europe in the 90s and leave public life almost entirely. Her massive impact on female sexuality was essentially erased, and she became a forgotten feminist pioneer.
Newnham structured her documentary so that we watch Hite go from an excited woman engaged in feminist organizing and reading surveys about women's sex lives to flipping out at the men attacking her on talk shows. These media men not only called her work "unscientific," but refused to take her seriously because she had modelled, sometimes nude, before she became an academic and a writer.
"We were constantly looking out for scenes and stories and people that could help us build out that world around her," Newnham says. "So she didn't seem like this strange, isolated, sex-obsessed man hater, which was what the media made her out to be."
A big part of this world is Hite's style and aesthetic. Newnham thought of Hite's look as akin to a Hitchcock heroine. That couldn't be more fitting, considering that Dakota Johnson — the granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, the most famous Hitchcock heroine — does the voiceovers of Hite's writing throughout Disappearance. It turned out that Johnson was a huge Hite fan, and she ended up executive producing the film.
Hite was a striking woman with shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair. She wore custom, 1940s-style silk suits and lots of lace. She donned a white fur coat to stroll around Central Park. Viewers of Disappearance often ask Newnham which actress played Hite because she looks so glamorous in the archival footage. (It's really her, not an actress!)
"She was art-directing her own archival footage," Newnham says. "Part of what we had to do was restore her humanity, which had been taken away."
And there was a lot of archival footage. The credits at the end of the movie take almost a minute to scroll through because of the many news archives (including CBC), museums and individual people who gave the team footage.
Newnham and Disappearance's editor, Eileen Meyer, are no strangers to working through huge swaths of tape. They both used archival footage for their last feature together, the Oscar-nominated Crip Camp, about a camp for people with disabilities that helped many of those campers eventually become political activists.
Much of the footage of Hite's personal life came from ex-boyfriends. One of Disappearance's producers, Eleanor West, tracked down Hite's old flames. Lucky for the team, many of these men were photographers who met Hite on the sets of her modelling gigs.
Disappearance combines these personal photographs and videos with archival footage, Johnson's voiceovers of Hite's writing, and interviews with Hite's friends, lovers, feminist collaborators, colleagues and neighbours (including KISS leading man Gene Simmons). The soft pinks and reds used in the film mirror Hite's aesthetic, making it feel like a scrapbook that she made herself.
"A big focus of ours was trying to let her be as big and magnetic and cinematic as the heroine in this film, as she saw herself to be and created herself to be," Newnham says. "The spirit of the time and the spirit of believing you can change the world — we really wanted to capture that."
Even after being immersed in Hite's life while cutting the film, Newnham says that she and Meyer missed spending time with their subject.
"We missed the camaraderie that we felt around trying to help her with her work, which I think is what all the people in the film felt too," Newnham says. "After years of staring at her, I'm still happy to just sit there and stare at her."