Remember Shere Hite? A new documentary jogs our cultural memory of the pioneering sex researcher

Film-The Disappearance of Shere Hite
This image released by IFC Films shows Shere Hite in a scene from “The Disappearance of Shere Hite.” (IFC Films via AP)

The 1976 book “The Hite Report” was a bestseller from the beginning. Its intimate anecdotes about love, sex, orgasms and masturbation, drawn from anonymous survey responses from about 3,000 women across the U.S., challenged male assumptions about heterosexual intercourse. And it made its author, Shere Hite, a deeply polarizing public figure.

A glamorous figure who had once paid the bills by modeling, Hite quickly became a fixture on talk shows and news programs in the 1970s and 80s after the publication of her report.

Playboy called it “The Hate Report.” Erica Jong, in The New York Times, wrote that what the women “have to say is utterly fascinating and often surprising” and to read it, “if you want to know how sex really is right now.” Everyone seemed to have something to say about it, and her.

But cultural memory can be short, especially when it comes to pioneering feminists — even ones who have sold 50 million books. When she died in 2020, at age 77, it seemed as though she’d been all but forgotten.

“The Disappearance of Shere Hite,” a new documentary from IFC Films now playing in theaters, takes a holistic look at Hite: her life, her work, her impact and why, after so many books sold and so many feathers ruffled, she faded into the backdrop.

Filmmaker Nicole Newnham (Oscar nominated for “Crip Camp” ) found “The Hite Report” in her mother’s bedside chest when she was 12 not too long after it was published. At the time, she said, it felt like a portal into the inner lives of women. And over the years what those women said stuck with her in a way that so many other books didn’t. When Hite died, Newnham realized how little she really knew about her and started digging around, teaming up with NBC News Studios, which had a similar idea.

And some younger generations were aware of Hite, like actor Dakota Johnson, whose company TeaTime Pictures executive produced the film. “We love Shere Hite!” Newnham recalled Johnson and her producing partner Ro Donnelly responding. Johnson, who is a co-creative director for a sexual wellness company, also gives voice to Hite’s writings in the documentary.

“I thought this was really a way to look at a phenomenon that occurs over and over and over again in our society,” Newnham said. “Women who are iconoclastic and speak out and change culture or have new ideas often do get forgotten.”

Though Hite gave up on the U.S. and decamped to Europe in the early 1990s, she took steps to ensure that anyone who wanted to follow the breadcrumbs of her moment in the spotlight could. She sold her personal archives to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, including personal writings, original survey responses, notes about methodology (which was one of the things she was often pilloried for in the media), and tapes of her television appearances.

“She had a policy of asking for a VHS tape if she agreed to do a television interview,” Newnham said. “The footage you see in the film was material she’d taped, otherwise many of those shows would have been lost to history.”

Many of the clips are uncomfortable, with both men and women challenging and dismissing her work, sometimes without even having read it. Seeing Hite walk out of an interview was not uncommon, especially after the publication of “The Hite Report on Male Sexuality” in 1981, which proved even more divisive. And things only got more difficult for her as the culture entered the “backlash” era.

“She was a complex, volatile personality and we didn’t want to shy away from that,” Newnham said. “She was so viciously pictured as a man-hater. And yet what she really was trying to do is lead an enterprise to free of both men and women from the tyranny of this very specific, rigid, patriarchal way of looking at sexuality.”