The Disappearance of Shere Hite
Still courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Iris Brosch

Director Nicole Newnham on Women’s Sexuality and ‘The Disappearance of Shere Hite’

The Disappearance of Shere Hite director Nicole Newnham talks with PopMatters about capturing a nuanced portrait of a woman who spoke out about sexuality and reproductive rights amidst extreme opposition in America.

The Disappearance of Shere Hite
Nicole Newnham
20 January 2023 (Sundance)

It began with the obituary in The New York Times on 11 September 2020. The headline read, “Shere Hite, Who Challenged Myths of Female Sexuality, Dies at 77”. American director Nicole Newnham describes it as a “startling obit” and writes in her director’s statement, provided in the press notes, “[…] my heart started beating faster… the way the subjects of documentaries I’ll go on to make do when I find them – a coup de foudre.”

A stand-out film in the US Documentary Competition at this year’s Sundance Film FestivalThe Disappearance of Shere Hite marked the director’s return to the festival. In 2020, she and co-director James Lebrecht won the 2020 Audience Award for Crip Camp, a documentary about former campers at Camp Jened, established in 1971 for teens with disabilities, who grew up to become activists for disability rights. 

Continuing her interest in people that stand up and speak out, Shere Hite was an outspoken advocate for open and honest discourse on sexuality. She came to prominence in 1976 with the publication of The Hite Report, a study of women’s sexual experiences. To penetrate the suffocating silence around the taboo, the feminist researcher gave women that participated in her survey anonymity. 

Taking a progressive leap forward, Hite openly introduced into the conversation the idea of clitoral stimulation, suggesting that women can orgasm outside of penetrative sex with a male partner. Five years later, The Hite Report: On Men and Male Sexuality (1981) explored how heterosexual men felt about their sexuality and their partners’. More works followed, including Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress (1987) and The Hite Report on the Family: Growing Up Under Patriarchy (1994).

Unsurprising, Hite’s willingness to speak about female and male sexuality met with a critical backlash. She upset the status quo and patriarchal America, which led to hostile attacks from men on panel interview shows. The combative approach of interviewers only exposed media bias and its disingenuous agenda to exploit the controversial conversation for ratings. Instead of supporting an open and honest conversation about sexuality, the media provided a platform to attack. They shouted down Hite, who gave a voice to women and men.

Hite’s eventual forced self-exile to Europe can be seen as a symbol of America’s prudence and, worse, its puritanical repression. In the Post-Roe era, her experiences are a stark reminder that the American experiment in democracy and liberty is built on gender and ethnic prejudice.

Recalling the discovery of her mother’s copy of The Hite Report, Newnham tells me, “My parent’s friends were hippies, so there were hippie books like Our Bodies, Ourselves (1970) lying around, which were great. But in terms of understanding how women actually experienced sex in the context of their lives and the broad spectrum of experience, with absolutely no judgement or promotion, The Hite Report was a singular experience for me.” She continues, “I had no awareness of that kind of communal experience across such a variation, but by bringing together all of the responses, it says we have this experience as women. That was completely new to me then, and I’ve never experienced it since because women were speaking in completely open and honest terms to share.”

Newnham admires Hite for asking questions women had never been asked before but acknowledges, “… the way she was asking them and presenting the project was intimate and human in the way that it inspired honesty.”

Newnham reveals that throughout her life, she has thought back on Hite’s book when given cause. She doesn’t remember conversations about sexuality with friends – it wasn’t something people talked about. If a younger generation, whose mothers were buying Hite’s book, spoke about a silence encumbering an open conversation about their sexuality, Hite’s tact of understanding how a progressive conversation needed to be nurtured was essential. Creating a safe space for her respondents to answer honestly, she sparked a conversation that patriarchal and puritanical America was not ready for. Still, for women of different generations, the impact was profound, even if social and cultural progress was slow.

For Newnham, Hite’s work provided a certain comfort. “To know that I was normal, or within the spectrum of the experience of other women.” She adds. “That’s why, when I read the [New York Times] obituary, I was so taken by the fact that this woman, who had done something so profound for me and for millions of other women around the world, was not remembered the way I felt she should have been.”

I ask Newnham what it’s like being a woman in America today with a wince. I don’t fear her response, but I worry that given the current attack on women’s rights, I may sound inattentive at best and, at worst ignorant about the events of the last 12 months, including the reversal of the Constitutional protection of abortion. “We’re feeling a palpable emotional grief over losing our right to our bodily autonomy,” she replies. The attack on women’s rights and abortion rights is not only a concern for the children of her generation and those of the older generation who fought for those rights, and it affects more than young women.

“I have two sons, and it’s a terrible situation for them to face a culture that has rising puritanical misogyny. They feel it when they go online to play video games or when they’re on social media. Having to navigate that backlash, hostility, and hatred toward women is overwhelming. That’s what we were swimming through as we edited The Disappearance of Shere Hite. You can feel [the misogyny] in the film.”

Tia Lessin, co-director of The Janes (2022), says that religion has been used as a smokescreen by the Republican party and conservative right in America, especially around the abortion issue. “It’s a cynical use of abortion by the right wing,” she said. “It’s not about religion, it’s not about morality or ethics, it’s about electoral strategy.” What does Newnham make of the intersection of abortion with the stigma of guilt and shame around sexuality? “One of Shere Hite’s core goals was to unpack sexuality from guilt and shame and to liberate people to allow them to figure out what they wanted it to be for themselves, without prescription,” she says.

“The guilt and shame – and I’d also add fear – have been weaponised in conversations and discourse around sexuality. This further represses people’s rights in the political sphere. The intersection of what our power dynamics look like in people’s most intimate private lives and how that plays out in the political sphere was another thing we felt Shere was prescient to call out and look at. But it still hasn’t effectively happened in the cultural discourse today.”

This brings us to the subject of social and political progress in America since the publication of The Hite Report in 1976 and the struggle to sustain and build upon it. Newnham references a quote in The Disappearance of Shere Hite from Phyllis Chesler, a writer, psychotherapist, and professor in women’s studies who founded The National Women’s Health Network and the Association for Women in Psychology. “We were so naive because we had won the road battle in seven years, and so we thought, ‘Oh, that’s the pace at which progress happens.’” In hindsight, Chesler now says, “… it’s more like it’s going to happen, but we have to think about it as a two-hundred-year battle.”

This fluctuation between hope and despair over women’s healthcare rights in America doesn’t escape the director. “One thing I loved about this topic and working with it as a film was that all the time, you see ways we have not progressed, and it’s depressing. But you’re also seeing what Shere was arguing for and the dialogue she was trying to have, which have come to pass.” She adds, “We’re having rich conversations now: What is gender identity, and what freedoms should people have in that arena? With my kids, this idea of not being oppressed by gender roles is alive and liberating, and that’s certainly progress.”

Newnham hopes The Disappearance of Shere Hite will inspire viewers through Shere’s “pure revolutionary bravery” to challenge the status quo. What she says next places the documentary firmly in today’s political context. Not only is the film an act of remembering someone that had a profound impact on the lives of other women, but it serves a political agenda. “We were also showing a little bit of the architecture of how this silencing and forgiving happens, that keeps us in the cycle of backlash towards progress that’s depressing. We hope that if people can see examples of the repression Shere endured and understand how it continues to affect them, there might be more hope of interrupting it.”

Sex, says Hite, is an institution. “It’s a striking example of an institution with power dynamics,” Newnham remarks. “Somebody came up to me at Sundance and said the whole film is contained in the one example by psychologist Janet Wolfe. “Imagine if men were told they needed to orgasm simply by stimulating their balls, and they’d been trained to ignore their actual sex organ, which gave them pleasure. It’s outlandish and hard to compute that that could ever happen, yet that’s what happened to women and still happens to many women.”

American society remains oppressive towards female sexuality even through language. “We’ve spoken with women like Sophia Wallace, an artist who has a project called The Cliteracy Project,” says Newnham. “She was a consultant for The Disappearance of Shere Hite and describes how she works amongst other women who are writing and thinking and talking about the clitoris. They still get a lot of pushback from mainstream publications who don’t want to print the “C” word. They will not write about clitoral stimulation, and there’s still no commonplace word for it.”

She continues, “We’re still dealing with that repression, and it’s a central and important form of repression when you think about all the money and research and energy that has gone into Viagra. Yet women are still in this basic situation, and when you start to think about what that oppression means for half the population to be oppressed in this way, it’s stunning.”

It occurs to me that to reach a point of gender equality, two imperative needs must be met: a woman’s autonomy over her own body and an open and honest discourse about sexuality liberated from guilt, shame, and fear. Newnham is happy The Disappearance of Shere Hite made me think this way, but admits, “Before I delved into Shere’s life, her thoughts and the cultural response to her work, the good and the bad, I don’t think I’d have thought [autonomy and this openness towards sexuality] was central to our ability to make progress and achieve real equality. But it’s – extremely – critical.” 

An important moment in The Disappearance of Shere Hite focuses on the American singer and anti-gay political activist Anita Bryant, who, in the 1970s, launched the “Save the Children” campaign. Claiming the traditional American family was under attack from progressive laws, she successfully repealed an anti-discrimination ordinance on the grounds of a person’s sexuality, in June 1977, in Miami Dade County, Florida. “You look at how quickly Anita Bryant was capable of weaponising sexuality and used fear to smack down gay rights laws,” says Newnham. “The shame, guilt, and fear can be tapped into so quickly to suppress almost any movement for equality.” 

Newnham’s college years coincided with what she describes as the height of the ’80s backlash against second-wave feminism. She recalls the news clips that branded feminism a dirty word and its detrimental influence personally. “I went to a progressive college, and I considered myself progressive, but I did internalise that [feminism],” she tells me. “I didn’t want to be seen as a crazy feminist. I felt if it would make me unattractive, it would make me unsuccessful. I felt the way to get ahead career-wise was to make men like me and to make men like me, I had to behave like men and tow a certain line. Immersing myself in Shere’s story, it was striking to me the extent to which even those of us who aren’t inclined to absorb that fear and oppression do anyway when it cuts so deep to the core of something as personal as our sexuality.”

The Disappearance of Shere Hite reclaims an important feminist voice. The compelling documentary is also an advocate for honest self-discovery. “It was important not to portray Shere as a saint, says Newnham, “Even though there are ways in which she was extraordinary, there are other ways in which she was a human being. You couldn’t help but be struck by this woman, this public figure representing the voices of thousands of women who were able to say their truth because she’d given them the cloak of anonymity.” 

Newnham acknowledges that while Hite achieved a level of fame and fortune and did get something out of being that public figure, she also sacrificed herself. The director remembers Hite, towards the end of her life, saying she would have done it all over again. Newnham believes her and remains steadfast in her belief of the importance of sharing stories about people that speak up despite adversity.

“I’m particularly fascinated by those who can’t not do it. Shere couldn’t not ask the questions, she couldn’t not engage in the work, and she wouldn’t stop trying even in the face of extremist attacks.” She continues. “We can take something from the stories of those people, because even if in our own lives we’re standing up in less dramatic ways, we all come to crossroads where we have to make choices about whether or not we’re standing up for equality and progress. I believe in engaging in those stories – we can take a lot away from them.”