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The new Hite Report: The revolutionary Report on Female Sexuality updated

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This updated version of the Hite Report on Female Sexuality presents findings from Hite's original research, conducted in the 1970s, informed by those from her more recent study (1994–2000). The aim of the book is to present a new theory of female sexuality, which Hite achieves by asking women to describe ‘how they feel during various sexual activities and when they most often orgasm’ (p. 13) and by presenting these data in women's own words. Hite argues that the book, in its original form, was the first to propose that sex is culturally created and not a biological given, thus the central theme of her work is to challenge society ‘which has had a problem accepting and understanding women's sexuality’ (p. 14). As such, Hite presents a strong argument for redefining sex and, through using her own empirical research, makes some important and interesting points.
Sexualities, Evolution & Gender
6.2–3 August–December 2004 pp. 195–207
Review essay
The New Hite Report: The Revolutionary Report on
Female Sexuality Updated
By Shere Hite
London: Hamlyn, 2000
Sharron Hinchliff
Sheffield Institute for Studies on Ageing,
University of Sheffield, Elmfield,
Northumberland Road, Sheffield S10 2TU
s.hinchliff@sheffield.ac.uk
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This updated version of the Hite Report on Female Sexuality presents
findings from Hite’s original research, conducted in the 1970s, informed
by those from her more recent study (1994–2000). The aim of the book
is to present a new theory of female sexuality, which Hite achieves by
asking women to describe ‘how they feel during various sexual activities
and when they most often orgasm’ (p. 13) and by presenting these data
in women’s own words. Hite argues that the book, in its original form,
was the first to propose that sex is culturally created and not a biological
given, thus the central theme of her work is to challenge society ‘which
has had a problem accepting and understanding women’s sexuality’
(p. 14). As such, Hite presents a strong argument for redefining sex and,
through using her own empirical research, makes some important and
interesting points.
Societal conceptions and women’s views on sex
First, that societal messages permeate women’s belief systems, affecting
our self-perceptions and views on sex. For example, Hite discusses the
pressure on women to orgasm, which she argues is the backlash of
women’s right to enjoy sex (the sexual revolution) that oppressed rather
than freed women. The data Hite presents sug gests that such pressure is
Sexualities, Evolution & Gender
ISSN 1479–2508 print/ISSN 1479–2516 online ß 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd
http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals
DOI: 10.1080/1461666042000303224
linked to making male partners feel good, but also to women’s perceptions
that they need to orgasm in order to be ‘real women’. When describing
how they feel if they do not orgasm, the participants use terms such as
‘failure’, ‘inadequate’, ‘frigid’ and ‘abnormal’ (descriptions that re-appear
in the more recent study), exemplifying how the female orgasm has come
to be equated with all things good (for some participants orgasm enhanced
feelings of femininity, symbolising the ‘sexy passionate’ woman).
Evidence from the body image field provides a clear example of the
power that society can have on our self-perceptions, and demonstrates
that women often internalise, to varying degrees, societal messages about
what it means to be beautiful. Researchers argue that when women are
surrounded by messages that beautiful women are thin, attractive and
sexually desirable then they can experience distress if they do not fit this
ideal (Orbach 1993; Cash 1990), and undergo fluctuating periods of
body image disturbance (Myers and Biocca, 1992). Because sexuality is
also a socially constructed concept, influenced by power within the
culture (the socio-historical context) within which it is defined (Foucault
1998), then the same argument can be applied to women’s sexuality.
Taking women’s orgasms as an example, Hite links the normalisation of
orgasm to the sexual revolution of the 1960s. However, it is also
associated with the medicalisation of female sexuality which, as Tiefer
(2003) argues, refers to normal-abnormal functioning and defining this
in relation to physical performance.
Like playing the piano or grinding corn for tortillas, producing an
orgasm is probably a universal human potential that depends on
opportunity, training, and goals. But, rather than making orgasms
an arbitrary matter of talent and predilection, professional interests
in medicalisation have made them a matter of health and disorder.
(Tiefer 1995: 27).
The inability for women to orgasm has been categorised as a sexual
problem (Female Orgasmic Disorder), a dysfunction that requires
treatment. It naturally follows that if society tells us that all women
should have orgasms, and medicine says it is abnormal not to, then
women who do not orgasm may feel abnormal, inadequate and let down
by their bodies. Indeed, an example taken from Hite of how the
discourses of society and medicine meet and influence people’s
perceptions refers to the sexual revolution and how women were
expected to be ‘always ready’ for sex, and if they were not they
196 Sharon Hinchliff
were accused by their male partners of being ‘psychologically messed-up’
(p. 575). Clearly, this is a consequence of sex being located within the
sphere of health and psychiatry’s influence upon understandings of
female sexuality.
The findings of a recent study suggest that today’s women may resist
the pressure to orgasm. Participants in Nicolson and Burr’s (2003) study
did not expect to orgasm during intercourse as this formed a demand
from themselves and a pressure on the male partner. Thus, the
participants feared that if they expected an orgasm they would be
perceived as sexually demanding, and this was an image they actively
avoided in order to fulfil their male partner. Indeed, Hite also found that
orgasms were not important to some women. Yet she also found that
others felt frustrated if they did not orgasm during sex with a partner,
and many of the quotations presented suggest a disempowerment of
women they feel cheated, frustrated even jealous of their male partner
if he has an orgasm and they do not. Thus the importance a woman
places on orgasm, shaped by cultural conditions, appears to influence
whether or not she will feel disappointed because she has not had one
during sex. An exploratory analysis of the findings from our current
research support this: if orgasm is perceived as central to intercourse with
male partner, then it is considered problematic in its absence (often
creating problems in the relationship overall) and prompts women to
seek medical help.
1
(Hite does not mention if any of her participants
sought treatment because they were disappointed that they could not
orgasm.)
Returning to the fear of being perceived as sexually demanding
(Nicolson and Burr 2003) Hite also found that women would reject their
desire to have more than one orgasm during sex with a partner (and
masturbation) because it seemed greedy and challenging given that men
only have one. Thus, data from both studies suggest that concern over
being judged negatively by one’s sexual partner has remained an issue in
women’s perceptions for over three decades. Interestingly, from the
findings of her most recent study (1994–2000) Hite states ‘‘...it is
striking that there is an increasing correlation between a woman’s ability
to orgasm during sex with a partner ...and absence of the fear that she
will be judged negatively by her partner’’ (p. 556). This could be taken to
mean that women are less afraid to ‘demand’ (multiple) orgasms during
sex. However, Hite believes that it signifies that women still resist
1
This research is ongoing. Please contact the author for further information.
Review essay 197
behaving as they would like to sexually, because they fear men may not
take them as seriously as a woman who behaves less freely. There is
dissonance, therefore, between what women want sexually and what
they thi nk men want from them, sexually. To explore this further,
the sexual revolution encouraged women to be promiscuous but this
was within a context where acting this way was considered immoral.
As perceptions of women’s sexual behaviour were embedded in such
cultural values there is little surprise that a tension exists regarding
how women feel about, and express, their sexuality. To expect a shift
in how women feel about freely expressing themselves in a sexual way
to occur so smoothly may be to expect too much, given the long
historical context where to be a ‘good girl’ has meant to act in a sexually
reserved way.
In challenging the reader to consider how social discourses rega rding
femininity affect women, contributing to their understanding of sexuality
and expectations of sexual behaviours, Hite provides a convincing
argument about the danger to women’s well-being when orgasms are
glorified in society. However, she writes in a way that seems to
inadvertently reinforce an issue that she actively criticises: ‘their
[emotional orgasms] existence should never be used to discredit the
fact that women have, enjoy, and need regular physical ‘clitoral’ orgasms
(p. 190, emphasis added); ‘Only two women didn’t seem to mind not
having orgasm’ (p. 194, emphasis in original); ‘The truth is that all
women are capable of many orgasms if they want them’ (p. 154,
emphasis in original). In my opinion this discourse is dangerous as it
implies that Hite is normalising orgasms, and thus could contribute to
women feeling abnormal if they cannot orgasm, or can but not in
multiples.
Diversity
Another strength of this book concerns Hite’s representation of the
diversity of women’s sexual experiences, attitudes and behaviours, which
she illustrates through using direct quotations from participants. For
example, the chapter on masturbation highlights the variation in how
women masturbate and reach orgasm, even within the ‘types’ that Hite
has classified them into (though she does not explore these subordinate
themes in any depth; returned to later). Similarly, the diversity of sexual
satisfaction comes to the fore when some participants describe feeling
fulfilled by helping their male partner achieve orgasm without having
198 Sharon Hinchliff
one themselves, or not m inding not having an orgasm as long as
the sexual contact is caring and affectionate, whereas others, as earlier,
feel deep frustration if their partner has an orgasm and they do not.
This diversity demonstrates that whilst some women will be affected by
the cultural pressure to orgasm others will not, and highlights that the
meaning of sexual satisfaction is influenced by the importance women
place on orgasm, thus reinforcing the point that what some may consider
a sexual problem (i.e. Orgasmic Disorder) others may not (Bancroft,
Loftus and Long 2003; Birnbaum 1993; Osborn, Hawton and
Gath 1988).
By highlighting the complexity of women’s sexuality and the diversity
of self-pleasure, Hite presents evidence to support the argument of
feminists who have long commented on the heterogeneity of women’s
sexual interests (see Tiefer 1995; 2003). This issue is timely given the
current Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD) debate, and provides
a challenge to the medicalisation of women’s sexuality. The definition
of FSD has traditionally been based on Masters and Johnson’s (1966)
Human Sexual Response Cycle (HSRC), with its use of objective
measures of bodily states, its reliance on biological uniformity and its
decontextualisation of sexual activity. Problems with this model, as
argued by feminists, are its emphasis on generalisability and its neglect of
environmental factors that affect women’s sexuality. Indeed, Potts (2003)
argues that we must recognise the diversity of women’s viewpoints and
experiences with regard to what is ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ sexuality, and
what constitutes pleasurable sexual intercourse, when it comes to
defining sexual problems. This has implications for the ‘treatment’ of
FSD as the quotations Hite presents in her book illustrate that we cannot
assume that because Ms X achieves orgasm this way then so should Ms Y,
which calls into question the ‘one key fits all’ therapeutic approaches to
treating orgasm-related difficulties.
New theory
The central aim of Hite’s book is to propose a new theory of women’s
sexuality, based on the heterogeneity of, and influence of societal
messages upon, women’s sexual behaviour and attitudes. She argues that
women are ‘culturally conditioned’ to find intercourse more fulfilling
than other forms of sexual contact and for it to be the highest expression
of sexuality. Her counterargument is that we need to un-define sex, so
that it is no longer a rigid heterosexual-sex based on reproduction and
penetration. Indeed, 95% of the answers to the question ‘how do most
Review essay 199
men have sex with you?’ followed the pattern of foreplay, penetration,
intercourse then orgasm (particularly men’s) and this was defined
as the end of sex. Hite’s findings are that approximately 30% of women
regularly had an orgasm from intercourse, which she uses as a basis for
her argument that the ‘reproductive model’ oppresses and exploits
women because it does not give much chance for female orgasm and is
controlled by the man. Thus, Hite argues that if the majority of women
cannot orgasm during intercourse then intercourse should not be in the
‘glorified’ societal position it is in. It seems that little has changed as
a recent study which explored how heterosexuals accounted for
intercourse found that intercourse was ‘taken-for-granted as normal
sex’ (Gavey, McPhillips and Braun 1999). Gavey, McPhillips and Braun
also found that many of their female participants felt that oral sex or
masturbation were ‘more or at least as sexually pleasurable, in terms of
orgasm, as intercourse’ (p. 63). They endorse Hite’s proposal for a new
theory, but caution that questioning the place of intercourse in sexual
relations whilst redefining sex in relation to pleasure is not an easy task
because cultural norms are difficult to resist; ‘language and discourse are
powerful in constituting subjectivity’ (Gavey, McPhillips and Braun
1999: 63).
Indeed, viewing Hite’s argument from a contemporary feminist
perspective, when intercourse is positioned so highly it is easy to see why
sexual difficulties become sexual problems that ‘need’ treatmen t. As
Clement (2002: 245) comments:
The learning paradigm that still dominates sex therapy approaches
is intertwined with the focus on functioning and the normative
impact of the HSRC ...King Erection and Queen Orgasm still
dominate this arena with the boring norm of functionally
correct sex.
In response to the FSD debate, Hite recently called upon her new
theory to argue against the medicalisation of female sexuality, stating that
we need to re-define the meaning of sex (Cunningham 2003). I feel that
a striking example of the evidence that Hite presents in her book which
supports her call for a new theory of women’s sexuality refers to the
‘types of masturbation’ secti on. Here, women describe how they
masturbate and their quotations exemplify diverse methods of self-
stimulation. Female masturbation has been, and so remains to an extent,
a hidden taboo. It is my opinion that because women have not had any
200 Sharon Hinchliff
cultural stereotypes to frame their experiences, they have been free to
explore and express themselves more freely with self-stimulation than
with intercourse. In this instance, female sexual desire has not been
constructed in relation to men.
Hite urges women to pursue what they want sexually to discover
their sexual selves in order to create a kind of intimacy where women
get the stimulation they need (Cunningham 2003). However, an obstacle
that she highlights in her book relates to sex as inextricably bound with
love: that women are ‘afraid to challenge men in bed’ because they fear
losing their love. This finding has striking similarities with our current
work, where we explore women’s experiences of sexual problems. For
example, the majority of participants who had lost sexual desire wanted
to regain it (and had sought therapy to help them achieve this goal)
because they feared losing their male partner if they did not satisfy his
sexual desires. His sexual desires were described primarily in relation to
intercourse and so a substantial number of women engaged in
intercourse when they had no desire to (Hinchliff and Gott, 2004).
When we did anything [had sexual intercourse] it was just because
I felt that we ought to, I really wasn’t bothered at all. I felt that if we
didn’t there were already a few cracks in our marriage, we had
been under a bit of strain anyway and things started getting a bit
worse and he was getting frustrated and I thought ‘Oh if we do it
[have sex] it will keep him happy for another month’. (Barbara, age
45, desire loss after hysterectomy)
This extract illustrates the primary position intercourse held within the
participants’ intimate relationships. Not engaging in intercourse
exacerbated tension in the home, thus conceding to their male partners’
demands not only eased this tension but also worked to alleviate the
women’s anxiety as losing their partners was a very real fear. To support
Gavey, McPhillips and Braun (1999: 55), intercourse became a
‘pragmatic compromise to manage her lack of desire within a rela-
tionship’. It is possible that our participants feared losing their partner’s
love because they have been socially conditioned to believe that inter-
course is a ‘natural’ part of an intimate relationship, that men have a
biological ‘need’ to engage in intercourse, and that part of women’s role
is to sexually satisfy her partner they put the man’s ‘needs’ before their
own. These discourses of femininity were powerful, affecting not only
women’s perceptions but also, as implied from the women’s accounts,
Review essay 201
men’s expectations. In support of Hite’s research, a redefinition of
sexuality within intimate relationships is urgently needed.
Women-centred, women’s voices
Because men’s sexual experiences have formed the normative standard in
the sexological model of sexuality (Tiefer 2000) women’s experiences
have been overlooked and consequently underrepresented in this area.
Thus, a powerful aspect of Hite’s book is that she presents her data in the
form of direct quotations from women, making women’s voices clearly
heard. However, from a current feminist perspective the book has
shortcomings. For instance, Hite’s way of categorising some of her
findings (e.g. into types of masturbation, pp. 61–107) do not, in my
opinion, sit comfortably with a women-centred approach. They seem
mechanical, and give the book a clinical feel clearly not reflective of
what the book is about. (A quick glance at the Contents section will give
an idea, as it also suffers from this clinical-ness.)
Another aspect of the book which does not suit, in my opinion,
a woman-centred approach, refers to how Hite presents the participant
quotations. The reader is not informed of the ages of the participants,
which geographical sample (US, UK, Australia, New Zealand) they are
from, their ethnicity, sexual orientation, or if they have a current sexual
partner (though occasionally this information can be inferred) so much
is not known that the quotes seem disembodied. For example, with
regard to women speaking positively and powerfully about masturbation
the reader does not know if one age cohort speaks this way more than
others. This would be interesting to know because, as earlier, sexuality is
constructed within particular contexts and research has identified that
the sexual standards of one’s upbringing can influence attitudes to sexual
relations and activity throughout life (Gott and Hinchliff 2003).
Not acknowledging the differences between age, culture, ethnicity,
socio-economic status, religious beliefs, cultural values of upbringing,
experiences of sexual violence/trauma whilst analysing and presenting
data again moves away from a woman-centred approach as feminists
have long highlighted the importance of these issues in understanding
women’s sexuality (see Kaschak and Tiefer 2001). As earlier, recognising
the diversity of women’s sexuality, and highlighting the many factors that
influence it, is a key argument currently being used to counter
the medicalisation of female sexual problems. Similarly, Hite presents
quotes from the different studies (which, as above, were from different
202 Sharon Hinchliff
eras) together, making it unclear to the reader what socio-historical
period the women were answering the questions in. Because ‘sexualities
and sexua l experiences are produced, changed, and modified within an
ever-changing sexual discourse’ (Tiefer 1995: 19) this creates an obstacle
to furthering our understanding of female sexuality.
Lastly, I feel that the way in which Hite presents the data (page after
page, which makes for heavy reading) decontextualises the quotes. For
instance, are the women who talk about not having orgasms with their
sexual partners in loving relationships with that partner, or are they not?
Again, so much is not known that the reader has to infer, if possible,
from the data presented. (I also feel that the same meanings could be
illustrated using fewer quotes, which is certainly achievable with the data
provided as some are repetitive.)
Methodological issues
Although I am reluctant to criticise the methodology Hite used in her
research (because I feel that the insights it provides into women’s
sexuality, particularly at the time of original publication, far outweigh
such concerns) there are a few issues which I would lik e to highlight.
First, a problematic area refers to Hite’s definition of sexuality as it is
used solely to refer to sexual behaviours and attitudes, and therefore
presents a narrow view of sexuality. The body is central to sexuality, so
sexuality as a broad term incorporates embodiment, and issues such as
body image and physical appearance are not detailed in the book.
Though there is a section discussing women ’s perceptions of their vulvas,
bodily issues are striking in their absence.
Second, the Responses chapter has a sub-section on why participants
completed the questionnaire. On a positive note the questions asked
certainly would encourage reflection on the part of the respondent, and
I feel this would possibly benefit participants because they would get
a better sense of their selves as sexual beings what works for them
sexually and what does not. My assumption is supported by the
responses presented on why they completed the questionnaire (p. 32
onwards). Indeed, I feel that the book could work to empower women,
especially as Hite discusses owning our own bodies and controlling our
own stimulation a very important point. However, I also feel that it
would be interesting to include information on whether any unanswered
questionnaires were returned, with statements as to why women have not
Review essay 203
answered them. Did they feel the questions were intrusive, offensive, too
intimate? Surely some women will have chosen not to take part. This
section gives the impression that this was not the case, and so feels a bit
one-sided.
Third, a related concern is that people who volunteer for sexually-
related studies tend to be more sexually experienced and informed than
non-volunteers, and appear less threatened about disclosing such
information (Catania, McDermott and Pollack 1986). One study
found that both male and female volunteers held more liberal attitudes to
sexual actions, were more permissive, had more ‘dates’ and more non-
coital sexual experience than non-vo lunteers (Kaats and Davis 1971).
Further, that female volunteers were more likely to report liberal sexual
attitudes and have more sexual (non-coital) experience than male
volunteers (Kaats and Davis 1971). Because the quotations presented for
the ‘types of masturbation’ section are explicit and frank, it seems
plausible that only women willing to write about their sexual lives
responded to the questionnaire. We must question if there is a bias in
Hite’s sample that she has not highlighted.
Fourth, the statistical breakdowns in the appendices are problematic:
the questionnaires that were completed in the 1970s are analysed
together but the more recent study of UK, Australian and New Zealand
women has its own section of statistics (could not all the data be
cumulated?). The consequence is that the findings present a mis-
leading picture because the statistics she presents in the main body do
not reflect the quotations that follow, as these are taken from all of the
studies.
Finally, though I recognise that managing and analysing a dataset
of this scale will have been a mammoth task, I feel that the book
would benefit from a more in-depth analysis of the qualitative data. This
is because many of the quotes grouped under one heading have
differences that would prompt me, as a qualitative researcher, to section
them out into subthemes. And also because sexuality is a complex topic,
and certainly one that we need to further our understanding of in light
of the medicalisation debate. I would be heartened to see that a secondary
analysis of the data had been conducted since first publication of the
book. Nevertheless, Hite’s discussion of findings improves towards the
latter part of the book, and I especially like the Sexual Slavery chapter
where she discusses the economic and political factors that affect
women’s sexual attitudes and behaviours. And also the Sexual Revolution
chapter where she discusses the male sexual drive as ‘biological need’.
204 Sharon Hinchliff
Indeed, recent studies have found evidence to support Hite’s finding that
women still perceive male sexual drive as a need (Hinchliff and Gott
2004; Nicolson and Burr 2003). Hite points out that men have been
socially conditioned to feel they need intercourse and must seduce and
trick women into sex, which I feel is a valid point that often gets
overlooked in articles discussing female sexuality and the ‘male sexual
drive’.
Conclusion
In her exploration of female sexuality Hite uses empirical evidence to
support her claim for a new definition of sexuality and addresses factors
that play a key role in women’s sexuality: social how cultural norms
permeate belief systems; political the social regulation of sexuality; and
economical women’s second class status and satisfying others’ needs
before their own. Because these issues are fundamental to our
understanding of what constitutes female sexual problems (Tiefer
2003), Hite presents a challenge to the biome dical way of thinking
about female sexuality. The book certainly informs us that universal
norms for women’s sexuality cannot be established.
As an academic piece of work, however, Hite’s research is problematic.
But as an exploration into women’s experiences of, and attitudes towards,
sexual behaviours, it is insightful, interesting and worthwhile. Though by
not considering the relational context of the women’s (sexual) lives, and
not presenting, or analysing the data in relation to, demographic
information (e.g. is one finding more pertinent to women living in
a certain section of the US where, say, gender roles are more traditional
than others?) Hite does not allow full justice to be given to the economic,
political and cultural forces that influence women’s sexuality. There is an
urgent need to recognise and discuss these issues because not considering
them has resulted in the current situation where academics and
practitioners debate the medicalisation of female sexuality (see
Moynihan 2003; Kaschak and Tiefer 2001; Travis and White 2000;
Tiefer 1995). Nevertheless, Hite’s research was geared towards change
and thus has been fruitful, influencing many social scientists working in
the sexuality field. I certainly feel that this book, overall, could empower
women, and thus would recommend it to members of the general public
as well as students, academics and practitioners working in the area of
female sexuality.
Review essay 205
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Conference Paper
OBJECTIVE: Research indicates that sexual problems affect a large number of women in the UK and that they can have a negative impact on well-being and quality of life. One of the most common sexual problems for UK women is loss of desire, however few studies have explored how women manage a sexual relationship whilst experiencing loss of desire. METHOD: Ten women (aged 33-58) experiencing loss of sexual desire were recruited from a psychosexual clinic in Sheffield, UK. To allow for a sensitive exploration of sexual health issues and to ensure that the perspectives of the participants emerged, in-depth interviews were conducted. Data was analysed thematically within a material-discursive framework. RESULTS: Participants reported that, as a direct result of their sexual problem, relationship discord was common. All described feeling pressure from their partners to engage in penetrative sex and using avoidance tactics, including ‘shying away’ from any form of intimacy (i.e. cuddling) in order to avoid ‘leading their partners on’. However, a small number of participants did engage in sexual activity, including penetrative sex, even though they had no desire to. Such ‘coping strategies’ were employed to minimise friction in the relationship. Participants, and for the most their partners, gained a new perspective on how to manage their situation as a result of treatment, which included feeling empowered to say no to sex and viewing the problem as one belonging to the couple not the individual woman. CONCLUSION: Listening to the voices of women who have lost sexual desire will usefully inform clinical understanding, particularly regarding impact on relationships and thus emotional well-being: aspects that the participants felt were often overlooked by health care professionals
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