Almost 20 years ago, Shere Hite lifted the lid on women's sexuality in a series of controversial reports. MICHELE HEWITSON talks to her about her surprising decision to write a new book - about herself.
She holds a bunch of crimson roses the same vibrant shade as her carefully painted lips. Everything else in this photograph is cool: blue eyes, silvery blonde hair, a hint of pale, naked shoulder. The contrast is as startling as dry ice billowing about a flame.
The face of Shere Hite, feminist, researcher, scourge of the American New Right, stares out from the cover her just-released autobiography: The Hite Report on Shere Hite: Voice of a Daughter in Exile (Arcadia Books, $34.95). It is a portrait at once inviting and challenging. Come hither, it seems to say, but only so far.
Which is the paradox of Shere Hite. She is the author of the four Hite Reports, the cataloguer of the voices of the thousands of anonymous women (and some men) who filled in intensely personal questionnaires about their sexual and emotional lives. Yet she has long stood accused of being reticent to the point of aggressive when it comes to discussing details of her own personal life.
Hite is now 57. On the phone from a hotel in Scotland, she says she has written her autobiography because, "I wrote a series of books mostly dealing with the topics of private life and women's situations or gender.
And the media - perhaps it's because of the topic being sexuality, I don't know - but some of the media distorted facts about me, so I thought it would be good to go on the record and put them down myself."
Some facts about Shere Hite, then. She was born Shirley Gregory in Missouri in the American Midwest. Hite writes about a small-town America where the entire population turned out for the annual Apple Blossom Festival. She was a Brownie, later a Girl Scout and she sang in the church choir in a white surplice. She went to the senior prom in a strapless dress with petticoats. It was white with yellow flowers.
On the surface, this is the story of a girl living the American dream in the 50s, that time of optimism, patriotism and God. But Hite's report on her childhood opens with the deaths of her grandparents. And the second chapter, Apple Blossom Time, begins with an account of collecting eggs from the nests of her grandmother's chickens: "It was scary, because once one chicken started a rebellion. Most of the others would join in and tumble down from their nests, flying at you, flapping their wings, squawking, trying to chase you out." (In the 80s the media, mimicking the behaviour of those birds, chased after Hite, pecking more viciously than any flock of chickens.)
Because once you open the front door of the house she grew up in you venture down the hall, past the picture of a bleeding Christ on the cross, into rooms where the wallpaper-thin veneer of the American dream peels away.
Hite's mother was still a teenager when Hite was born; her father an American serviceman. He left home a month after they married. Hite was raised mostly by her grandparents, in an atmosphere of poverty, fundamentalism and the odd whipping from her grandmother, until they divorced after 35 years of marriage.
Hite is not "really in touch" with her mother. She tells the story of her fractured family circumstances by beginning: "Okay, okay. It doesn't seem important to me now, but I'll tell you." She also tells, with an air of detachment, of an episode where, as a young girl, she dived into a swimming pool in an attempt to get her mother's attention.
Unable to swim, she found herself on the bottom of a 12-foot deep pool waiting for her mother to dive in and rescue her. Her mother meanwhile, strutting her stuff in "a sexy black bathing suit with open lacing up both sides", was too busy flirting to notice. Hite was rescued by a female lifeguard.
When I ask her about this episode, oddly moving and, perhaps more oddly, left unanalysed, she laughs and says, "it was more fun to write that scene than almost any other. I remember it so well. I don't know why I found it fun to write about that. It wasn't a happy moment in particular. I guess there was a part of me that was just in awe of my mother being able to completely ignore convention."
She admired her mother's glamour but didn't like her much. "Part of the family was angry with her for having had a sexual life." Hite doesn't believe that disapproval filtered down to her except perhaps in some "terribly deep and buried layer I haven't been able to access.
"One point that I think people do miss, if I were adopted and didn't know my parents, I think people would understand that I had bonded with the adopted parents. If the mother is dead or something they can accept it, but if the person is alive they can't. My mother was so young when she had me, I guess she became like a bigger sister who went off into the world long before I was of age."
Shere Hite's coming of age really arrived with the publication of the first Hite Report in 1976. She came out with the then astounding notion that women need clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm. During the research, a series of questionnaires sent out to American women, she lived hand-to-mouth on around $10,000 a year in a basement apartment whose landlord attempted to get the tenants out by releasing rats through the building and turning the heat off at night in the winter.
When that first study, The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality appeared she was deeply in debt. And worse was to come. "After my first book was published, it was easy for Playboy to find in its files the big surprise: 'Wow, she once posed nude for us' and republish it." She sighs, faintly, at the idea of having to explain the circumstances of a photo-shoot which may well have done irreparable damage to her reputation as a serious social scientist.
"Someone at the time who was to do a TV special about my book told me that I would have to stand up and apologise to the world or they would refuse to do the TV show. I said: 'How can I apologise? I did it, so wouldn't it be hypocritical to stand up now. It would look stupid to say I apologise.' So they didn't run the television show. Huh."
Hite was modelling at the time and the Playboy job was part of a series where the magazine asked photographers for a picture of their favourite model. It was to herald the beginning of a long, embittered battle with the media and right-wing politicians.
Her methodology was attacked (it was unscientific and unverifiable, said her critics). Her agenda was said to be anti-men and anti-family. She became, says Hite, "a symbolic love-hate object, a fetishistic target for fundamental extremists."
She fled America and renounced her citizenship in 1996. In 1985, at the age of 42, she married German concert pianist, Friedrich Horicke. He was then 23. In the autobiography, Hite tells of Horicke admiring her work and her politics, "but I like to think of you as my sex-object." The world's most glamourous feminist drops this into the text without further comment. "Oh, well, hopefully the readers read all of the book up to that stage and will understand the humour of the whole thing."
"You know, I think it's like the cover of the book in a way. There is a double message. It's like saying that women can achieve something and symbolically receive a big bunch of roses and at the same time can also enjoy a private life, i.e. the kind of nudity at the back of the picture."
Maybe we've matured as feminists, she says, laughing at the memory of a photographer once taking a photo of her legs which were then unshaved. If she was then, in the late 70s, the new legs of feminism, what might that cover photo say about the feminism of the 21st century?
That "it's important, I think, that as women we say it's okay to be a woman. It's okay to be middle-aged, it's okay to have menopause. I think you can be middle-aged in whatever style you wish to be. We women tried so many ways of dressing and finally came to the conclusion that we could dress to please ourselves."
And what does the Hite Report on Shere Hite tell us about Shere Hite? Strangely, a lot, while revealing little. Strangely because it is all here, from her burgeoning sexuality and her great love of her dog Rusty, to her battles to forge a reputation as a serious researcher. Yet you emerge from it feeling as though you haven't really got past that cover photo. Come hither. But only so far.