M. Jackson Group Update – January 2024 – “Who’s Afraid of Women’s Pleasure?”

A collection of postings on a range of issues is available on our website (www.mjacksongroup.ca).  This month’s post is again from Ken Pope’s listserv, where he kindly provides daily summaries of current articles in the field.

The Atlantic includes an article: “Who’s Afraid of Women’s Pleasure? A new documentary about the pioneering sex researcher Shere Hite points to the barriers that women face when writing candidly about intimacy and power” by Hannaj Giorgis.”

Here are some excerpts:

The Disappearance of Shere Hite, a recent documentary about the pioneering feminist researcher, opens with footage of Hite speaking on a 1976 television show about the findings in her new book. Among other things, The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, which quickly became a best seller, challenged the widely believed myth that “women should orgasm from intercourse itself, that is, from thrusting,” as Hite explains. But before she can finish her statement—before she can even hint at what many women do need to orgasm—the interviewer has to pause their discussion to chastise the crew members laughing behind the camera.

Nearly half a century later, the impact of Hite’s study is undeniable. It’s no longer quite so taboo to note that many women can’t climax from “thrusting” alone, and an entire cottage industry now promises to help women get there via meditation, physical therapy, psychological counseling, spiritual healing—or, of course, one of the many luxury vibrators on the market. Considered alongside this libidinous fervor, Hite’s relative obscurity today begins to feel like a glaring omission from the public imagination—and a lens for understanding larger patterns in feminist media.

Though its primary focus is Hite, who died in 2020, the documentary ends up making salient points about the precarity of feminist media across generations. For women whose success depends on selling books, sustaining a viable career after an initial best seller requires maintaining a palatable public persona. But that’s virtually impossible for any woman writing critically about women’s sexual needs—even a conventionally attractive white woman like Hite whose books have sold in staggering numbers. When public opinion turns, or powerful institutions withdraw their resources, having other women’s private support may not be enough to keep the work afloat.

The Hite Report drew on anonymous questionnaires distributed by Hite that asked questions such as “How do you masturbate? Please explain with a drawing or detailed description” and “Do you prefer sex with men, women, either, or yourself?” The surveys were filled out by 3,019 women of varying ages, races, professions, and geographic backgrounds within the United States. 

In her findings, Hite captured the women’s candid reflections on masturbation, intimacy, and the frustrating constraints of heterosexual sex. Without jargon or pathology, she documented the deep misunderstandings of female sexuality that pervaded American culture. “Women who read it will feel enormously reassured about their own sexuality and if enough men read it, the quality of sex in America is bound to improve,” a New York Times review suggested at the time.

The Hite Report went on to become the 30th-best-selling book ever, but in the years following its release, Hite was pilloried as a man-bashing pseudoscientist intent on destroying the nuclear family. In an archival newscast, one man claims, “They call The Hite Report ‘The Hate Report,’ because it really is filled with a lot of hate toward men.” (That moniker, it turns out, came from Playboy.) Though Hite had studied for her Ph.D. at Columbia University (before eventually dropping out), many people refused to treat her as an intellectual, especially after her prior work as a model was publicized. “I couldn’t be a good researcher because I was just a bimbo who had posed nude,” Hite lamented, in one of many personal writings read in the documentary by Dakota Johnson. By the film’s end, it becomes clear that there was no viable way for Hite to have presented her findings without facing tremendous backlash. More often than not, the people who responded with vitriol and laughter hadn’t engaged with her actual work, instead fixating on the intangible threats she represented.


One jarring clip from a 1987 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show is a particularly illustrative example. In it, Hite faces an audience filled entirely with men—a stunt, in other words—who seem to take issue with a new book that Hite had published that year. Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress painted a picture of intimacy in crisis, with many women reporting that they felt unfulfilled or otherwise neglected in their marriage. But even when Oprah tried to rein in the hostile members of her audience, their language conveyed something elemental: The men seemed to prefer that women not share their opinions at all. One man in the audience voiced his frustration with the larger feminist movement that Hite represented, laying bare his discomfort with having to hear women’s thoughts—not just about sex or love, but also about work: “What I’m complaining about is the general approach to this whole program, which started back with women’s lib,” he said. “Let women have 47 percent of the labor force, but I don’t wanna hear you complaining about it—you started the program.”

Even now, too many people are uncomfortable reading about women’s own experiences, and women who write about sex and power risk alienation, instability, harassment, and far worse. Modern media outlets may not be pulling tricks as risible as Winfrey’s male-only audience, but the industry can still be a hostile place for women’s voices. In early November, G/O Media shut down Jezebel, which had ushered in an era of feminist writing native to the internet, and was a place where writers and commenters could wrestle with urgent issues without having to defer to the centrality of men’s perspectives—and where they could also be freely silly when they wanted to.


The relationship between commerce and journalism that covers any issue deemed controversial is inherently uneasy: A recent report from 404 Media quoted Lauren Tousignant, Jezebel’s interim editor in chief, who claimed that companies were reluctant to buy ads on Jezebel because of the possibility of having their ads posted next to anything that could be considered a “debated sensitive social issue.” “It was very much the problem here that no one will advertise on Jezebel because we cover sex and abortion,” she said. At one point, Tousignant said, the company’s ad-sales team had asked if Jezebel could remove its tagline—“Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth”—for fear of losing advertisers.

There are, thankfully, some bright spots amid the closures. Newer digital outlets such as Lux and the nonprofit newsroom The 19th are publishing incisivewriting on issues deeply relevant to women, and Gen Z is producing multimedia commentary that bypasses traditional publishing altogether. And in an interview about his intentions to relaunch Jezebel, a co-founder of Pastetold The New York Times, “The idea of there not being a Jezebel right now just didn’t seem to make sense.” That’s undeniable in a post-Dobbs world, though part of what always made the site so invigorating was the irreverence with which it approached this generation’s feminist elders.

Jezebel was one of the few modern feminist publications that mentioned Hite well before her death, and true to form, that 2007 blog post was a smart, spiky take on a column Hite had published that year, nearly two decades into her self-imposed exile in Europe. In the article—an excerpt from her then-new bookThe Hite Report on Women Loving Women—Hite had argued that women are their own worst enemies, as evidenced by tensions in families, in the workplace, and among friends. Jezebel’s blog post surveyed Hite’s assertions, before ending on a pithy note: “It sounds like the only conclusion to draw from Hite’s findings is that the worst misogynists just might be other women. Happy Thursday!”

Jokes aside, that takeaway wasn’t totally true for much of the author’s life. Hite did face significant harassment, willful misunderstanding, and professional undermining; her reflections on leaving the United States are still wrenching to read. But even in the darker chapters of her life, Hite was cared for by a small group of people who believed as deeply in her as they did in the movements she represented. When she was struggling to come up with the money for her research or attempting to stay calm during the Oprah broadcast, someone was there with her—a friend, another activist.

In its postscript, The Disappearance of Shere Hite notes that the author surveyed more than 15,000 anonymous women in her lifetime. Each study was a collective project, and the ire she attracted reflected a discontent with all women’s testimonies and social progress, not just with her book sales. Her legacy, the documentary suggests, is inextricable from how the world sees all of those unnamed women, too.

Ken Pope

Ken Pope, Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, Hector Y. Adames, Janet L. Sonne, and Beverly A. Greene

Speaking the Unspoken: Breaking the Silence, Myths, and Taboos That Hurt Therapists and Patients (APA, 2023) 

Hector Y. Adames, Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, Melba J.T. Vasquez, & Ken Pope:

Succeeding as a Therapist: How to Create a Thriving Practice in a Changing World (APA, 2022)

Ken Pope, Melba J.T. Vasquez, Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, & Hector Y. Adames:

Ethics in Psychotherapy & Counseling: A Practical Guide, 6th Edition (Wiley, 2021)

“There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.”

—Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark (1915)


The researcher Shere Hite.jpeg