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19 April 2022

From the NS archive: Lies, bedroom lies and statistics

29 May 2000: The English? Top for female orgasms? Barbara Gunnell argues that Shere Hite should have asked around a bit more.

By Barbara Gunnell

First published in 1976, Shere Hite’s “The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality” was a sexual revolution in 600 pages. In this ground-breaking original research, women between the ages of 14 and 78 answered questions about orgasms, masturbation and their sexual desires, “questions that most women could not in a million years have asked of even their best friends”. By 2000 Hite had sold more than 20 million copies and published an update to her research, “The New Hite Report”, which included accounts from women in the UK and the Commonwealth. In this cynical review for the New Statesman, Barbara Gunnell questions the profound influence of Hite on this new generations of readers – or, more acutely, on publishers. “So what can we learn from The New Hite Report? Mainly that the market for books and reports on sex remains buoyant.”

In Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes of an informal network of fornicators able easily to identify each other but who never talk of their exploits. They just know and can see in each other’s manner that they are fellows in the secret society of those enjoying a lot of sex.

Maybe Marquez had in mind the English or, more precisely, English women, who, according to new research by the American sexologist Shere Hite, confound international prejudice by turning out to be having rather a good time, better – if you want to be competitive – than their bronzed, beach-living, straight-talking Australian and New Zealander cousins.

English men and women probably needed to be told this, having lived under the shadow of numerous unattractive national stereotypes for centuries, and having borne with relatively good grace the accusation that they are a nation of frigid females and sexually incompetent males. Elaborations on the main theme have included the commonly held belief that frigid English roses become dangerously out of control in hotter climates (a favourite Mediterranean male observation), and that all English men are really homosexuals (proclaimed with utter certainty by the French minister Edith Cresson a few years back and, more recently, by the Zimbabwean prime minister, Robert Mugabe). Then there is a le vice anglais, which seems to cover an ever-changing range of aberrations from spanking to bestiality, all adding to the overall message that, vis-à-vis sex, the English are weird and inadequate.

Hite’s revised report on female sexuality gives the UK (and the English in particular) a clean bill of sexual health, even if it does not quite absolve men from the charge of incompetence. Two-thirds of Hite’s UK respondents claimed their male partners were ill-informed when they met and needed to be “taught”. This may be the same two-thirds who, according to Hite, “allow their partners to believe that they orgasm when they really have only been highly aroused and excited”. Still, there are worse failings than making people feel good about themselves, and British women, unlike their more demanding Australian and New Zealand counterparts, are apparently content to let the matter pass. And why should they not, since the really good news is that 91 per cent of UK women answer affirmatively to the question “Do you have an orgasm?”, a higher proportion than any other national group questioned by Hite either in latest interviews or in the 1976 edition of her book.

As well as reaching orgasm as easy as falling out of bed, English women, according to Hite, also “seem to have a richer fantasy life, including fantasies they tell their partners, than women in Scotland and Ireland”.

At this point, the analytic reader may begin to wonder about the quality of Rite’s research. What counted as fantasy? How many women were questioned? How did the researchers measure the richness of an English fantasy over that of an Irish fantasy? And what, in relation to another question, did the Scottish women who were creating “new forms of sexual self-identity” mean by “being ladylike”? Not that we should be using her study, Hite warns, to discover “who is better”, the women of “London, Leeds, Manchester or [sic] Oxbridge”.

This is just as well, since her respondents, for what the dustjacket describes as “a large sample of responses from the UK and Commonwealth”, turns out to be just 511 women who filled in questionnaires between 1994 and 2000. The “Commonwealth” turns out to mean just Australia and New Zealand. The women are spread throughout all age groups, from 13 to 95 years, with a representative mix of single, married, divorced, widowed and lesbian women. It is clear, then, that the answers to Rite’s questions are going to be of anecdotal rather than scientific value. Such a limited research base cannot support many conclusions – even the rather flattering one that UK women appear to have moved beyond sexual angst and be poised to reap the full benefits of the sexual revolution. It’s a shame. It was England’s turn to win at something.

It is doubly a shame, though, given that what made Shere Hite interesting in 1976 was that she asked the questions (to a much larger sample of 1,844) that most women could not in a million years have asked of even their best friends. Not just “How often do you masturbate?”, which has become the kind of ten-a-penny question that women’s magazines include in quizzes of “Just how sexy are you?” now, but “What is the exact sequence of physical movements you use when you masturbate?”

All this was truly a liberating and informative read in 1976, especially when compared with the contemporary alternative sources of sex (as opposed to anatomical) education. Before then, young women could take their pick between Henry Miller novels (priapic), or Simone de Beauvoir’s rather over-anxious The Second Sex (very definitely what DH Lawrence would have described as “sex in the head”), or the highly sociological Masters and Johnson (whose respondents upset a whole generation by grossly exaggerating their sexual activity to impress the researchers).

So what can we learn from The New Hite Report? Mainly that the market for books and reports on sex remains buoyant, encouraging publishers to revamp old classics with insufficient new research. Rite’s 1976 Report sold more than 20 million copies, so there should have been a bit of research cash in the pot.

Meanwhile, a snippet from another recently-published book on sex has given me an idea for some original New Statesman research. Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Game purports to give explanations for those eternal conundrums such as “Does size matter?” (Yes, says Miller, because “given the relatively large size of the modern human penis, it is clear that size mattered”. Spot the gaping logical flaw – women might find this easier than men.) Another is why men like breasts. “Breasts are good fitness indicators because they come in symmetric pairs … the paired traits tend to grow larger to make their symmetry more obvious during mate choice.”

The New Statesman will be asking 511 women readers to wear size nine boots for the next few months. The results of our research will be published in due course.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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