Born Shirley Diana Gregory, she later took her stepfather’s surname, Hite. She attended college, working as a model (including stripping off for Playboy) in order to make some money to pay for her tuition and living expenses. However, her feminist instincts were awakened and outraged when the strapline of one of the ads she posed for read: ‘The typewriter is so smart, she doesn’t have to be,’ and she took part in a series of protests against the very ad in which she starred.
She became interested in female sexuality and quickly came up against something that is now commonly recognised as a problem in today’s society and the way we view the world: she came up against ‘dead white men’ or ‘straight white men’ – a demographic that has very largely dictated the history, geography, science and literature of the world. While now there is (sometimes furiously grudging) admission that there is room for diversity in these fields, and a reluctant acceptance that just because something has been done a certain way for hundreds of years it is not necessarily correct, in the times that Hite was conducting her research, the 1970s, she was pretty much a lone voice trying to be heard above the dissenting murmur of many, many men, both living and dead.
Despite the resistance she was up against, Hite conducted her own research and immediately called into question the assertion accepted at the time that women who needed clitoral stimulation would get enough of it from the thrusting motions of normal intercourse – Hite discovered that the opposite was true – that more women did not experience orgasm from intercourse alone than those who did.
However, her work was dismissed as not being representative of the population due to the high number of non-responses – something that is perfectly normal in any widespread survey about intimate acts, many people are too shy or inhibited to reply to even anonymous questions about such matters, and many women of the time would have been ashamed to talk about their sexual pleasure and needs, whether they were satisfied or not.
Regardless, Hite’s work on female sexuality and the ‘myth’ of the female orgasm revolutionised the way female sexual needs are understood. This has opened the way for women to demand sexual pleasure, and may even have helped to bring about legislative changes in laws about consent – after all, the knowledge that women can and do take just as much pleasure in sex as men, brought about changes in the understanding of what was previously known as ‘men’s needs’ which were held to be more important than female agency. After all, marital rape was legal in many civilised countries until quite recently (1994 in the UK) and is still legal in developing countries…
So it is not too much of a stretch to credit Shere Hite (the first name presumably being a shortening of Shirley) with paving the way for women to enjoy porn and erotica without shame or fear of censure.