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In a New Survey, 3,019 Women Talk Bluntly About Sex, the Delights and the Disappointments

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Five years ago Shere Hite, a Ph.D. candidate in social history at Columbia University, sent out 100,000 questionnaires to women of all ages, professions and geographical locations. Each was requested to answer anonymously, in essay form, nearly 60 questions exploring how she felt about sex. From the 3,019 replies Hite compiled a book, The Hite Report, published this month by Macmillan and already in its third printing. The study allows women to speak about their sexuality and sexual experiences in their own words. Dr. Wardell Pomeroy, who directed the field studies for the Kinsey Report, calls Hite’s work a “remarkable book [which] opens new vistas and new insights into where females ‘are at’ in the 1970s.” Author Erica (Fear of Flying) Jong found what the women had to say “utterly fascinating and often surprising.” Shere Hite, 33, who lives alone in Manhattan, discussed the results of her study with Sally Moore of PEOPLE.

Why did women respond to your questionnaire?

Because being anonymous meant being free. They’d never had a chance before to talk, share, find out what other women were feeling. Over and over women expressed a real need for understanding the whole area of sexual relations. Even your best friends don’t tell you such things. If I had done the survey the way Kinsey did—face to face—I am convinced I never would have gotten the same results.

What was your goal in this study?

To determine how women have orgasms and to find out their basic physiological and psychological needs. But the goal was not just to help men and women have better sex. It was to help people.

What was your personal motivation?

Like most women, I had the standard kind of sex with men and had many questions about it. Like most women, most of what I knew about sex came from men. I had hoped the women’s movement would help me learn more, but even there our comparisons of sexual responses weren’t frank or specific enough.

Why aren’t women frank?

Because women are still competitive and ashamed to admit they’re not living up to society’s expectations of a “real” woman, which means experiencing orgasm through intercourse.

Who are the women who participated in your study?

Every kind of woman who exists, I believe. Women from ages 14 to 78; their average age was 26. Women who believe in sexual freedom and those who don’t. Women who love sex, women who hate it. Women who care about orgasm, those who don’t. Women who insist on being lesbian separatists—and grandmothers. Everyone from feminists active in NOW to readers of Brides magazine, Mademoiselle and church newspapers.

Wouldn’t more liberal, more uninhibited women be more likely to answer your questionnaire and, if so, wouldn’t that affect the results?

Not necessarily. The crucial feature of the study is its essay form and its privacy. Many women wrote that they’d never spoken or written to anyone about sex so frankly, that it gave them a chance to think about the part sex played in their lives. I found that most women who answered defined their sexuality in very traditional ways. The conclusion I drew was that most of the women were heterosexual, had had both positive and negative sexual experiences with men, and were not definable by any outstanding affiliation with militant feminist groups. Many did express their desire to further women’s aims but were not activists of any kind.

What did your study reveal?

That sexual intercourse, for most women, is an ineffective way to achieve orgasm. Only 30 percent—a figure that has never been ascertained before—were able to achieve it through our socially acceptable definition of sex, vaginal penetration. Another 22 percent have orgasms only rarely during intercourse, while an additional 19 percent require simultaneous clitoral stimulation by hand. Twenty-nine percent do not have orgasms at all. The study proved that direct clitoral stimulation is necessary for most women to achieve orgasm regularly.

Does that contradict the findings of Masters and Johnson?

Masters and Johnson made a great advance in discovering that all orgasms during intercourse are caused by clitoral, not vaginal, stimulation. However, they chose their original research group only from women with a previous history of orgasms through intercourse. From this they generalized to say that a woman should receive enough indirect stimulation through intercourse itself to achieve orgasm—and labeled the inability of many women to do so “coital orgasmic inadequacy” or “dysfunction.” What they labeled as a failure for most women is in fact a normal response to inadequate stimulation, and yet these women may think of themselves as strange or different. Women who seek sexual therapy are therefore spending their psychic and financial resources in many cases trying to achieve something that isn’t natural for them.

Is masturbation the key to understanding female sexuality?

Yes—and male sexuality as well. Eighty-two percent of the women said they masturbate, and 95 percent of those were able to achieve orgasm regularly and easily. If they achieve orgasm in this way, why don’t they use their knowledge during sex with partners? The cultural definition of sex is intercourse—women don’t feel they are free to go after their own pleasure the way men do. They don’t feel free to transfer what they know about themselves into sex with a partner.

Then women could make their own orgasm?

Of course—and it needn’t be alone. Almost all women reach orgasm when they masturbate, but they feel guilt and shame about it still. They are reluctant to ask their partners to stimulate them manually. Sharing your body with someone else should mean he can help you have an orgasm as much as you help him. Why shouldn’t a woman, since she knows her own body, show or tell her partner how to please her? Or, if she prefers, self-stimulation should be an option. The point is that expecting a man to be in charge of both his and his partner’s orgasms is an unrealistic burden on him.

Why are women unable to tell men what pleases them?

Because what they need and what society expects of them are in conflict. The historical fear of losing or turning a man off, along with economic dependency, keeps women in a form of sexual slavery.

Has there been a real sexual revolution?

No. In many ways the so-called sexual revolution is a step backward for women. Women are only freer to say yes, not no. There is more sex, but its quality isn’t better. It hasn’t taught women to be responsible for their own bodies; it has reinforced the idea that women are passive partners. If the sexual revolution only means that women are free to have sex with strangers, the way men do, that’s revolting—and not liberating. Women don’t want to be free to adopt the male model of sexuality. They want to be free to find their own.

How will men respond to your book?

I think a lot of men are going to read it and like it. They would feel good about having an equal partner, seeing the situation change.

What finding in your study was the most surprising?

The number of women who wrote in—without being asked—and said they would like to try a sexual relationship with another woman. Most thought it would be a more equal relationship.

Did you find that women’s attitudes toward men are hostile?

No. What’s important for men to realize is that if women are equal in sexual relationships, this will free men from the burdens of being providers and performers. It will liberate both men and women.

What do you feel your study has accomplished?

There is still pressure from society and sexual authorities to say women should achieve orgasm through intercourse. Women who read this study will gain enormous assurance and feeling of solidarity that they are not alone or different if they do not.

What do women want from sex?

Women prefer to have sex with someone they care for or have deep feelings about, in the context of an overall relationship that has meaning for them. It has to be integrated into their lives, and not something that’s purely mechanistic.

Then orgasm is not always the most important part of sex for women?

No. It’s relating, sharing, caring—and men should learn from that. When asked if they enjoyed sex, almost all women said they did. Furthermore, there was no correlation with frequency of orgasm. Women who did not experience orgasm with their partners were just as likely to say they enjoyed sex as women who did. What we need to do is change the ways of relating and defining sex. Whether it’s a manor a woman, people want to feel that they are sharing, that they’ve given something and taken something back in return.