When Shere Hite was putting together a survey for female sexuality, she would add a replica of her handwriting in the margins to put women at ease about answering questions regarding their masturbation habits and other details about their sex lives, going so far as to use ink that would resemble whatever nail polish she had at the time to help make the document feel personal. In “The Disappearance of Shere Hite,” the handwritten responses she’d receive in return can’t possibly be presented in full, but even a brief glimpse of the cursive adorning one questionnaire after another transcends the idea that the anonymous women were some easily quantifiable, indistinguishable mass as popular belief would have it – it seems fitting that Martin Sage, an early supporter of Hite in the publishing industry, says it was her handwriting that initially intrigued him when considering whether she should write for his magazine Sexology – and like Hite, her biographer Nicole Newnham would seem to believe the humanizing touches are what bring a radiant truth.
Although it takes a rather traditional shape in the latest from the co-director of “Crip Camp,” the chorus of voices, all unique in their own way, opening up about their lives in order to speak to Hite’s is unusually moving when she invested so much in opening up the public conversation around sex, seeming as if she still has the power to spark powerful self-reflection among the film’s subjects even after she passed on in 2020. Hite stepped away from the public eye far earlier, dogged by attacks on her credibility when she never was officially trained as a social scientist, but she could undoubtedly speak with authority on issues of gender from her own experience and wisely suspected there were others out there with knowledge who no one in the predominantly male world of academia would think to ask. Newnham traces how the term “amateur” could be thrown around as a gendered epithet as Hite was dismissed at Columbia University, which she paid tuition with money made as a Wilhelmina model and picked up an education in being objectified.
The filmmaker is wise to frame Hite’s story with her earliest goal of studying the enlightenment, becoming distraught upon seeing how the documented history around it had become an institution consecrated in everyone’s memory, largely leaving women’s roles in it off to the side, and from college on, how Hite would evade the hierarchies of power where men sat at the top, seizing upon her surprise at learning how many women at the meetings she led, as part of the burgeoning women’s lib movement that was sweeping the nation, had never actually seen their clitoris before or enjoyed an orgasm — so detached from their sexuality or shamed for it — she learned how to operate a printing press and began disseminating surveys wherever she could to get even more candid responses to understand just how pervasive the lack of understanding was. The information led to the global blockbuster “The Hite Report,” which now ranks as the 30th best-selling book of all time, even though it’s cultural currency has clearly waned and “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” envisions its fade into obscurity as a patriarchal system correcting an aberration, with her publisher using the public spectacle of the disastrous press tour for her book “Women and Love” as a reason to stop supporting the subsequent circulation of any of her books, including “The Hite Report.”
“The Disappearance of Shere Hite” impressively illuminates these subtle ways in which entrenched power is able to reinforce itself, with one of its strongest sequences starting out as a celebration of Hite’s generosity, handing out checks to everyone who loaned her money while she was living out of a suitcase during the writing of “The Hite Report,” but acknowledging the fact that most of them were men when few women had the checkbooks to draw on. Female contemporaries of Hite’s who appear for interviews talk about going to unconventional lengths to pay for higher education or an apartment in the city that their male counterparts wouldn’t have to and although Hite was concerned primarily with the double lives Americans led when it came to sex, the film is especially compelling when it considers someone who spoke as candidly and fearlessly about private matters as Hite still being unable to ever be her full self – invited into the halls of Harvard as a lecturer, only to still be asked about posing for Playboy, and not ever wanting to fully inhabit the role of an academic even after doing the work after that world had rejected her. Hite may never have had the peace of mind of reconciling the duality of that experience for herself or knowing if she’d be remembered, but “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” assures her legacy is alive and well, presenting Hite in all her complexity, which is all she probably ever wanted for anyone.
“The Disappearance of Shere Hite” is available through the Sundance Film Festival app online through January 29th.