Women in Pain

Hilary Mantel

  • Women and Love. The New Hite Report: A Cultural Revolution in Progress by Shere Hite
    Viking, 922 pp, £14.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 670 81927 1

Scribble, scribble, scribble, Ms Hite: another damned, thick, square book. Shere Hite is a ‘cultural historian’. She has already given us The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality and The Hite Report on Male Sexuality. Her work is an uneasy blend of prurience and pedantry; an attenuated blonde woman with curious white make-up, she has offended US feminists by making money out of sisterhood. She lives in some style, and has a young husband who, she tells us in a preface (there are many prefaces, a sort of philosophical foreplay), ‘fills my life with poetry and music, more every day’. Well, that’s all right then.

But sadly, it’s not typical. What a picture of American marriage emerges from these pages! It is certainly a ‘sad, sour sober beverage’. (There is so much in these pages that Lord Byron said first, and better, and with merciful brevity, and without the advantages of sociological research.) The men are always off on a fishing trip, the women always masturbating in the bathroom. When he comes home, they fight; she rants, and he sits there ‘like Mussolini’. Then maybe he smashes a little crockery. They have sex by way of reconciliation, but it’s not too good: ‘I have to remind him to remove his glasses.

This is a book about emotional suffering. There is the odd woman who says she is happy. There is even a section called ‘The Beauty of Marriage’. It occupies page 343 – but then a lot of page 343 is white space. Most of these nine hundred pages tell of disaffection, disillusion and incipient rebellion. ‘Should Women,’ asks one heading, ‘Take a Mass Vacation From Trying To Understand Men?’ Miss Hite’s respondent tells us: ‘Men’s attitudes are so bad, so impaired, and they don’t even realise how negative to women they are. They think they love women. It will take some massive reaction to make them start realising, start thinking ... like a national strike, a boycott, a new Lysistrata.’ Or as Shere Hite herself puts it, less dramatically: ‘Women are suffering a lot of pain in their love relationships with men.’

Half the world’s fiction is about this, but Hite wants to skewer it into a scientific fact. She is particular, though, about the definitions of science that she will admit. One thinks of the aperçu of the younger Amis: ‘I don’t know much about science, but I know what I like.’ The basis of her inquiry was a questionnaire which runs to 127 pages. She eschews multiple-choice questions (quite properly, because they put a damper on things) and goes for the ‘open-ended’, which allows her respondents to answer in essay form if they wish. She distributed 100,000 questionnaires, and got 4,500 replies – not bad going, whatever her opponents say. Miss Hite’s methodology has been attacked rather unfairly, and so often that she has buttressed her report with experts – professors all who assure us of her probity and competence as a social scientist. Her opponents have picked up the term ‘random sample’ – a staple of saloon-bar wisdom – and have said she hasn’t got one. What matters, she says reasonably, is to have a sample that is demographically matched to the population.

What is less reasonable, and more an act of faith, is Hite’s contention that because her respondents were anonymous they must have been telling the truth. In the context of the study, the most one can hope is that they were telling the truth as interpreted by their feelings on the day that they answered. It is a characteristic of sociologists that they discount the grimly insistent nature of the human imagination. There is a chilling quality about Miss Hite’s respondents which reminds one of all those people who say: ‘I’ve got a book in me.’ Of course, everyone has: what is a pity is that exercises like The New Hite Report give it the opportunity to come out.

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