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.

The buttressing professors pose problems of their own. ‘Hite,’ says one, ‘has rejected the silencing of women by recognising that a theory about women’s ways of loving must be rooted in our own experiences.’ You must do what you can with that sentence. You can read it backwards. You can try to put it out of your mind for a few days, and leave it in a room by itself, then spring back in and hope to take its meaning unawares. Probably it means that a good way to find out what people think is just to ask them. But then, you may object, their replies will be merely subjective – no use really, if you purport to be a scientist. Take back that ‘merely’. Wash your mouth out. Feminist science is something quite different; subjectivity is of the essence. Until recently, women have been objects of study, and all the theories about feminine psychology, about how women think and feel, have been constructed by men. They have been constructed, very often, in the expectation of finding pathology, or at least a rather humiliating state of things: she is smitten by penis envy, by frigidity, if she can’t have an orgasm from the Saturday Night Special she’s some deeply unnatural woman. She’s neurotic, and obsessed with one little bit of her anatomy that some civilisations delight in slicing off.

There is nothing controversial here. For controversy one must look a little further. Miss Hite belongs to the school of thought which rejects traditional, male-devised science; she says it is crampingly linear in its mode of thought, and mistakenly claims to be value-free, detached and neutral. Feminist science recognises its evaluative posture; it recognises that the observer is not neutral, for she has her position, her prejudices, her viewpoint; it values intuition. Hite takes comfort from vogues in literary criticism – text, not machine, as analyst’s model – and from Heidegger: ‘reason, glorified for centuries, is the most stiff-necked adversary of thought.’ An essay appended to the book says that white male thinkers (it is a puzzle to know how skin colour gets in) are uncomfortable with hermeneutics: ‘for them it raises the spectre of total relativity, the fear that we will never be able to know anything in an absolutely objective and certain way.’ It is possible, of course, that many scientists – physicists especially, and white and male at that – have been living with this ‘fear’ for many years; that it is now a necessary part of whatever understanding of the universe we have. But they have not entirely been frightened out of the scientific method; it has its uses, and when Shere Hite wishes to be sure that she will be taken seriously, she displays an old-fashioned masculine zeal for quantification. The questionnaire asks: ‘How happy are you, on a scale of 1-10?’ It’s a question which – if we accept Shere Hite’s views up to this point – incorporates the worst of both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ science; its only merit is that it makes us laugh.

The truth may be that the Hite Report is science, but not of the mould-breaking sort its author thinks it is; that in fact it’s just the usual kind, which offers incomprehensible explanations for what everyone knows. Sociology has never made it into the gentlemen’s club of the ‘hard’ sciences; many people have suspected that it is simply a higher form of gossip.

Considered as gossip, though, this book has a grave defect: all Miss Hite’s anonymous respondents sound alike. She insists that women of all classes were well-represented, that the less-educated were not deterred from writing essays on their lives; in some cases, she says, the misspellings were ‘very appealing’. But they did not find their way into the finished product, because, Miss Hite says, ‘it seemed that in print these misspellings sometimes looked demeaning to the writer, or might be seen as trivialising that respondent.’ Then, too, some of these women adore jargon: as if all their lives have been a preparation for a survey; perhaps it is because they have ‘therapists’ to contend with, as well as their families. Their range is small, their vocabulary often restricted, and there is a huge gulf between their emotion and their capacity to convey it: being a lesbian, says one, ‘is the most comforting identity I’ve had since I was a cheerleader in junior high school’. The book’s tone is homogeneous, dull, flat: all these thousands of women sound like one woman, one awful person, droning on and on. If only Miss Hite were not so contemptuous of pop sociologists, she could have given her informants fictitious names, and to each one accorded a little pen-picture, to encourage us into her narrative: ‘Mary Lou, a much-tattooed redhead of 43 ... ’

Yet the book does have its fascination. Between the lines are the sagas, the epics, the unwritten histories, a novel condensed into a throwaway phrase. It is not that what the women have to say is very original: it is that their reports, by their weight, their mass, offer such resounding confirmation of the absurdity of life. The relationships Shere Hite surveys are so painful, and so achingly comic, that one wonders how anyone came up with the notion in the first place that men and women might live together: whoever thought it might be possible?

Language is the first problem. There are men who seemed biologically-programmed to avoid it. ‘My clue that something is bothering him is when he grinds his teeth when he sleeps.’ If they do talk, it might be about the weather: one woman says acidly that after 31 years she finds the weather is no longer interesting. They say, these men: ‘What is the baseball score? Put on the basketball game!’ Women like talking – about everything. According to men, they always choose ‘soap-opera topics’. While they are indulging in these, the men ‘whistle and sing and slam doors’. Sometimes they absent-mindedly walk off into other rooms. If they answer, it may be completely at random. ‘I will ask,’ says one misunderstood soul, ‘two or three questions at once – example: “Do you want milk or coffee?” And he will answer: “Yes.” He feels,’ the woman explains, ‘that I should ask them one at a time.’ Another describes her marital small-talk as ‘like pulling teeth’.

Ninety-eight per cent of these women say they want more ‘verbal closeness’ with men; and they want to offer emotional support when they see that life is getting to their partners. When their offer is rejected, they feel baffled and useless. (One man lost his job, his father, and the wheels off his car. His wife expressed sympathy, so he slapped her.) The men repress their feelings, and deny that women have any; one of the gay women, who has opted out of the whole thing, says that she can’t imagine falling in love with a man, because men are so alien, ‘as if they all come from the East Coast and women from the West’. For the women who decide to stay in heterosexual relationships, there is one ultimate uncertainty: ‘I wonder if he has any emotions at all?’

Almost all the married women who replied said that they believed in monogamy: but of those who had been married for five years or more, 70 per cent were having affairs. There is a lot of deception around; some of it self-deception. Eighty-two per cent of women believed that their husbands were faithful: but earlier Hite research showed that 72 per cent of men who had been married for over two years were seeing other women.

These statistics do seem to contradict one’s belief and everyday experience. But then, to judge by this sample, few extramarital adventurers ever tell, or are found out. Some are most adroit at juggling their relationships; one woman admitted to 12 lovers since her marriage, some concurrent, and affairs that had lasted between two months and 33 years. These lovers are ‘dear men’, ‘precious men’, willing to talk about their deepest feelings, and with a thorough working knowledge of female anatomy. They are generally, of course, someone else’s husband.

Single women joined in the survey too: on her lecture tours round the colleges of the USA, Shere Hite has collected examples of the chat-up lines they have to endure. Attempts to manoeuvre women into bed range from the manipulative (‘There’s a rumour round school that you are a lesbian’) to the circumlocutory (‘Ever heard the “1812 Overture” in CD?’) to the pathetic (‘My balls hurt’). The women feel pressured to marry: it seems that twenty years of the women’s movement has not changed society’s expectations in this or in many other matters. ‘Sometimes I think even if I were a new Mozart it wouldn’t be enough. All my friends and family would still be saying: “And when are you getting married? Are you seeing anybody?” ’

At first glance, it seems that it is the lesbians who are most satisfied with their relationships. ‘I believe a love relationship between two women is far more serious than one between a man and a woman. Women run on a higher emotional level than men will let themselves, and they get to deeper levels with each other.’ But when you read on, the same old complaints emerge. There are people who can’t or won’t talk about their feelings, and people who go too far in the other direction and plunge a relationship into what one respondent calls ‘introspective shit’. Some partners are philanderers; others are violent. There are some over-familiar, melancholy anecdotes: ‘I was sitting there with a flash-light, inside the car, trying to read the map, and she was screaming at me, because I can’t read it properly.’ Why can’t a woman be less like a man?

The New Hite Report raises all the difficulties and dilemmas that have beset women for years. Should women fight for change, or lower their expectations? Should they fight for their rights in a man’s world, or make a world of their own, with values they find more congenial? Is there some way in which men can be educated to set greater value on loving relationships? Or should women cut their losses, and accept that heterosexual relationships, and traditional marriage especially, provide limited emotional satisfactions? The hardest thing to accept about Shere Hite’s book is that she believes there are answers to these questions; and for her of course the solutions are not within the individual’s grasp, but are, in the feminist sense, ‘political’. She is an optimist: she looks forward to an era of ‘Feminist Enlightenment’. And she has nothing to say about the current backlash against the women’s movement; nothing to say about Beverley LaHaye and the ‘Concerned Women for America’, preaching the virtues of ‘submission’, and campaigning against equal pay.

This is not a comfortable book. You may disagree with Shere Hite’s methods, and with her conclusions, but no one could believe that she has seriously misrepresented what many women feel about their lives. It is no relief, however, if you feel as the Hite respondents do, to know that your problem is multiplied by millions, that you are part of a national trend. And the more one reads, the more one loses the flavour of real life, and the more one despairs of it: the more one feels like the unlucky one of three, waylaid on the way to the wedding by the Ancient Mariner. Miss Hite’s glittering eye is not easily avoided, her skinny hand not to be shaken off. But does she know, one wonders, that the perfect relationship is not to be had? It is not a bad thing to go on looking for it, but as one women puts it, in the bleakest terms, ‘people will always be separate. That’s how we’re born and that’s how we die, one at a time, one per body, alone.’