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The War Over Love Heats Up Again : Author Shere Hite's Third Report on Sexuality Fuels an Old Debate Over Her Methodology

October 29, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Shere Hite had a headache. The release earlier this week of a Washington Post-ABC News Poll disputing her conclusions in a seven-year study on women and love was fueling another flap over her methodology.

It is a debate that Hite calls a "smoke screen" for what she sees as the real issue of how women feel about men and love. "The whole thing is missing the point," she said. "They want to have a war over numbers."

Numbers Are the Issue

To Hite's dismay, numbers were exactly what was at issue. Her report, "Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress"--provocative enough to land Hite on the cover of Time magazine Oct. 12--found that, of the 4,500 women who responded anonymously to the 100,000 questionnaires she sent to women in 43 states, 98% were unhappy with some aspect of their relationships with men. In its telephone survey of 1,505 men and women across the country, the Washington Post-ABC News public opinion survey found that 93% of the women called their relationships good or excellent.

Hite's critics took the discrepancy as ammunition in their argument that her sample was self-selective and hence too skewed to be viewed with credibility.

"The Hite Report is exaggerated and methodologically enormously flawed," said San Diego psychotherapist Dr. Warren Farrell, author of "Why Men Are the Way They Are" and among the most vociferous of her critics. By blaming women's woes on men, Farrell said, Hite is intensifying a pattern of "new sexism" he calls "every bit as dangerous as racism."

"Her methodology does leave something to be desired," added Richard Morin, director of polling for the Washington Post. "It raises substantial questions whether she can generalize her findings to the population at large."

Morin confirmed that his telephone poll "essentially" took Hite's answers and turned them into questions. "The attempt was to look at some of the claims she made and to test them," he said.

Rushing to Hite's defense and echoing her position that the methodology debate has obscured subjects many people would rather not talk about was University of Toronto psychiatrist Dr. Frank Sommers who called the debate "part of a defensive reaction where you shoot the messenger."

"In my judgment this is much ado about nothing," added Max Siegal, a former president of the American Psychological Assn. from his office in Boca Raton, Fla. "The big flaw I don't think is methodological. I think it's in society, in a society that is not willing to look at itself and the problems that we have in relating to each other."

Hite's subjects may indeed have been self-selecting--women who took the time to write to Hite because they did have steam to vent, said the current president of the American Psychological Assn., Amherst University psychologist Bonnie Strickland. But, she asked, "why shouldn't they be heard?"

'Speak-Out' Proposed

Providing an opportunity to hear women's voices on the subjects of sexuality, men and love was exactly Hite's objective nearly 20 years ago when she proposed the idea of a "speak-out" on women's private lives to fellow members of the then-fledgling National Organization for Women here.

Today, perched on a tapestry-covered settee in her palace-like Fifth Avenue apartment, where angels smile down from the hand-painted ceiling with its elaborate molding, Hite recalled the genesis of the Hite Report trilogy and its concomitant controversy.

Hite was in her late 20s at the time, and was modeling to pay off the "astronomical" tuition for her graduate studies in history at Columbia University (from which she later dropped out, charging sexism). Practically down to her last subway token, the blonde, willowy Hite modeled for fashion magazines and--because she needed the money, she has subsequently explained--also posed nude for such publications as Playboy and Oui. Hired to play the "dumb blonde" in a typewriter commercial, Hite abruptly decided to step outside and join a NOW picket line protesting the sexism of an ad whose tag line was "this typewriter is so smart she doesn't have to be."

At first, she recalled, she was too embarrassed to admit she was part of the event that was under attack. When she finally revealed her involvement, "the reaction was not to ostracize me, but to say, 'Gee, we're glad you're here.' "

For Hite the experience was a major epiphany. She blossomed in the atmosphere of "intellectual ferment" of the early women's movement. Soon she was a fixture at the NOW office at 54th and Madison.

Sexuality was hardly a lunch table topic at that time. "Radical feminists were still good girls," Hite remembered. "We weren't supposed to talk about 'it.' "

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