Reading: Love With the Proper Gender | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Love With the Proper Gender 

A neglected section of Shere Hite's new book suggests that the emotional problems described by straight women do not surface in lesbian relationships.

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Stop in at any bookstore and Shere Hite's Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress will stand amid a plethora of tracts on the phenomenon of the neurotic male--with helpful tips on what to do about him. Current titles include Men Who Can't Love; How to Love a Difficult Man; Successful Women, Angry Men (with a dust jacket endorsement by San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein); Women Men Love, Women Men Leave; Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them. And of course there is the top best-seller, Women Who Love Too Much.

With the exception of Hite's volume, these books offer their readers the same step-by-step formats as the Sunset series on cabinetwork and plumbing. Publishers provide easy-to-read instructive manuals for the brave woman daring enough to take on this unique bit of home repair--or look for new accommodations. If the books of the 70s on "self-growth" and "self-improvement" made it the "Me Generation," then the 80s preoccupation with the male ego must make this the "Him Generation," so involved are these writers with teaching women what to do about the problem man.

It must have been so much easier in the 1950s, when all a girl had to do was read a few fashion magazines to stay abreast of the current rules on makeup and hemlines. None of this psychic sink work.

Rather than show women how to find the right man, Hite stacks up anecdotal and statistical information to make the contemporary woman's quest for romantic love appear as doomed as the Elizabethan arranged marriage. Under a section titled "Loving Men Who Are 'Bad for You': The Myth of Female Masochism," Hite reveals that 88 percent of single women say they sometimes feel they made mistakes in their choice of male lovers: "Almost every woman thinks that this is her own unique problem, and wonders if she has a hidden, neurotic masochistic side to herself." Hite suggests it is not the individual woman's misfortune to select consistently bad apples, since almost the entire bushel is rotten. When 95 percent of women report "emotional and psychological harassment" from the men they love, it does not make a lot of sense to tell the "woman who loves too much" that the problem is her particular man, and that somewhere out there is a Mr. Right, if only she can bridle her misspent affections long enough to find him.

Hite's Women and Love provides what she calls conclusive evidence that women who look to men for romance are looking for love in all the wrong places. The final book in her trilogy on sexuality and gender definition, advertised as "the new Hite Report," is as much an event as a study. A month ago Time hailed its publication with a cover story asking, "Are Women Fed Up?" and subtitled, "A hotly disputed Hite Report says yes--and that men are to blame."

Hite's coffee-table book (we know it is marketed for a place on the coffee table from the cover's Renaissance-style portrait of Artemis with a hound against a maroon background) contains over 900 pages on women whose feelings about their male partners range from alienated to pissed off. These women depend on other women for friendship and emotional intimacy.

The subject headings in the table of contents reveal the crux of the problem for Hite's respondents. Under "The Major Problems in Love Relationships," Hite includes: "Men's emotional withholding and distancing: reluctance to talk about personal thoughts and feelings"; "Lack of emotional support from men: not being listened to, heard or 'seen'"; and "Emotional indifference."

We're not talking cookie crumbs in the bedsheets.

Here are some of the not-so-hard facts (there is considerable debate over the validity of Hite's statistics):

84 percent of women are not satisfied emotionally with their relationships; they want deeper and more equal emotional relationships with men they love.

98 percent of women say they would like their husbands or lovers to talk more about their feelings, thoughts, and dreams, and to ask women more about their own.

95 percent of women say men often assume that they will take first place psychologically in a relationship--"star" in the relationship--that their emotional needs will come first.

79 percent of women are now questioning whether they should put so much energy into love relationships, give them their highest priority.

70 percent of women married five years or longer are having sex outside of their marriages.

87 percent of women say that their friendships with other women are emotionally closer than their love relationships with men.

The media reaction to these statistics has been to criticize Hite's methodology, with "experts" asserting that the respondents selected themselves, and that only a particular kind of woman would take the time to write extensively about her relationships. Further, they assert that the open nature of the 118 questions, each of which required an essay-type response, made the subsequent coding of the answers highly suspect.

Of the 100,000 questionnaires Hite distributed through clubs, church groups, women's voting and political groups, women's rights organizations, and professional women's groups, 4,500 were returned. The appendix in Hite's book provides information demonstrating that her respondents' demographics correlate closely with those of the U.S. female population at large, as reported by the 1980 U.S. census.

The appendix also includes statements from an impressive string of sociologists, psychologists, and political scientists, all of whom offer support for Hite's methodology. In a section that would appear incredibly defensive, were the criticism of Hite not equally overwhelming, several experts justify her approach, comparing it favorably with other research techniques, and insisting that data on emotions cannot be arrived at any other way. Others point out that the Hite Reports do not aim to be statistically flawless but to illuminate the conditions of women's lives in the manner of oral histories.

The intellectuals who support Hite's work are diverse. John L. Sullivan, who is a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, writes, "Many, if not most of the articles in psychology journals are based on data from college students, and then generalized. Interestingly, they are not criticized in the same way Hite has been." Ntozake Shange, author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, says that this Hite Report "reads like a magnificent play, with the voices of thousands mingled in a kind of poetry that is moving you beyond any one emotion, taking you through all the experiences of life to arrive, suddenly, at a place of understanding and enlightenment."

If we grant that women are dissatisfied, what about the other half of these unhappy duos? Perhaps women's distress is merely generic to relationships, and there is no reason to attribute it to the fact that their partners are men. As the Time story notes, Hite did not ask men to comment on relationships. "If she had," Time is sure that "she likely would have heard complaints from them too." Or, as Maggie Scarf, author of Intimate Partners, says, "This sounds like a one-sided view of the sexes. Anybody who has been married for longer than 15 minutes knows there are problems." These commentators argue that Hite deprives her readers of any information that might enable them to analyze her findings--in other words, to compare the problems women have with men with the difficulties people have in intimate relationships no matter what their sex.

Interestingly enough, this oft-repeated criticism blithely ignores over 100 pages in Hite's study that provide just such a critical perspective. Part IV of this Hite Report is entitled "Women Loving Women." Clearly one way to evaluate the meaning of women's attitudes toward their relationships with men would be to compare them with men's attitudes toward their relationships with women. Perhaps an even more valid method of evaluation is to compare the feelings of women who love men with those of women who love women. Hite chooses the latter method.

The politics behind the media's silence on this section may be the same that dictate that women (78 percent, at least) say they are only sporadically treated as equals by men. For the mainstream press, as for the man considering his female lover--to put it bluntly--the absence of a penis makes it safe to assume that nothing important is happening, at least nothing important enough to listen to and think about. How else can we explain the critical establishment's decision to ignore this large and clearly relevant part of Hite's work?

So how do the grievances women have about their relationships with men compare with those lesbians have about their female lovers? The first thing one derives from Hite's statistics is that Maggie Scarf has one thing right: relationships are tough on everyone. The second discovery is that the problems are quite different for straight women and their lesbian sisters. And yes, it does appear that some of the predicaments common to straight women do not appear in lesbian relationships. According to Hite, 96 percent of women in gay relationships say they feel loved in a satisfying way by their lover, that their lover treats them and sees them as equal, and 82 percent of women say that they can talk easily and intimately with their women lovers.

A comparison made by many lesbians who had been involved with men in previous relationships is captured by one woman's explanation of the differences: "I find it hard to imagine falling in love with men. They seem a bit more closed with their emotions--as if they all came from the East Coast and women from the West--and many of them are more interested in pure mechanical sex than the average woman."

Another feature of lesbian relationships frequently commented on was "merging"--the extensive sharing of lives to the point where it is unclear where one partner's identity ends and the other's begins. One lesbian wrote, "I think a little less fusing and a little more 'separate-entitying' would be better. But I don't really mind--people will always be separate, that's how we're born and that's how we die. Being alone is one thing you can always count on." The good and bad aspects of "merging" clearly have different consequences than the benefits and problems straight women associate with "distance," although both experiences speak to a consistent problem with boundaries in relationships.

While not as dramatic as the comparable figures for straight women, the numbers below make it clear that nirvana (even for lesbians) has not been attained:

76 percent feel the usual daily insecurities of a love relationship: "Does she love me as much as I love her?"

78 percent of women in gay relationships report fights.

33 percent of the arguments are about outside lovers.

56 percent of gay women say that finding someone "right" to have a relationship with is difficult.

Hite, who says that she is happily married--to classical pianist Friedrich Hoicke (who is about ten years her junior)--draws some provocative conclusions, although she perhaps idealizes lesbianism: "There is a feeling here of looking in on a special culture, another way of life, breathing a different air." She goes on to quote historian Caroll Smith-Rosenberg, who writes that it would be more appropriate "to see heterosexuality as an artificial construct imposed upon humanity" than hold our traditional opinion of homosexuality as something perverse.

Hite interprets the responses of her study's lesbian participants in the context of straight women's feelings about their friendships with women. Ninety-two percent of all the women respondents said it is easier to talk to other women than to most men. As one woman says, "Men can be good friends too, but they just don't seem to understand the human side of feelings by putting themselves in the other person's shoes like women do. I think [this is] both sad and true."

Hite says that it is not the safety of friendship that accounts for this difference but the fact that the role of a friend or lover is to listen and understand, rather than dominate or judge, and that women are better at this than men. This explains "why more men also say women are their best friends, rarely other men. In fact, most married men say that their wives are their best friends--but most married women say they only wish their husbands could be their best friends."

After all the generalizations and simplifications have been discussed and criticized, one cannot help but return to Katharine Hepburn's words on the subject: "Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then."

Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress by Shere Hite, Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illusytarion/John Figler.

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