EXCLUSIVE: NBC News Studios has enlisted Nicole Newnham, co-director of the Oscar-nominated documentary Crip Camp, to helm a feature non-fiction project about the life and work of Shere Hite, whose research on female sexuality drew widespread attention, and controversy, in the 1970s and 80s, ultimately leading to her self-exile to Europe.
Hite’s first book, The Hite Report on Female Sexuality, published in 1976, sold tens of millions of copies, and was regarded as groundbreaking in its research findings. Perhaps the most quoted was her finding that 70 percent of women surveyed didn’t orgasm from sex, but most were able to do it easily on their own. That revelation of liberation, as The New York Times wrote in Hite’s obituary, proved to be “a sharp turning point after the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s.”
Hite’s books and subsequent projects made her a household name, but also triggered a backlash from the religious right and from men’s publications, like Playboy, which called the book “The Hate Report.” Some researchers bashed her findings, but she continued to publish best sellers, including on topics such as male sexuality and the family.
Newnham tells Deadline that in reading Hite’s obituary, “I was just floored, to think of this life that had been so meaningful to so many women, and that not only the story of her, but the public conversation around that information had sort of disappeared. And the obituary had some information about how that happened, which was just really, really riveting to me.”
The project will draw on hours of footage of interviews from the NBC News archives, most of which went unaired at the time.
Hite died last year in London, having moved to Europe in the 1990s and having given up her American passport. She wrote at the time that “after a decade of sustained attacks on myself and my work, particularly my ‘reports’ into female sexuality, I no longer felt free to carry out my research to the best of my ability in the country of my birth.”
Newnham said that she had gotten introduced to Molly O’Brien, head of documentary from NBC News Studios, and she had mentioned that they were developing a project about Hite.
O’Brien said that another member of the NBC News Studios team, Erica Fink, had first alerted them to the Times obit, and “I thought, ‘Who is this woman and why don’t I know about her?” She said that in digging through the NBC News archives, they found dozens of hours of interviews and promos featuring Hite.
“That is exactly our business model,” O’Brien said. “We pair A-list directors like Nicole, with the resources of a legacy news organization like NBC News, and voila, with Nicole at the helm, we can elevate all of that great IP into a premium documentary experience.”
Elizabeth Fischer, head of production for NBC News Studios, said that Hite “really became a target, because what she was saying frankly wasn’t very welcomed to a male audience. There was a lot of what she was talking about that indicated that women maybe didn’t need men as much as men thought they needed them in the sexual arena, and so that was a bit threatening I think for men.” She said that the scientific community “spoke pretty candidly about them thinking her methods were questionable, and yet she had thousands of respondents to her questionnaires.”
She said that they are hoping to access some of the materials that Hite used for her research, including some of the audio tape of some of the women who anonymously responded to her questionnaires. “Those audio responses will be just amazing windows on what culturally was going on with women during those time periods,” Fischer said.
There is no set date for the project’s airing, with a typical production timeline of about 18 months. No decision has been made on where it will debut on NBCU platforms, whether it be NBC News or Peacock or MSNBC, or a platform outside the company. Plans also are to do the festival circuit.
Newnham said that she has envisioned a project that “not only brought [Hite] back to life and brought that really relevant information back into public discourse, but also kind of gives you the opportunity to see, How does a woman get silenced? How does that happen? People attacking her for her scientific method. People casting aspersions on her character. It is a story as women we see play out over and over again now, but to see it play out around something so just plain true, as was what she was talking about, I think could be stunning.”