The Pain Beneath the Bobbitt Case

John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitt made a huge splash back in the 1990s when she cut off his penis. While I remember the case being constantly in the news, I was fairly uninterested in it. I was too busy starting my career and my marriage to waste a lot of time watching television or reading about entertainment news. So I’ll admit that my memory of the case is faulty. However, after watching the docuseries Lorena about the whole thing, I wonder just how much my understanding of the case was formed by what I didn’t see.

What stands out in my memory the most was the outrage and the jokes. Men especially were angry and terrified that a woman had cut off their most valued appendage and boy did we ever hear about it! Comedy shows like Saturday Night Live and Comic Relief had sketches and jokes about the Bobbitts and humorous comments about the couple were a staple of late-night talk show monologues. John Bobbitt was constantly in the news participating in any seedy publicity stunt that would have him. The focus was consistently on him and how he’d been wronged. Even newspaper headlines got in on the joke (“Lorena was Psy-cut-ic”, “Why I Cut and Ran”; “Case of the Unkind Cut”; “Lorena Cut Loose”). In many of the stories and jokes, Lorena was portrayed as the crazy, vengeful woman every man fears.

The case was much more complex than that but many news outlets left out the impetus for the crime. I’m not sure if I ever knew that John went on trial for sexually assaulting his wife. He wasn’t charged with marital rape (that was a non-starter) but with the lesser charge of sexual assault. It didn’t matter: he was still acquitted. You’d think that aspect of the case would’ve at least been discussed since 1993 – the year that Lorena cut him – was also the year that all 50 states finally eliminated the “marital rape exception.” Perhaps few made that connection or even cared. Back then, prosecuting marital rape was a novelty. It still is.

I also didn’t recall much (if any) coverage of the women’s and immigrant’s groups advocating for her. And while I knew that Lorena had been found not guilty, I didn’t remember why. As it turns out, the reason she wasn’t convicted of “malicious wounding” of her husband was due to “irresistible impulse” or, essentially, temporary insanity. Lorena wasn’t convicted because of the terrible physical, emotional and sexual abuse she experienced at his hands.

That should’ve been bigger news. After all, the Bobbitt case started shortly after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings (1991) and the Tailhook scandal (1992). Violence against women was certainly in the public consciousness. But somehow, the domestic violence and marital rape aspect of the case was downplayed. Women reporters tried their best but their male editors rejected that angle. Instead, we got journalists calling the case a “battle of the sexes” and respected people like Tom Brokaw describing it as a “family feud.” Feminist groups kept trying to get people interested in the huge problem of violence against women but all anyone could focus on was the mutilated penis.

Perhaps that isn’t so surprising. Even today, after the #MeToo movement and everything we’ve learned about violence against women, people are still disparaging the case as trivial. “These were not intricate matters of foreign policy or healthcare,” a Newsweek journalist sniffs while lamenting the idea of mainstream media covering the Bobbitt courtroom cases. “They were tabloid stories…In my view, it’s pornography. It’s about arousal.” But were they? In a changing landscape for violence against women, the story about the effects of domestic violence, marital rape and trauma doesn’t sound nearly as inconsequential as he, a journalist in 2019, made it out to be. After all, the shifting focus on sexual justice is exactly why I assume the filmmakers made sure to include archival footage of Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose reporting on this story.

The Lorena Bobbitt court case turned out to be pretty important, especially since cameras were allowed in the courtroom. Although the breathless live reporting initially seemed cringeworthy, it actually was transformational as it changed the case from lurid spectacle to a serious national conversation about domestic violence. John came across as a violent idiot who thought nothing of physically abusing Lorena in public for all to see. He talked casually about his affinity for violence to friends and thought nothing about leaving bruises on her. There were multiple visits by law enforcement to their apartment and even some arrests. But John was right not to be worried about his violence because no one did anything to stop him, not even the police.

Lorena was compelling and deeply sympathetic. It hurt watching her have panic attacks both on and off the stand as she recounted and listened to stories of her rapes and abuse. It could not have been clearer that she was traumatized. And as the details of John’s indifferent brutality came to light, women – especially those with their own stories of abuse – recognized Lorena as one of their own. Men were shocked to learn that some women were delighted that she fought back, that many of them even dreamed about doing so themselves.

It’s no accident that the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) – which, among other things, provided funds for shelters, rape prevention and education, and community programs to educate on domestic violence – was signed into law by President Clinton only eight months after Lorena’s verdict. The murder of abused wife Nicole Brown Simpson several months after the Bobbitt trial concluded also played a role in the political calculus but it was Lorena who set the stage.

After the legal case concluded, the Bobbitts each took a very different path. Lorena returned to her maiden name and quietly rebuilt her life. She went to college and worked to pay off debt. She remarried, this time to a man who is respectful and kind, and has a daughter with him. But Lorena’s true healing came from helping other women deal with domestic violence. She even created Lorena’s Red Wagon Foundation to assist her in serving others. She seems happy.

John milked the limelight for all he was worth. He went on the Howard Stern show, judged raunchy contests, made porn videos (in the service of which he had a failed penile enhancement surgery), and was a celebrity greeter at a brothel in Nevada. Despite his embarrassing attempts to parlay notoriety into money, John went bankrupt. Neither the hospital that reattached his penis nor his lawyer ever got paid. His romantic relationships also failed, probably because he continued to abuse women. He’s spent time in prison on multiple occasions following convictions on assault, battery, harassment, and domestic violence.

He appears pathetic. John’s obsessed with the idea of reuniting with Lorena, saying it would be the ultimate forgiveness. And, oh yes, the money they’d get for that was also mentioned. During his interview, he described his traumatic upbringing full of violence and sexual abuse. Given his tendency to lie, it’s difficult to know if he’s being truthful about his past. But if he is, you have to question how differently things might have turned out had John gotten the help he needed as a child.

In watching Lorena, it’s clear just how little things have changed. Sure, we know a lot more now about violence against women and sometimes men pay the price but not nearly often enough. Yes, we got VAWA passed but it’s most recent reauthorization now languishes on the desk of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. His priority is to confirm as many deeply conservative and unqualified judges as he can. These judges are worrisome as conservatism these days is frequently synonymous with misogyny. All this makes me wonder what would happen if the Bobbitt case occurred now. Would the violence John leveled against Lorena be given more attention or would his penis still be front and center? Would she still be found not guilty? Would he?

The docuseries does give us an answer of sorts. One of the last statements we hear is from Airforce Amy, an employee at the brothel where John Bobbitt once worked. Her comment sums it up. “They can cut a million clits off in Africa and nobody hears a word. But cut one dick off and the whole…country stops.” She laughs and shrugs. “You know, it’s a man’s world.”

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