Has the Bobbitt Case Escalated the War Between the Sexes?


If Lorena Bobbitt had simply shot and killed her husband that morning last June, the violent end of their four-year marriage wouldn’t have made news beyond the Prince William County line.

But, as the world now knows, she went into her bedroom with a 12-inch kitchen knife, and moments later a startled John Wayne Bobbitt, who was sleeping off a hard night of bar-hopping, was missing his penis.

Lorena threw the severed organ out her car window into a weedy vacant lot as she fled to the home of a friend.


Whether this act was a desperate reaction to being once again raped by a chronically violent lout, as Lorena Bobbitt claims, or premeditated mayhem by a sexually unsatisfied wife, as the husband’s lawyer says, we are not apt to ever learn.

But the whole affair “has sent gender relations reeling backward in a dramatic and unfortunate manner,” said Judith Olton Mueller, director of the Vienna, Va.-based Women’s Center, which provides counseling for women. “We have a woman in Lorena who is not a credible spokesperson for her own defense.

“There is no justification for what she did. Her abuse of him was so barbaric that the fact that she was allegedly abused is hardly an issue.”

What troubles Mueller troubles many other women. Positive things, they say, eventually came from the Anita Hill episode, the Tailhook scandal, the Packwood affair and even the William Kennedy Smith rape case.

But so far, the Bobbitt episode has been little but tabloid fodder.

“It’s nearly impossible to say anything about this case without it being taken as funny,” said Dr. James T. Sehn, the urologist who led the operating team that reattached Bobbitt’s penis.

“Perhaps, there is a lurch in the right direction in discussing gender issues and spousal abuse in this context, but the whole subject has been blurred by the carnival atmosphere.”


Overnight, the 24-year-old manicurist became a heroine to a handful of feminists who took the dismemberment and unceremonious disposal as an exquisite revolutionary act on behalf of the abused women of the world.

At the same time, though, they found it a sad commentary that all the hubbub was caused by one man’s penis, not the scandal of spousal rape, said by one study to be inflicted upon one woman in seven.

Nevertheless, it was hoped that the media fascination with the marital knock-down, drag-out in Manassas would be enough to force spousal rape into the national consciousness.

“It is,” said USC law professor Susan Estrich, “the last plantation of rape law.” But “what this case proves” she added, “is that if you cut off a guy’s penis, you will get a lot of publicity. . . . I don’t think men are walking around in fear that their wives are going to do a Lorena Bobbitt.”

Denise Snider, director of the nation’s first Rape Crisis Center, the 21-year-old center in Washington, said John Bobbitt’s trial helps explain why spousal rape remains common.

“When domestic violence comes to light,” she said, “the response is ‘Why didn’t she leave?’ . . . But this trial gives one of the answers: When women seek justice through the courts, the reality is that the system is not very receptive. It is almost always her word against his. And in the eyes of society, when people are married, well. . . .


“It is understandable that some women will take justice into their own hands.”

A lot of women, she said, quietly cheered when they heard what Lorena Bobbitt had done. “That is hard for men to understand, the level of anger that women have about sexual violence. There is definitely a level of anger that caused a lot of women to read the story and say, ‘Yes!’ ”


Momentarily, Lorena Bobbitt seemed an irresistible figure.

Here was a naive, starry-eyed wisp of woman who had come from a lower middle-class family in Venezuela to this suburb of Washington, D.C., in search of a better life.

Before she was 20, she had married this square-shouldered, thick-chested Marine with recruiting-poster looks.

But it had been a lousy marriage, marked by a yearlong separation, police visits to quell disturbances and, Lorena says, physical abuse and rape. After her husband left the Marine Corps, he drifted from one low-paying job to another, and her earnings as a manicurist became their chief source of income.

In hindsight, however, Lorena Bobbitt was a less sympathetic figure than she first seemed.

She has acknowledged embezzling money from her employer and best friend, filching cash from one of her husband’s buddies, and shoplifting a dress from a fashionable department store.

And when she talked to police the day after slashing her husband, she complained that he was a selfish lover.


“He always (has an) orgasm, and he doesn’t wait for me to have an orgasm,” said her statement, introduced at his spousal sexual abuse trial five months later. “He’s selfish. I don’t think it’s fair. So I pulled back the sheets and then I did it.”

Bobbitt was found not guilty by the jury, which included nine women.

“It sounded from the police report that it was not so much the sexual assault she was complaining about as him not pleasing her and not being sensitive to her needs,” juror William Vogt said.

Lorena Bobbitt was to have gone on trial next Monday on a malicious wounding charge, which could have netted her a 20-year prison sentence.

But Commonwealth’s Atty. Paul B. Ebert, who prosecuted the husband and who will now prosecute that trial’s star witness, got the matter postponed until early next year to permit further psychological evaluation of Lorena.

Her attorney says her defense will rest on evidence that abuse by her husband had driven her to temporary insanity at the time she took to him with the knife.

The penis that caused all of the hullabaloo was reattached after 9 1/2 hours of microsurgery by Sehn, the urologist on call at the Prince William County Hospital that morning, and Dr. David E. Berman, a plastic surgeon.


Most of the considerable medical literature on reattachment efforts has been created in the last three decades, and Sehn hopes to add the Bobbitt case to it.

So far, the Manassas operation has a chance to be more successful than many of the others. The patient, back in his home town of Niagara Falls, N.Y., is now able to have erections, Sehn said, but it is still much too early to know if normal sexual function will ever be restored.


Lorena Bobbitt is not the first woman to go after her husband’s genitals with a sharp instrument.

It has happened for ages in some parts of the world, and during the early 1970s in Thailand, there was an outbreak of women dismembering wandering mates with kitchen utensils. Just last week, in a case not unlike the Bobbitt affair, a Los Angeles woman was accused of castrating her husband with a five-inch pair of shears.

With his trial behind him, Bobbitt has begun talking about what happened to him.

Greg Murphy, Bobbitt’s attorney, said psychiatric examination shows that his client suffers from attention-deficit disorder, perhaps accounting for the mumbled, choppy, sometimes difficult-to-follow answers he gives to questions.

But in a television interview last week, Bobbitt said: “Right now, I’m going through a lot of pain. . . . It’s like electric shock . . . sometimes its pins and needles. . . . It hurts when I take a shower.”


There was no indication of bitterness toward his wife. Should she go to jail? he was asked. “I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t decide. I think she needs help. This is an act . . . I mean . . . that a normal person wouldn’t commit.”

John and Lorena Bobbitt hold the promise of long-term appeal for the tabloids and their electronic imitators.

After his acquittal, there was a suggestion of a plea bargain for Lorena, but Murphy said the wife must go to trial.

James Lowe, Lorena’s attorney, promises a powerful case, with about 40 witnesses prepared to back her story of physical abuse. And while we await the next major installment, sales are booming for a T-shirt showing a knife dripping blood beneath the words, “MANASSAS, A CUT ABOVE.”

The two women who came up with the design are reportedly planning to bring out boxer shorts with a Bobbitt theme. In Alabama, an entrepreneur is toying with the idea of a 24-karat Bobbitt kitchen knife for gold chains and charm bracelets that’s suitable for sale in upscale jewelry stores. Naturally, there is talk of a movie, because the epic keeps going and going and going, from “A Current Affair” to the science page of the New York Times.

Lorena has been profiled in Vanity Fair and interviewed on “20/20.” John was the subject of a two-part series on ABC’s “American Journal” last week. But the interview the world awaits is scheduled for today, when John Bobbitt sits down for an interview with Howard Stern.