Why We’re Finally Talking About Lorena Bobbitt and Domestic Abuse

When Bobbitt cut off her husband’s penis, she became a punchline. ‘Lorena’ shows why everyone was so wrong to laugh at her.
February 19, 2019, 5:05pm
Image courtesy 'Lorena'

To put it bluntly, Lorena Bobbitt is famous for cutting a man’s cock off.

According to her version of events, Lorena’s then-husband, John Bobbitt, raped her on the evening of June 23, 1993, prompting her to cut off his dick with a 12-inch kitchen knife. She then drove into the night with the severed penis and threw it out of her car window. It was later recovered by police and reattached, successfully, after he underwent nine hours of surgery.

Both partners were arrested. John Bobbitt went on trial for marital rape, which had only recently been made a crime in all 50 states. He was acquitted due to lack of evidence. In the following years, he would be convicted of assault in two separate cases with two separate women. He denies ever sexually assaulting Lorena.

During her own trial, Lorena attested she had endured severe, traumatic abuse over the four-year course of her marriage to John, an ex-marine. In the original New York Times coverage, a staggering 44 witnesses, including three mental health professionals, verified the mental, sexual and physical abuse Lorena had been subjected to, noting she was clinically depressed and showing symptoms of PTSD.

She was found not guilty by virtue of temporary insanity.

The public found all of this very funny. Lorena became the subject of late night monologues and wisecracks. People sold severed-cock shaped confections outside the courtroom during the trial. John Bobbitt went on to appear on talk shows and star in a number of pornographic films that capitalized on the incident.

While the abuse was a factor in her sentencing, it was largely ignored by broader society. A new documentary series titled Lorena premiered February 15 on Amazon Prime, focusing on the abuse she endured. It was released only a month after Netflix aired its own documentary series about Ted Bundy, who raped and murdered eight women in the 1970s. Both stories focus on the violent subterranean of the ongoing gender war.

Men commit horrendous acts of violence against women every day. The Canadian Women’s Foundation states a Canadian woman is killed by an intimate partner every six days. In the US, 1,800 women were murdered by men in 2016, 85 percent of whom were known to the victim. According to the United Nations, 30,000 women were murdered by their partners in 2017.

None of these women are going to have a documentary made about them. What makes Lorena’s story so captivating—and why we are still talking about it today—is its subversive nature. Lorena didn’t just cut off a man’s dick, she disarmed him of the weapon he had repeatedly used to humiliate, subjugate, and harm her.

On some level this was—and remains—terrifying to the patriarchy and quietly empowering to the women who suffer under it. Making Lorena the punchline of a culture-wide joke makes sense; both anger and humour are ways of dealing with the disempowerment that comes with fear. In episode two of Lorena we are shown clips of talk show hosts and comedians—including beloved Robin Williams—using Lorena for a cheap laugh. In a clip from a talk show recorded around the time of the event, John Bobbitt’s brother said he would have killed Lorena if he had caught her in the act because Lorena had done, “worse than kill (John)—she took away the thing that means the most to a man.”

When thought of in this way, the million-dollar offer Playboy made to Lorena to pose nude for them shortly after the trial—which she declined—makes sense. Men wanted to pay to hold a subjugated Lorena—the cock-cutter—naked in their hands while fondling their own intact genitals. John Bobbitt would go on to star in several porn films, proof to a male audience who had watched his trial hissing anxiously through gritted teeth that no matter how gruesome the damage, a woman couldn’t really unman a man.

Even the means of her legal escape—temporary insanity—was a form of gaslighting. That she had attacked John was undeniable; he was missing his dick. What her actions couldn’t be, in the eyes of the law, was a rational and justifiable response to repeated physical, sexual, and emotional danger. A woman has to be crazy to maim a man, no matter what he might do to her. Claims that Lorena has done what she had done, voiced by multiple sources in the documentary, because she had been sexually dissatisfied—or, more bizarrely, the initial belief of the police that she had eaten John’s dick after cutting it off—only further serve the male agenda that a woman is either a servant to male desire or a—as John is seen to call her in a clip in episode two—a “crazy bitch.”

During the Brett Kavanaugh hearings—which proved to every woman in North America that we remain, legally speaking, second-class citizens—President Donald Trump famously called this a “scary time” for young men in America. It’s always been a “scary time” to be a woman anywhere; as we hear in the doc Lorena was not only too scared to leave John because she believed if she did, he would kill her, but sometimes quasi-consensually acquieced to his sexaul demands because she believed that if she didn’t he “would rape her anyways.”

It was 2016 when a Canadian judge asked a rape victim why she didn’t just keep her knees together and one-time CBC darling Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted of multiple accounts of sexual assault using a defence which focused on discrediting the testimony and experiences of multiple women. In a post #MeToo era, we may be talking about Lorena differently, but the way we handle the issues surrounding her infamous knife-work is surprisingly—depressingly—the same. 30,000 women die at the hands of their romantic partners each year and we are still uncertain as to what consent means. One white straight cis-gender male loses his cock and we talk about it for 25 years.

Lorena manages to successfully demonstrate how the media and society misinterpreted and/or willfully ignored the reality of the Bobbitt case while simultaneously making it painfully obvious that even now attitudes have not really changed. Men often claim be ‘woke’ to women’s rights, even as culturally they behave in accordance to their assumed entitlement to our bodies. Fact is, women die every day in subjugation to male power, but no man has ever died of blue balls.

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