Outside the operating room of a sex-change doctor, a tray of penises
There is no blood. This is not Vietnam, Chile or Buchenwald. They were surgically removed under anesthetic. They lie there neatly, each with a small space around it.
The anaesthetic is wearing off now. The chopped-off sexes lie on the silver tray.
One says: I am a weapon thrown down. Let there be no more violence. . .
Sharon Olds, The Gold Cell
On a balmy Virginia evening in the summer of 1993, Manassas law enforcement received a bizarre call from a young woman named Lorena Bobbitt. She told authorities she had used an eight-inch carving knife to sever her husband’s penis and had flung it from her car window into an open field in the countryside.
The police responded immediately, arresting Lorena and commencing an intensive search search for the lost penis, which they would eventually find. Bobbitt was questioned and asked why she had committed such a heinous act, stating:
He always have orgasm, I never have orgasm. He’s selfish. I don’t think it’s fair, so I pulled back the sheets and did it.
Was this an open and shut case of sexual frustration resulting in the cleaving of an allegedly selfish penis? No.
Lorena Bobbitt, an Ecuadorian immigrant, met her husband, a marine named John Bobbitt, at a military ball. Their whirlwind romance culminated in their marriage in June 1989. The relationship was known to be incredibly stormy and fraught with jealousy and sexual rancor. John was an irascible alcoholic who alleged put her down constantly and, as per Lorena, was emotionally and physically abusive. Lorena, herself, was known to be a highly jealous woman, famously remarking she would chop his penis off if he ever left her. Neighbors noted the couple frequently engaged in lurid, heated arguments.
On the night of the gender-based genital mutilation, it is undisputed that John had gone out and had drank heavily with friends. What was disputed was what exactly happened once John came home. Lorena claimed he came into the bedroom and forced himself on her. John claimed that he had told her that he wanted a divorce. As with any ugly, tempestuous relationship, frequent threats of abandoning the other spouse was common for the Bobbitt’s. It was with this backdrop that this story made international headlines.
After Lorena claimed he raped her, John was arrested on marital rapes charges. His trial was a quiet affair that resulted in his acquittal. When the same female prosecutor brought charges against Lorena for malicious wounding was when the feminist carnival of rage and ignorance commenced.
The sleepy town of Manassas was swarmed by masses of reporters and supporters of Lorena, covering the trial with great aplomb. At the opening of the trial, the prosecutors argued that Lorena did what she because of vengeful anger. Her female defense counselor had a different take:
[My] client was “a battered woman in the classic sense” who acted in self-defense out of an “irresistible impulse” in response to years of physical and mental abuse at the hands of her husband. [I] would describe the Bobbitt’s marital relationship as a “reign of terror” punctuated by ongoing violence perpetrated by the husband upon the wife, who was suffering from depression and a legitimate mental disorder caused by the trauma of the ongoing abuse.
Feminists were quick to draw universal conclusions from Lorena’s situation. The NYTimes characterized Americans has having “A Million Lorena Bobbitts,” alleging rape and domestic abuse was commonplace and institutionalized in American society. Prominent feminists like Ellen Goodman opined that, as per usual, society was erecting straw feminists to attack Lorena Bobbitt. A woman penned this note to the NYTimes:
Prof. Catharine MacKinnon of the University of Michigan and the writer Andrea Dworkin long ago pointed to the institution of marriage as a legal cover for the act of rape and the permanent humiliation of women. Lorena Bobbitt’s life has been a poignant instance of that nightmare, which elicited a bold and courageous act of feminist self-defense. As one who recently returned from a conference of feminist activists in Europe, I can assure readers that the Lorena Bobbitt case has galvanized the women’s movement worldwide in a way the Anita Hill case never did. No feminist is advocating emasculation as the weapon of first choice. And some women question the political prudence of ‘sociosexual vigilantism.’ But whatever the judgment of America’s patriarchal legal system, Lorena Bobbitt is for most feminists no criminal. She is instead a symbol of innovative resistance against gender oppression everywhere.
The jury for the trial had seven women and five men. It concluded after a couple months, with the jury acquitting Lorena, citing her years of abuse that caused the irresistible impulse that lead her to mutilate her husband’s genitals. After the trial, Lorena tried to keep a low profile, even though she was arrested for attacking her mother a couple years later. John tried to cash in on his infamy by filming a couple pornographic films and tried to start a band. Years later, Lorena started a non-profit aimed at helping abused women via family and community means.
As was seen with Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, only when incensed passions cool off can we truly understand and contextualize a sex-based issue in America. It is undisputed that this wasn’t a clear cut case of some sugar-and-spice attractive young woman a victim at the hands of a hateful male, but a relationship born of mutual tension, anger and abuse. Neither party was innocent in any sense of the word. Lorena’s defense counsel successfully tried to peddle Lorena as some shrinking violet in the face of brutal male entitlement.
Sure, it is easy to convince a jury of injurious conduct visited upon your client when you blatantly ignore the bad acts and possessive jealousy of your client. It is easy to paint a portrait of marital violence and rape when the oils of that portrait are the alleged and subjective declarations of one party. It is easy to lie when the political winds are at your back.
Lorena, for herself, simply benefited from the hysterical nature of relations between American women towards men at the time. Her life and trial was simply swept up in the greater narrative of male misbehavior as championed by feminists. Her defense counsel’s ability to manipulate the jury into only seeing Lorena purely as a victim—instead of a woman in a mutually antagonistic relationship—was just a product of the times.
It could be speculated that Lorena slipped away from the spotlight in the aftermath of the trial because she truly was a victim in the vein her lawyer spun. However, what is most likely is a woman who was so dispossessed because she wasn’t held accountable for her actions. She was the one to call the police, not her husband. It wasn’t patriarchy, sexism or rape that possessed her to phone the police after she disposed of her husband’s penis—it was guilt. She knew what she did was horribly wrong and utterly disproportionate to what her husband did to her. Just because people seek to inure themselves from punishment for their guilty acts doesn’t mean they want to live in a world where the guilty walk free.
As for John, he seemed to be some sort interminable drunk who could barely hold down a blue-collar job. He most certainly was acquitted of raping Lorena, but it is more than clear he was one half of a mutually abusive relationship. The tumultuous nature of their relationship was balanced on one hand by his drinking and mostly likely balanced on her end by her green-eyed jealousy. A match made in Hell, indeed.
The aftermath of the media frenzy had feminists licking the gendered blood off their rapiers for years afterwards. While some outlets ran some opinion pieces with some semblance of rationality, the needlessly hysterical nature of the proceedings not only clouded the ability of the public to understand the individual relations between the Bobbitt’s but also the relevancy of that relationship to wider society.
As we have seen with the reckless social commentary on Elliot Rodger, American society still cannot understand individual’s impulses to violence, much less the social weight to appropriate to said acts. We either get narratives of male oppression to justify female violence or narratives of male privilege to condemn male violence.
Generally, the politicization of what necessarily is an individual’s reaction to the perceived or real inequities in their life is atrocious for social analysis or policy. We get outlets regarding male violence an extension of male privilege, but what about female violence? Is female violence simply an individual woman’s decision or a reaction to social conditioning?
The critical lack of truly considering the nature and being of female violence is simply part and parcel of how America works. There is little money in truly analyzing female violence, much less truly understanding why women violate men. However, there is money in ratcheting up the sex war between men and women—all the while promising the salve of reconciliation—and deliberately inflaming political passions to advance narratives—narratives that will necessarily favor women as they are providing the click-through’s.
That being said, America has a long road to hoe if we ever hope to transcend the muck and sophistry surrounding the violence individuals chose to engage in. I am holding my breath on that ever happening, as the way modern media is constructed 100% militates against that. Rage is too profitable to ever go away as the drumbeat of media coverage. The truth of reality—much less respecting the dignity of the people covered—doesn’t sell papers or get incensed viewers clicking a provocative headline.
Presently, Lorena is married with children, working as a hairdresser; John is still some sort of anti-social poser. Their terribly sexually charged relationship that erupted in Lorena trying to divest him of what she saw as the source of his power became a national obsession, much to the glee of feminists. As I noted above, the penis exists as an obsession for feminists as a symbol for male power. One woman’s desperate attempt to keep her man in her life became feminist’s rallying cry for female oppression at men’s hands. It mostly certainly didn’t involve that at all, but it shows how little feminists and America understand why individuals resort to such extreme violence to maintain their identity.
America’s utter fascination with violence will not go away any time soon, so long as we remain so fixated with those who choose to indulge their rage. After all, if you are reading it, it is for you.
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