Lorena Bobbitt trial: the real issues

Wednesday, February 2, 1994

By Kath Tucker

On January 24 a jury in Virginia found Lorena Bobbitt not guilty of "malicious wounding" because of "temporary insanity". After years of abuse, Lorena cut off her husband's penis. She will be held in a mental institution for 45 days, but then is expected to be released.

The result is small compensation for a woman who endured years of systematic abuse. But the issues involved in the case, which achieved international notoriety, are more complex than were presented in the sensationalised media coverage.

For months we have been subjected to nauseating, titillating news coverage of the case. Lorena accused her husband of repeated rape and beatings and forcing her to have an abortion. In her trial she produced hospital records and neighbours' testimony of hearing screams and seeing her bruises.

She claimed he used "marine combat techniques" to hurt her, and even his friends provided corroborating evidence that he had boasted to them that he liked "hearing women scream and watching them bleed". He said he was excited by forced violent sex.

Her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt was acquitted on a charge of marital sexual assault in a trial in Virginia in September 1993. The descriptions of him present a picture of a 26-year-old former marine turned nightclub bouncer. He was described by Who magazine as jogging up and down studio hallways and doing push-ups to relieve his tension before a daytime chat show interview. Evidently he's highly strung.

The international headlines on the case were led by CNN-TV. In the US the story eclipsed Bill Clinton's tour of Europe. The science section of the New York Times retold in detail the story of the team of surgeons' nine-and-a-half hour operation. John Wayne himself has appeared on the Howard Stern TV chat show, during which he was offered $15,000 in cash to drop his trousers and display the surgeon's success. (He refused.)

In scenes reminiscent of the Lindy Chamberlain case, the whole world got to know the story, and was encouraged to take sides. In an oversimplified, hyped-up media version of a very real case of long-term horrific abuse, the issues were masked by a superficial men against women debate, a false "whose side are you on?", in which men and women were counterposed. This was strengthened by comments such as those by renowned anti-feminist Camille Paglia, who warned, "It's a wake-up call ... It has to send a chill through every man in the world."

Media coverage, concentrating on what had happened to John Wayne rather than the years of abuse suffered by Lorena, conveniently sidestepped the real issues: the fact that violence against women is socially condoned; the role that this violence plays in the maintenance of a system in which the majority of people are generally powerless; the lack of economic independence for women to enable them to escape violent domestic situations; the demands by feminists to provide adequately funded services to assist women and children who are being abused; and the lack of community awareness in relation to domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Michael Flood, spokesperson for Men Against Sexual Assault (MASA) Canberra, told Green Left Weekly that reporting of the case has exposed the degree to which "widespread violence against women is largely invisible", and the outrage expressed at the verdict is an indication of "how many men are unaware or unwilling to be aware of the horror of violence by men against women".

Noticeably down-played by the media were the clear messages of support Lorena Bobbitt was receiving from women and women's organisations. In Ecuador, 100 members of the National Feminist Association held a protest outside the US embassy in Guayaquil. After the verdict was announced women's organisations in the United States expressed their support for Lorena's acquittal.

With the media pushing Lorena as a "feminist heroine" and warning against the potential for copycat crimes by women against men who abuse them, women's organisations are stressing that they do not condone Lorena's act of violence, but they understand her reasons for doing it. They also point out that, had better support services been in place to help Lorena, she might have been able to seek other ways out of the situation she was trapped in.

The media are setting up a fear campaign, similar to the situation in the early '80s in the United States when women were acquitted of murdering men who had abused them, on the grounds of self-defence. Anne Marla, director of the Domestic Violence Advocacy Service (NSW) told Green Left Weekly that although the acquittal is a good result, the case did not point out that Lorena's violence was an understandable reaction to years of abuse; they said she was insane. The outcome is by no means a dramatic turnaround in recognising violence against women.

Anne Jones, author of When Love Kills, made the point that at Lorena's trial, none of the jurors and none of three psychological experts were reported to have believed John Wayne's testimony. Yet John Wayne Bobbitt has been paid vast sums of money to appear on TV, is currently planning a two-month lecture tour of the United States and Canada, and is hoping to come out to Japan and Australia.

The coverage was also explicitly racist. Lorena Bobbitt was born in Ecuador, raised in Venezuela and immigrated to the US as a teenager. Attempts by John Wayne's defence lawyer to present her as a mad Latina woman found fertile ground in the press coverage.

Meanwhile the reality hasn't changed all that much. Lorena Bobbitt is free from the abuses of her husband, but unfortunately, for many women the abuse continues. As a friend stated to the court after Lorena's acquittal, "If the publicity of her abuse helps one person find freedom, then all this was not in vain".