What if Lorena Bobbitt were on trial now? How perception of abuse has (or hasn't) changed (2024)

If Lorena Bobbitt had cut off anything else, we might not know her name. But on the night ofJune 23, 1993, she severed her husband's penis with a kitchen knife, sending her marriage to John Wayne Bobbitt into the national spotlight.

Twenty-five years later, Oscar winner Jordan Peele’s four-part documentary serieson Lorena Bobbitt,out on Amazon Feb. 15, brings renewed attention to thesensationalized story.With itcomes questions about how much the public understoodthen about domestic violence. And now.

Public views on marital rape and domestic violence have changed since the early '90s, but despite the #MeToo movement,advocates and legal experts say we may not have come as far as we think.

What if Lorena Bobbitt were on trial now? How perception of abuse has (or hasn't) changed (1)

Lorena Bobbittand others who testified at her trialsaid she wastrapped in an emotionally, sexually and physically abusive marriage with her husband for four years. She says he beat her, raped her and belittled her.She claims she didn't realize what she had done until she was driving away from their home. She eventually helped police locate her husband's penis, and it was reattached.

In some circles, women who understood her plight quietly cheered her strength, says Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women. But many men condemned Lorena Bobbitt for what they saw as an act of revenge, feeling a certain vulnerabilitythey hadn't before. At a time when there was no way for supporters to tweet a#SaveLorena hashtag in her defense, the male-dominated mainstream media humiliated her: Headline puns and late-night jabs kept the public’s focus on John Bobbitt's injury and ultimately turned Lorena Bobbitt into a caricature.

What hasn’t changed


MinimizingLorena Bobbitt’s experience in favor of a more salacious focus on what her husband lost permeated the culture.

"A Stitch in Time" read a 1993 headline in The Washington Post. "Hanging by a Thread,"Newsweek wrote. And that's nothing compared to the "Saturday Night Live" sketches, "John Bobbit Sleeps Tonight" parody songand talk show banter.

“I don’t even buy that he was raping her,” radio jockHoward Stern said.“She’s not that great-looking.”

Though the culture is differentnow, Snapchat's "Slap Rihanna or Punch Chris Brown" came out after #MeToo went viral in 2017 and long after Tarana Burke began the movement more than a decade before.(Photos of Rihanna's bruised face were everywhere after she was assaulted by Brownin 2009.) Many people were more incensed by Johnny Depp's joke about assassinating President Donald Trump than allegations he was violent with ex-wife Amber Heard. And the implication that some women are too ugly to sexually assault was one made by the president himself on the campaign trail as he faced allegations from Jessica Leeds andNatasha Stoynoff.

Experts say the flippancy reflects a lack of empathy for victims of sexual and domestic violence that still persists, along with common myths.

“I think they still ask 'Why didn't she leave?" says Leigh Goodmark, a professor of law and director of the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland. "I think there's no understanding of the real absolute lack of resources for these survivors."

In 2018, the National Network to End Domestic Violence conducted its annual one-day survey of domestic violence servicesrequested and received across the U.S. It found that in a single day, 11,441 requests for services were denied because of a lack of resources.

For people to understand domestic violence, including why women don’t always leave right away, people have to keep their attention on theissue for longer than a single highly publicized court case,says Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“The Bobbitt case, the O.J. Simpson case, even the Ray Rice case, due to their sensational nature, elevated conversations about domestic violence and violence against women, but unfortunately it's usually short-lived,” Glenn says.

Goodmark agrees.

“None of it translated to important conversations about prevention, about the root causes of intimate-partner violence, about looking beyond the legal system to what could be more successful ways of addressing the problem," she said.

  • 'DARVO'

Also remaining is the way in which accused men subsequently portraythemselves as the victims.This strategy is known asDARVO– Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.

Just yesterday, a spokesman said Bill Cosby, now serving prison time for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, comparedhimself to Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

Last month, John Bobbitt spoke out on "20/20."

"I don't believe she was a victim," he said of his former wife. "No, she was greedy, selfish, and she was stubborn."

JOHN BOBBITT: It was a 'nightmare'

He was acquitted of marital rape against Lorena, but he has been arrested on charges of domestic battery against multiple women since.

Sherry Hamby,founding editor of the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Violence,says she's not excusing Lorena Bobbitt's violence but that they are not "commensurate."

“Years of (John Bobbitt)beating her and raping her – but then he goes around acting like he's the primary victim ... was just preposterous,” Hamby says.


Legal experts say female domestic violence victims, especially women of color, face bias in the justice system that can include presumption ofguilt and victim-blamingand harsher sentences than male perpetrators.

“There are certain groups in the population, like police officers, which are getting every single, solitary benefit of the doubt, and the criminal justice system is bending over backwards to give them the presumption of innocence," Hamby says. "While other segments, like battered women, are seeing the exact opposite."

MORE: Ex-officer sentenced to 1 year after pleading guilty to felony domestic violence

Look at the case ofCyntoia Brown.

Brown said she was forced into prostitution when she was 16and was scared for her lifewhen she shot Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old who picked her upfor sex. She served 15 years of a lifetime prison sentence until Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam granted clemency in January.

“The CyntoiaBrown case and the Bobbitt case have a lot of parallels,” Hamby says, although Brown was convicted, and Lorena Bobbitt was not."CyntoiaBrown and Bobbitt committed a single act of violence after years of abuse and they are the ones arrested – they get punished. There’s still this real one-sidedness – I’ve seen it in the cases I handle personally – judges can be much harsher toward women of their intimate partners than the other way around. Male-perpetrator violence falls through the cracks over and over again.”

Experts say many women like Brown are serving timeacross the country. In December, five Michigan women who were sentenced to life in prison for killings tied to domestic violence and sexual abuse requested clemency. Outgoing Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder granted it to one.

Women who commitviolence are also sentenced to longer terms than men,says Sandra Morgan, director of the Global Center for Women and Justice at Vanguard University.

"Even when you look at trends of convictions of men who kill their spouses, men get shorter sentencing than women, consistently," Morgan says.

What has changed

What if Lorena Bobbitt were on trial now? How perception of abuse has (or hasn't) changed (2)

Domestic violence remains a common and underreported problem, but huge strides have been made since the early '90s. The rateof serious intimate partner violence (rape or sexual assault, robberyand aggravated assault) against women declined by 72 percent from 1994 to 2011, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“In 1993, there couldn't have been more than a handful of jurisdictions that had specialized domestic violence courts, or victim advocates embedded in the court system, or police officers who are specially trained to deal with sexual violence of domestic violence," Hamby says. "The best courts and the most sophisticated jurisdictions have improved their handling of these kinds of relationships."

If Lorena Bobbitt were on trial today, advocates say, it’s likely she would receive more vocal support. Post-#MeToo, many women, especially,are more emboldened to raise their voices,and they have more outlets to broadcast them than just afew decades ago.

“I think that there would be more support for her from the women's community,” Van Pelt says. “I don't think that women were not supportive back then, but I think they were silent.”

She also says, however, that in the social media age, Lorena Bobbitt would be condemned even more harshly by her critics, putting her at greater risk for harassment and abuse.

“I'm sure she would get more death threats than she did back then. They would be more frequent, more immediate," she says.

Experts on domestic violence also speculate that the national conversation would be more partisan. Lorena Bobbitt, who was born in Ecuador but raised inVenezuela, risked deportation if she was convicted. Today, her immigrant status would be polarizing.

“Where we are now as a nation, it would make her a far less sympathetic figure, and in fact she may be held up as the reason why we must do something on immigration policy,” Hamby says.

While it's impossible to measure the difference the case made, advocates say one of the most concrete results may have been its influence on the Violence Against Women Act,which Congress passed in 1994.

Goodmark says it was “the first time the federal government said we're going to put resources into intimate-partner violence with a focus on criminalization."

Despite the preoccupation with thesalacious side of the story, the Bobbitt case did still deepen the public’s understanding of domestic violence, Hamby says.People began to grasp that it's more than the bruises we see.According to theU.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,psychological aggression is the most common form of intimate-partner violence.

“One of the results from the Bobbitt case is that people began to understand the role sexual violence and psychological abuse plays in domestic violence," she says. "Twenty-five years ago, the focus was still on the physical assault.”

Jackson Katz, an expert on gender violence, says progress remains an uphill battle.

“We’re trying to undo thousands of years of cultural conditioning and sexist beliefs and misogynist beliefs and practices," he says."It’s not going to happen overnight, and people in my work know we're in it in for the long struggle. You can see results and point to positive movement forward and then look at retraction and backlash and then ... you move forward again.”

Today, Lorena Bobbitt (now Lorena Gallo) has a foundation, Lorena’s Red Wagon, to help victims of domestic abuse and hopes that the Netflix documentary will raise awareness. And so do advocates.

“I really hope that people will view the resurgence of the Bobbitt case as an opportunity to look at where we are on the issue of domestic violence," Glenn says. "Have we gotten as far as we hoped? Are we further away on this issue than we were 25 years ago? Are we still having the same conversations?

"I would say yes, we are.”

You may also be interested in:

  • The MeToo survivors we forgot
  • Time to debunk some domestic violence myths
  • The startling toll domestic violence takes on children who witness it
  • What is Battered Woman Syndrome? And can it be a defense for murder?

If you are experiencing domestic violence, seeking resources or information, or questioning unhealthy aspects of your relationship, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE (7233)24/7/365 or chat online. All calls are free and confidential.

What if Lorena Bobbitt were on trial now? How perception of abuse has (or hasn't) changed (2024)
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