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Lorena Bobbitt: a case for castration?

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Of all the punchlines of the 1990s, Lorena Bobbitt has always been one of the sharpest, right up there alongside Lewinski’s blue dress. She is infamous in pop culture lore; she is the woman who cut off her husband John’s penis.

For decades, she stayed silent on the crime (the Wikipedia page dedicated to the couple describes it as ‘the incident’) and history has had one very clear narrative: a jealous wife chopped off her husband’s penis with a kitchen knife, drove away and chucked it out of her car window. (For the men sitting reading this with their legs crossed, the dismembered member was later found by police, put on ice and reattached.) It’s been almost 26 years since ‘the incident’, but a documentary series on the case means that we’re all privy to a more considered side of the story and the events that led up to that night. We also have something else that the public didn’t have for years after the fact: Lorena herself speaking out. Is retribution possible for a woman who sliced off her husband’s manhood?

Lorena Gallo (a maiden name she has reverted to) came to the United States from Ecuador on a student visa only two years before she married John Bobbitt. As Gallo told the Washingtonian, she was fresh out of school and had never dated anyone else. They were together for nine months before they tied the knot. She was 20 and he was 22. She worked as a manicurist; he was a former Marine working in a warehouse. She became the breadwinner. It wasn’t ever a happy marriage—the pair had already separated and reconciled— but fast-forward to four years after their nuptials and it reached a climax. It’s here that their stories divide.

Gallo says that Bobbitt came home drunk after a night out, woke her up and raped her. Bobbitt claims they had consensual sex. Afterwards, Bobbitt fell asleep and Gallo went into the kitchen to get a glass of water, came back with a 12-inch knife and severed Bobbitt’s penis while he was still sleeping (there’s no contention over this). She wanted to make sure he could never do the same to another woman. She left the house, knife in one hand, penis in the other and drove to her boss’ house, throwing the member out of the window into a field on the way. Bobbitt went to hospital. In the aftermath, he said he considered suicide. Then he and his wife became internationally infamous.

As far as salacious crimes go, this was always going to be prime tabloid fodder: a young woman escaping her husband still holding the penis she had just chopped off? There were T-shirts, there were Saturday Night Live sketches, Robin Williams did a bit. There were even parody songs about it. Howard Stern weighed in, saying he didn’t believe Bobbitt had raped Gallo, because she ‘wasn’t attractive enough’. He called her a 'psycho bitch.' He then helped raise money for Bobbitt’s medical bills.

The question of why it happened was contentious: jealous wife or battered woman? Unsuspecting husband or abuser and rapist? What he said or what she said? Then there were the questions that always come up: why didn’t she leave? Bobbitt was asleep when it happened, after all. They had separated once, why had they reconciled? What’s more, Gallo wasn’t the perfect victim. Bobbitt said she was jealous and possessive and the couple would call the police on each other after their fights. She had stolen around $7,000 from her boss. After the crime, Gallo also told police that Bobbitt was sexually selfish, saying 'I don't think it's fair, so I pulled back the sheets then and I did it.'

When the case went to trial, Bobbitt was found not guilty of the rape Gallo accused him of. But two months later, Gallo was also found not guilty of the ‘malicious wounding’, by reason of temporary insanity. Instead of a 20-year sentence, she was subjected to a 45-day psychiatric evaluation. So what really happened and who’s really to blame

Bobbitt denies all the allegations against him, but a clearer account of events has developed beyond the castration jokes that puts the case into a different light: Gallo was a victim of domestic abuse. She has said that Bobbitt physically, sexually and psychologically abused her. She toldVanity Fair he anally raped her, forced her to have an abortion, beat her and threatened to have her deported. She has said that she felt trapped.

If that sounds familiar, look at the Sally Challen case. Both women were victims of domestic violence who went on to commit crimes against their abusers. This wasn’t a case of a jealous wife or a woman in a rage, it was the case of a woman who was consistently violated and abused. It might not justify the castration, but it does offer an explanation.

Bobbitt might have been acquitted on the charge of the spousal rape of Lorena, but less than a year later, his new fiancé would accuse him of domestic violence and he would be arrested. Months after this, another arrest would follow. There would then come a third and fourth arrest on charges of domestic violence. He denies any wrongdoing. Gallo has since set up a charitable organisation, Lorena’s Red Wagon that helps victims of domestic violence.

John Wayne Bobbitt hasbeen on the record to say his penis is fine, now. He even went on to act in porn films (including Frankenpenis and John Wayne Bobbitt: Uncut), films he has said are some of the ‘best-selling adult movies in history’. All of which goes some way to prove Lorena’s point, which she made toTime magazine on the 25th anniversary: that at the time, the media missed the point. They made it about a missing penis, a punchline, instead of what it was really about: domestic violence and years of abuse.

So, can a woman who cut off her husband’s penis be vindicated?