Bobbitt and Beyond

The case of John and Lorena Bobbitt was sensational news when it occurred back in 1993, and even today occasionally gets brought up in the news.

Now, I should say up front that I am not going to say what Lorena did counts as feminist abuse. Their story is somewhat complex; there is evidence of physical abuse (in the form of friends seeing her bruised) and it seems he probably both committed infidelity and flaunted it. She alleged he has tried to rape her, however he was acquitted of an accusation of this in 1993. There’s also some evidence that she was exceedingly jealous, and some (though from Bobbitt’s own family) that she herself was violent.

Some of these are proven, some of these aren’t and are the normal he said she said. I would hope that we can agree that the “appropriate” response isn’t cutting off a guys penis. I put appropriate in “” as we do have to factor in that Lorena probably wasn’t in her right mind; temporary insanity was essentially what was found at the time. As such, even if it was not appropriate, that does not necessarily lead to culpability.

As such, I’m not going to come to a conclusion with regard specifically to the incident. What I am going to come to a conclusion on is those who sought to use this for their own purposes, of which there are a few incidents.

In early 1994, the National Feminist Association of Ecuador contacted several news outlets, threatening to cut off 100 American men’s penises if Lorena was imprisoned for the case. Because terrorism is a viable political strategy, especially when trying to influence a judicial matter.

Segue time!

It may come as a shock that there is actually historical evidence of a defence for battered women from over a hundred years ago. Professor Ramsey wrote an article in 2010 looking at cases in the American West and Australia in which she finds that men were routinely prosecuted for domestic violence, and would indeed often suffer very harsh penalties for spousal murder, whereas women would generally get much more lenient sentences if sentenced at all. The courts considered male violence towards women wrong and to be punished accordingly, but were also aware that their attempts to civilise wife batterer’s were ineffective, and were aware that many of those women were attacking a batterer. Furthermore, they would often look not simply to the immediate situation, but would look at the history of the relationship in deciding guilt.

In a later article, she suggests that the reason the law began to reduce it’s sympathy was due to the widening of opportunities for women, and so the question of “Why didn’t she leave?” began to actually be a question. When women can’t leave due to social norms and legal rules, that is a fundamentally stupid question, but with divorce laws and expanded employment opportunities of some form which would be at least self-sustaining, that question comes in to play. However, we did not know as much then as we do today; legal rules and social norms aren’t the only things which influence people. We aren’t just robots bobbing along until we malfunction. There are psychological and emotional reasons, as well as the fact that just because someone isn’t allowed to interact with you doesn’t really mean that they don’t. All of these can interact, and I’ve probably missed some other relevant ones, to make the availability of a choice not really a real choice at all.

I’d like to here link to two articles I recently read. The first is about a disabled man whose bipolar wife attempted to strangle him for the second day in a row; the second time being stopped by a Sainsbury driver, and the second is a wife who attempted to have her husband killed by a hitman to cash in on his $400,000 life insurance, as it was easier than divorce.

In both cases, the women were sentenced (in the first, an indefinite stay at a hospital – a form of order in which whilst we accept the person was acting from mental issues, we also accept they are a danger, and in the second, to the minimum amount of time despite no suggestion of abuse). However, both men have stayed with, and spoken publicly in their wives defence. The first, in which he is identified as a “devoted husband”, said she shouldn’t have been prosecuted, as NHS shouldn’t have let her leave in the first place. He still describes her as “as gentle as a lamb”. The second described his wife as a “godly woman” who “has been nothing but a great mother to [their children]” and begged for leniency.

I hope I’m not alone in thinking something is terribly wrong with both of these stances, especially the second. The first has some defence in that it is a legitimate mental health problem, but how is he meant to defend himself against that again? Why is he wilfully remaining in a relationship which is so dangerous to him, given that as much as we might like, our health systems won’t always catch these situations before they occur.  Why does he think she should not have been tried?

In the second, this woman tried to order a hit on him, and there is no suggestion from anyone of any abuse – it was for the money. She tried to deprive her children of their father for money. She tried to kill someone because it was easier than divorce. She decided to kill him, she went out looking for a hitman, she found the hitman and arranged to meet him, she got into his car, and she had a casual conversation in which she contracted the death of the father of her children. Godly?

Calling bullshit

But funnily enough, once she was caught, she showed remorse.  Oh how great it was that those men saved her from the consequences of her own plan.

If the genders were reversed, would we react differently? My point here is that whilst different, it has to be patently clear that there are psychological and emotional pressures which keep men in marriages despite clear evidence they are in danger. These were extreme examples, but in a society in which we are happy to tell a guy who is stabbed that really, he’s the problem (the first of the links at the bottom), surely we have to recognise that something is a little off.

End of Segue!

I don’t really feel that anything has to be said about the threat other than a general recommendation – if you think threatening a group of people is a good way to get your view across, you may want to have a bit of a look at yourself.

The next issue: the protests surrounding it. I have no problem with protesters. It’s perfectly legitimate for people to take issue with things and to voice those issues.

I do have a problem when your protest is designed around mocking someone for a traumatic incident, especially when we don’t really know what was going on. “Lorena Bobbitt for Surgeon General” paraphernalia was being sold outside the court (and can still be purchased today), along with many other hilarious sayings. Some drink called “Slice” and hotdogs with tomato sauce were available. Her act was hailed as a bold and courageous act of feminist self-defence; an innovative resistance against gender oppression everywhere; (in fairness, I should mention the person said it shouldn’t be the first choice).

Apparently, the idea that it was wrong but understandable just wasn’t good enough. It needed to be right.  

The utter ridiculousness and tragedy of this line of thinking can be seen when we move to a more recent event – Katherine Kieu. She also cut off her partners penis, because he had the audacity to file for divorce. She was found guilty and sentenced. By the way, she was not the only one in the intervening time to have done this. That particular google search is not particularly enjoyable.

On a show called The Talk, this incident was discussed. This incident of a woman performing extreme domestic violence against her partner with no justification was discussed and laughed at by both the hosts and the audience (“That’ll teach him. Hahahahaha. Comedy GOLD). One of the hosts, realising the callousness (how would you feel about men laughing about domestic violence to women? And if you’re answer is “it’s different”, I’d like you to provide a justification why that difference makes one serious and the other not; one laughable and the other not. Just because there is a difference doesn’t mean the difference is relevant) said “it is a little bit sexist. If somebody cut a woman’s breast off, nobody would be sitting laughing.” To which, another replied “It’s different”.

Despite the host and the audience’s own apparent joviality, with some minor pondering on whether it was appropriate or not, there was a large contingent of people who probably weren’t ok with people making light of unjustified violence. It’s telling that the hosts weren’t able to bring themselves to simply apologise for it, instead to point out that it’s hard being on a reality TV show, and sometimes you say the wrong thing, or to clarify that they don’t condone genital mutilation (for which she was thanked by the other hosts for “speaking from her heart” (the laugh at the beginning really made it feel heartfelt)) and a round of applause from the audience (whose own ethical judgment isn’t exactly a good barometer). Because that is of course the issue; whether or not genital mutiliation is condoned. Not the fact that a man’s suffering of having his penis cut off and then put through a garbage disposal unit to make it irrecoverable was made light of on national television, and possibly international given they often sell the rights. And wasn’t it interesting how what was apologised for was couched in either ungendered or gender neutral terms.

This can of course be rather interestingly juxtaposed with Ellen Goodman’s comment back during the Bobbitt case. Oh how far we’ve come. At least they weren’t actively advocating it though.  Oh, and don’t worry about those pesky Ecuadorians.  They don’t really matter.

One final note on the issues surrounding the Bobbitt case. There were also reports that the wife of the doctor who had done the surgery was harassed by women who were angry that her husband’s surgery had succeeded.

I want to let that sink in for a moment.

Women were harassing the wife of a doctor for successfully performing an emergency surgery.

I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather that our doctors not decide whether a person is morally good enough for surgery before performing. Seriously, what the fuck.

That’s as much as I can stomache for today.

Hope you all had a good Christmas and New Year.


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