Abuse, his 'n' hers

Annie Gottlieb

November 08, 1993|By Annie Gottlieb

LAST month was National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but it's November that will really put the issue of violence against women on the map.

John Wayne Bobbitt was scheduled to go on trial today, accused of sexually assaulting his wife, Lorena Bobbitt; on Nov. 29, it will be her day in court. On June 23, as everyone must know by now, she cut off his penis with a kitchen knife.

Lorena Bobbitt has said that she endured her husband's rapes and beatings throughout their marriage. But it's her sensational act that has made her a media icon and will put the two trials at the epicenter of the hottest gender debate since Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.

It is deeply revealing that it has taken the mutilation of a man to attract attention to the abuse of women. And the attention has been far from evenly distributed. "Shocking," "abhorrent," "unthinkable," "degenerate," exclaimed Hugh Downs and Tom Jarriel of ABC's "20/20," during a segment on the case in September. They were not referring to the battering of 3 million to 4 million American women a year, but to the severing of a single penis (subsequently reattached by surgeons).

This skewed expression of outrage makes women feel bitterly undervalued.

"Violence Against Women: A Week in the Life of America," a 1992 report by the majority staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee, lists 200 incidents from police blotters and battered-women's shelters for the week of Sept. 1, 1992.

The report reveals that women aren't only being shoved and slapped. They are beaten with fists, burned with cigarettes, scalded, slammed against walls, dragged by the hair, hit with hammers, broomsticks and gun butts, pushed out of moving cars, run down by cars, sexually assaulted, strangled, stabbed and shot -- by the men they know best.

Lorena Bobbitt admittedly made a lot of wrong moves. Yet it's typical that we focus on a woman's irrationality, asking, "Why didn't she leave?" but not "Why did he hurt her?"

Courts have begun to hear of the "battered-woman syndrome" from the defense in murder cases, and Lorena Bobbitt's lawyer, James M. Lowe, is likely to invoke it.

But if we had long ago recognized "battering-man syndrome" as the problem, these crimes by women might never have been committed. Only now is society awakening to an epidemic.

(Some may protest that "domestic violence" goes both ways. To put that in perspective, perhaps 17 percent of complaints to the police are made by men.)

John Wayne Bobbitt is charged with marital sexual assault, which is still not recognized as a crime in many states unless spouses are physically or legally separated. In Virginia, where the Bobbitts live, it carries a sentence of 1 to 20 years, or up to 12 months in jail and a $1,000 fine. (Lorena Bobbitt's crime, malicious wounding, carries 5 to 20 years.)

There are signs, however, of a law-enforcement revolution in the making:

* Forty-eight states have passed anti-stalking laws in the last two years.

* Arrest is now mandatory in 15 states for crimes of domestic violence, and in 19 states for violating a protection order; many more states and localities have tough enforcement policies. (But criminal-justice experts say the police often fail to act, either because of reluctance to intervene in domestic disputes or because they lack the resources. And preliminary studies in Minneapolis suggest that mandatory arrest doesn't have the hoped-for deterrent effect.)

* Mandatory arrest often leads to court-ordered counseling of batterers. At least 200 social agencies nationwide now offer groups led by trained male counselors.

* In May the Senate Judiciary Committee finally approved the Violence Against Women Act, introduced nearly three years ago by its chairman, Joseph R. Biden Jr. (yes, Anita Hill's non-defender).

The act would authorize $600 million for law enforcement, victim services and preventive education, and it would toughen federal laws -- doubling sentences for rape, creating federal penalties for abuse that crosses state lines and making "gender-based" crimes a civil rights violation.

With all this new activity, why does the epidemic rage on? What is missing? In Senator Biden's words, "a national consensus that this society will not tolerate this kind of violence."

But "national consensus" is a euphemism. The soprano section is packed. It's two octaves down, where the male conscience listens, that voices are so scarce. Nothing will finally deter batterers but a resounding male consensus that such behavior is unacceptable. And most male opinion-makers who could lead that chorus don't.

Why weren't Mr. Downs and Mr. Jarriel as outraged for Lorena as for John? Why doesn't Bo Jackson come on TV during the Super Bowl and say, "Hitting your lady isn't cool?" That at least might do what women have been unable to do until one of us picked up a knife.

As a man I know said of Lorena Bobbitt's desperate act: "It got men's attention."

What a pity that's what it took -- and if that's where it stops.

Annie Gottlieb is writing a collection of essays on gender, "Are Men Obsolete?"

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