Something More Sophisticated

January 13, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- It is the story that made strong men cross their legs and strong women giggle about strong men crossing their legs.

It was the story that made strong headline writers give in to their weakness for puns.

And more to the point, it was the story that made my husband glance up from the newspaper and say, for the only time in our recorded history, ''You could give this a good leaving-alone.''

Which is, Lord knows, what I intended to do.

One case of male genital mutilation in 200-odd years of American history? You would have thought it was a massacre. After centuries of male fantasies about the castrating female, we finally have . . . one . . . and she becomes the universal symbol of ''a shocking new round in the battle of the sexes.''

On this point I agree with Paul Ebert, who has prosecuted both husband and now wife: ''A sleeping man had his penis amputated. It's not a media event. It's a criminal case.''

In my book, Lorena and John Bobbitt themselves aren't symbolic of anything. She is a 24-year-old who married Mr. Very Wrong, and embezzled from her employer and friend. She left her house on the fateful night with a penis in her hand, but also with $100 and a Nintendo game stolen from a house guest.

John Bobbitt is, in the words of his own attorney, ''not the most sensitive person'' and ''not the brightest guy in the world.'' The former Marine and bar-bouncer, who was acquitted of marital rape, had been charged earlier with battering Lorena. The man who couldn't define ''foreplay'' on the witness stand, may not have differentiated between rape and sex in the bedroom.

Nevertheless, at the courtroom in Manassas, Virginia, where Lorena is on trial for ''malicious wounding,'' the vendors are back selling T-shirts that say, ''Revenge -- How Sweet It Is.'' The radio station is back giving away Slice soda and wieners. So are the people pronouncing that these two pathetic people are representative of the battle of the sexes.

Well, I don't know why we only call it a battle when women are caught fighting, or fighting back. If John had only abused Lorena we would have called it violence but not war. Only when the weapon got into her hands, did it become a subject for musing on the hostile state of gender relations.

This has happened before. Just a few years ago, with slasher movies filling Cineplexes with female blood, one film became the topic for worried gender-watchers: ''Thelma and Louise.''

Last year, the police blotter was full of abused and murdered wives -- an almost unilateral massacre. But one issue seemed to elicit the most copy from our war correspondents. The battered woman's defense.

The Packwood 26, the burning bed, the fatal attraction are all framed as skirmishes. The Supreme Court ruled on sexual harassment by men against women, but it was the possibility of a woman harassing a man that sets the creative juices flowing in Michael Crichton's front-line novel, ''Disclosure.''

I know, I know. Female retaliation and female violence are still the unusual stories, the news. When a 5-foot-2-inch, 95-pound manicurist cuts the penis off a 200-pound former Marine it's news indeed. But when the urban legend arises simultaneously in a dozen cities about the man who wakes up with a red ribbon tied neatly around his penis and a note saying how easy it would be -- well, that's battleground fantasy.

Maybe we talk about the war between the sexes now because men -- the ones who do most of the labeling -- see a dangerous enemy where there was once a victim. If women smile at men who squirm, maybe it's at that recognition of power.

A few years ago, in Olivia Smith's ''First Wives Club'' three women plotted retaliation against powerful and abusive ex-husbands. They are not exactly looking for revenge, one said, but for ''something more sophisticated. . . . Like justice.''

I'm never keen on taking justice into your own hands. Abuse may mitigate a woman's guilt and make her act more understandable. It rarely makes her an innocent.

Even so, this freakish episode in a single sad marriage doesn't represent some generic new war between men and women. Too many front-line correspondents suggest that as women become more powerful, our relationships with men simply turn into a power struggle. I don't agree.

In the age of inequality, peace between men and women was often the peace of an occupied country. It wasn't peaceful when women were harassed or when marital rape was legal.

The skirmishes in 1950s were often the bitter sniping of people hiding behind separate roles. One of the reasons to level the field between sexes, to lead lives that were more alike, was so that we could get closer. Many -- maybe most -- of us have.

And for all the headlines, the grimaces, the smirks, we didn't get here at knife point.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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