Bobbitt case shows ills of male-female relations

January 13, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

I confess that I had strong feelings about the Bobbitt case, even before I traveled to the Prince William County Courthouse in Manassas, Va., where Lorena Bobbitt is standing trial this week on charges that she maliciously sliced off her husband's penis with a kitchen knife.

Before going, I resented the merriment expressed by many women following the maiming of John Wayne Bobbitt -- as though his wife had won a symbolic victory for oppressed women everywhere.

Mrs. Bobbitt's attorneys contend that she is a classic example of a battered wife who was so mistreated by her husband during their four-year marriage that she finally went over the edge after yet another sexual assault on June 23, grabbed a knife from the kitchen, and cut him in self defense.

"She was forced to endure and endure and endure," said defense attorney Lisa B. Kemler during opening statements Monday in the wife's trial. "This last offense of sexual violence was more than she could bear. She saw it as his penis versus her life."

Though Mr. Bobbitt was acquitted of sexual-assault charges in that incident, many women of my acquaintance -- as well as many asked to comment on the case for television -- accept Mrs. Bobbitt's explanation.

But I don't.

If we reject any abusive husband's contention that wives deserve to be hurt, we are obliged to reject that excuse from women as well. Otherwise, the cycle of domestic violence will continue. The goal should not be to equalize the war between the sexes, but to eliminate hostilities altogether.

So, those were my views en route to Manassas.

But the grotesque carnival outside the courthouse put the case in a different light. Hawkers were selling T-shirts, and chocolate penises, and "Lorena Bobbitt for Surgeon General" buttons.

A couple of men had written a song making fun of the assault, based on the Paul Simon ballad, "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover." Some vendors were collecting money for the John Wayne Bobbitt medical and legal defense fund -- though Mrs. Bobbitt was the one fighting for her freedom.

For $20, you could get a T-shirt showing a demented-looking caricature of Lorena Bobbitt wielding a glistening knife, and the words, "John Wayne Bobbitt's Severed Part," in dripping, blood-red letters -- and "Love Hurts" on the back. Part of the proceeds went to Mr. Bobbitt's defense fund.

Nowhere did I see hawkers raising money on Mrs. Bobbitt's behalf. Nowhere did I see T-shirts or other paraphernalia portraying John as the demented one. Talk show host Howard Stern reportedly raised $260,000 on Mr. Bobbitt's behalf. (A New York female comedian who tried to counter with her own fund-raiser for Mrs. Bobbitt collected only about $1,000.)

I was stunned by the hostility directed at Mrs. Bobbitt -- and, by extension, toward women in general.

Inside the courtroom, witnesses consistently portrayed Mr. Bobbitt as, at best, an insensitive lout of a husband who boasted of his affairs, was indifferent to his wife's needs in bed, and slapped her around. He appears to have been a sad young man who held machismo ideas of men and women, only to find that such notions did not work in a real marriage. According to testimony, he had an unhappy wife, financial difficulties, and a dead-end job. He appears to have sought escape in drink, infidelity, and abusive behavior toward his spouse.

Do we need to ask ourselves how many couples are trapped in the same misery? How many other men have bought into ideals of machismo behavior only to find that such behavior leads neither to success on the job or in a marriage?

That machismo, and its inherent violence, pervade male-female relations in our society. The jokes about Mr. Bobbitt deride him for not being man enough, or for losing his manhood at the hands his wife. Even the slang attached to intercourse connotes aggression toward women.

Is any of this funny? Can't we learn anything from the misery of the Bobbitts? Apparently we cannot.

Women keep trying to tell us that ours is a society full of swine, and we keep proving them right again and again. When will we learn?

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