Finally, men taste the fear of violation that women live with

January 26, 1994|By Alice Steinbach

I am going to write down two names here and, please, promise me you won't stop reading this column the minute you see them: John and Lorena Bobbitt.

Quickly, very quickly, let me assure you this is not a rehashing of the crime or what all this means to the National Organization for Women or the National Organization for Men, Inc.

By now it seems pretty clear to anyone capable of thinking clearly that the Bobbitts symbolize little in the way of universal lessons to be learned. Unless it's that individual men and women are capable of an extraordinary ability to mess up their lives.

What interests me about the Bobbitt case is an aspect of it that has been addressed only in the most oblique ways. Which is to say: the partial surfacing in the collective male consciousness of some very primal fears. In other words, men's fears about the possibility of sexual violation done to their bodies.

And done by women.

It is every man's worst nightmare -- what Lorena did to John Bobbitt while he lay unprotected and sleeping. It involved sex -- in the broadest sense of the word -- but it was not a sexual act. It was an act of rage resulting in sexual violation.

Just as rape is.

Of course, the difference is that women grow up with a keen awareness that sexual violation of their bodies is a distinct danger. Men, generally speaking, do not.

But the glee with which many women greeted the verdict in Lorena Bobbitt's case -- I saw a few women reaching across desks to exchange a high-five at the news -- clearly unnerved men.

Even the male TV pundits discussing it on talk shows appeared slightly shaken by the cheerfulness with which their female counterparts greeted, if not the act, the verdict.

What the cheerfulness represents is the temporary satisfaction women experienced in seeing the shoe on the other foot; in finding themselves, at least symbolically, in a position of power. It's a new feeling for them.

But men as well are experiencing a new feeling. The fear of sexual violation. And it's becoming clear that a lot of them are having difficulty facing squarely this primitive emotion shaken loose by the Bobbitt affair.

You can see them trying, however, in various ways.

Take, for instance, the endless jokes that surfaced about what Lorena did to John. "She's a manicurist, that's what she does," Jay Leno said on "The Tonight Show." "I guess if she loses that job she can always get a job as a rabbi."

Funny. But as Freud has pointed out, humor is not just funny. Underlying a lot of comedy is an element of hostility. Humor is a way of expressing that hostility in an acceptable way.

In other words, humor about the Bobbitts took the edge off. So to speak. It watered down the hostility inherent in the act and tamed men's fears a bit.

And wasn't it interesting that the Bobbitt jury -- five men and seven women -- reached their verdict by resorting to a re-enactment of the crime? And that a man was chosen to play Lorena Bobbitt, using the very 12-inch kitchen knife she used? John Bobbitt was represented by a paper cup.

After reading this it struck me that in treating phobias it is not unusual for a therapist to help the phobic person do the thing he fears most: fly in a plane, cross a bridge, drive on the highway.

At least five men, I thought, seemed to have the insight to sense the fairest way to judge Lorena Bobbitt: By facing down some dark fears before proceeding on to the intellectual considerations of the case.

The fear of sexual violation is one of the constants in a woman's life. To a greater or lesser degree at any given time, it exists as a danger. Men, I believe, do not fully understand this difference. How could they? It is like knowing what childbirth is like. You can describe it to men but the experience can never fully be theirs.

Despite the glee over the Bobbitt verdict, the women I know don't plan to go out and do what Lorena Bobbitt did.

And they don't think that what she did was right. Even if, as most of us believe, John Bobbitt was an abusive brute of a man.

What many women I've talked to have expressed is the hope that this sexual violation of a man by a woman might help men to empathize, as it did those five jurors, with one of the ugly realities of a woman's life.

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