When the jury acquitted Lorena Bobbitt of all criminal charges in a Virginia courtroom on January 21, 1994, even her supporters couldn’t help but gasp aloud. Seven months earlier, she had severed her husband’s penis with a knife as he slept. Now, after seven hours of deliberation, seven women and five men found her not guilty due to temporary insanity, resulting from months of abuse and related depression and post-traumatic stress.
The watershed case cast a light on the largely hidden crime of spousal abuse. And its shocking outcome was a rare example where a woman was not only believed, but legally vindicated for reacting to violence with violence. In a written statement read aloud at the trial, Bobbitt thanked her supporters: “She did once and will again seek her American dream when she is able, and if the publicity of her abuse can help one person find freedom, then all of this is not in vain.”
Hearing of the news later elsewhere in Manassas, her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, had a decidedly different reaction: “You mean she got away with it?”
It was a question with legal resonance. Cases of battered women on trial for assaulting or even killing their husbands were nothing new, but frequently hard to defend, since claiming self-defense required women to prove they were in imminent fear for their lives. Because Lorena Bobbitt attacked her husband while he slept, the temporary-insanity defense proved the only option. And the judge in her case set the bar for the jury this way: To acquit, they must find that Mrs. Bobbitt’s mind “was so impaired by disease that she was unable to resist the impulse to commit the crime.”
Perhaps the most famous precedent for a temporary-insanity defense came in the 1977 case of Francine Hughes. Having been brutally abused by her husband for 13 years, she was acquitted of murder after lighting his bed on fire while he slept. In a 2010 Boston University Law Review article, Georgia State University law professor Russell D. Covey describes temporary insanity the “perfect defense” because of its ability “to correct a failure of the law to address some moral or social complexity that eludes redress through simple rulemaking.” Harvard law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz has decried it as “the abuse excuse.”
After spending months riveted by the case, Americans were left to grapple with challenging questions in its wake. On one hand, a woman had suffered what sounded like terrible abuse, with her husband repeatedly beating, kicking, choking and raping her. On the other, she had hacked off the man’s penis and thrown it into a field. (Bobbitt’s member was later successfully reattached.) The case had pulled back the curtain on marital violence, and in the fallout, men and women alike struggled to reconcile their feelings about what was, and wasn’t, justified. In a New York Times editorial at the time, feminist writer Katie Roiphe described Bobbitt not as a woman, but a symbol of female rage and revenge fantasy: “a way to talk about what usually can’t be talked about.”
Support for Lorena didn’t simply fall along gender lines. For some female supporters, Bobbitt was a victim who had finally had enough—a heroic case of the oppressed triumphing over the oppressor. But not every woman saw her in such positive terms. Class was often a factor. Some female intellectuals suggested that, as the primary breadwinner—Lorena worked full-time as a manicurist while John, an ex-marine, gigged intermittently as a cabdriver and bar bouncer—she should have left her husband at the first sign of abuse. (They divorced not long after the trial.) Others, like Susan Estrich, a professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California, labeled her “a criminal” who did a disservice to “the real victims of battered wives’ syndrome—the millions of women who are beaten by their husbands and do not respond by assaults on their organs.”
“I think the hesitation was, do you publicly support an act of violence against another human being?” says Linda Pershing, a professor of women’s studies at California State University, San Marcos, who published a scholarly article about public reaction to the case. “People’s ambivalence about that, while at the same time sympathizing with her and empathizing with her situation.”
Sometimes, however, that empathy was enough to justify her actions. The day after the verdict, a New York Times editorial characterized her as “a pitiable woman of limited, child-like intelligence who endured years of abuse and finally struck back,” while the National Organization of Women expressed relief that the jury had “rejected the twisted argument that a battered woman should be locked up in a prison cell.” She received hundreds of messages of solidarity from female supporters: letters, postcards, bouquets, stuffed animals.
In Bobbitt’s birth country of Ecuador, the National Feminist Association went on the record threatening to castrate 100 American men living there if she was sent to jail. An Ecuadorian journalist covering the trial called her “brave,” adding, “Sometimes women have to take the law into their own hands.” Outside the courtroom, even as temperatures dipped below zero, scores of people of Latin American descent kept a vigil, cheering as she exited and entered the courthouse. And in a surprising demonstration of male public support for her, a dozen or so Latino taxi drivers gave free rides to her trial.
Not surprisingly, significantly fewer men overall empathized with Lorena. Rather than a “battered woman,” she was portrayed as a violent psychopath who had violated an extraordinary cultural taboo. On other occasions, the case became fodder for office banter, advertising gimmicks, limericks and late-night comedy monologues. Often, Pershing says, these jokes were simply the result of people being too uncomfortable to tackle the issue head-on: “It’s a way for people to explore and talk about things they might not say just openly or directly.”
The jokes helped keep public attention on the case, but, for some advocates, they distracted from and made light of the real story—not that a man had temporarily lost his penis, but that more than a million American women each year experienced rape and beatings like Lorena Bobbitt’s.
In the months following the case, John Bobbitt bounced from talk show to talk show, raising money for his surgery and legal fees. More dramatically, as his costs rose, he appeared in adult entertainment films (Frankenpenis) and an ill-fated band called the Severed Parts. Even extensive coverage about how he had beaten Lorena, causing recurring bruises on her 92-pound frame, did little to damage his public image.
At the time, it seemed like a landmark case that would forever change how people considered marital abuse: Men’s rights groups worried that it represented a rise in female supremacy and that a few freak copycat cases might indicate a permanent shift. Astonishingly quickly, however, the couple faded from the public memory. For the rest of the 1990s, and deep in the 2000s, the Bobbitts were little more than a wry pop-cultural reference. “There’s so little cultural memory in the United States,” says Pershing, “with a culture that fixates on what is new and shiny.”
But 25 years on, amid the #MeToo movement, there’s renewed interest in a case that might today be perceived quite differently. Amazon recently announced plans for a true-crime documentary series about the case, to be directed by Jordan Peele. It may very well highlight something timeless in the Lorena Bobbitt story: what happens when the victim rises up and fights back.