Hanging By A Thread

FOR THOSE WHO HAVE FOLLOWED the case of John Wayne Bobbitt, his acquittal last week on charges of sexually assaulting his wife, Lorena, means one thing above all: that we are one step closer to never having to think about Bobbitt and his severed penis again. Provided that the justice Department doesn't now indict him for violating his wife's civil rights, we merely have to get through her assault trial for dismembering him, the pending divorce proceedings and the TV re-enactments of the nine-and-a-half-hour operation in which his penis was reattached, and we can gratefully relegate Bobbitt's saga to the subconscious, where it belongs. Then we can stop arguing about whether Bobbitt has suffered enough or whether (as one elderly Brooklyn woman told the Daily News) Lorena should have cut off his testicles as well. A hundred million American men will say, but none more fervently than Bobbitt himself, let the healing begin.

But it's probably too much to hope for. The Bobbitt case, bringing to lurid life what law professor and author Susan Estrich ("Real Rape") called "every man's worst nightmare and many women's occasional fantasy." has transcended its origins as a commonplace marital brawl and entered the mythic realm where Joey and Amy romp forever on the hot sheets of their Long Island love nest. Their heroic exploits (John had sex with his wife every day! Joey could copulate six times a night! and near-miraculous escapes (Amy shoots Mary Jo in the head--and she survives! Lorena slices John's penis off--and it gets reattached!) will live on as long as men and women watch television. And a century from now Buttafuoco will still come across like Warren Beatty next to Bobbitt, a 26-year-old former marine whose adjustment to civilian life followed an almost vertical trajectory toward his last job as a host at a Manassas, Va.. nightclub.

Historians will long debate the events of that notorious night of June 23. Did Bobbitt (in Lorena's version) come home at around 3 a.m. after a night of drinking and force his 24-year-old wife to have sex against her will? Or did he, by his account...well, except for denying that he forced himself on her, Bobbitt's account is a little vague, since he admits that he sometimes has sex in his sleep. In this light it was a good thing he got his penis back, since it seemed by far the most accomplished part of his body.

There is no dispute about what happened next. While her husband slept, Lorena went to the kitchen for a drink and by the light of the open refrigerator spotted a 12-inch kitchen steak knife. Bobbitt awoke to feel his wife's hands on his genitals, a gesture he mistook for an invitation to have sex again. He knew he was wrong when he detected something more like a tug. "I felt a jerk...It hurt real bad, " Bobbitt recounted calmly last week..."I wanted to scream but I couldn't." He staggered to his feet and grabbed a sheet to staunch the blood from the inch-long stub of his member; Lorena fled to her car, still clutching the distal end. As she rounded a corner a few moments later she realized what was in her hand, screamed and hurled it out the window; it landed in an empty lot.

Lorena drove to the house of a friend, who called the police. By astonishing good fortune, searchers found the severed penis a few hours later and rushed it across the street to a 7-Eleven where it was packed in ice. At Prince William Hospital surgeons Dr. James Sehn and Dr. David Berman stitched nerves, blood vessels and skin together. Bobbitt now can urinate without difficulty, and although his penis is numb, doctors speculate that he could regain sexual function within several years. He may have reason to be grateful he married a manicurist. Whatever else Lorena Bobbitt did, she made a clean cut.

Of course, it was this spectacular mutilation that created the interest in Bobbitt's trial for assault, a connection that feminists professed to find inexplicable. "I do find it shocking that it took this to get attention for marital rape," said Kim Gandy, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women. "Because it happened to a man suddenly it's a big deal...it was one man's penis." Apart from its psychological impact on men, cutting off a penis is a big deal because it is so rare in America (although it reportedly was a not uncommon punishment for straying husbands in Thailand as recently as the 1970s). The fact of marital rape is no longer news; since 1975 all 50 states have passed laws against it. And in the end Bobbitt's jury of nine women and three men took only four hours to decide that he didn't do it. The doctor who examined Lorena said he found no sign of physical trauma. And Lorena undermined her accusation by complaining to the police the next day about her husband's lovemaking: "He always [has an] orgasm," she said, "and he doesn't wait for me to have an orgasm. He's selfish. I don't think it's fair. So I pulled back the sheets and then I did it." The jury appears to have reasoned that women who've really been raped don't complain that it was over too quickly.

The jury could decide only the narrow question of what Bobbitt did on June 23; they couldn't express an opinion about Bobbitt as a lover, or whether he might have hit his wife on other occasions, or whether even if he did, he deserved to have his penis cut off. Outside observers were not so inhibited. Lorena, a waiflike young woman with an appealing Latin-American accent, had told her story on television and in a sympathetic article in Vanity Fair. Most leaders of women's organizations, who have a professional bias in favor of believing women's accusations against men, typically described themselves as "outraged" or "shocked" by the acquittal. In an odd twist of logic, many feminists argued that the magnitude of Lorena's vengeance proved that Bobbitt must have been guilty of something. That's a barroom argument but not one that can sustain the burden of proof in a criminal trial. Many people assumed that Bobbitt's acquittal meant that Lorena would be convicted in her trial, which is scheduled to start Nov. 29--although sources close to the case now expect a plea bargain. If she does stand trial, Lorena's lawyers may use some form of the battered-woman. defense which has helped win acquittals for a number of women who killed their husbands, including Evelyn Tawana Smith, who attended all three days of Bobbitt's trial. "I feel like we're kindred sisters," Smith said of Lorena. "I never thought about cutting off my husband's penis, but I wished and prayed that it would rot off."

Bobbitt, for his part, had relatively few defenders, and most of those chose to applaud a victory for the legal process, not him personally. The verdict, said author Warren Farrell, ("The Myth of Male Power") might help dispel a legal environment wherein "women are presumed innocent and men are presumed guilty." Bobbitt--like his wife--is trying to sell his story to Hollywood, but he also expressed a desire after the trial to put the affair behind him and "get on with my life." And millions of American men silently wish that he'd do just that--taking his penis with him.

Length of the knife 12 inches

Length of penis that remained on his body 1 inch

Distance Mrs. Bobbitt drove with penis in hand About 1/2 mile

Length of time the penis was separated from Bobbitt's body 10 hours

Length of operation 9 1/2 hours

Length of the trial 3 days

Length of jury deliberation 4 hours

Length of their marriage 4 years

Length of his recovery Uncertain

He can urinate now. It could take two to three years for complete sexual recovery or he could remain sexually challenged forever.)