I was 4 years old when Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband’s penis. It was 1993, and the first news story I can remember ever hearing about. I didn’t even know what a penis looked like, but I can vaguely remember equating the dismemberment to the burnt orange rubber handle of a wine-bottle opener in our house; I pictured it being severed neatly and tossed out a window. It was strange to imagine, and I could hardly comprehend the act’s significance, or the motivations behind it.
Of course, over the years I came to understand various bits and pieces of the story differently from how I had internalized them as a child. For starters, Lorena hadn’t thrown John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis out of their bedroom window, but driven for about 15 minutes and disposed of it in a field. The penis had been reattached, and its owner went on to star in adult films like John Wayne Bobbitt: Uncut and Frankenpenis. Lorena went on trial for malicious wounding, and was acquitted of all charges. She also hadn’t done it apropos nothing or, as John claimed, in a fit of rage because he had told his wife that he was leaving her. Instead, Lorena alleged that John had raped her that night, and that he’d repeatedly abused her throughout their marriage.
Still, Lorena Bobbitt, a then-24-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant, became a punch line. Her story was sensationalized; it made the rounds on daytime talk shows and was spoofed on Saturday Night Live. I wasn’t old enough to fully grasp the situation at hand, but even those who were, were inundated with a warped narrative and lurid details.
The new Amazon series Lorena, produced by Jordan Peele, out February 15, attempts to unpack the media coverage at the time, grapple with its implications, and reexamine Lorena’s experience in a new light.
Now, more than 25 years later, the Cut spoke to four women about their own recollections of the Lorena Bobbitt story, and how their perceptions have changed over time.
Rebecca Traister, 18 years old at the time
I imaginatively connect hearing about this to being in my elementary-school cafeteria when in fact it was the week I graduated from high school. The actual act of it, I was like “What? What? Is it even possible?”
I think I felt real anxiety even as a young person, like “I don’t know if any of this is funny, I’m laughing, but I don’t know if it’s really funny.” I don’t want to suggest that I had some feminist analysis of it — I did not. But I do remember pretty quickly understanding that when she said that she had been forced to have sex against her will — I don’t think anybody said rape in my memory — I was like “oh God, that’s awful, this seems like a horrible story.” That was the disconnect. Like, this seems very painful, and not just in the violent act. This seems like a horrible thing and I feel profound discomfort about it. I also didn’t think it was funny that somebody’s penis was cut off. I truly did feel that there was something wrong with me if I was made uncomfortable by this.
I don’t remember anything about the trial. I remember the headlines, I remember the jokes, I remember the porn. I remember her image — the picture of her at the stand, crying. It’s so funny, because I look at it now and I’m like holy shit, she was like not that much older than me. That was shocking to me. Because in my mind, she was like an adult and I wasn’t.
None of this had any weight for me for a really long time, deep into my adulthood. I remember that at some point probably in my 20s or early 30s, because of whatever story or book I was writing, I had to start researching marital rape laws. The first thing I thought of was Lorena Bobbitt.
Monica Lewinsky, 19 years old at the time
I don’t remember my precise reaction, but generally speaking, I was shocked. I don’t remember the important domestic violence and abuse aspect of this story being very salient in the news … or at least the news that I saw then. I wish that I had understood better. It would have made my thoughts and reactions more compassionate.
I mainly remember the tabloid shock headlines and the cruel late-night hosts.
The facts of the story — beyond “the incident” did not stick. Like many, I’m so grateful we’re living in times where revising history is actually a good thing — filling in where we previously edited out or looked away.
I set up a somewhat odd mental construct for myself in the last few years: Every time someone says something kind to or about me, it erases a negative comment or thought from the past that someone hurled toward me. A direct apology erases five — so with that in mind, I’d like to say to Lorena, I’m very sorry that I didn’t search the facts out more, be more compassionate and more of an advocate instead of a (mostly) silent bystander. I’m sorry that when you turned to society from domestic abuse — you were abused even more. You’re a tough cookie.
Carmen Maria Machado, 7 years old at the time
I could tell people were talking about it, I wanted to know what had happened, I couldn’t quite make sense of it from the news, and my parents wouldn’t tell me. There was a lot of like “this isn’t for kids,” that sort of thing. Later, as I got a little older, I figured out what had happened and it was just sort of this narrative of “she’s crazy, she cut her husband’s penis off.”
There was an attitude that I remember around the Bobbitts that also later reminded me of the Tonya Harding case. There was this sort of like “oh, those types of people, that’s what they do.” I was too young to fully understand what that meant, but there was this sense of class-based otherness. As an adult I’m like “oh, I see.” I had no sense that she was Ecuadorian, I only found that out from a podcast a couple of months ago. I don’t think I heard that she was abused. I feel like the narrative that I always sort of understood until I entered adulthood and started actually reading about it was that it was some sort of natural extension of feminism. It had this tone of “this is what happens when women do what they want to do.”
She has been through the ringer and the more I hear about her, the more I want to be like “I’m so sorry. I was only a kid in the ’90s, but I’m so sorry that society failed you or the media failed you or narrative failed you.”
Even the podcast I listened to had a female host and a male host, and they were both very measured. The male host was sort of like “what she did was so extreme” and I kept thinking, “yeah, but rape is extreme.” Yes, cutting off someone’s penis is a very violent act. But rape is also very violent.
I think they should give her sainthood. I feel like people think of her as a kind of weird anti-hero, but I sort of think of her as just a hero.
Dalia Malek, 8 years old at the time
I remember not understanding what could have provoked Lorena since John was asleep during the time that she cut off his penis. My overall impression was that Lorena seemed like she was “crazy” or spurned, and she committed a uniquely grisly crime against John. I remember that she got in her car and threw the penis out the window, which in a vacuum sounded like she vengefully didn’t want John to get it back. I also remember that the police had to go searching for it, which is a pretty wild image.
It made me shudder because it was gruesome, but I also thought it was funny. I remember in school you didn’t have to say much more than “Lorena Bobbitt” and it counted as a hilarious dick joke, and it was like having a green light from the grown-ups’ territory of the news to joke about a penis. I only learned that Lorena was abused recently and was surprised to find out, but also cynically not surprised that that was much less a part of the narrative. I didn’t have the critical eye of an adult nor did I really understand the news when I watched it. So I’m not sure which parts were things I didn’t understand, which parts were things I was protected from, and which parts were twisted in my own mind due to the culture of 1993 where women were taken even less seriously than they are now.
I haven’t really thought about it since it happened, but my perception of Lorena when I was a kid was that she was a suburban white lady who violently assaulted her husband unprovoked while sleeping. As an adult I was surprised to learn she’s an immigrant from Ecuador whose white husband stole from, cheated on, abused, and raped her, and threatened her with deportation, and that he also had a history of abusing other women.