Lorena Bobbitt and the Rape Myths That Skeptics and Misogynists Embraced

The story of Lorena Bobbitt might seem like a tabloid relic of the nineties, but Joshua Rofé’s new Amazon Prime docuseries Lorena shows us that it is as relevant today as it ever has been. At the time, Lorena’s experience as a victim of domestic violence and spousal rape was completely eclipsed by the media circus surrounding John’s penis; Lorena was made out to be a “hot-blooded Latina” who simply got so angry about unsatisfactory sex that she decided in a fit of rage to take matter into her own hands, literally taking her husband’s dismembered part with her as she fled their home. “I grew up being told it was common knowledge that some crazy white lady cut her husband’s penis off in a fit of vengeance,” said filmmaker Rofé in a recent interview with the New York Times.

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The Lorena docuseries serves as revisionist history that allows a victim of domestic violence and sexual assault to reclaim her lost narrative. “As people will see in the series, she was on CNN every night pouring her heart out, having a panic attack on the stand, giving these details the way she was beaten, the way she was raped, the way she was sodomized,” Rofé told Variety. “And the fact that you can watch that, and then make fun of her and take digs at her and actually say the words, ‘I don’t believe her.’ I do not know what kind of a human being does that.”

Skeptics of Spousal Rape

One driving factor behind doubting Lorena’s account of abuse and assault was the myth that rape somehow didn’t fit her circumstances. Consider that at the time spousal rape had only recently become recognized by the law in all 50 states. The notion that a wife could be raped by her husband was still difficult for people to comprehend.

According to the Washington Post article from 1993, “Man Cut By Wife Indicted On Sex Assault Charge,” spousal rape had “a much tougher standard than stranger rape” in the Bobbitts’ home state of Virginia. The state would not acknowledge spousal rape unless the couple was estranged at the time, which reflected the belief that sex between a husband and wife was inherently consensual. The victim would also need to prove “serious permanent damage” in order for the incident to be considered rape, which cast a heavy burden of doubt on individuals who were trapped in abusive relationships, i.e. if an abuse victim stayed in a relationship, it must not have been so bad. As the headline from the Post article indicates, Lorena’s experience was deemed sexual assault, but not rape.

Not Good Enough to Rape

Rofé reached out to several prominent men in the media who had covered the Bobbitt’s story — news anchors, late night television hosts — to see what their thoughts were about it now. He especially hoped to get in touch with radio show host Howard Stern, who had dismissed the idea that Lorena had been raped by John, whom Stern frequently had as a guest on his show. Lorena, he felt, couldn’t possibly be telling the truth based on his misogynistic standards. “I don’t even buy this whole thing, that he was raping her and stuff. She’s not that great looking. She’s got a lot of pimples, your ex-wife.”

“Not good enough to rape” is often a deliberate attempt to discredit a victim, as in Stern’s case, but it has also been employed as an actual insult, as if rape were a favor that rapists did for unattractive women. This reasoning is still prevalent among the men and women who embrace rape culture. Remember reading all the horrible things that Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has said about women? “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it,” said he once said to Congresswoman Maria do Rosario after she supposedly referred to him as a rapist.

Ultimately, this line of thought stems from misogyny as well as the misunderstanding that the public has about sexual assault. Writer Julie Bindel broke it down in the Guardian: “[Rape] happens to babies, elderly women, and everyone in between. And yet we routinely conflate rape and sexual assault with conventional attractiveness — and perpetuate that notion that ugly women don’t get raped, and that attractive men don’t need to commit rape.”

Lorena Gallo (she now goes by her maiden name) has since become and advocate for victims of domestic violence. She shares her story in hopes that victims will reach out for help. If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse from a partner or family member, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) any time of day or night.

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