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Content warning: This article contains mentions of sexual violence and abuse. 

(scene from “Bobbitt” by Jordan Peele/Amazon Prime)

When I was a teen in summer camp, I used to hear the counsellors cracking jokes about Lorena Bobbitt all the time. When I finally learned what she had done, I was horrified. I thought she was a monster. It's amazing how things like that stick with us, because regardless of all the research and activism I've done surrounding sexual violence, I was still associating the name "Bobbitt" with "monster" until very, very recently. I even wrote a research paper on marital rape in 2017. But I never really did the math.

We often hear sensationalized and horrifying stories about women committing heinous acts. Often, they are sensational and all the more horrifying because the actors are women - people who are not normalized as violent. But it stops there. We read the headline and are so aghast that we never bother to ask, "why?"

Jordan Peele's docuseries "Bobbitt" (available on Amazon Prime) answers the question we often forget to ask. Lorena Bobbitt - the "monster" - is restored to her true, unsensational human character. She was a woman victimized by non-stop beatings, verbal and emotional abuse, rape, and forced sodomy. She reacted in a way that many believe matched how she was treated: brutally.

For those who don't know the story, here's the gist: A young Ecuadorian immigrant girl falls in love with an American marine. They get married. He drinks excessively, verbally abuses her, begins to physically abuse her, rapes her often, threatens her life, and forces her to have an abortion. Then she cuts off his penis and flees. What follows is a long-winded media circus following two separate trials: 1. to determine whether her husband was guilty of "marital sexual abuse,” and 2. to determine how Lorena would be tried for the crime of "malicious wounding.” Ultimately, her husband was found not guilty and Lorena was acquitted for reasons of insanity. They didn't stay together.

(scene from “Bobbitt” by Jordan Peele/Amazon Prime)

So, where does the law fit into all this? Here's a brief history of marital rape law.

Consider general rape law as a context for how marital rape law works and has worked over time. Rape law has always been problematic, given that it was created by and for men. This is the product of what many of us have become familiar with as a "patriarchal" system. Patriarchy, in the simplest terms, can be defined as a system of male domination and female subordination. Right from the get-go, we've got a problem. If laws are patriarchal at the root, and patriarchy is reliant on female subordination, then it's not looking good for women who are raped and abused by men. Given that the definition of rape relies on the concept of consent, it follows that the definition of consent should be clearly agreed upon. Except, it's not. And this is still a major issue.

In terms of law, the concept of consent has historically been defined by what scholars call the "male gaze" - another product of patriarchal ideology. It basically means that the definition has been informed by a man's perspective. And while yes, men do get raped and it's a very serious issue, the definition of consent fails wildly at considering women's experiences of rape.

Where consent is concerned, legal rulings often depend on intention of the offender versus experienced violation, also known as ‘mens rea.’ If the law finds that the offender believed the sex was consensual, then he is usually not held accountable for violating the victim, regardless of her experienced violation. As a result, the offender is often protected and given the benefit of the doubt while victims are routinely suspected of dishonesty.

The law tends to disregard a victim’s testimony as substantial evidence, sometimes even requiring a witness outside of the rape to confirm that the assault occurred. Not ideal.

From 1912 until 2012, the legal definition of rape remained unchanged. An unsettling example of what it looked like until changes were made is best exemplified by the former Illinois rape statute, which defined rape as "sexual intercourse with a female, not his wife, by force and against her will."

Consider that rape is the only act of violence that requires the victim to prove it happened. Now consider the humiliation a woman must go through, and the vulnerability that a victim must submit to, in order to prove she has been sexually assaulted. Also, the only way to really prove rape physically occurred is if the act was particularly violent or brutal. But rape isn't always violent, especially in cases of marital rape.

In marital rape, the woman is not only less likely to have physical proof of the assault, but she is also expected to give unlimited consent to her husband and - since we're so hot on definitions here - by definition, a “wife” is considered unrapable. As 1979 California State Senator Bob Wilson so eloquently put it: “If you can’t rape your wife, who can you rape?” Wives have historically been considered the property of husbands, and while legally this is no longer the case, this type of thinking is still pervasive.

Women go to great lengths to end the abuse that they endure in their private relationships. Often there is the belief that the abuse will stop, or that it can stop. People can be blinded by love, misguided by a deep denial that they are being victimized, or have accepted that leaving could be fatal. Which addresses the question so many people do ask - "why doesn't she just leave him?"

Here's an example, to answer the question. In 2016, Dr. Elana Fric Shamji, a Toronto physician, was killed by her husband after she tried to divorce him. This is just one of countless examples of how leaving an abusive relationship can be fatal. Many researchers have actually found that the period of separation is when partner homicides occur most often. In 1993, at the time of the Lorena Bobbitt case, over 2,000 women were killed by their partners. The CBC reported in 2014 that 60 per cent of dating violence occurred after the relationship ended. 26 per cent of women who were murdered by their spouse had ended the relationship, and 80 per cent of victims in police-reported intimate partner homicides were women.  

Lorena Bobbitt stopped taking her birth control and became pregnant, in hopes that a child would end the unhappy chapter of their marriage. She was wrong. What followed was the abortion of Lorena's child against her will. She tried to file a restraining order against her husband, but it was never issued because of unfortunate scheduling at the police station. She tried to leave, but he threatened to come find her and rape her "any way he wanted, anywhere he wanted.” After being assaulted for the last time, she took a knife from the kitchen and fought back.

So, who's the monster?


Amanda Connell

Toronto MU '20

Lifetime Sociology major at Ryerson. Firm belief in unicorns, probiotics and dismantling the patriarchy. Nasty woman, bartender, yogi, and all around lover of life. Will write for travel.
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