What Defined Martial Rape When Lorena Bobbitt Cut Off Her Husband’s Penis And How It Has (And Hasn’t) Changed?

Lorena Bobbitt claimed that she cut off her husband’s penis in 1993 because he raped her. Her supporters viewed it as a justified response to abuse, but what did the law say then, and what does it say now?

By Sharon Lynn Pruitt

The story of John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitt is one that every pop culture junkie knows: a couple, reportedly prone to fighting, saw their dysfunction hit a new level when, on the night of June 23, 1993, 22-year-old Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband’s penis and fled into the night with it, only to later chuck it out of a car window.

While the gruesome act may have been used as joke fodder in the early 1990s, beyond the typical penis puns and morbid fascination with John Wayne Bobbitt’s amputated member, their tumultuous relationship shed a light on an issue that was not frequently discussed at the time: marital rape.

Lorena Bobbitt claimed that her husband, then 26, had routinely abused her during their marriage and had come home drunk and raped her yet again the night that she cut his penis off. She was charged with malicious wounding, and John Wayne Bobbitt, who repeatedly denied abusing her, was charged with marital sex abuse. As the story, and multiple trials, unfolded, both parties were, at different times, portrayed as a violent abuser and as a victim of a vindictive spouse.

Marital rape – also called spousal rape – is defined as non-consensual sexual acts between two people who are married, and while today it is illegal in all 50 states (though some states still have loopholes and exceptions), that was not always the case. The Sexual Abuse Act of 1986 made spousal rape illegal on federal land, scholars Jennifer A. Bennice and Patricia A. Resick explained in their 2003 paper, “Marital Rape: History, Research, and Practice.” But even after that, many states — including Virginia, where the Bobbitts lived — handled marital rape differently than general sexual assault and rape cases.

When John Wayne Bobbit was charged with marital sex assault in 1993, Virginia law stated that one half of a couple could only have been raped if the couple did not currently live together, or if the victim had sustained serious physical injuries during the alleged assault, The New York Times reported.

Carlos Sanchez, a journalist with the Washington Post, explained the nuance of the charge during Amazon’s newly released docu-series, “Lorena.”

“In order to successfully convict on a spousal rape charge, which carried a life sentence, you needed to fulfill two conditions under the law at that time,” he said. “One was you had to be separated from your spouse at the time of the crime, and secondarily, you had to cause permanent damage or significant damage — physical, bodily damage.”

“What John was eventually charged with was malicious sexual assault, which carried a lesser penalty. He [faced] 20 years in prison, as opposed to life in prison, had he been convicted of rape,” Sanchez said later.

John Wayne Bobbitt and Lorena Bobbitt were living together at the time of the alleged assault, which effectively protected John Wayne Bobbitt from a rape charge, according to the law at the time. Both John and Lorena faced 20 years behind bars if convicted, according to the Washington Post, but both were eventually found not guilty.

Today, the state of Virginia does not view spouses as being exempt from raping their partners. State law currently defines rape as a situation in which “any person has sexual intercourse with a complaining witness, whether or not his or her spouse, or causes a complaining witness, whether or not his or her spouse, to engage in sexual intercourse” against their will and/or by using force. Still, it remains a difficult case to prove, experts have said. It wasn’t until the 1970s that any husband in the history of the United States was ever convicted for raping his wife, scholars Patricia Mahoney and Linda M. Williams wrote in “Sexual Assault in Marriage: Prevalence, Consequences, and Treatment of Wife Rape.”

“That’s the problem with the idea of marital rape — that it’s truly behind closed doors, and it’s not an easy thing to prove in any setting, I assume, and that would be true in this case as well,” Kim Masters, a journalist who interviewed Lorena Bobbitt for “Vanity Fair” during the height of her fame, said during the Amazon special.

Virginia law currently dictates that someone charged with raping their spouse can be placed on probation and ordered to undergo therapy or counseling in lieu of a conviction, as long as the alleged victim and state’s attorney agree with that course of action. If the defendant fails to complete therapy or counseling, they would be subject to punishment, but successfully adhering to the adhered terms would get their charges dismissed, as doing so “would promote maintenance of the family unit and be in the best interest of the complaining witness,” the law states.

Had Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt’s case been tried according to today’s laws, it’s possible that the outcome may have been different, but both parties seem to have left the past behind them. Lorena Bobbitt, now a domestic violence advocate, is raising a teenage daughter with her long-term partner David Bellinger in Virginia. John Bobbitt maintains that he never abused her, and told “Vanity Fair” last year that he believes he and Lorena would still be a family if she had just talked to him that night “instead of cutting off my penis.”

[Photo: Associated Press]

Related Stories

Searching for the best true crime podcasts? Subscribe to Martinis & Murder and join hosts Daryn Carp and John Thrasher as they chat about creepy crimes and unsolved mysteries... while sipping on killer drinks from our murderous mixologist Matt the Bartender. Each episode will focus on a new true crime, with all the gory details, and a cocktail recipe to get you through. 

You May Also Like...
Recommended by Zergnet