The story of Lorena Bobbitt — who is now known as Lorena Gallo — is often distilled into one fact: in 1993, she cut off her then husband John Bobbitt's penis with a 12-inch knife. The incident, Lorena alleged, was the breaking point after suffering years of domestic violence and abuse. Ultimately, Lorena and John were both charged with crimes — malicious wounding and marital sexual assault, respectively — and both were acquitted.
Today, the way the crimes were treated paints a more complete picture of the realities and turmoils of domestic violence. Lorena was diagnosed with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic attacks brought on by the abuse. On the night of the incident, Lorena alleged that John had raped her. The judge said that she was "temporarily insane," and "so impaired by disease that she was unable to resist the impulse to commit the crime." Bobbitt, on the other hand, was found not guilty of marital sexual assault, claiming that he didn't remember if they had sex that night.
The details of the case are complex and thorny. Now, 26 years later, there's a four-part Amazon Prime docuseries about the case premiering on February 15. Whether you're hearing about the case for the first time, or are planning on binge-watching the docuseries this weekend, here's what you need to know:
What is marital rape?
Marital rape is rape, says Shani Adess, Esq., associate director, of the Matrimonial & Family Law Unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group. "Rape is rape, regardless of what somebody's relationship status is to the person that raped them," she says. But it wasn't until the mid '90s that "marital rape" was considered a crime in all 50 states. Back in 1993, for example, John Bobbitt was charged with "marital sexual assault" because under Virginia law, "rape" only applied if couples were living apart, or if the victim was seriously physically injured, according to a 1993 article in the New York Times. "Those are things that are just completely not reflective of what sexual violence is and what domestic violence is," Adess says.
According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, eight out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. Studies show that in 45-50% of relationships where there is intimate partner violence (defined as physical violence, sexual violence, stalking, and psychological aggression), there is also sexual violence happening. "The concept that sexual violence wouldn’t exist between people that are dating or between people that are married, is just completely disproven amongst decades of studies," Adess says. "The fact that there was ever any difference is mind-boggling to be quite honest."
What is "temporary insanity"?
From a legal standpoint, the "insanity defense" means that someone's mental conditions are "so impaired at the time of the crime that it would be unfair to punish them for their acts," according to the American Psychiatric Association. Today, Lorena still insists that she "wasn’t in my right mind, I wasn’t psychologically normal," she told The View on February 12 when asked why she cut John's penis off. "I went into this bizarre craziness called insanity." Survivors of domestic violence can face long-term mental health problems, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety. "It's not a question of why I did it or how I did it," she told The View. "[The documentary] shows how psychologically traumatic a victim of domestic violence is, and it actually shows in the documentary how brutally the perpetrators are."
With the case of Lorena and John, it's important to consider their history of domestic violence, which is an imbalance of power and control. Police said that they had received "half a dozen" complaints of domestic violence from the couple, including one incident of assault and battery. "When you're talking about domestic violence, you're talking about this concept that the violence is not just impulsive — it's coercive, generally," Adess says. Abusers commit violence as a tactic to regain power and control, she says.
So, why was Lorena's case so controversial?
From the very beginning, the salaciousness of Lorena's crime created a media circus that drew people to the case. Once it was over, some said that Lorena got off too easily, and argued that what she did was premeditated, not impulsive. "I was not a wife that was going to say, Okay, I'm gonna wake up today and cut my husband’s sexual organ. That wasn’t planned," Lorena told The View. "Again, I was psychologically traumatized by him."
In the end, the court agreed with her. After years of domestic violence, she went temporarily insane. The idea of "imminency" comes up a lot with domestic violence, Adess says. "When you've suffered years of violence, and it continues over and over again, when do you not feel that imminency that something might happen to you again?" she says.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).