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January 20, 1994
The Bobbitt case raises THE important question
by Howard Fast
What an odd lot we seem to be! Faced with more problems than you can shake a stick at -- an epidemic of murder, a disintegrating infrastructure, layoffs by the thousands and unspeakable winter weather -- we have gone absolutely bonkers over the fact that a poor woman, who says she was driven to extremes, seized a kitchen knife and sliced off her husband's penis.
(As a matter of fact, if I had written the word "penis" a few months ago, my editor might well have raised a brow and said, "Now, really?" It's simply not a word that one sees very often in print. Yet for the past few weeks it has been plastered all over this newspaper, as well as The New York Times, not to mention its presence on every TV and radio talk show and the news program.)
The zest with which this story was delivered to us has to give one pause. In a way, it is actually not that earthshaking, although I am sure that many a male of the species would declare that it is. For men who as small boys have known this organ as Peter (an intimate and gentle designation) the change of name into the cold, scientific label of penis and the fate that overtook this particular organ must have been shocking indeed.
News stories have dwelt on every aspect of this curious tale -- the sharp edge of the knife; the casting aside of the dismembered organ out of a car window onto a vacant lot; Mrs. Bobbitt's pleas that she had no memory of committing the attack; her testimony of the pain and beating and rapes and other indignities she said were bestowed upon her by her husband; the physicians' scientific explanation to the court concerning the restoration of the organ in question and the possibilities of its future use.
While all this has been offered to an apparently eager nation in remarkable detail, it also is worth noting that there has been an initially slow but increasing groundswell of support of Mrs. Bobbitt's venture into surgery, best exemplified, I think, by Barbara Ehrenreich's endpage essay in Time magazine.
Ms. Ehrenreich holds that there is a "brazen new mood out there represented by, among other things, all the grassroots female backing for Ms. Bobbitt. The retail clerks who send her letters of support, the homemakers who cackle wildly every time they sharpen the butcher knife ... are tired of being victims. They're eager to see women fight back by whatever means necessary. Probably it all started when Louise -- or was it Thelma? -- dispatched that scumball would-be rapist in the parking lot of a bar."
All of which makes me wonder whether I should amend the opening sentence of this column. Are we indeed an "odd lot" to be so taken with this matter, or did Mrs. Bobbitt explode what may be the most important question of our time?
That the treatment of women, not only here but the world over, is utterly intolerable, I feel, is beyond dispute. That it has been accepted for untold generations as an integral part of our society is also beyond dispute.
We have commonplaces that are so deeply rooted in human existence (I hesitate to say civilization) that to question them puts the questioner outside the pale of acceptable thinking and discussion. An example is the practice of warfare in the settlement of disputes. The pacifist who holds that all warfare is simply legalized mass murder is treated with scorn and frequently contempt. So it has been with those who have objected to society's treatment of women.
A pot of water stands quietly on the flame until it begins to boil, and when that moment comes, the heat generated explodes into action. If Mrs. Bobbitt's testimony is valid, the essence of her action, it seems to me, is a response to rape in a society where countless acts of rape go unpunished. She selected a cruel and savage manner of response, but is her act any more cruel and savage than rape itself?
We have become obsessed with this case, and in the course of writing this piece, I think I have found some of the reason for this obsession. It may be that none of the problems I first listed are as important as the treatment of women.